Saturday, September 02, 2006

Learning The World

In another of his short essays about the novel, John Sutherland meditates on the role of the novel as a vehicle for instruction and ‘clueing-up’ in the ways of the world. He’s pretty sympathetic to science fiction, pointing out that it ‘has done as much for the factual scientific education of the average reader as all the educational reforms introduced since CP Snow’s 1959 polemic The Two Cultures lamented his fellow Britons’ epidemic ignorance of the second law of thermodynamics.’ And while I at first bridled at Sutherland’s suggestion that because a high proportion of Americans believe in X-File alien probings (how quickly SF authors get tired of being asked about UFOs), SF may have been responsible for ‘dumbing down the citizenry’, on reflection, he has a good point; after all, although SF writers aren’t responsible for the finer flights of fancy of flying saucer afficiendos, they did after all invent and propogate tropes about aliens and alien invasions. And worse than flying saucer fever, SF has produced a clutch of post-catastrophe novels that mendaciously suggest that plague, nuclear war or asteroid impact may be a beneficial winnowing of the dumb and undeserving, and that clever and resourceful people will flourish and bring in a Utopia. As if. (On the plus side, SF in the 1950s and 1960s definitely boosted interest in space travel; many people working for NASA were hooked by SF at an impressionable age.)

Whether or not novels instruct and enlighten the reader and make her a ‘better, or at least, better informed’ citizen (a lovely notion), they certainly allow the authors to indulge in their interests and obsessions. I had a lot of fun researching paleolithic art and theories of consciousness for Mind’s Eye, and delving into police procedures and the economies of massively multiplayer online role-playing games for Players. And right now I’m deeply immersed in the landscapes of Saturn’s moons, trying to figure out how to convey their strange and wonderful beauty with a minimum of infodumping.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Players - 7

Carl Kelley braced Pat Metcalf Wednesday lunchtime, when the security company manager arrived at the estate for his weekly inspection. Walking straight up to him, saying, ‘I want a word.’

'Make it quick. I’m running late.’

They were standing beside Metcalf’s black Range Rover in the parking lot by the gatehouse, with a view down the valley to the tall narrow vee of the dam and the lake spread behind it, the ruins of the old lodge and holiday cabins on one side, forest on the other. It was a warm, sunny day. A hawk was circling in the stark blue sky.

Carl said, ‘I’ll come straight to the point. I found one of your guys in the mansion last night, wandering around the trophy room.’

‘Yeah, Frank Wilson told me about that,’ Metcalf said. ‘He also told me you threatened him.’

‘He was pricing Mr Merrit’s possessions like an auctioneer. What are you going to do about it?’

‘He found the door open and checked it out. Why should I do anything?’

Pat Metcalf was a heavy-set man with an untidy mop of hair dyed blond, wearing a sport jacket over a white shirt and bolo tie. He’d been a senior detective in LAPD’s Vice Unit until he ended up on the wrong side of an assault charge after beating up a working girl and putting her in a coma because she wouldn’t give him a freebie. That had been ten years ago, but he still possessed a cop’s bullish arrogance and made it clear that he considered Carl to be some kind of untrustworthy freeloading lowlife. Saying in passing, ‘I’ve got your number, buddy.’ Or, ‘Don’t think I don’t know.’ Or, ‘You and me, anywhere, any time.’ Eye-fucking him with belligerent contempt. Daring him to try something.

Metcalf was giving Carl that look now. Carl gave it right back, saying, ‘Did you know that Frank Wilson has done time? I don’t suppose you do, or you wouldn’t have hired him.’

‘I interview a guy for a job, I can’t ask him was he ever arrested. That’s a straight violation of Federal law -- invasion of privacy. I can’t ask him if he’s ever been a mental patient either, or if he’s gay or has HIV.’

‘Frank Wilson is sporting a prison tattoo on his hand. He was definitely convicted for something,’ Carl said.


‘So that story about finding the door open was a load of bullshit.’

‘I told you, the guy got lost.’

‘Which reminds me of the other thing that bothers me. Here’s a bloke wandering around the trophy room, claiming to have wandered in through an open door. But why was the door open in the first place?’

‘Maybe there’s a problem with your system. If I were you, I’d get it fixed,’ Metcalf said, and made a move to go past Carl.

Carl said, ‘Either the system was broken, or Mr Frank Wilson got hold of a bracelet that allowed him entry into a part of the mansion where he had no business being. Maybe I should look into that.’

‘What do you want me to do? Fire his ass?’

‘That’s what I’d do.’

‘Yeah, but you don’t have to find halfway decent guards who’ll take wages that’re less than they can earn flipping burgers. And you know what? I’d rather employ someone who’s done jail than some crazy queer dripping with the virus.’

‘If all your employees are like him, maybe we’d better find another security company.’

‘If you’re not happy with the service my company provides, why don’t you raise the matter with Mr Merrit? Oh, but I bet you already ran to him with your paranoid little story, and he told you to forget about it. Is that why you’re sore?’

‘I’m pissed off because there’s been a breach in security and you aren’t taking it seriously.’

‘There hasn’t been any breach in security,’ Metcalf said with exaggerated patience, ‘so quit bothering me with this weak shit about conspiracy to rob or whatever. Stick to your own job, whatever the fuck it is, and keep your nose out of my business.’

Carl let the man walk past, then said to his back, ‘Who mentioned anything about a conspiracy?’

Sunday, August 27, 2006


...Kim Newman and I didn’t win a Hugo for our little performance piece at last year’s Hugo award ceremony in Glasgow, but at least we lost out to one of the best episodes from the terrific first series Doctor Who; it’s been a while since a British TV show has been nominated for, let alone won, a Hugo, and the revived Doctor Who has been British TV at its best. Good to see, too, that Robert Charles Wilson won a Hugo for his novel Spin - a well-deserved tick mark for a fine, thoughtful and imaginative writer.

I wasn’t at Anaheim, and thanks to the time difference between the UK and California, I slept through the award ceremony. But I’ve been to enough of the things to know how it goes. The only sensible and sane reaction to having your work put on the short list for an award is to think how nice to be noticed, but of course I won’t win, not when when I’m up against relentless self-promotor X, the tremendously popular Y, or the unfairly talented Z. But if you attend the ceremony, you can’t help feeling, as the moment approaches, that perhaps you really do have a chance of winning - why else would you have put yourself through all this? Not that you tell anyone that you fancy your chances of course, knowing full well that hubris is a lightning conductor for fate, but despite the fact that the sensible part of your brain continues to list the cold hard reasons why you aren’t going to win, your serene self-belief continues to persist right up to the moment that the grinning envelope-opener announces that the award has gone to someone else. In fact, for a split-second, as X, Y, or Z leaps up and lopes for the stage, you exist in a parallel universe where you have won, but then applause for the winner collapses that still-born reality, and it’s time to congratulate the winner and find a stiff consolatory drink to calm your nerves. Having spared myself that ordeal, all I have to do is thank everyone who nominated and voted for us.
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