Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Oh Yeah

The other thing I did on Monday, apart from watch Beowulf and see a big plume of smoke over London that briefly woke the poison spider meme that lurks in the basements of our brains, post 9/11, was send of the manuscript of The Quiet War to my editor at Gollancz. Which is no longer quite the ceremony it once was, involving a hot laser printer, a ream and a bit of paper, a large envelope, parcel tape, and a wait at the post office. Instead you just press this button, and off it goes into the ether.

The Quiet War came out at more or less 170,000 words, a tad over the estimate of 150,000 made before I wrote the first word. I cut something like 50,000 words along the way, so I think they are the right 170,000 words, more or less. It would be easy (and fantastically lazy and indulgent) to make it twice the length, with no change in plot or incident. But it wouldn’t do the book much good. I like to write long and cut back, which isn’t the most efficient way of writing perhaps, but lets me see what works, and what is necessary.

It’s loosely based on the background and back story a sequence of stories I wrote over the past ten years, although I’ve made some pretty drastic changes; necessary changes, as the sequence emerged piecemeal rather than being thoroughly planned. So it’s a second draft of a future history, about the way in which history works through human lives, and how human lives and human ideas work on history. It follows five main characters through a tight tangle of storylines that all resolve in a conflict that slowly and inevitably develops into war, through design and circumstance. A collision between stasis and evolution, between a conservative elite that’s consolidated power after catastrophe, and a new generation hungry for change, even though it can’t quite define to itself what that change is going to be. There are spaceships and space battles, chases and alarms, vacuum organisms, floating gardens in Saturn, gene wizards, spies, and extraordinary ordinary people, cities and oases scattered across the very real icescapes of half a dozen moons of Jupiter and Saturn (I owe a vast debt to the robot probes Galileo and Cassini, not to mention the Huygens lander)... In short, it’s a kind of space opera.

I should of course be pressing on with the next novel, and I am beginning to make notes on the notes I wrote at various intervals in the past year or so, but having worked with furious concentration for about eight months, with just a couple of weeks off here and there, I’m unwinding a little. Stepping back, to make the next great leap. Maybe I’ll scratch the itch of this short story that’s been bugging me. And in any case, I’m hardly finished with The Quiet War; there’ll be an edit to deal with, by and by, and a concentrated spot of polishing, the copy edit... I definitely need a rest.

Celeb spot: Gilbert & George piss-elegant in camelhair coats, Commercial Street, Spitalfields. Not entirely unexpected as they live around the corner, but it still evoked a tiny frisson.
Current listening: Songs of Defiance, Music of Chechnya and the North Caucasus, compiled by Michael Church, and Oddities and Marvels of the Human Voice, compiled by Jack Womack. Current reading: E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome To Hard Times.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Space Truckin'

I like to think that Jules Verne would be pleased by this highly practical spacecraft.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Beowulf In The Valley Of The Uncanny

Out to the IMAX cinema in Waterloo with Mr Kim Newman to see the 3D version of Beowulf. Given I’m not big on heroic fantasy and think The Vikings was about as good a film as it was possible to make about sword-swinging looting and pillaging Danes, I was pleasantly surprised. The script nicely compresses the poem into classic Hollywood three-act format and adds a couple of neat plot twists, and the story, in which the hero takes on a monster, the monster’s mother and a dragon (not to mention a bunch of sea serpents), is perfect subject matter for the technique of using digitally-enhanced live action within a computer-rendered setting, previously deployed by director Robert Zemeckis in Polar Express. Digital animation means that anything is possible except, because of the Uncanny Valley effect, entirely believable scenes in which the actors do nothing but talk to each other, and so the first half, where most of the exposition lies, is sometimes a bit laboured and reminiscent of cut-scenes in computer games (even if they are the most exquisitely detailed cut-scenes you’ve ever experienced). It doesn’t help that Ray Winstone, otherwise fine as the misguided hero, occasionally lapses into broad Cockernee (‘I have come to kill a Monstah!’), and the scene where he gets naked before his fight with Grendel is distractingly reminiscent of the opening of Austin Powers in The Spy Who Shagged Me. But once the story gets going and hurtles towards its tragic-heroic conclusion it grips more firmly. There are stunning coupes de theatre, including a wonderful reverse tracking shot through a dark and wintery wood, dynamic action scenes, and the best goddamn dragon I’ve ever seen: once it roars into action the film literally takes off. If you’re going to see it, though, be good to your inner 13-year-old kid and make sure you catch it in IMAX 3D; I don’t think that it will quite work in any other format.

Coming out of the cinema, heading over Waterloo Bridge, there was a vast plume of smoke rising to the east and unpacking above the Thames and South London; just for a moment, Kim and I wondered if This Was It again; nope, just a very big fire at a disused bus garage in the Olympic site in Hackney: bonfire of the vanities.
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