Saturday, June 27, 2009

Recent Reading: The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows

edited by Jonathan Strahan

Original anthologies of SF short stories seem to be a bit of a rarity these days, perhaps due, I gather, to some catastrophic misjudgments by publishers a couple of decades back. However, my taste for moderately literary SF was initially nurtured by some good anthologies (Out of This World, if you want the series title that comes to my mind), so I'm quite prepared to encourage such things.

And, okay, I discovered that this one had original stories by both Greg Egan and Neil Gaiman in it. Anyone who wants to know about my tastes should be able to deduce enough from the effect that those two names can have on me.

I got the impression from somewhere that this collection is aimed at the slightly younger end of the market, and while that doesn't seem to be stated anywhere in the book, it's believable. The stories are light on sex or gratuitous darkness, and many of them have youthful protagonists. The dearth of gratuitous splatter could also be explained by the simple fact that this is an SF collection, and Strahan seems to have been largely successful in keeping his contributors to that brief, which makes a pleasant change from some "original stories" anthologies. Not that everything is saccharine, mind; Garth Nix's "Infestation" is comparable to, say, an episode of Buffy for its gruesomeness, while throwing in some stuff about religion that's left for the intelligent-teenage reader to work out from broad hints. Mostly, though, this is a collection that explicitly takes '50s magazine SF as its model, and proves that one can do intelligent modern stuff within that framework.

Although it must be said that writers who cleave too closely to the model can come a cropper. I've never been a big Stephen Baxter fan, and his "Repair Kit" here shows how his emulation of the classics is one of his worst habits, all hard SF puzzle story clunkiness with too little of the formal ingenuity and none of the ironic flair of his stated model, Robert Sheckley. Nor does the Greg Egan story, "Lost Continent", quite come off, despite not being very much of a '50s pastiche; Egan spots a very interesting SF metaphor in the painful realities of the modern world, and supplies some admirable compassion to the story which uses it, but the metaphor never becomes quite concrete enough, never strengthens the story by virtue of distancing estrangement, while at the same time, its presence weakens the story as a depiction of real-world injustice. And the modernity is sometimes incomplete; Walter Jon Williams's "Pinocchio" has some interesting ideas and good characterisation, but doesn't work through the implications of the transhumanist technology of its setting; bodies can be swapped for less than the price of a bicycle, death is temporary, international travel is cheap - but mostly, the world looks and feels like a cheerful version of early 21st century California

The Gaiman story, "Orange", is fun, if slight, by the way, as Gaiman tends to be when writing quick pieces to fulfill a promise to a friend in the business. An account of an incursion of strangeness into reality, told entirely in the form of answers to questions which the reader has to infer (although that's not hard), it achieves its goals, if not a lot more; by the end, it's at least quite sweet. The other stories are generally pretty good; Margo Lanagan's "An Honest Day's Work" is odd and disturbing (in a good way), for example, while Cory Doctorow's "Anda's Game" continues Doctorow's interesting and worthy, if quixotic, moral reinvention of the SF canon.

So, yes, this book is definitely to be encouraged. It's probably way out of its time, but maybe it'll help keep the SF short story flame alive for another generation.

Expand, Contract (8)

I've negotiated a small delay in the delivery dates for my GURPS Dungeon Fantasy manuscripts. Things are a bit hectic round here just now. Hopefully, this won't have much effect on the publication date.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Expand, Contract (7)

The signed contracts for GURPS Alchemical Baroque went in the post yesterday. Yes, this is my chapter from GURPS All-Star Jam 2004, updated for GURPS 4th edition and very slightly expanded for e23 publication. Hopefully, it'll move along fairly quickly now, especially as the first draft is already done.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Diary of a Holiday, 2009 (3)

June 16th: Sunday in the Park With Angela

First off – well, after breakfast – we established that the local companies running tourist boat trips from the river up to the Canal du Midi don't run them before midday on a Sunday morning this time of year. (The leaflets and flyers take some decoding.) Oh well, Plan A-2 – a quick visit to Les Jacobins, the Dominicans' first-ever permanent convent. (More cunning placement of orthodox theologians to keep an eye on all these Cathars.) This is one heck of a pillared hall, pretty empty these days except for, well, just the tomb of St. Thomas Aquinas. One feels that one should pay one's respects to the Angelic Doctor. Muttering that one is surprised that they could fit him into that little box probably counts as too much of a scholastic in-joke; wondering what the Dominicans were doing playing host to someone as unorthodox as this ... is merely forgetting that one century's dangerous free thought is the next century's saintly orthodoxy.

Then, Plan B. This involves a brief wander down through the southern side of the town centre, down where the Renaissance mansions begin to mingle with Victorian and even twentieth century construction and planning, and then into the Jardin des Plantes, which here means the main public park – and a fine park it is too. But we're there for a reason, which is Toulouse's Natural History Museum, recently reopened after a ten-year refit.

And gosh, they've take the opportunity to make it handsome. This may be the most stylish museum I've been in for a long time, all subdued lighting and glass panels in the floor and thematic organisation. Even working of necessity with a rather Victorian collection of exhibits from before the refit – lots of faintly embarrassing stuffed animals and mounted butterflies – they've taken the opportunity to use them to illustrate modern themes like scientific categorisation and “deep time”. Not speaking the language of the labels (which are in any case only illuminated by that subdued lighting), I have to skim rather, but I know lots of nifty fossils and stuff when I see them. Even if the baryonyx and T. rex skeletons were actually casts of things held elsewhere. The place also has a spiral-layout garden full of plants categorised by the uses humans put them to – with most of the herbs and spices categorised as medical plants, which seemed kind of old-fashioned-French – and we grabbed a decent light lunch in the attached cafe.

Then we moved on, north and then east to see the local stretch of the Canal du Midi from its banks before turning back to finally see Toulouse's cathedral (traditionally overshadowed by the basilica previously mentioned, including on our list of priorities) It has to be said that this is a curious mess, what with one whole section being off-centre from the rest – the consequence of a medieval budgetary screw-up, apparently.

And then, after crashing out back at the hotel to let the heat of the day subside, we had to find some dinner, despite some restaurants being shut for Sunday evening. After some faffing about, we settled on a little backstreet place serving platters of stuff. But this is France, so such a pocket-sized place can draw its stock from the excellent local markets and patisseries, even if they have no real kitchens of their own; those platters can include half-a-dozen varieties of really nice cheese, and desert can mean a rich chocolate cake/tart served with a smooth crème anglaise. Yes, thanks – the choice worked fine.

June 15th: To Viollet le Duc's Medieval Theme Park

Our train was scheduled for 12:20, so after we checked out of the hotel, we left our bags there and set out for a last look around Toulouse. Then Angela stumbled stepping off a curb, and twisted her ankle. So we made a slow way back to the hotel, and called a taxi to get us to the station. The taxi driver asked where we were going, and warned us – through the language barrier – that there were problems with trains to Carcassonne. He was right; our 12:20 train had turned, curiously, into a 12:15 coach, which took us on a tour of the shabby districts in which French small-town railway stations always seem to be built. It was turning into one of those days.

Fortunately, it wasn't as hot as some recent days, so when transport from Carcassonne station to the old city area proved sparse, we were actually able to walk it – slowly – without completely losing the plot. We checked into the Du Pont Vieux, which turns out to be the most, umm old-world-picturesque hotel yet this holiday, albeit with the biggest room with the best view (of the Carcassonne city walls, yes), and then went off to see the old city and catch a late lunch.

On entering the old city, we were both reminded of Mont St. Michel; a twisty maze of medieval cobbled streets, lined with tourist trap shops and full of tourists. Still, it is dead picturesque. An omelette and a beer later, I was feeling a bit more human, and we took some time to look around the streets. Like I said, picturesque, and to be fair the tourists are being trapped with quite a lot of decent-looking restaurants (one of them offering four different varieties of cassoulet – look, it's a nice bean stew, and I get the thing about local culinary rivalries, but this is a bit silly – bean stew with fat meat is still bean stew), and if you wander up onto the inner ramparts or out to the outer, the views out over the town and the fields beyond to the distant hills are superb. Inauthentic as it may be, the place lives up to its rep.

Angela's ankle was slowly getting better, but we didn't want to wander too far from the hotel for dinner, which meant that we ended up eating Italian. (With a bottle of decent French rose.) Oh well, never turn down good tiramisu.

June 16th: Views of the Area

First thing, we headed back up to the old city, with intent to see some of the obvious things that we'd not managed yesterday afternoon. The castle didn't open until ten, so we strolled down to this place's basilica (which used to be the cathedral until that status got shifted to a church in the Bastide St-Louis, across the river, just a few years before the renovation of the old city began – the place must've been a real mess by then, people were making archaeological discoveries in the cellar). Once again, it turned out that architecture had emerged from budgetary screw-ups in centuries past, to interesting effect this time; when the French crown grabbed the city off its maybe-heretical counts, they ordered that the romanesque church be replaced by something gothic, then ran out of money before the demolition was complete. So one wanders down a restrained Romanesque nave, and the whole thing suddenly explodes around you into a Gothic transept, complete with some gorgeous period (or in bits, Victorian-recreated) stained glass.

Anyway, the castle. This proved well worth the price of admission, not so much for the castle itself – which is fine, but I've seen plenty of medieval castles back in Britain – as for the views from the walls and towers. In one direction, there's the lushly restored/recreated/imagined old city, and in the other there's the scruffier and dustier surrounding buildings and beyond them the Bastide and the green valley of the River Aude. Standard southern French domestic architecture – rendered walls and pantiled roofs – doesn't look so good close up when it's a bit neglected, but from above, panoramically, it can be gorgeous.

Lunch, in one of the old city's many restaurant gardens, was more salad and stuff, and then we took a stroll – being careful of Angela's still-recovering ankle – into the Bastide. This turned out to be rather unremarkable, but we found our way up to the Canal du Midi, which runs through the town, and in general it's-a-holiday mood, booked ourselves a boat trip.

Our timing for this turned out to be immaculate, as shortly after it started, so did the rain. But the boat had a canopy, so we sat back, watched the banks go past (initially meaning dull industrial buildings, but soon turning very green), and listened to the trilingual commentary. The Canal du Midi really is one of the unknown wonders of France; 240 kilometres of 17th century engineering, linking the Mediterranean to Toulouse. Okay, I was especially impressed by the deep cut through solid rock that we passed through shortly after we started, and I subsequently discovered that this was 19th century engineering, dating back to a slight re-routing that moved the canal up to the town, but still. It sounds like the hydraulic engineering which brings water from the local mountains to keep the canal topped up is the really clever part.

Oh, and dinner. We really felt obliged to sample one more cassoulet before we fled the south, but we also wanted to treat ourselves. So we tried Au Comte Roger, back up in the old city. This was described as combining local standards with gastronomic refinements, which at least in the case of what we ordered, turned out to mean wrapping delicate starters and fairly restrained desserts around seriously generous quantities of (excellent) cassoulet as the main body of the meal. I carefully left some of that – well, some beans and maybe a bit of pork – in order to be sure of having room for dessert, but I could probably have managed more.

(And interestingly, even this sophisticated French restaurant seemed to think that a “cappucino” should have whipped cream on the top, a peculiar idea presumably resulting from the need to distinguish cappucinos from what many French places serve when one orders a cafe au lait. Me, I thought that a proper French cafe au lait involved a big cup and a lot of not-much-frothed milk. Hey ho, I'm turning cranky in my old age.)

June 17th: Retracing Tracks (1)

And so we start for home.

We had an alarm set for 6:30am, and arrived at the Hotel du Vieux Marais in Paris about twelve hours later. (Not bad, but fairly basic facilities for the price, and this is evidently the hotel refitting season over here and they haven't quite finished refurbishing our room yet. Note; the picture on that 'Web page doesn't show the hotel.) After checking in and resting a while, we decided that crepes would suit us again, and after a bit of wandering, we ended up in a place near the Beaubourg. Which basically wrapped up the day.

June 18th: Retracing Tracks (2)

Morning in the northwest side of the Marais... Hey, Le Pain Quotidien is just round the corner from the hotel. So that's breakfast sorted. (I like baguette+croissant+coffee+orange juice as much as the next man, but it's nice to find a place here that offers some alternatives. And which does killer walnut bread and proper cafe au lait.)

The train isn't until after 3, though, so once we're packed and checked out, we consider our options. It's a while since we've been up the Eiffel Tower, so we set out in that direction on the off chance. When we arrive, though – well, the queues for lift tickets are what you might really expect on a dry morning in June, and the signs are flashing warnings about possible overcrowding on the upper level. So we turn aside and take a stroll up the Seine instead.

Incidentally, the base of the Tower is a major focus for Paris's current professional panhandler infestation. (There's someone somewhere in the city conducting master classes in asking “Do you speak English?” in a wheedling tone.) For that matter, just as we were getting to the Tower, we were subjected to a real live excuse-me-did-you-drop-this-implausibly-large-gold-ring-which-I-amazingly-just-picked-up. And there were all the ambulatory hawkers flogging dubious souvenirs of the tower, although at one point something – I'm not sure what – made all of them break and sprint in the same direction.

Anyhow, the walk back took us past the left bank end of the Pont Alexandre III, reminding me that Paris has a few monumental vistas that only get footnotes in the tourist guides because there's not much to visit there. (Though the Air France signs on one of the key buildings in this view might spoil the tone, unless you assume that a national carrier is essential to la gloire. Then it was over the Pont des Artes and time for a quick lunch, and hey, we haven't been to L'As Du Falafel yet this trip.

Mmm. Falafel.

Which does give us easy time to pick up our luggage from the hotel and use the last of our carnet of Metro tickets to get to the Gare du Nord.

Breakfast and lunch in Paris, dinner in Hertfordshire, not much stress. I could get used to this stuff.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Diary of a Holiday, 2009 (2)

June 13: Heresy, but Strikes Cancel Decadence

Albi is a small-ish French town with a centre made up largely of recycled brick-built Renaissance town houses on a medieval street plan. It also has some stunning views across its river, often involving its cathedral, which is also brick-built.

Whereas most great churches have to be read as works of faith or of art, this one sits there as a naked assertion of power. It looms like a fortress, unembellished on the outside apart from some gargoyles and a completely irrelevant stuck-on Gothic carved stone canopy on one side (and it lacks any Romanesque grace); as Angela commented, it could have been built in the 1930s in a fit of Art Deco sparseness. But it goes back further than that. Funded by the proceeds of the Inquisition, plonked down to assert Catholic authority amidst this notorious hotbed of heresy, it's a serious piece of building.

Until you go inside, anyway.

The stone rood screen, a mass of Gothic carving, at least fits the medieval theme. Likewise, the painting of the Last Judgement, lurking below the great cathedral organ, is a typical exercise in cheerful period religious sadism, and doubtless served to tell any lingering Cathars what was coming to them. But the trompe l'oeil painted decorations over most or all of the interior walls are just silly. Apparently, they were financed by the local woad merchants who made the town rich at one time and who also built most of those Renaissance mansions, which at least might explain the amount of blue involved.

Anyway – while the more offbeat wood-and-brick mansions, and the views across the river from either side, and the formal garden of the old bishop's palace, are all worth seeing, there are basically two plausible reasons to take an hour-long train ride from Toulouse to Albi. The cathedral is one; the world's most comprehensive collection of the works of local boy wonder Toulouse Lautrec would be the other. Well, before setting out on that journey, we'd been wandering round Toulouse, killing time before our train, when we witnessed what the French call a manifestation – a good old (if peaceable) political demonstration, complete with a small contingent of bored-looking cops observing with perspex shields at their feet, and unconvincing punk band playing from the back of a pickup van. We left them to it and caught our train. Then, when we arrived at the Toulouse Lautrec museum, we were reminded that such things have implications. It was shut because the public servants who staff it were on strike.


It was a hot day. We went off and drank some more liquid. Fortunately, the cathedral was our actual identified reason for going, and the town in general was sufficient bonus.

Evening, back in Toulouse: I'd had a minor yen for some moules, so on the basis of having seen it and one bit of online research suggesting it was good, we hit a local seafood restaurant. It was indeed good, and the moules were amazingly generous (as were the profiteroles). Some stuff does work out.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Diary of a Holiday, 2009 (1)

June 9th: To Paris

Departed St. Pancras at 12:29 – our first journey from the new Eurostar terminal, and very slick it is too. I was even more impressed by the sight of the Dartford Crossing about fifteen minutes after departure; those trains can move. So we reached Paris a couple of hours (and a bit) later, grabbed a coffee at the Gare du Nord, and then made our way to the Hotel Jeanne D'Arc. This turns out to be a bit scruffy round the edges – there seems to be some refurbishment work going on at the moment – but it's certainly come up in the world since we first stayed here, twenty-five years ago. Symptom of its location in the Marais, I guess.

Anyhow, we checked in, and then took a walk, down and over the river, along past Notre Dame and back to the right bank, and then as far as the Louvre before we turned round and headed back to the Marais. Dinner was at Pitchi Poi – yeah, eating East European (herring salad, duck casserole, a weirdly nice poppy seed cake called “Nuit Profonde” that was as dark as its name implies) on one's first night in Paris, but we've been there before and we happen to like it.

June 10th: In Paris

One advantage of staying in a backstreet hotel (and in a room which looks onto a light well) is that it's quiet, especially for central Paris. So we slept well, thanks, and headed out for breakfast at a branch of Le Pain Quotidien – some streets away, but this is another taste we've developed in this city. (Though you can now get their hazelnut spread in London – well, from their branch in exile in St. Pancras.) Then we decide what to do with the day.

Contemplating the map, we realise that we've never previously got around to seeing the Jardin des Plantes, so we head east along the Left Bank, skirt a Victorian (?) statue of Lamarck with a plinth proclaiming him the discoverer of the principles of evolution (yes, well), and discover a rather nice botanical garden. Definitely a working site (associated with a museum/research institute), not generally overly pretty or cleverly laid out, but well labelled and with a nice rose garden and an even nicer alpine garden. Emerging from there, we see the central mosque of Paris – which turns out to have a restaurant attached, so lunch involves tagines and mint teas. (Look, we did eat French at breakfast.) Emerging from that, we discover that the morning's occasional showers have developed into a full-blown inundation – so we find a metro station and head back to the heart of the city.

After we've spent a little time browsing in the shops that now lurk under the Louvre, we find that the rain has now let up enough to permit a stroll round the Left Bank. That leads to a beer in a brasserie on St. Michel, and by now we've walked enough that heading back to the hotel to put our feet up seems like a good idea.

The rain does then let up a bit, but we don't trust it and we seem strangely to be feeling quite well fed, so we go looking for a creperie for dinner. The first we find is Page 35, which turns out to count as a good choice. Hmm... I still haven't had any French wine, though. (I assume that, when ordering from a Breton menu, cidre is indicated. Well, tomorrow should be different.

June 11th: To The Pink City

First thought for the day; Does anyone in this country, when in need of an English translation, for a menu or a hotel brochure or whatever, actually think to employ anyone who actually speaks English?

The first part of the train journey took us through a few hundred miles of pleasant enough French countryside, but with few sights to grab the attention apart from one big bridge as we approached Bordeaux. The second part, up the valley of the Garonne, promptly plunged us into a landscape of vines. I think that I'd better get around to that French wine tonight.

We reach Toulouse at 5 pm, and find the Ours Blanc Victor Hugo with only a small struggle with the non-rectilinear local street plan along the way. This is another fairly basic hotel, but comfortable enough – and as we've shifted a few hundred miles south, “fairly basic” now encompasses air conditioning. (This one also runs to free WiFi, in theory. Practice may be another matter; taking my netbook down to the lobby eventually seems to help.) Anyway, we drop some stuff off and head out to look around the town.

Second thought for the day, from Angela: The trouble with these medieval streets is that people have nowhere to put their wheelie bins, really.

But in truth, the place is very picturesque; in a medieval-plan, student-infested sort of way. The “pink city” tag evidently refers to the local fondness for brick as a building material, incidentally. We get to see the basilica and the river, and then decide to take our guide book's word about Chez Fazoul for dinner.

Oh yes – we're in France. So a little backstreet restaurant in a student town naturally does a really unctuous cassoulet and a delicious pear tart.

June 12th: In Toulouse

Morning: Breakfast at a table outside a cafe on the fine town square, then a stroll that takes us round the Basilica of Saint-Sernin. I've seen big churches, and I've seen Romanesque, but a church this size that's managed to retain its Romanesque purity, without Gothic impositions, really is something fairly new. It feels like a real piece of the early Middle Ages.

And there's a covered food market opposite the hotel. French provincial towns do love their covered food markets. I can see why.

A Bit Later: The interior of the basilica turns out to be as elegant as the exterior, with the odd bit of very old art for interest. We weren't planning to pay to see the collection of medieval reliquaries anyway – we're not great fans of medieval carving and such – but I'd swear that seeing the entrance to the exhibition area stirred the ghosts of of my Protestant ancestors to utter disdain.

On the other hand, we did pay to go into the Musee Saint-Raymond, nearby, which turned out to be better than the guidebook suggested, having not just a good exhibition about pre-Roman Toulouse on the top floor, but a pretty magnificent set of Roman sculptures from a local site on the floor below. I'm surprised this isn't publicised more. Anyway, we then took a walk down to and over the river, and found our way to Les Abattoirs.

Which isn't as bad as it sounds, because the town's old abattoirs have been cleaned up and spruced up to high-vaulted, red-brick magnificence, and converted into a gallery for exhibitions of modern art. I'm not really qualified to comment on what we saw there; some of it affected me, some didn't, but I can't analyse the subject with any credibility (especially as the labels and any explanatory notes were all in French). I will say that, at the time of our visit, they had some very appealing aboriginal art, and some installations that were at the least striking or fun to wander round; also, some installation artists lean rather hard on the use of “disturbing” ambient sounds, which seems to my ignorant judgement like it's turning into a cheap cliché.

Oh, and the gallery has a really nice cafe/restaurant attached. When we were done there, we crossed the town, pausing to take a few pictures, and ended up feeling warm enough that the idea of taking an hour or two in the Musee des Augustins seemed quite appealing. Actually, it was a very good idea; this museum is a converted monastery, and the layout involves some cool cloisters and a peaceful central courtyard with a garden in it.

Oh, the museum exhibits? Well, there were some medieval carvings... And some mostly second-string but not actually bad 19th century paintings. And a number of Victorian academic sculptures, mostly on mythological themes (i.e. a lot of marble bottoms).

Dinner: Saveurs Bio, which despite what our guidebook says, turns out to be organic but not vegetarian. At least, there was poulet mentioned on the menu, and my main course turned out to include fish. Nice food, leisurely service no doubt related to local custom of one waiter per restaurant.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Expand, Contract (6)

My latest piece of work is now out: Transhuman Space: Personnel Files 2 - The Meme Team. I think that it works.

Oh, and I've had some line editor comments on Dungeon Fantasy: Clerics. That's going to take a little while to move forward to the next stage, though.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Of The Era

The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
- Plato, a couple of thousand years early.