25 January 2010

(H)al does it again

(H)al Duncan, one of the stalwarts of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle, has been shortlisted for the 2010 BSFA Awards in the non-fiction category. The nomination is for his blog entry ‘Ethics and Enthusiasm’.

UPDATE (26 Jan 2010): (H)al has decided to decline the nomination:
as much as I'm loathe to reject this honour, and grateful as I am to those who voted me onto the shortlist, I'm going to decline the nomination on the grounds that this work is not of sufficient relevance to the field. It may have been sparked off by a debate within the field, but that same debate could just as easily have occurred elsewhere. Its inclusion on the ballot therefore seems to me... inappropriate. A mark of my inclusion in the discourse itself. I profoundly appreciate this as a token of respect for the specific work and as an indication that such broad concerns might be considered valid subjects within the science fiction and fantasy community -- it's great to see the net being cast so wide -- but ultimately the tangential relevance of this post is simply not comparable to the direct relevance of the other nominated works, and I would not have it stand as a contender where it can only receive status and attention at the expense of a more worthy candidate.
And he makes no secret of which of the other nominees he sees as the more worthy candidate. See his full response here.

Storm Glass

Another review I wrote for Interzone:

Storm Glass by Maria V. Snyder (MIRA Books, 504pp, £6.99 pb)

Storm Glass is the first volume of a new fantasy trilogy by Maria Snyder. It is set in the same world as an earlier trilogy but some years later, and one of the minor characters from that series now takes centre stage.

Opal Cowan (the only known glass magician in Sitia) has to solve the problem of why the glass orbs used by the stormdancers to trap the energy of storms have started breaking with fatal results. She soon discovers that the orbs have been sabotaged. In the course of this investigation, she becomes involved in two other investigations, one into the smuggling of diamonds into Sitia, the other into the counterfeiting of diamonds. The former investigation proves to be tenuously connected with the people who have been sabotaging the stormdancers’ orbs. As it happens, it is also tenuously connected with a plot to manipulate Opal into releasing one (or more) of the villains from the previous trilogy. Romantic interest is provided by Opal’s relationships with Kade, one of the stormdancers, and Ulrick, a fellow glassmaker (and possibly another glass magician).

This novel will appeal primarily to those readers who like their fantasy action-packed. From the outset Snyder drives the plot forwards at a relentless pace. Not content with action-filled chapters, she heightens tension by habitually splitting scenes across chapter boundaries. (This rapidly becomes irritating, particularly when conversations are split up in this way!)

But if the story is packed with action, the same cannot be said for characterization. Snyder makes matters difficult for herself by writing the entire novel from Opal’s perspective. Of course, this means that it is essential for the reader to sympathize with Opal. Unfortunately she is a self-doubting, self-pitying, self-absorbed, whiny teenager. Since every other character is seen through this unflattering lens, it is hard for the author to make them more than stereotypes. To be fair to Snyder, she does have Opal embark on a process of self-discovery and growing honesty which may bear fruit in later volumes.

Perhaps I could forgive the weak characterization if the world-building were strong enough to compensate. Unfortunately I found the world Snyder has created as unconvincing as most of her characters. There are two nations in her world: Ixia, a former monarchy now run by a military dictatorship, and Sitia, a federation of autonomous clans overseen by a council whose membership is unclear and whose powers are not explained. Magic is an integral part of everyday life in Sitia but, since the revolution, has been forbidden in Ixia. Beyond that there is little to distinguish them, little or no sense of cultural diversity, no indication of ethnic diversity, no variation in language or even in names. Thus Opal can retain her own name but pass for an Ixian simply by donning an Ixian uniform.

Snyder’s societies appear to be pre-industrial and largely agrarian. Animals are used for transport. Her towns appear to be primarily marketplaces (with some concentrations of craftsmen). Weaponry is resolutely pre-modern. And yet she refers vaguely to factories (driven by energy extracted magically from storms) though there is no indication of what they might produce and why such societies might require industrial production of anything.

Individually, points like this seem trivial. But they add up to a level of inattention to world-building that made it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief long enough to become properly immersed in the story. However, if you are looking for an action-packed fantasy to while away a few hours and are not too concerned with characterization or the weaving of a convincing alternative world, you need look no further than Storm Glass.

11 January 2010

People are dying on our streets

For anyone who is reading this blog, the chances are that cold weather is nothing more than an inconvenience. But for the homeless it can be a killer. According to the charity Emmaus:
For those who live on our streets, every night is a battle, often with sub-zero temperatures, wind, snow, sleet or rain. The average life expectancy of a homeless person in the UK is just 42 years – 32 years less than the average for a male. The fact is this: people are dying on our streets.

04 January 2010

Messiah 2010

The RSNO’s annual performance of Messiah took place on Saturday afternoon, and it was good to be back among the tenors in the chorus. It is always a very enjoyable experience but this year it was something more: I had a sense of being privileged to be taking part in a memorable performance.

Friends in the audience commented on the energy of the performance and on how well balanced every piece seemed. Of course, that is to be expected when Roy Goodman is conducting: he seemed even more energetic and enthusiastic than ever both in rehearsals and in the performance itself, and I think some of that energy and enthusiasm rubbed off on us. What was not expected was that our soprano soloist, Lucy Crowe, was taken ill. Somehow they managed to get Ailish Tynan to take her place, but you couldn’t tell from her performance that she had stepped in with less than twenty-four hours’ notice! The mezzo, Hilary Summers, gave a very striking performance, as did the tenor, James Oxley. The bass, Michael George, was perhaps less impressive but still gave a good solid performance.

And the reviews have been very appreciative. There was a good review in the Scotsman (here). But Michael Tumelty, who is often quite hard to please, was even more positive in The Herald:
I have never heard, not even from Goodman himself, a Messiah that was so alive to the text. Rather than the music colouring and characterising the text, or being pictorial, it was almost as though the text itself was shaping the music, and, through it, Goodman’s response and its reflection in the performance. . . . This was a Messiah of blazing intensity and unusually gripping drama; and a Messiah, moreover, with absolutely minimal cuts: as near complete as you will hear. Tremendous. (Full review here.)

A load of bull

Believe it or not,
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo
is a grammatically correct sentence. And there is a Wikipedia article that explains why (here).

01 January 2010

Prospects for 2010

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, but I do believe in setting goals. My writing goals for 2010 are:
  • Prepare the draft version of a book on the relevance of Franciscan spirituality for life in the twenty-first century.
  • I have been asked to write a chapter for a book on Augustine and science. What I have promised to do is a chapter exploring the role of the early Franciscans in the development of early modern science, focusing on the extent to which they were influenced by the Augustinian tradition in Western theology (and perhaps offering a corrective to some of the more extreme radical orthodox critiques of Duns Scotus et al.).
  • Market the novel I have just completed.
  • Outline the next novel.

2009 in retrospect

What has 2009 meant for me?
  • A year of waiting for doctors to decide what to do about various health problems. It now looks as if a minor operation is on the cards in 2010.
  • A year largely without singing because of another health problem (now resolved). I finally returned to the RSNO Chorus in the autumn (unfortunately too late to sign up for their forthcoming concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam).
  • The year in which I finished revising the fantasy novel I’ve been working on for more or less the past decade.
  • The year I changed denomination (for personal rather than doctrinal reasons). I am now worshipping in the Church of Scotland, though I continue to be a Franciscan tertiary. Perhaps as a result of that, I have become much more conscious of the ecumenical imperative in Francis’s vision to build up the Church.
  • The year I read Calvin’s Institutes from cover to cover.
  • The year I discovered that I preferred the Scottish borders to Northumbria.
  • The year I discovered an unexpected interest in orchid growing.