Monday, 24 September 2007

The Edit Process

I'm lucky in that I am the editor of a page which appears more or less exactly as I want it to. That is primarily because I don't give anyone the opportunity to change anything, which means not making mistakes, so that they haven't an excuse.
But of course it doesn't preclude my doing things differently from the way other people would, which must sometimes annoy the subs. (I go and argue about semi-colons.) Nor does it mean that I'm not sometimes saved from horrendous errors by the subs.
Many good writers (and some subs are extremely good writers, or at least recognise and reinforce good writing) have very different ideas about punctuation, or about what sounds natural, or about which grammatical rules are vital (or fluid).
Strangely, though, the opposite is true for anything published with my byline. I get irritated by reconstruction of the sort which I blithely perform all the time on other people's writing, partly because it often goes in the opposite direction from my own instincts.
But as I was thinking about this, I realised that my own instincts have been constantly revised during my working life. I had once a tendency to mark off every subordinate clause with very Germanic punctuation. I now try to eradicate commas.
I do not understand the convention "In 1970, he joined the Navy... " My old self would have argued for the subordination, the shift in focus, as justification for the comma. Now I don't see the point of it. Though I would still defend a redundant comma which helped the eye. And I'm aware of the objections to the previous sentence - and this one, if you're a conjunction maniac. But I don't see why you should be.
Jane Austen's punctuation is plain mad. So is Ivy Compton-Burnett's. No one's objecting to them as writers.
But it's odd that only the things with my name attached are the ones most likely to contain things I would never have written. Such as "a lot for which to answer", instead of "a lot to answer for".
But when I was 20, I might have changed that.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Will Gypsies Defraud Britain's Swans?

I have long held that there is an iron rule of journalism which states that to any headline in the Daily Mail which ends with a question mark, the answer is No.

Will Brian Paddick give the Conservatives Cancer?
Will Asylum Seekers Infect Michael Howard with Aids?
Will the EU give Cliff Richard Cancer?
Will Lesbian Strip Diana of All Dignity?
Will the Unemployed Tax the Conservatives?
Try it yourself on this genius site. Hours of fun.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007


Spent the journey in this morning writing four short reviews (which involved reading more than a dozen books) for a roundup, to arrive and discover a large ad had sold, and they wanted two very short ones. Oh well. I suppose I may be alble to do the next one a bit sooner for that reason. What I hope you'll get soon in the Telegraph is Paul McAuley's Cowboy Angels and Charlie Stross's Atrocity Archive and Jennifer Morgue.

What's been held over from today is the Peter F Hamilton and Hunter's Run; but there are a few other books I'd like to have included, so I can add them to that pair and get another one soon, I hope. It's much harder to write 150 words on something in sf - especially if you've ploughed through 650 pages of PFH, for example, which you can only really write about if you've read the previous two 650pp tomes in the same series, than it is to knock out 850 words on anything else. Still, I suppose I asked for it.

Future Classics: Schild's Ladder arrived this morning. It doesn't really glow in the dark, or not very successfully.

Monday, 17 September 2007


OK, wow. And the same effect seems to have been evident with others who hadn't got round to it earlier. I'm not sure I have much to add to that very intelligent view, except to wonder if it isn't the reverse. Couldn't one read the conclusion as a retreat from understanding the story as purely fantastic at the end? Surely that's simply the subjective view we're getting? As we know from the beginning of the book, Alex can mess around with your perception (a thoroughly sf premiss - I prefer the philosophy spelling).

I also raced through Blood Music, it having been a while. Bloody hell, it's good. But would the ending of that not seem fantastic, or at least transcendent, were the earlier stages not so rigorously scientifically based?

On to the next lot. Thanks Niall.

Friday, 14 September 2007

John Cage

White Lego

There are ghosts in the wiring. There is electricity in the weather.

She crosses the Tappan Zee bridge, cantilevered over the Hudson. On the station at White Plains, there's a brown paper bag, simple, beautiful, almost as if it has been ironed. Her name is written on it in kanji. Inside, there is an iPod and a Sony Vaio. She puts the iPod in the assymetrical pocket of her Commes des Garcons jacket. She puts the Vaio in the nearest bin. There were moments to go with that post-ironic techno-wonk hipster routine, but there are limits, she thought. Microsoft was the limit.

"Vista," she said, making it sound like a swearword in Lithuanian. Hasta la vista.

Manhattan looms, way Ballardian. Now she stands before the door of the Brill building. Why not? It's very cool. Hours of hand-rubbed Brasso have burnished the entrance; you can smell the money, taste the decades of bubblegum pop in the air.

She's bluetoothed in now to Humungous Bigmouth is showing up on the brushed chrome caller ID.

"There'll be a car there any minute," he says. "Can you see a Bugatti on the corner?"

"No," she subvocalises, through the ceramic bone mic hardwired into her Ray Bans, from which she has meticulously filed off the logo.

"It's customised slightly. A client in the former Macedeonia. It looks like a cement mixer."

"I see it," she says, glancing automatically behind her, where the man in the DKNY suit and the Ralph Lauren shirt and the Calvin Klein underpants has stopped to look in the window of the Bauhaus reproduction furniture shop for the third time. Too often, she thinks.

"Underbuilt, by current standards," says the old man, who is suddenly at her elbow, clutching a styrofoam cup of coffee. He pushes the Bulgarian gun into the pocket of her Prada raincoat, which she had had specially vulcanized in Prague so that it looks like a Burberry rip-off picked up at Changi airport.

"The man, or the vehicle?" she asks.

"Both, if necessary."

"What the fuck's going on?" she says. It is as if a dark shadow, like a Black Ops helicopter passing overhead, has moved in on the scene.

"Search me." Standing there on the sidewalk, he gives the impression that he's sitting in a Ray and Charles Eames chair and has his feet on the matching recliner. "There's this odd film on the internet that might explain it. If you speak Russian."

Monday, 10 September 2007

Paul McKenna's I Can Make You Gay

Sorry I haven't posted. I've been very busy. Tirpitz Tait, Pavarotti, the Duke of Buccleuch. You name 'em, they're dead. Remember what Horace said though: quid rides? mutato nomine de te fabula narratur. So there.

What can I tell you about books? I can tell you that Paul "I Can Make You Rich/Thin/Stop Smoking" McKenna is annoying me to all get out in the pages of The Times.

Exclusive extracts from his new book and CD:

I Can Make You Gay

Take a deep breath. Imagine yourself in a comfortable place (perhaps the Coleherne, or Compton's). Fill in answers to the following questions:

I don't want to be gay because...

I wish gay people would....

I'd be gay if only....

Now take a deep breath and relax. Think only positive things about yourself. Don't think about me with my very successful amounts of money and large cars and not being gay at all. Remember a time you liked watching a Take That video, or perhaps the Wizard of Oz. Put on some soothing music. Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive, or something by Puccini. Go to church, preferably St Mary's Bourne Street, but any very High Anglican service will do. Sit back, pour yourself a Campari and soda with a twist of orange and replace the word "gay" with the word "Welsh". Think of Russell T Davies. It's much the same thing. Try not to think of Ron Davies, unless you are Ron Davies. And if you are, look, just get over it, dear.

Think of the possible endings to the first sentence. "I don't like joining in the chorus of all of Judy Garland/Shirley Bassey/Erasure's hits and revelaing that I know all the words"; "I can't afford those stylish trousers"; "I'm ashamed of my mother's net curtains". If your answer was "I don't want to be mistaken for Paul McKenna", you're on the wrong track there, sonny.

Otherwise, replace the word "gay" with the word "Welsh". Is it so very different? There! Step one!

Unless your answer to question two is "Get out of my trousers", proceed to question three.

Imagine you're on a long, unsullied stretch of sand, pure and white and with no other footprints on it, such as the beach I was on last week in St Lucia thanks to gullible fools like you. Lined up next to you are your cars: a Masarati, a Bentley, and a Smart car or G-Wizz to show you care about the environment.
Behind you is your Seth Stein-designed beach house, from which you can hear the strains of Stephen Sondheim's lesser-known television drama soundtracks drifting across to the pure, unsullied waves in front of you. Admire your expensive clothing and thank goodness you don't have to worry about school fees...

Look, you're just so gay, or you wouldn't have read all this drivel. Nice shirt, by the way.

Tomorrow: I Can Make You a Nazi.

Take a deep breath... go back to a time you were very happy. Raise your arm to the point that you were happy. Picture yourself in Milano Centrale. Think of Leni Reifenstahl. What is it you like about large-scale art deco pre-stretched concrete? Think only good things about blond(e) people...

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Future Classics

Nice Gollancz have sent me seven paperbacks (though they list eight in this series) with very snazzy covers. I've got them all already. I've read them all already, except for Paul McAuley's (I beg your pardon - having been declared a future classic, he's now Paul J McAuley) Fairyland. I'm ashamed of that, because Mr McAuley is a very nice man indeed, who has bought me several pints. The least I can do is read his books. His very good new book is called Cowboy Angels. Multidimensional Americas. But I will review it properly. So now I will read Fairyland.

But from the standard of the other titles, Gollancz may be on to something with this rebranding exercise. Evolution features a flock wallpaper ape. The Separation has classy brown paper aeroplanes (if you've got the original Scribner paperback, you'd be horrified at how much it's worth; they only printed about five of them, being bastards and idiots. Mr Priest got the last laugh there). I don't understand the Dan Simmonds cover, but it's one of the most in your face first sentences in sf. Revelation Space is appropriately shiny. And so on.

My doubt is Altered Carbon. Entertaining, yes. Successful, undoubtedly. Classic... well, maybe. Perhaps Ryman and Harrison and Banks and Mieville and Grimwood and Roberts and MacLeod and lots of those other folk don't need pushing as future classics. The list is (in no order):

Hyperion, Dan Simmonds
Evolution, Stephen Baxter
Fairyland, Paul J McAuley
Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds
The Separation, Christopher Priest
Blood Music, Greg Bear
Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan

The missing one - listed inside - is Schild's Ladder by Greg Egan. He has strong views on quotations on book jackets (he's agin the idea), and I wonder if that has caused some difficulty with it. I will ask people who might know.

The search for the Higgs Boson: I join in

I am very excited. I'm going to go and see the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (where Tim Berners-Lee invented the web) later this month, I hope. So if superstring theory is true, I'll be able to tell you all about it. I wonder if they've taken Bruce Sterling's advice and painted a mural down there?

Monday, 3 September 2007

What I read on my holidays

Some of these are shameful admissions, since I should have read them ages ago, but they were (not including sf for review books; coming soon to a Daily Telegraph near you):

The Book of Dave, Will Self.

Rather good, I thought. The orthography is certainly a challenge at first and, which I found annoying, stays that way; though I can't complain about it, since it is meticulously consistent. I kept fearing it would fall over the edge into childishness, the central conceit being so jokey; it never did, I thought. Strange and beautiful and moving - and properly even-handed and interested in the desire of Dave for his son and his general uselessness as a father. The motos are inspired, but I should have liked to have known something about CalBioTech's part in it all. Still, the book wasn't set up that way. You've all read it, I suppose, but I liked it quite a lot.

Soon I shall be Invincible, Austin Grossman

Yes, fine. But not literary enough to make it a good subversion of comics. I started out thinking this is fantastic; halfway through I wondered why it wasn't a comic. Then I realized it would be the same comic as lots of other comics. But such a good idea, and well enough written.

Spook Country, William Gibson

Wonderful. Will write about this again. But I loved Pattern Recognition, and I loved this, though it is not sf, nor even a very good thriller. Plot is not his long suit. But such splendid moments. A real pleasure to read.

Harry Potter and whatever it is this time

No, I'm fed up with this. OK, it wraps up the ends. Nothing happens for most of it, and there are sentences which are an affront to the language. Still, she's a genius who has created characters as enduring, I'll bet, as Holmes and Bond and Poirot and The Famous Five. There are attempts to deal with real issues here; it's a bit by the numbers for me, but then I'm not 8. But my 8 year old was a bit underwhelmed, too.

Polar Star, Red Square, Havana Bay, Martin Cruz Smith

I liked Gorky Park quite a lot. These are not quite as good, in descending order. Polar Star is pretty good, Red Square is OK, Havana Bay is disappointing. He can write, but only in a limited sort of way. Good for planes and beaches. I didn't bother bringing them back home.

The Last King of Scotland, Giles Foden

I haven't seen the film. Now I want to. Terrific book, I thought, because it's so well written. Not sure I cared about the story, but I cared about the sentences. I must read his other books, to see if he can do other voices.

Katherine Mansfield Short Stories

Well, they're fab, aren't they?

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

I'm sorry, I almost forgot this. That will be my shame at not having read it ages ago. He's fantastic at having an idea and telling a story. But he has no ear at all for the way in which people wrote or thought or spoke. None. He habitually makes basic grammatical errors which would be fine in any one person's voice, but would hardly be likely to be shared (like a comet shaped birthmark) across the generations. He can't know anything at all about music (though his nasty musical amanuensis is, despite that, much the best-realised character) or about 1970s Californian private eye conventions (the Rockford Files was so much better). The politics is infantile. Yet here is a clever men who can write well and is a born novelist. Where are the editors to tell him what works and what doesn't? A couple of minor tweaks, three weeks' work, and this would have been terrific. As it is, it's a shocking waste of what could have been excellent.

Potrazi i pronadi s Tomicon

Thomas searches for the Fat Controller. Is he in the engine shed? Ne, on nije odvje! To je Percy! Behind the station hut? Ne! To je Bero! Dolazi li on preko mosta? Ne! To je Hari! Svi Traze Debeljkica. Je li on ispod velikog suncobrana? Well, that's just where you're wrong! You have to look behind the sandcastle hidden behind it! Da! On je tamo!

Obviously a masterpiece, since I read it approximately 2,000 times more than all the others put together.