Thursday, 31 October 2013

Book: 'Journey To The Centre Of The Earth' by Jules Verne (1864)

Jules Verne is effectively the origin point for all science fiction. His pioneering blends of speculation and real world science of the mid-Nineteenth Century struck a resonance perhaps unparallelled in the history of fiction. His influence is incredible and yet mostly forgotten as the dystopian and dark science fiction of HG Wells currently prevails. More on that tomorrow, for now we are going to talk about one of Verne's most legendary works.

'Journey to the Centre of the Earth' was first published in 1864. For a moment please consider that year. 1864. Wow. 'Journey' was the third in his series of Extraordinary Voyages novels, during which his readers would travel beneath the sea in a magnificent submarine, be shot to the moon inside a massive artillery shell, or travel through interstellar space while trapped on a comet. In this one, the discovery of a centuries old runic document sends famed geologist Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel on a subterranean journey ostensibly to the centre of the world. Entering the underworld via an extinct Icelandic volcano, in the footsteps of Arne Saknussem of ancient fame, the adventure reveals underground seas and primeval monsters galore. They're saved from an eventual unpleasant demise only by being shot to the surface via an eruption and finding themselves near Bologna.

It's charming, it really is, and so unlike the science fiction that would follow. In the new terrain forged by HG Wells and Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, unbounded optimism is almost the antithesis of science fiction. Excepting only the Verne influence on Star Trek, we are faced with monsters and mutations and disasters galore in the years ahead. Only badness can come of science and space, is what they say, and that's what we watch and read and listen to.

The optimism of 'Journey' is in the journey, in the idea that these things are possible and can be lived through, and in the naivete and originality of the writing. 'The Lost World' of Conan Doyle was written in 1912 but living prehistoric life appears here first. Axel almost dies of starvation several times, suffocation and heat prostration a few more, is trapped alone in the labyrinth and all the while is missing his fiancée Grauben who he will marry upon returning home a hero with her guardian the professor.

'Journey' is my favourite of the Verne stories that I've read, lacking as it does the moodiness of Captain Nemo from 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea' and the sheer madcap and breakneck pace of 'Around The World In Eighty Days' and replacing it with... geology. The geology is cool. Any story that features some basic geology should be lauded up into the clouds and beyond. The impetuousness of the journey is staggering but it does harken back to a time when being able to do something almost demanded that it be done, and that without the inevitable nasty consequences. Yes, that's a symptom of the mindset that has left us in environmental crisis now but it didn't have to end up like that.

For every mad adventurer like Lidenbrock or Phileas Fogg there was a stalwart companion like Hans or Passepartout. The human race would work it out, even lacking the feminine half of the species who were rather passive back in those times. Now woman is emancipated but not in time to be in Jules Verne books equally; We'll file it under 'Sometime life just stinks' and move on. Indeed there are some questionable (or plain outright wrong racial stereotypes) in some of the Verne novels but we're dealing with a nineteenth century man here, and in many ways a progressive one.

What is the best part of 'Journey' and what is the most challenged? Personally the most interesting and fascinating part is the introduction and the runic puzzle, simple though it may be, which is only challenged by the storm sequence on the subterranean sea. For bad parts, and remember we're dealing with translations for the most part, the least engaging portion is the ride back to the surface through the volcano and most scientifically wrong is the whole concept of disproving the central fire of the planet. But still, it is at heart a children's story and an excellent one at that.


Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Perils Of Lecturing

There are many things that can go wrong while lecturing. First of all, you can discover that your prepared notes for the display are riddled with errors. Secondly, you can get panicked when you see the room full of apathetic faces staring blankly back at the screen. Thirdly, you can have talkers, which is the worst thing of all, for talkers force you to make a decision. If you let them go then you obviously don't care enough about the whole thing, but if you shush them then you need to succeed in shushing them or face total disaster thereafter. But this is all beside the point.

It is a Tuesday and Tuesdays mean travelling. Part of the problem of a temporary job is the lack of motivation to move properly and so instead for a couple of months I have forced myself to commute for four nights a week. For the most part it is fine except for this week where I am forced to move halfway through the sting, from my plush self-catered hotel to a bed and breakfast over Halloween. I blame Halloween for it all of course. The travelling isn't too bad, as good as a two hour service bus ride can be, but it does leave little time to prepare for the Tuesday lecture.

Ah, Halloween, the one night of the year you don't want to be in a Halloween town. The very though is terrifying in the extreme. Despite eight years of university education I have never actually been out on a Halloween night. The active parts of social evenings start so incredibly late! As someone who tries his hardest to fall asleep at the natural time of nine o'clock (morning or evening, it doesn't matter), it's dispiriting to have to wait until eleven o'clock or midnight for people so I almost never did, apart from when held at the threat of blackmail.

Blackmail... Slipping back into a Sherlock Holmes frame of mind for a moment, that last passage reminded me of the second greatest Sherlock Holmes villain of the stories: Charles Augustus Milverton, the master blackmailer. In many ways he was a far more defined character than Moriarty ever was, and it will be interesting to see what they do with him as the presumably ongoing antagonist for the next series of 'Sherlock'. Which reminds me in turn that the episode 'A Scandal In Belgravia' deserves a blog article all of its own, representing as it does the very best of the series.

Presumably the last lecture I give here will also be my best, as there is an upward trajectory to my successes so far. The real challenge is in addressing the differential in the group, comprising as it does people with very little of mathematics and people who need their mathematics rubber stamped to progress and who know most of it already. It's very hard to make everyone happy in those circumstances, especially when you have too many errors in your presentation, and a magic whiteboard to maneuver around. Or I could just be making excuses. You decide.

Oh, magic whiteboard, you are wonderful but also so so useless.


Sunday, 27 October 2013

Real Time

It's nice to be back on real time. It is a liberating experience to finally not be involuntarily keeping two time zones in the mind simultaneously, the clock time and the 'real time'. There's no point harping on it though. As stated previously, British Daylight Savings time is a nightmare for some people with inflexible body clocks.

Now to state the obvious: Writing an exam is hard. I honestly thought it would be easy but it seems that finding a new set of numbers for an existing question type, that will produce a nice answer all the way through, is quite fiendishly difficult. Obviously details can't be entered into at this time - my students might look me up - but there are still questions to finalise, and they are proving recalcitrant. Not as recalcitrant as the salmon in the kitchen, but indomitable never the less.

Lecturing has been quite an experience so far. From the first faltering steps of finishing twenty minutes early (at least) three times in a row, my typing up is now so far advanced that I can occasionally just load up the next lecture and keep going and filling up any slack time that occurs. It will cheer my lovely students to no end to know that there is no reserve material for this Tuesday so the dreaded worked examples could come into force with a vengeance. Actually it's nice to do worked examples, but not when you're without a marker whiteboard and stuck with the dreaded magic electronic version instead. Electronic whiteboards are great for straight lines but horrible for writing. <Imagine a great sigh in this space, building to a crescendo before dying out in apathetic fashion.> Graph sketching will be a tour-de-force, no doubt.

Real time. For a few brief months that are unfortunately in the dead of winter, the clocks will make sense and gibe with everything once again. It will be glorious. Christmas is coming, hot on the heels of the ever disappointing Halloween, and then lengthening days before Daylight Savings Time again.

Mutter mutter.


Friday, 25 October 2013

Story: The Disappearance (XII)

(Part XI , XIII)

Two days into the past, I knew I had to use this second chance wisely. Nothing could have persuaded me to go talk to myself and confuse the timeline even further. Instead, I comforted Agnes and asked her to come to the Old University with me. Rolf was a problem, but between us we managed to get him on the train and excused his unconsciousness with my PCDD badge. Finally, after spending most of our ready cash, and borrowing a wheelchair from our destination station we rolled into my secret old lodgings in academia. The owl was still there, and the books, and it felt just as much like home as it always had. Home.

Agnes and I had spoken little during the journey, Rolf's unconscious presence being an unbreakable barrier between us. The cosy surroundings of these rooms far from the scene of our bizarre adventure seemed to relax her, and she stared at all the books transfixed. It wasn't often you saw a such eclectic collection, studded as it was with large subsets on Egyptology, Mathematics, Chemistry and Criminology.

Some words flowed between us: A question. "Just who are you, anyway? I've seen personal libraries before but this is spectacular and bizarre! What's a police officer doing with rooms and books like this, and why hide it away? You're a researcher, aren't you? And connected to one of the most prestigious university towns in the world." She was more exasperated than curious, it seemed, as if all my previous reserve had rankled her enormously.

The computer button was pressed and the machine dutifully began to warm up, as I secured Rolf and then turned to Agnes. "All shall be revealed, but not now." She removed her shoes and wriggled her toes in a patch of deepest carpet. "And not by me. Lily will tell you all tomorrow I'm sure. And don't ask me about Lily as she'll be sure to tell you all about herself in quick smart fashion."

E-mail to agent Carter:
"Sharon, Code 29, I have to stay away until 13:00 Thursday. Come down to Woolford after I leave work at lunchtime tomorrow. Bring restraints and take precautions. Agnes McGonagle is here too and in same scrape."

Now I would have backup. I noticed Rolf watching me silently, as silently as he must have come to from his stupor. Agnes saw me notice and then noticed herself. I grabbed her before she could make a scene. "You, guest room, now." I uttered in an almost commanding tone and watched her grumpily until she was through the door. Then I checked the bathroom was secure, untied Rolf and shoved him in there, with suggestion of doing everything he needed to do and that I would check in five minutes. Then I waited.

All the old ways came crashing back in on me as I sat in my old living room once again, and I reached for a favourite novel before Agnes caught me, peeking as she was from her guest room.

"Who are you really?"

"I'm just a dusty professor who saw some things and then went into the big bad world."

"Bad things?"


"You'll see worse things if I don't get my turn in the bathroom soon."

Sighing, I checked on Rolf and performed the bathroom switch. We wouldn't get another chance to chat alone for a while.

More shall follow...

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Course Corrections

Over the course of the Quirky Muffin so far I've done quite a few stories. 'Night Trials' and 'Triangles' both came to an end, if only a chapter end in the second case, and they went through the spontaneous serialisation format in radically different ways. As said elsewhere, 'Night Trials' dived into a whole that it never quite recovered from, even with some 'destroy the corner we've painted ourselves into' atom bomb writing. 'Triangles' never had a problem, just lulls as time was pumped in to the narrative to allow things to happen at a reasonable rate.

The practice here at the Quirky Muffin seems to have settled down quite nicely. We begin a story quite spontaneously, and then a rough outline forms for the story after writing two or three episodes and deciding what is interesting and what is not. This worked fairly well for 'Night Trials' and very well for 'Triangles', but 'The Disappearance' has rather foundered on the rocks. In essence what has happened with 'The Disappearance' is that the whole thing was build on a gag, a plain chocolate digestive detective, and that that and the opening of the story have now both been rather left behind. The story is trapped being neither one thing nor the other.

Having begun, it seems almost compulsory to finish, but how do you steer something back towards a narrative that was built on a gag? Ultimately you end up doing two things: Finishing the serial as it stands while talking yourself out of tight spots, while also planning for the compiled short story that must follow. Eventually all of these stories, no matter how dull or pedestrian, will be compiled into revised and unserialised versions. Therein shall lie half the fun: In the challenge of converting these exercises in ingenuity into wholes hopefully greater than the sums of their parts.

Stories will continue in the Quirky Muffin, even as the ideas for new ones get used up. Just three days ago I had an idea for something truly abstract which will fill one of the slots once 'The Disappearance', 'The Glove' or 'Oneiromancy' finally come to a chapter break or natural terminus. 'The Glove' is a natural example of a story starting and then the framework coming into place only after a large amount of forceful contemplation, while 'Oneiromancy' just jumped out fully formed one day. Out of them all, the more abstract tales are easily the most fun. 'Oneiromancy', 'Triangles' and the next story 'Wordspace' will all almost write themselves into and out of the corners that are part and parcel of serialised nonsense. I think 'Wordspace' will go down very well indeed.

But what next for 'The Disappearance'? There's a contradiction to settle, a cul-de-sac to back out of gracefully, and the question of what the story is really about to ask. The framework fell away weeks ago, and now the only thing to do is print out the whole thing, deconstruct it, make a diagram and then throw things at it until something sticks. The Plain Chocolate Digestive Detective will reach the end of his story, the time singularity will presumably be averted, and all that smuggling will surely be abated. We don't need a miracle, we just need biscuits.


Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Story: The Disappearance (XI)

(Part X , XII)

The case was winding down but it wasn't satisfying. There were motives and effects that didn't make sense. Was the whole story about the time disaster to come just part of a huge trap or were there more lies around us than even I could punch through to illuminate the whole web of truths? Why had Rolf McGonagle gone bad, and what did it all have to do with the future, if anything?

The teleporter, or perhaps time machine, had deposited us in a darkened dock area in what looked like a dodgy part of Liverpool. We were surrounded by massive towers of cartons of chocolate digestive biscuits and it was cold. Rolf was on the ground, still knocked out but beginning to look a little blue at the lips. I picked him up, threw him over in the fireman hold, cursing my back in the process and then started to walk towards the light. I assumed Agnes would follow me, but then I realised she was still.

Agnes McGonagle's eyes were glazed and she didn't seem to be aware of her surroundings. She just stood there, eyes responding a little to my waves and then my touching her face. Gosh, she was beautiful, but I realised how much of her bravado was a cover for her inexperience and wondered what I would have done in her case. My first two trips through a teleporter had been a shocking experience and that was without our shared events of time travel, meeting a presumed dead but crooked father, and also meeting our future selves even if they had been a decoy.

Had our future selves been a decoy? I had certainly fooled me, if that were the case, and Agnes had also been fooled by herself. It didn't seem to be credible that could happen. No, they weren't knowing bait, but unknowing decoys. They had believed that there was a problem coming, a monumental disaster, that would swallow uncounted lives. I pulled Agnes along as I also lugged her father Rolf.

The lights were a portacabin and inside there was a greasy looking security guard. He jumped out of his skin when I pounded on the door, and then shrivelled up into a corner as I dumped Rolf on the desk. Agnes was starting to cry. The guard was looking at Rolf in utter shock so I guessed he was on the team and prodded him a little, with his own gun from the desk.

"Day, month, year. Now."

The guard responded and I found we had been transported back to two days before we left. Yes, time travel. This could all get very complicated, but it could also all end up being very simple. I called a friend at the University, he said he'd come and get us, and then we would do the most important thing of all. We would talk, we would think, and we would wait two days.

To be continued...

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Where are the words that are never said?

As we talk we spin words out of thin air, meld thoughts into sentences, and articulate whole realms of experience into shared knowledge and wonder. Or at least that's what want to happen in the best of times. But what about the words that are never said, or at least the ones that haven't been said yet?

Do the words that haven't been said yet loiter on in some otherworldly metaphysical store? If our souls go somewhere to sleep in between turns at the bodily wheel, do they sleep in the same happy space, comforted by a huge blanket of unspoken words? What do all the words left unsaid come to in the grand story of things? And what is that story, that grand narrative of all the words that ever were or will be?

Imagine a great wooden loft space, with mighty oak roof windows looking out into the word space of the great outer world. From that loft space, that we can never access except in sleep, great works of unborn literature can be seen wafting by in the wind. Abstract thoughts roll by in concrete balls and poems that never made it to paper are clouds in a ludicrously blue sky. The negatives in the far distance rumble menacingly, clouds of withheld threats and grudges from all the peoples of the world, unborn declarations of war and prejudices kept in for all told reasons.

Beware the unborn words. Spoken words convert their power into simple cause and effect and then die. Words left unsaid accumulate meaning in the bearer and slowly distort themselves into bizarre mixed messages and dire consequences, loaded with intent passions and missed opportunities. If there is something to be written or said then it's often best to say it. The one exception, and it is always exceptional in every way, is love. A glance or a look can express love as well as a word in the best of circumstances. Is there a place for unspent looks and smiles too? Might it be a sad place?

Spin and swirl, do the twirl, happiness and sunshine, give it a whirl.


Friday, 18 October 2013

Story: The Glove, V [Obsoleted]

(Part I , IV , VI)

"The early history of our colony here on Ganymede was a strange one. We were possessed of a fierce Scotch cultural identity but separated by the differing calls on our natures. By turns artistic and ruthlessly curious our scientists got on badly with the artists and vice-versa. The intoxicating new plant forms here did not make the situation any easier. Deciding that it would be better to diversify our power base and maximise our chances of surviving a catastrophic event we founded two major settlements in a coincidentally helpful way."

Steffan listened as Octavius continued to work through the traditional speech to new members of the Order of Pipers. Tradition would be endured as it itself endured the rigours of time.

"Here in Burgh we concentrated our efforts in fostering the creative and artistic aspects of culture, while in Edin they focussed on all things technical and scientific. Thanks to the wonders of later generations and our communications technology we could never become totally disentangled from one another and it was thought exchange of the talented and youthful could only lead to greater integration in the future. For three centuries this has been for the most part true."

"As a Master Piper our tasks were many fold but chief amongst them was to act as covert couriers between the governing bodies of our two fair cities, to be ambassadors at large, and to investigate the strange occurrences and frictions that arise from time to time under the pretence of seeking out lore and legend. As an initiate you knew little of these other duties, and even as a journeyman you would not have been told even a fraction of the secret duties of the Pipers. We are an important and humble part of society, the glue that holds all together."

This confirmation of the information he had gotten in the scroll was unnerving. It sounded as if he had secretly enrolled in spy school instead of musical college.

"Over the last thirty years the natural exchange of students has slowed to a trickle. In the last academic session we sent only twenty-two new youths to study in Edin and received but nine such in return. Unrest is building amongst the populace, our pipers out in the world, traversing the surface ways and lodging everywhere between here and Edin, pick up reports of strife and anger most unseemly. It as if a dark presence were encroaching and pushing between our two peoples. In the last twelve months alone we have seen the disappearance of fifteen pipers, all highly regarded and treated as honoured members of society. And they had all reported progress in determining the sources of this unrest."

"You, Master Steffan, in addition to being top of your class for three consecutive years, have proven to be reliable, trustworthy and of the highest intellectual and emotional ability. In line with outstanding musical ability you have been awarded the title and duties of Master of Pipers. Should you accept this honour, you will be immediately dispatched to Edin to act as a senior field agent and liaison to local authorities, responsible for finding and identifying the problems that plague us. You will be equal to all of us in rank if not position. Should you refuse the honour it may not be offered to you again until you have proven yourself a second time in the course of your normal duties and you will be forbidden to mention any of what you have heard amongst us today. You must decide now."

Steffan stood up, sighed ruefully and said what he had known he going to say since reading the scroll. "Master Octavius, I must refuse the honour."

Octavius goggled at him.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Delays and Circumstances

In recent times I've become very resistant to being autobiographical in the Quirky Muffin, preferring instead to write stories and reviews, but is that in line with the blog's original intent? Does the original intent even matter any more? Has the blog reached one of the earliest in will be a long string of existential crises?

We had an interruption to the Quirky Muffin earlier this week, and it was in large part down to my being a little sick, as well as starting a new job. Last week I was parachuted in as a temporary lecturer at Aberystwyth University for three months and of course it has been rather stressful getting started. In addition to my module I'm taking the opportunity to clean out my Statistics rust and learn R, and am remembering just how much Statistics there is to be forgotten! Masses and masses of the cursed subject, but it is very interesting. Viewed from a post-PhD perspective, Statistics is data management and analysis of the highest order. It's something to get back into and exploit in the future, although the murkiness of the future is best not contemplated at this time.

In addition to my sudden lecturer status or maybe because of it there was a small incident at the weekend and of course there had to be a visit to the accident and emergency department of the local hospital as a result. In the final analysis, but not that final thank you very much, there was not much wrong apart from over compression due to badly small trousers and a massive amount of gas wafting about the system seeking to cause an explosion. Baggy trousers from now on, and giant reductions in weight, if it can somehow be done without total physical and emotional collapse! There will be no eating disorders here, we don't do those. The nurse gave me a lovely turkey sandwich. Thank you, doctor and nurse! It almost made the six hours of waiting worthwhile. The seats at the hospital were terrible though, almost breaking my back and making walking almost unbearable for a couple of days. Shame on you, hospital!

Argh, it just feels wrong to talk explicitly about myself. There must be people out there who do this all the time, even lonelier than I, and sending a light out into the darkness to see if there's anyone there. There's a poignant part in the book 'Yes Man' by Danny Wallace (I must write about it), where he is wavering in his 'Yes Manifesto' and he searches the Internet for 'I wish I had said no' and then 'I wish I had said yes' and discovered the deep personal part of the Interwebs we all know and love. There are deeply personal and squeamishly emotional lives being laid bare out there, and it continues to happen, despite being terribly un-British. The Quirky Muffin will never be like that. This is a place of intellect, thought and total stupidity if only because those are my strengths as opposed to the emotional aspects of life.

My, 'Yes Man' is a good book. It will have to be covered eventually in concert with its predecessor and spiritual sibling 'Join Me' for a super-blog. They are funny, but also have a twinned melancholy that is emblematic of the ambiguity of all things real in the universe. None of his following books have ever touched those two primal texts, being somehow far more contrived than natural tales of real life events. It's quite similar to the developments in Tony Hawks books after he hitch-hiked around Ireland with a fridge, where contrivance overtook spontaneity in the tales being spun. Having said that I do love his 'One Hit Wonderland' and could well have just spoilt my own theory. Oh, boggle, we had better add some Tony Hawks to the book review lists too.

Coming up in the Quirky Muffin, now that the interruption is over? Some book reviews, stories, and less overt autobiographical content. What people learn about me remains in between the lines.


Monday, 14 October 2013

Service Interruption

No proper Quirky Muffin this time as sickness has intervened. Not sleeping for a couple of nights and twenty four hours of not sleeping can really sap creativity. At least the doctor gave me a turkey sandwich before pushing me out the door.

Lesson to be learnt: Do not wear tight trousers.


Saturday, 12 October 2013

Book: 'Gaudy Night' by Dorothy L Sayers (1935)

This wasn't what I was expecting at all. Maybe I was deluded. I had read the first five novels in the Lord Peter Wimsey sequence and found some detective stories that were slowly deepening into full-fledged psychological studies and then skipped straight to the penultimate novel 'Gaudy Night' and discovered a full scale classic.

Lord Peter Wimsey was an aristocrat detective of the highest intelligence. He may have concealed himself a little as a seeming fop but he was a serious proposition in practically any circumstance, and his substance was emphasised increasingly as the series moves on and his detective work transitioned from a hobby to a hardfought profession. Having started off seemingly as a generic novelty sleuth with aristocratic tendencies and shellshock from World War I, he ends a deeply complex character. Having said all that, the first of 'Gaudy Night's many decoys is that it's not really a novel about Lord Peter Wimsey at all, but is actually the story of his reluctant love interest Harriet Vane. He saved her from a wrongful execution in 'Strong Poison' and professed his love, but it's only here that their whole shared story comes to a resolution, seven books later. It's Harriet's story first, probably as it must have been lest it all come apart in a shower of literary debris.

The second decoy is perhaps the title, which I initially thought referred to the adjective 'gaudy' but actually relates apparently to a type of university reunion apparently celebrated at the time in some Oxford colleges. Hence when discovering the book you wonder what could be so gaudy about it all. The eponymous Gaudy Night is the start point of the novel, the launching point for Harriet as the protagonist as she goes to her first reunion, and the first portion of what will be the nominal mystery for the narrative.

The third decoy is the presumption that this is a detective story, as it is really a romance of the first order masquerading as a mystery. That all begs the question of what this book is really about, and therein lies the question of all questions. This mammoth and epic story is a study of the implications of educated women, the conflict between said education and the traditional roles of women in society, the ongoing tension between Wimsey and Vane, the subtext of Sayers' real life, and perhaps is a deliberate step toward the resolution of the entire series of Wimsey novels as only one more novel would be written.

To talk about the story briefly, a seeming prank at Gaudy Night escalates over a number of months into a potentially lethal tirade of incidents, which leads the Lady Dons of the College to summon Old Student Harriet to surreptitiously determine who is behind it all, and to stop them before someone dies in the process. The mystery is really only a tool of the plot to raise social issues and far more importantly to illuminate the desperate struggle in Harriet's heart as she comes to realise that the man whose proposals she has been refusing for five years may have been the man for her all along. It is hard to know how to feel about someone who saved you from the hangman's noose, after all. In addition, the introduction of Wimsey far past the mid-point of the narrative and in his old studying grounds of Oxford effectively reintroduces everyone to his brilliance via his academic reputation and how he relates to his nephew. We are reintroduced to Wimsey at the same time as Harriet is, and it is impressive. The psychology of the whole novel is impressive, and the coalescence of the disparate plots into a completely satisfying conclusion is dramatic for a mystery novel of the 1930s.

Somewhere there will be massive critical appreciations of 'Gaudy Night', which I could never hope to recreate, so my post will finish with an appreciation of this being a highly enjoyable and successful novel by a woman, about a college full of women and with a female protagonist. I hope I'm not a sexist but I would have been a little perturbed at the thought of what was to come with all that femininity considered, and then delighted because it all makes sense and is an example of the work standing on its own merits.

Go, woman power!


Thursday, 10 October 2013

Geeky Weeks

This is turning into quite the geeky or nerdy week. Seven days ago I volunteered to be a library assistant in the village library. Six days ago I wrote about Sherlock Holmes. Four days ago I was approached to be parachuted in as an emergency university lecturer. Three days ago rumours about found missing Doctor Who episodes started swirling about in earnest. Two days ago I wrote about comic books.  Yesterday I started working. Today, Doctor Who gossip continues to swirl until the press embargo is lifted at midnight and it somehow seems as if the storm is over.

Sometimes weeks are just irretrievably nerdy.

As all the Doctor Who speculation goes on and on and on (hooray if it does turn out to be 'Enemy of the World' and 'The Web of Fear', by the way) one had to wonder why Star Trek doesn't get anywhere near this attention anymore. There are no missing episodes of Star Trek of course, which makes it harder to be nostalgic about but it's also indicative of the facet of this show that allowed it to bloom so hugely but also then collapse: The franchise of Trek. For the great majority of its history Doctor Who is one show, constantly relaunching and metamorphosing, but one show at a time. Star Trek is six different television shows that mostly burst out in one brief period before collapsing inwards again having burnt all their narrative fuel. The original show, groundbreaking and exciting as it was, was the phenomenon and its movies and the spinoffs are the effects of its original success. Star Trek the original series will be remembered longer than its spinoffs but it only ran for three years and six revival movies. Even as the reboot Star Trek movies roll out once every three or four years it's hard to get excited, mainly because they're not really Star Trek to be honest. In contrast to all that, Doctor Who is about to have its fiftieth anniversary and has been in production for about thirty four of those years.

I love Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes, not Doctor Who so much but if third and fourth items were compulsory Doctor Who would definitely be one of them. I've rambled on about them before but those three sets of characters are multi-platform cross-media behemoths of incredible vitality, and my favourite Star Trek is the weakest in energy and vigour.

Lest that people become convinced that my life revolves slowly around television I must reveal that I have been reading a lot of Dorothy L Sayeys, who truly seems to be one of the unfairly lesser remembered gems of the Golden Age of Mystery Novels. What Sayers lacked in volume of output (Agatha Christie beats everyone there) she gains in painstaking effort, love of detail and probably re-readability. Once I've finished there shall be words on 'Gaudy Night' but what you get from her Peter Wimsey novels is a long-term, real-time narrative where time passes in between novels as it does for us, and the series as a whole thus seems somehow just a little more satisfying. Creativity is born from limitation. Yes, there shall be more on Lord Peter Wimsey of the ridiculous name.

That's a wrap. There's not much to say. Stories are coming though. Stories! And I guess more geeky talk. I need more novels.


Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Other Kind Of Book

I was born a while ago, apparently longer ago than is first obvious if lovely Rochelle who was collecting for the National Deaf Children's Society today in Llanelli is to be believed, and when I first stumbled across comic books it was via the British over sized reprints of DC being published by London Editions Magazines. As a result of this and a few bundled US comics bought at Butlins in prehistoric times I was exposed to what I consider to be the fine era that I refer to as post-Crisis. John Byrne had rebooted Superman admirably, Giffen and DeMatteis had produced a fun take on the Justice League, and Batman was quite happily living with established continuity in what can only be thought of as a 'fuzzy reboot'. Things were happening everywhere but I was mainly exposed to the League, Batman and Superman and they were awesome. They were also fun, which is something that doesn't seem to be valued much anymore but there's no point in grumping on about it. Progress happens even if it's not agreeable to everyone. Over at Marvel that man John Byrne also produced a groundbreaking take on the now 'Sensational' She-Hulk and had in the recent past made the Fantastic Four relevant for the first time in ages. That man Byrne was incorrigible!

Even though clouds were gathering in the 1990s there was still fun and adventure to be found in Peter David's Supergirl and the Wally West incarnation of The Flash under practically every person who wrote for him. In the 2000s, it was tougher but Dan Slott did an awesome and innovative run on She-Hulk and Mark Waid pulled the Fantastic Four back into shape in admirable adventurous fashion. The Fantastic Four have always been a hard bunch to write for as not everyone seems to understand that they're not superheroes but adventurers instead. There's no obligation for fistfights and Battles Royale with the Four; They'll solve a problem scientifically or using their combined talents as a family group, and then have a dinner party or go the movies to unwind. Now, in the 2010s, I don't seem to have a comic book. Based on no experiences whatsoever I distrust DC to put out anything but fistfights and zombies, and Marvel has somehow always been the Other Company to be visited only for She-Hulk and the Four.

In the end, though, I normally return to my beginnings. The Byrne Superman is a lovely idea that I'll have to revisit in the near future, with a tangible element of fun always around the corner. Superman may have to do terrible things but it is still fun to be him, although he did have his moments of crisis and went loco after executing Zod and the Phantom Zoners (surely a great band name). It's never been clear to me why Superman has to be the strongest, fastest and most ridiculously overpowered superhero anyway. That doesn't make him super in any way except for being super-unrelateable. His potency is in the sheer variety of things he can do. The Flash is faster, Wonder Woman is a better diplomat, Batman is smarter, Green Lantern has better ranged weapons, the Martian Manhunter has telepathic/vision powers far more potent, and so we can go on but Superman can do everything: That is why he is 'super'. Maybe he should be the strongest or most invulnerable though. The Byrne Superman was more relateable and so was the Giffen/de Matteis League. Yes, their ranks were filled by characters you might not have heard of much but isn't that more believable in a full-time team anyway? If Superman's always in Metropolis then how is he always here too? And Batman and Wonder Woman too for that matter. It made more sense to have it the way it was, with jokes to counterpoint the drama and situations that the team had to bind together to defeat. It was a wonderful series, lessened somewhat when the team split into two main branches/series.

I would love to say that are excellent comic books out there right now, but I really wouldn't know. That initial post-Crisis Age was plum in the middle of the transition from mass sales to selling through specialist outlets, and that transition has led to increased pandering toward mature existing fans and movement away from recruiting new customers and the things I rather liked to begin with. Yes, now the storytelling is complex, developed and sometimes wittier than before but a lot of the fun has gone to be replaced by adult themes. The last entertaining thing I read was 'Hero Squared' again by Giffen and De Matteis, and even that ended on a tragedy after a long run of fun.

Is the comic book as we knew it dead? Maybe and maybe not, as it is the Age of the Internet. The future is in our hands now, and comic book companies should beware.


For an interesting run of collected editions try to gather up the following series in their paperback (TPB) collections, or individual issues if necessary:

'Batman (Detective Comics)' by Greg Rucka (TPBs and back issues)
'Catwoman' by Ed Brubaker (TPBs and back issues)
'Fantastic Four' by Mark Waid (TPBs)
'Fantastic Four' by John Byrne (Visionary TPBs)
'The Flash' by Geoff Johns (TPBs)
'Hero Squared' by Giffen and DeMatteis (TPSs)
'Justice League' by Giffen and various (Justice League International TPBs)
'Sensational She-Hulk' by John Byrne (Back Issues)
'She-Hulk' by Dan Slott (She-Hulk TPBs)
'Supergirl' by Peter David (TPBs and back issues)
'Superman' by John Byrne (Man of Steel TPBs)
'Wonder Woman' by Greg Rucka (TPBs)

There's something there for everyone, over about twenty years of mainstream comic books, with a decent dose of fun to boot.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Story: Oneiromancy, III

(Part O , II , IV)

The man, whose name was Stanley, awoke and stared blankly up at the ceiling for a little while in the darkened room. The curtains were bright with restrained light, and in an instant of strained reflection Stanley bolted out of bed and jumped for the bathroom.

Shaving and washing when you're two hours later for work is an activity which can only lead to trouble. After a couple of cuts and a bruise from hitting his knee on the shower door, Stanley barrelled out of the bathroom, dressed in a frenzy and almost slid out of the front door and into the outside world. Fortunately, Stanley had long stuck to the adage that commuting was evil and so lived almost next door to his place of work, the Deuteronomy Comprehensive School, and was in walking distance of the supermarket. It was his own little slice of heaven.

Walking hurriedly up the main entrance road into the school, Stanley waved off the offended looking headmaster Mr Deakins and scurried up to his class room and his first lesson of the day. He was five minutes late. Deakins was coming down the corridor so the somewhat confused teacher pulled himself together with a sheer force of will and entered the classroom.

One lesson later, and with much buffeted confidence, our unwitting protagonist entered the canteen and snagged a portable lunch before proceeding with all due deliberation and courage to the staff room where the inevitable grilling would occur. If he were lucky he'd be taken away by Dopey Deakins for an interrogation and if he wasn't lucky then his head of department Diane would get to him first. For a moment he considered what his excuse would be for being late and missing tutorials and the dream shuddered into his mind for a moment before he shuffled it off for later reflection. There could be no time for his crazy visions right now. Even if they were getting worse.

The staff room was quiet this early in the lunch period so Stanley dropped onto a couch and munched thoughtfully on his lunch as the sunshine gleamed temptingly through the window. Divertingly beautiful sunshine always seemed to be the worst part of Mondays, reminding him of what he could be doing outside, how that big pile of forms and marking wasn't so important, and that really teaching was an intolerable circumstance for this most wonderful of days.

Deakins came in and Stanley murmured a small sigh of relief. The headmaster was a decent sort, and Stanley had a decent record of being a good and reliable teacher. Then Diane came in too and he settled in for a long lunch.

Many hours later, Stanley walked out of the main street entrance to the school and stared vaguely about him before ducking into his house and meditating for a moment. Then, in the kitchen he opened the fridge and looked at the bareness before grumpily putting a pile of papers in a bag and setting off for the supermarket and maybe a restaurant too. It was the kind of day that would never get back to pattern, that would fight any attempts to make it more regular, so he would embrace it. Eventually ending up in the local library he set to work marking and was making progress when finally closing time came and he trundled home once again.

Only when he was about to go to sleep again did he realise that his waitress had had short blonde hair and been hauntingly familiar, and his dream of the preceding night did come back to mind, and then he fell asleep and began to Dream.

To continue...

Friday, 4 October 2013

Chattering about Holmes

For a long I have wanted to write about Sherlock Holmes and have stumbled over and over again due to the sheer immensity of the task. Sherlock Holmes is an immense character, an immortal work of fiction who appeared in sixty written stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and who then has spent the last one hundred and twenty years being constantly reinvented and translated across to radio shows, feature films, television series, comic books, interactive fiction games, board games and anything else you can possibly imagine. Holmes and his good friend Watson have lived through dozens of pairs of actors, been transplanted to the present day, moved to New York, and in one double-part adventure of Bravestarr shifted hundreds of years into the future. It is an amazingly vast subject, too big to ever even think about. As a result, talking about Sherlock Holmes is impossible in general.

I was introduced to Sherlock Holmes via two big hardback collections of his stories, one comprising the novellas and the other the short stories, that my parents bought for me from a then good service station nearby. This was the same place where we got giant anthologies of Famous Five and Secret Seven stories, and even a mammoth hardback five-novel James Bond collection. At least I think that was my first introduction as the BBC Radio 4 dramatisations may have been in full swing at about that time. On second though I'm reasonably sure that they were later but it's hard to tell with such childhood events. The Radio 4 shows were utterly enchanting, so much so that the sixty-four CD set was one of the first things I ever bought with my doctoral stipend when I was studying for the seemingly unending PhD. The radio shows really blur together with the written stories in my mind in the most idyllic way, where the voices of Clive Merrison and Michael Williams radiate off the pages as they're read. Those two actors, Merrison and Williams, were unique in that they were the only pair to complete the canon in dramatised form. I don't think anyone else has ever came close.

Many, many people will say that Jeremy Brett was the ideal Holmes, or Basil Rathbone. In the heat of the moment, a lot of people would currently espouse Benedict Cumberbatch but we'll have to wait until he and Martin Freeman finish their show and go through the long-time correction before that can really ring true. For me, Merrison and Williams were the ideal casting for the Great Detective and Stalwart Companion, and it is actually down to Michael Williams, who played by far the best version of Doctor John Watson to ever feature on the airwaves. In those Radio 4 plays Watson was a well-rounded, warm and sincere human being who couldn't be called anything even close to stupid. He was the character who wrote the stories, yes, but in those stories it is always implicit that Watson is playing himself down and Holmes up to make the tales more dramatic and exciting. Williams' John Watson was a full protagonist and foil to Holmes, who was more than capably played by Merrison but never to the detriment of his friend. It was a phenomenon. I suspect that Cumberbatch and Freeman will fare well under the fury of time's criticism but they won't approach the number of performances of my favourites and nor should they.

The modern 'Sherlock' is a fascinating beast of a television show, an adaptation and updating of the spirit of the original stories which cherry picks the best from those tales and meshes the results into compelling television movies but we'll be lucky to reach a grand total of fifteen segments before it collapses due to the busy-ness of its leads, its super-dependence on the mighty scribe Steven Moffat, and the danger in proceeding without sufficient remaining source material. No Sherlock Holmes has ever succeeded fully without being in contact with the source material in some way, which leads us into the show I haven't seen: 'Elementary'. I shall see it soon, and hope to be surprised, and if anything I've read is to be believed then the core to 'Elementary' is that Sherlock's back story is very connected to some version of updated canon and that it happened in London before he left for New York. If so, that's very smart to establish canon and also be in America, but we shall see.


PS I hope my PhD ended. It's becoming very hard to say.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The upward trajectory

The bottom of the emotional barrel is not somewhere to stay for long. Tempting though it may be to mope and cower in self-pity most people bounce back to normality or otherwise take the dark path of seeking solace in dangerous addictions and harmful behaviours. Several times in the past I've been at the bottom of the barrel, one barrel being far deeper than the others, and it felt on every occasion as if the world would never take that turn to feeling good again. But, of course, it eventually does.

As mentioned elsewhere, the key to escaping the doldrums is simply to get going and do something. Overly simplistic? Yes, but it works. The doldrums is a state that can only survive in a vacuum, and is vanquished in many simple ways. Why not go the public library and start to get to grips with Swahili or plant morphology? Or learn about Taoism or Jung?

For me, the main obstacle to escaping the doldrums at the moment is of course joblessness. For weeks it seemed hopeless but this week applications have gone out and things don't feel so bad. Of course they're somewhat forced applications but they still exist and count toward the mental well being tally. Another thing counting towards that vague feeling of happiness is Coursera, where I'm currently chugging through three different Stats courses in a bid to recover all my lost and long forgotten Statistical knowledge. It's hard to fit it all in, but time is so far yielding to the task. On top of that there's the Quirky Muffin, keeping me sane despite all the odds, freelance research (aka doing mathematics for myself), and swimming and cycling in the great outside.

We're into October now, and the days are pretty short already. It's really important to compensate for those shortening days by spending time outside and doing a little bit of what people call 'exercise'. Bleuch, exercise for the sake of it is anathema, but it is necessary and I do fortunately like going for random walks and cycles down a path or two. An hour of being outside at midday in the depths of winter is probably the most important thing for mood control that you can possibly do. Those mid-winter barrels can be pretty deep.

So, the weeks wind on, and progress is being made. A paper is being written and arguments are raging about boundary conditions and quality in my mind, but at least things are happening. It's far worse if they're not. And if they weren't then at least I have a book by Jung, shelves full of novels, and Stats courses to keep me going.

Life's quite good, really.