Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Seaside gothic

In case you weren't convinced this was actually a street.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Fit For The Planet Part 1 - 5K Run At Chasewater Completed

This year, I set myself a little goal of making exercise my friend and raising money for Friends of the Earth at the same time.

Phase One of (ahem) Fit For The Planet swung into operation this Easter Sunday morning with a five-kilometre run around Chasewater reservoir - the Easter Egg 5K. It wasn't a long run, but given my long-standing aversion to exercise I had to start somewhere. :)

Here I am before the start representing that little known but important charity Friends Of The Ear...

And crossing the line around 34 minutes later...

And afterwards with my medal (complimentary creme egg not shown).

I'd set the modest target of raising £100, and was very pleasantly surprised to have raised £135 plus Gift Aid.

A big thanks to all family, friends and fellow-activists who supported my run today by making a donation (listed here). Knowing you had backed me really helped me keep going - I surprised myself with how quickly I got round the course. And I didn't stop to walk at all. Well - almost not at all - there were hills. :)

If you'd like to make a post-run donation, you can do so here. 

Why am I fundraising for Friends of the Earth?

As anyone who knows me will be unsurprised to hear, I'm passionate about the environment. I've stood on the English moors, by the Mediterranean coast and in the Yosemite Valley in California and experienced their wonder and uniqueness. We can't take it for granted. 

Since I finished working for Friends Of The Earth last summer, I've been looking for a way to continue contributing to the environmental movement that feels right for me. Fundraising feels like it's part of the solution.

And I know that the more money we can find for organisations like Friends of the Earth, the faster we can keep moving into a modern, green and above all hopeful future. Those politicians won't take the right decisions all by themselves, you know.

Ultimately, it'd be marvellous to have a small group of fundraisers in Lichfield to do fun things together, but one step at a time. 

And if anyone's wondering when I'll do a run for the Motor Neurone Disease Association - it's in the pipeline. I'm just looking for the right opportunity. :)

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Heroes of myth and legend gained their powers from GRANOLA!

"Ancient civilisations prized their finest grains for their heroic legends because they naturally contain the nutrients they needed to perform."


Or, more succinctly, what?

Friday, March 25, 2016

No prizes for being ahead of its time: The Ophiuchi Hotline reviewed

Despite appearing in David Pringle's canon-building Science-fiction: The 100 Best Novels 1949-1984 John Varley's debut novel The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977) doesn't get the same kind of reverence that other books on that list from that era still do.

That's because it's neither a fan favourite (hey there Dune) nor respectable literary SF (Oi! Ballard!). It is what it is - a good first book chock full of pulp tropes, which also manages to anticipate a lot of the genre's pre-occupations and tropes in the coming decades.

The titular Hotline is an interstellar comms channel broadcasting ideas, technologies and scientific breakthroughs at the solar system for reasons unknown, from the direction of (nearby, in galactic terms) Ophiuchi 70. 

Humanity has used these discoveries to make the rest of the solar system habitable, Earth having been returned to the Stone Age by (deep breath) 4th dimensional beings intent of preserving the planet for superior intelligences - that's whales and dolphins to you and me.* Where the remnants of human civilisation cannot bend the planets and moon to their will, they adapt themselves to them instead, using the genetic advances and cloning process shared by the Hotline.

Yet now the Hotline is broadcasting a bill for services rendered - what is our protagonist Lila, genetic engineer on the lam, to do about it?

Enough about the plot, which in the fine tradition of first novels throws enough material at the wall for five hoping that it willl stick, and let's talk about what makes Hotline still interesting: the window dressing.

Varley gives us a novel set (mostly) within the constraints of the solar system, taking us back in one way to the planetary romances of the interwar generation, in another imagining what societal and biologial changes humanity would go through to make such colonisation possible. 

Or to put it another way, Hotline is a novel about 'software', where the engineering in play is mainly genetic and cultural, rather than the hardware 'n' hard science of science-fiction cliche.

Chronologically speaking, it's also the first novel about being or becoming posthuman in a modern sense I can think of, mapping out a course that writers like Bruce Sterling (Schismatrix), Charles Stross (Accelerando) and of course Iain Banks would follow at various points in the coming decades. All authors also partial to an assertive woman-of-action protagonist like Lila.

Varley also embeds the idea that alien intelligence would be - if not ineffable or incomprehensible - then at least able to think round humanity in circles. Again, this is common currency in SF nowadays, bringing back an element of wild, Lovecraftian horror to the tamed myth of the little green man.

Of course, as any pre-'76 Cleveland punk will tell you, you don't always get prizes for being ahead of your time. And while Hotline was well regarded in its day, the kind of cultural change it envisages (nudity! free love!) is very, well, 1970's. 

And the sheer daft effervescence of the plot - endearing as it is - gives it one clear foot in the old-school past in the way that, well, the above authors don't.

So it may well be that Hotline's legacy is to have been a transitional work in SF - pointing a way forward along with others to a new and broader understanding of space-going fiction. Maybe less tumultuous than the disruption of the late 60's, but radical enough that the genre is still working out some of the implications today.

*Hotline predates The Hitch-Hikers' Guide To the Galaxy and its take on cetacean intelligence by a year or so. As whales were a hot topic in the 70's I'm inclined to regard this as an example of convergent literary evolution.

Unfinished sketches towards a shoegazing album cover

"We just play what we play and if anyone else likes it that's a bonus."

Alternatively, close-ups of balloons from our joint fortieth birthday celebrations.

Alternatively still, disco sausages.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Abraham Lincoln meets Thomas Covenant

Thanks to the amazing Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin I have now read Lincoln's Gettysburg Address for the first time. It's interesting to reflect that something that's so much a part of American cultural memory - of their rhetorical toolkit - has passed me by as a Brit up to now.

There's some variety in the surviving texts, but this is the one on the Lincoln Memorial. Since it's short enough for students to memorise it, it's short enough to reproduce in full below.

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Great, isn't it?

Now, I'm probably not the first person to have read that and then seen echoes of the Address in other writing, such is its influence. I may be the first however to have found Lincoln in US writer's Stephen Donaldson's 70's fantasy series The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

Now, one of the early things I wrote on this blog was on the Covenant Chronicles - suffice to say that I find them interesting (influential, even) while at the same time deeply flawed and in certain respects repulsive. So me and these books have a degree of personal history.

But it was only when reading the Address that I recognised where some of Donaldson's linguistic tics and philosophy might well come from.

Quotes from the Chronicles such as "It is the duty of the living to give meaning to the sacrifices of the dead" and "So that beauty and truth should not pass utterly from the Earth.” are echoes of Lincoln in fantasy masquerade.

It's easy to position the Chronicles as an response to/critique of Tolkien, after the success of the Lord Of The Rings. But what I hadn't appreciated up to this point is how - just like Tolkien, ironically - inescapably American that response is in its mythology and the traditions it draws upon.

That moment when a whole new reading of a book you thought you were familiar with opens up?


Oh - and if you want to read what I wrote about Covenant back in 2011, here it is in a glorious four part essay. I must have had a lot of time on my hands back then.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Hugo nominations update

With around two weeks before Hugo nominations close (see previous post) how am I doing with getting my thoughts together?

With help from a few close friends (who can vote but not nominate because of the way the registration deadlines played out) my ballot has a full set of 5 nominations in only three categories: Best Novel, Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) and Best Fan Writer. 

But we've also got suggestions for a further ten awards - leaving only four vacant. Not bad considering we're not embedded in hardcore fandom, don't read a lot of short fiction the year it comes out and have no way of assessing how good an editor is. :)

I'm sure I'll end up filling up all the slots in Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form), as well as adding a few more elsewhere among the way

Friday, March 4, 2016

Ask your Assembly candidates to champion MND

A quick post here to note that next Wednesday, the Motor Neurone Disease Association's campaigns for the Northern Ireland and Wales Assembly campaigns are launching. I've been fairly heavily involved in the preparation for these campaigns. 

And if posts here are a little sparse in the coming weeks it will be because developing a campaign is only half the battle  - you then have to make it happen (or, ideally, help others make it happen with you).

Currently my working life pre-launch is a little like this:

For now, though, here's a teaser for the two campaigns.

Ask your Assembly candidates to champion MND

We believe that politicians should understand the impact that MND has on people’s lives. And we know that this message will be loudest if it comes from local people.

That’s why we’re launching two campaigns this Spring:

- Every Breath Counts for this year's Northern Ireland Assembly elections
- MND Won’t Wait campaign for this year’s Welsh Assembly elections 

Take action from March 9 at and

Please take a moment to e-mail your candidates in your constituency to champion MND in the Assembly and in the community. 

Want to do more?

If you have a little more time, you might want to send candidates a personal letter, join in the campaign on social media, and perhaps ask a politician a question if you meet them.

An action guide and resources to do all that and more, as well as our Every Breath Counts and MND Won’t Wait policy briefings, will be available
at and

And if you have any questions about the campaigns, contact Tim Atkinson, Campaigns Manager on or 01543 415121.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Twelve albums that have stuck

From one of those Facebook status update challenges:

Rules : in your status, list 12 albums that have stuck with you in some way. No need to think too long or too hard about it. They don't have to be cool or great albums, they just have to have meant something to you at some time. Then tag some friends whose lists you'd like to see (and remember to tag me too):

In no particular order...

1. Stereolab - Mars Audiac Quintet
2. Portishead - Dummy
3. Love - Forever Changes
4. The Notwist - Shrink
5. Kraftwerk - Trans Europe Express
6. Massive Attack - Protection
7. Ulver - Shadows Of The Sun
8. Talking Heads - Remain In Light
9. Alcest - Écailles de Lune
10. Panopticon - Kentucky
11. Various - The Greatest Punk Rock Album In The World ... Ever!
12. cloudDEAD - Ten