Archive for November, 2007

I can now officially go to India.

Today’s visa adventure started before dawn. I’d set the alarm on my mobile phone for 7 am, and, in fact, I barely got any sleep. Just after I’d drifted off my phone informed me, ‘It’s time to get up.’ I really should change that. I got dressed in the darkness and left the hostel. For some reason, my watch informed me that it was getting on for 6:30. I hadn’t used my phone for quite some time – and the clock was still on British Summer Time.

I got into the centre of London nice and early, then, and proceeded to break my fast at McDonald’s by Charing Cross Station. I arrived at the High Commission of India on Aldwych for 8:30 – the opening time – and discovered a great queue stretching round the crescent opposite all the theatres and fancy restaurants. I walked along the queue. I continued walking along the queue. After further walking along the queue I reached the end on the other side of the D of buildings made up of India House, Bush House and so on.

I was expecting something like this, having read about it on IndiaMike.com. There were a good few hundred people in the queue and, with all the other people who joined it after me, I reckon the number of visa applicants today was possibly into four figures. The queue went down fairly rapidly, considering – although it still took nearly an hour to reach the front. When we got there we were issued with cards with our ‘Q’ numbers and a time to submit our applications.

My time was 11:30 – 12. When I got back things became less simple. Inside you go up a staircase if you have a yellow ticket or down half a staircase if you have a white one. Mine appeared to be pale green (but then I am slightly colour-blind). Without thinking too much about it I went into the wrong visa hall where the was a crowd of people just inside the door. My Q number was X253 and the number on the display in there was 370 or something. That didn’t seem right.

A short but confused conversation with the chap on the door outside (the confusion was all on my part), revealed that I had to go upstairs. Again there was a crowd just inside the door. More confusion ensued. I ended up half figuring things out, half following a bloke who was in the same boat as me. Turns out you have go past the crowd to the far end and wait in a queue to hand over your application (and £30). That done, I was given a receipt and told my visa would be ready in an hour.

I went out again (took some photos of Trafalgar Square), came back and waited. Eventually, my number came up and my passport was returned to me, complete with visa – valid until 20 May 2008. I smiled.

Later I – again, eventually – met up with my former colleague and lovely French woman, Morgane. We had a drink, chatted. The conversation took a somewhat metaphysical turn, and she propounded a Gaia-like notion that global warming and both over-population and declining birth-rates are the Earth’s way of healing itself. Naturally, I don’t much care for hippyish ideas, but apparently that makes me grumpy and cynical.

Later I found out that England were beaten 3-2 by Croatia. Although I support England and always follow the major tournaments every other year, I didn’t have much sypmathy with the result. Steve McClaren may be a decent manager, but I’ve never seen how he could possibly be the world-class coach the national team needs if it’s going to do well. Who next? Terry Venables seems like the logical choice – his financial scandal is well behind him, he’s well-liked and he didn’t do too badly last time. But I suspect that he doesn’t have the necessary calibre. What about Guus Hiddink? Or maybe Felipe Scolari would be up for it this time.

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Return to London

As I write this, I’m sitting in Caffe Ritazza overlooking the concourse of Manchester Piccadilly railway station. I strangely miscalculated my train journey from Whaley Bridge – expecting an hour and more to get the Megabus coach from Chorlton Street I found myself with two hours and more. The time has been used well, though: my visa application form is very nearly complete – all I have to do is list some places I intend to visit.

While I was calling my dad to ask his place of birth (which I would have had, but my birth certificate wasn’t were I thought it might be when I looked for it in the house in St Helens) I also asked about Bertha, and he confirmed that she had died ‘a couple of months ago’. This clearly isn’t ‘a couple of months’ in the literal sense, as I came back from Korea in August. Still disappointing that my parents hadn’t bothered to tell me.

Bertha was an old cat so her death was only to be expected; I imagined when I left for Korea last year that she wouldn’t be around when I got back. In fact, I also contemplated the idea that the last time I saw her was when she died – for me, at any rate. The difference between being away from her, never to see her again, and her actually dying is just a matter of perspective, of framing.

For this reason it’s difficult to call up any emotion in response. It’s like she died in stages – first there was the possibility that she might die, then the probability that she had died, and now the confirmation. I think it would have been different if she’d been in my keeping at the time. She was such a lovely, affectionate and idiosyncratic creature that I can’t imagine I’ll have a cat like her again. Being without a cat or cats of my own is one of the main drawbacks to my new lifestyle of travel.

Anyway. I had a bit of scare this morning. Two years ago I’d stayed at a hostel in Bayswater at about this time of year that had seemed mostly empty, and I assumed that there wouldn’t be much of a problem going back there now. It’s closed. I tried calling another hostel in the same chain, but they were full. The next one had spaces – and presumably plenty of them as I wasn’t asked to make a reservation.

Other random news: this morning I ordered a digital camera and a pair laptop speakers from Amazon. The former is a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3 and the latter are Logitech V-20s. That deals with two things on my post-Korea to-do list. I’m getting reasonably proficient at juggling – my three-ball cascade is OK and I’m now working on a couple of two-ball juggles. I can do two balls in one hand for maybe 10 or 12 catches – when I’ve got that down in both hands I should be able to get the hang of four-ball juggling (which consists of juggling two balls in each hand simultaneously).

I’m reading two books at the moment – something I rarely do, but these are very different: one is The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and the other is the Lonely Planet guide for India.

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Hunter’s Run is a story of aliens and alienation, a character piece that charts how its protagonist, Ramon Espejo, evolves from a belligerent loner into … a somewhat less belligerent loner. Forced to go on the run on his little-explored colony planet, Ramon finds himself the tool of a hitherto unknown alien race who compel him to help track down another human.

Except it isn’t nearly as simple as that. Ramon has an idea who the other man might be, but the truth is a shock. Also, spending days leashed to the alien Maneck (via this bio-electronic thing that plugs into his neck) he learns how completely strange these aliens are, and yet comes to feel some sympathy for them.

This first part of the story is the most interesting – although I felt a little frustrated at the almost contrived alienness of Ramon’s captors – they don’t sleep, for instance, and don’t understand why Ramon needs to). The concluding part, where Ramon returns to civilisation, wasn’t par of the novella this story is based on, and it feels a little surplus to requirements – but it isn’t bad by any means.

The novel is well-written and completely effective as a portrayal of an alien world inhabited by a frontier human society and as a drama with its three main protagonists and the bonds and differences between them.

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To put my review into context I should say that Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books have never been my favourites among his work. The Gap series was fantastic, Mordant’s Need – although it’s a long time since I read it – was very good, and his first three detective novels were highly readable. After finishing the Gap books, Donaldson wrote another detective novel, which wasn’t as good as the others, and eventually turned his mind to The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

When I first read it, I also wasn’t too impressed with The Runes of the Earth. There was too much sitting around talking and too much travelling. Stylistically, it bears, perhaps, more resemblance to the Gap series than the earlier Thomas Covenant books – but it retains some of the verbosity and has only one viewpoint character, as opposed to the range of protagonists in the Gap series. However, I read Runes again just before I started on the new book, and found a lot more enjoyment in it.

With this preparation under my belt I started immediately on Fatal Revenant, and found it even more entertaining.

As with the previous book, there’s still a lot of travel and talk, but here everything moves along with more purpose. Linden sets out with Covenent and her son, Jeremiah on a quest, apparently, to save the world – but something is manifestly wrong. Linden’s journey once again takes her into the past and she learns more about the world’s history. The first part of the book consists of Linden tagging along with others, and then climaxes with a violent encounter between her and some of her many enemies – and this scene is probably the highlight of the series so far.

In the second part of the book, Linden engages in more travel, as she has resolved upon a course of action and this section ends with a cliffhanger reminiscent of the first book – and which left me wanting to read on – although I’m going to have to wait another three years for book three. In some sense, book one was a prologue to the rest of the series, and book two has a similar feel to it – although more happens and more is explained, more threads are also added to the story’s tapestry.

As I said, the narrative has a lot more force than its predecessor, but it’s not without flaws. Linden is as angsty as ever, which can grate, but it’s par for the course for any Donaldson character. There’s also the issue of all the seemingly all-powerful, all-knowing characters who continually tell Linden what to do, but don’t explain why or answer her questions. For instance, if any of them had been less cryptic with her, her encounter with her opponents at the end of part one would have been averted. The logic behind this seems to be that she needed this showdown and the events around it to make her strong enough to eventually save the world.

Some of these all-powerful, all-knowing characters, the Insequent, are a new addition to the world of the Land, and given that the stories of the Second and Last Chronicles were created at the same time it doesn’t quite feel right that we’re only learning about them now. Donaldson’s trademark vocabulary is also very much in evidence and any mere mortal who attempts to read this book should keep a large dictionary to hand.

The verbosity and the angst-ridden protagonists keep me from recommending the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant unreservedly, but I thought Fatal Revenant was excellent.

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Or Facebook, as it’s also known.

I have, at last, succumbed to the Facebook craze – even though I think it’s little more than blogging for the illiterate. It’s something to do, I suppose, and it is a way of keeping in touch with people who aren’t motivated wnough to write e-mails – which is all of us, most of the time. Needless to say, I had to buck the system and decline to use my given name – I’m Cpt Maybe (because ‘Captain’ wasn’t acceptable).

Actually, I was registered with Facebook previously – on an experimental basis. I used the name of a character I’d played in Pete’s roleplaying game in London, Braegor Halth. I deleted the account shortly after a Scandinavian called Halth added me as a friend. This time around, I’ve installed some applications to give the experience a bit more meaning: Mirror Blog (which ignores paragraphs), Visual Bookshelf (which doesn’t want to display UK book covers), Cities I’ve Visited (which doesn’t register Ansan, where I lived in south Korea) and Warbook (which is a simpler version of games like Kings of Chaos (which I used to play) and Aegis (which I still play)).

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I started reading Lord Valentine’s Castle on the plane back from Canada. The protagonist, Valentine, joins a troop of jugglers at the start of the novel. He learns to juggle in an afternoon, and juggling remains a theme throughout the book. When I got back to Britain, I found that my sister’s friend (who’d been staying here) had got herself a set of Halloween juggling balls – not being able juggle and not showing any inclination to learn. She’s gone now, but she left the balls behind – and I’ve co-opted them.

I’d never tried juggling before and had a look for some how-to information on the internet. It’s fairly straightforward:

Hold two balls in your right hand and one in your left (or the other way round if you’re left-handed);

Toss the front ball in your right hand to the left hand;

When it reaches the top of its arc – about eye-level – toss the ball in your left hand to the right;

Catch the first ball;

The second ball should now be at the top of its arc – toss the third ball;

Catch the second ball;

Toss the first;

Catch the third;

Toss the second;

Et cetera.

As it points out in Lord Valentine’s Castle, all the actions are consecutive – you shouldn’t be throwing and catching simultaneously.

Obviously, Valentine only learns to juggle in an afternoon because he’s a fictional character. I’ve been at it for about five days now and can only juggle imperfectly. I have the basic method down, but I can string together maybe 10 to 15 throws and catches before the balls go all over the place. The difficulty is throwing consistently; it’s easy to get into a kind of feedback loop where a slightly off throw puts your hands out of position and causes a worse throw.

Still, I’m improving noticeably every time I practice.

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This is the first of the Majipoor books and it’s a volume very much concerned with world-building. Majipoor is a large planet colonised thousands of years ago by humans, and its population of 20 billion includes a range of alien races and the native Shapeshifters. While Lord Valentine’s Castle is technically science fiction, Majipoor has very little metal and various forms of what is essentially magic, so it feels much more like fantasy.

The main character, Valentine, finds himself overlooking a great city with very little idea as to who he is. The story is a fairly straightforward quest – Valentine has to first find out who he really is and then regain his former position. All the way through the first three quarters or so of the book I was assuming that this quest wouldn’t be as simple it appeared – either there would be some hidden fact of Valentine’s identity, or he was being misled in some way. As it got towards the end of the book, however, I began to discard this idea. There was a twist in the tale at it culmination, but it wasn’t what, or as dramatic as I had been expecting.

For all the epic scope of the world of Majipoor and Valentine’s journey across it, there was little in the way of drama in the novel. Pretty much all of Valentine’s companions are or become straightforward allies; many of the crises he faces are easily dealt with or not nearly as ruinous as they promise; and in the end, Valentine’s quest pans out much as he envisions it.

But drama isn’t really the main attraction of this book. Instead, what stands out is the detail and thought that has gone into creating the massive stage that that drama plays out on. From sea dragons, to mile-high cliffs, to carnivorous plants, to immense sprawling cities, to the labyrinthine den of the Pontifex, to the myriad-roomed 30 mile-high palace of the Coronal, to … various other things. More than any other story I’ve read, this gives Lord Valentine’s Castle a very similar feel to H P Lovecraft’s ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ – one of my very favourite fantasy stories.

Given that much of the plot of Lord Valentine’s Castle revolves around dreaming – the similarities between these two works is probably not a coincidence. However, while H P Lovecraft fits his quest story into 100-150 pages, Robert Silverberg’s takes 500 plus, and is correspondingly that much more tedious. The dream sequences don’t help much in that respect, either.

It’s definitely a readable story and has much to recommend it, but was a little too light on plot and character interaction for my taste. As I always say at this point, I wouldn’t mind reading the next volume, but I’m not desperate to seek it out.

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Looking at Looking For Group

While I was over in Canada, Pete told me about a webcomic called Looking For Group. I read the first strip at his place and wasn’t incredibly impressed by it. However, in the last few days, I’ve gone back to it and read all of the existing pages – up to page 92 – and really enjoyed it. The star of the show is an undead sorcerer called Richard. He likes to kill things – children, kittens etc. There’s an animation on the website where Richard sings a song called ‘Slaughter Your World’.

Looking For Group isn’t as good as The Order of the Stick, but it’s not far from it.

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