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Archive for May, 2008

Incidentally, am I alone in finding the expression ‘it turns out’ to be incredibly useful? It allows you to make swift, succinct, and authoritative connections between otherwise randomly unconnected statments without the trouble of explaining what your source or authority actually is. It’s great. It’s hugely better than its predecessors ‘I read somewhere that …’ or the craven ‘they say that …’ because it suggests not only that whatever flimsy bit of urban mythology you are passing on is actually based on brand new, ground breaking research, but that it is research in which you yourself were intimately involved. But again, with no actual authority anywhere in sight. Anyway, where was I?

The Salmon of Doubt

It turns out that The Salmon of Doubt – the unfinished novel Douglas Adams was working on (up to a point, anyway) when he died on 11th May 2001 – is the lesser part of this volume. The first eleven chapters of this Dirk Gently story were collated from various drafts located on Adams’s various computers, by his editor, Peter Guzzardi. It further turns out, when you read the rest of the collected material here, that Adams had given up on the story as a third book in the Dirk Gently duology, and had realised that it would work much better as a sixth volume in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy.

It’s been a long time since I read the Dirk Gently books – less long since I read the Hitchhiker’s books – but these eleven chapters made me very happy and very sad. Happy because they were a pleasure to read – funny, intriguing and well-crafted. Sad because they will never be finished – there will never be another Dirk Gently, Hitchhiker’s or any other kind of Douglas Adams book.

After an initial chapter set in DaveLand, featuring the enigmatic Dave in a kind of post-apocalyptic far-future paradise, the story returns to the present and Dirk Gently discovers, almost by accident, he has been hired for a job. He doesn’t know anything about the who, how, why, when, where or what, but he does know one thing: detective mainly consists of following people. So he chooses someone and follows them. He’s a bit rusty at it, though, and he ends up overtaking them on the pavement, decides to turn around, bumps right into them and hops on a nearby bus in a panic.

He sat on the bus for a few seconds, completely stunned at his own ineptness. … Normally, if you were tailing someone, it was a problem if they unexpectedly jumped onto a bus, but it was almost more of a problem if you unexpectedly jumped on one yourself.

The Salmon of Doubt (the unfinished novel) takes up about 80 of the 300 pages of The Salmon of Doubt (the volume of miscellaneous writing). The rest of the book consists of articles, newspaper columns, interviews, a couple of short stories, and so on. These are divided – completely arbitrarily, as far as I could see – into three sections: ‘Life’, ‘The Universe’ and ‘Everything’. The whole is bracketed by, at the beginning, a prologue by Adams’s editor, Ed Victor, and an introduction by Stephen Fry; and at the end by an epilogue by Richard Dawkins.

A friend of mine at school once had some studio tickets to see David Frost’s show being recorded, but we ended up not going, I watched the show that night, and the Beatles were on it playing ‘Hey Jude.’ I was ill for about a year.

The subjects of the various pieces of writing range from Adams’s life to technology to why humans felt the need to invent God to the millennium to travel to miscellaneous musings to the earliest known published writing by Adams – a letter to The Eagle. One of the best – and longest – is a piece originally conceived as a comparative test drive of a submersible jet-ski thing and a manta ray. Only it doesn’t wuite work out like that – naturally. The two short stories are entertaining reads, but both conclude with rather weaker punchlines. The most interesting piece is a speech he gave to the scientists at Digital Biota 2, entitled ‘Is There an Artificial God?’

My complaints about the collection itself would be that the contents list isn’t good enough – it only lists the main sections of the book, not the individual pieces – and it’s too short: I wanted more.

People will then often say, ‘But surely it’s better to remain an Agnostic just in case?’ This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I’ve been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-finger-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I think I would choose not to worship him anyway.)

The impression of Douglas Adams this book gives is that of a passionate, intelligent, slightly annoyingly middle class man who, for all his lampooning of the absurdities of life, would probably find the world a much duller place without them. It would be a bit mawkish to say that the world is a duller place without Adams – we still have all his work to enjoy over and over – but that he left his work unfinished is a melancholy thought indeed.

Where do you get the inspiration for your books?

I tell myself I can’t have another cup of coffee till I’ve thought of an idea.

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Travel news

Had an e-mail today from one of my recruiters – not Mi-Young this time, but Min – saying that she’d received my documents and taken them to Immigration; they should be processed in ten days. I’m assuming that’s working days rather than calendar days, but you never know. Then she’ll e-mail me my visa number and I have to make an appointment with the Korean Embassy for an interview. You shouldn’t need an interview if you’ve already had an E-2 visa (or so I’ve read), but – whatever.

I’m planning to spend this weekend at my late grandparents’ house in St Helens to pick up some of my possessions (my smart black shoes, which I’ll need for Korea (I’ll be going to at least one wedding, probably more, and the hagwon is likely to have the occasional event that I’ll need to dress up for), and there’s a few things I could probably get a few quid for on eBay), to help with the decorating and to avoid my sister’s boyfriend and their alarm clock with two backs.

Then the following weekend I intend to go down to Bristol and see Lawrence, and possibly a couple of other friends. I’ve rung Alex about a dozen times in the past week or so, without answer – I had to restrain myself from getting paranoid about it. Finally got a reply to a message I sent him on Facebook today, and it sounds like he won’t be available, though he did invite me to come down in about a month’s time – of course, by then I hope to be on the other side of the world.

The week after that will hopefully be visa week. Yay. A trip to London and more friends to visit. Hopefully.

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Dealer's ChoiceEven from the opening page I could sense that this book (the eleventh Wild Cards instalment) would be a return to form for GRRM’s superheros and mutants shared-world saga. The writing had a sparkle to it, and the narrative was a much more effective multiple viewpoint, third person limited mosaic novel. And Martin was a contributing author for this volume.

Which is just as well, as an important part of the plot concerns his creation, Tom Tudbury, the Great and Powerful Turtle – one of the best Wild Cards characters. Also along for the ride are Bloat and the denizens of the Rox, Billy Ray (Carnifex), Australian shaman Wyungare, and another old favourite, Modular Man.

As the book opens, the Turtle has recently seen Dr Tachyon, Jay Ackroyd and Mark Meadows off on their journey to Takis – a story which is told in book ten, Double Solitaire and takes place over a good few months. By contrast, Dealer’s Choice covers a period of about three days (or less). The military is intent on dealing once and for all with the joker and jumper base on Ellis Island; meanwhile, Bloat, governor of said base, is equally determined to fend off anything the government can throw at them. Dealer’s Choice is the story of that fight.

It’s pretty intense, with the story darting back and forth between the sides, each having a moral imperative to win, while the individuals waging the war struggle with their consciences and come to desperate conclusions. There are two or three incipient romances in amongst all the fighting, and the climactic scenes provide heart-rending experiences all round. And, unlike, say, the conflict with the Swarm earlier in the series, there is no obvious division between a good side and a bad side – which raises the tension still further as this four-book sequence within the the Wild Cards series draws to a close.

This was by far the best of the Wild Cards books I’ve read recently. However, after reading four in a row, I’m going to take a break before I move on to volume twelve.

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‘You’re bleeding,’ she said to Ray.

He looked down at his side. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I do that a lot.’

Pugnacious Billy Ray (AKA Carnifex) has super-strength and heals much more quickly than normal.

Source: Dealer’s Choice, edited by George R R Martin.

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DHLitYesterday

The DHL van came to pick up my package of documents for Korea yesterday. The driver turned out to be the same bloke who came in 2006. And I think he encountered the same minor problem with my documents as he did last time. Essentially, I think the issue was caused by me putting a value for the package on the online DHLitNow form – making it an export, rather than just documents. Everything got there safely last time, so I’m confident they will this time as well.

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Ready to go

The past few days, I’ve been sent away to my sister’s ex-partner’s place while he and the kids are away on holiday. While there I had various phone calls – including a couple of interviews with two branches of Reading Town. One was with a Korean and was a real interview; the other was with what sounded like an American – although, from her name I guess she’s a ‘gyopo‘ – and that wasn’t a real interview, just a bit of information about the hagwon and a few questions from me (so, in a way, I was interviewing her). This racial difference in interviews is typical in my experience. I was offered the second job but not the first.

I also had a phone call from someone called Min in relation to the position I’d been offered previously. She was calling about the contract and was apparently going to send it to me. If she did, I didn’t receive it. After a couple of days of waiting, I finally got the contract this morning from Mi Young. Min then called me again, and I discovered that the e-mail address she had for me was completely wrong.

I headed back up to my sister’s house, where she and her boyfriend were apparently preparing for a weekend at his place. I printed off the necessary documents: three copies of the contract, my resumé, a health statement I’d been sent (consisting of a number of tick boxes to show that I don’t have HIV/AIDS, I don’t use drugs, am not an alcoholic, have not been treated for mental health problems, and have not had a serious disease or injury in the past five years; I ticked no all the way down – I’m not counting my colitis as serious – I wasn’t going to die from it).

My sister said she’d be leaving around one o’clock. I headed out again to collect my things and came back at about 1:15 ready to complete the DHLitNow online form. I’d already called DHL and found that the cut-off time for same-day pick-ups was 11am; I also vaguely remembered having to print out a label for the envelope last time and that even though I missed the cut-off time they still picked it up the same day. So basically, today, I needed the printer and to be prepared for a pick-up. When I got back to my sister’s house – well, the car was there, the door was locked with the key in the lock and there were noises coming from the main bedroom.

I left my backpack in the shed and walked back down to the village, hoping my sweat-soaked top would dry out a little. It looks like I won’t be getting the paperwork off until Monday. And then there’s another wait as it goes to the recruiter’s office, then to Korean Immigration, then my visa issuance gets sent to me, then I have to go to London to get the visa …

Ready to go, but still not able.

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Review of Iron Man

Iron ManWhen I finally got to the front of the queue at Manchester’s Odeon cinema and asked for a ticket yesterday it was about 2:15. Screenings began every hour so I asked for a ticket for two o’clock – on the basis that there’d be ten minutes each of adverts and trailers before the film started. The ticket person said I’d miss the first five minutes of the film; I didn’t think he was right about that, but anyway I deferred to his infinite wisdom and got a ticket for three. It was actually a good move. I had time to use the toilet first, and then the trailers constitued a geek’s wet dream. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Dark Knight, Prince Caspian and The Incredible Hulk … mmm.

Robert Downey Jr as a superhero is an unlikely bit of casting, but it works perfectly. Jeff Bridges in his role is also none too obvious, but he too was great, and, with his full beard and shaven head looked positively archetypal as the evil industrialist. In fact, facial hair seems to be a major theme in Iron Man – there’s a full range of moustaches, goatees and beards.

The best part of the film is the first half, where Stark is kidnapped by the Afgan terrorists and begins transforming himself into Iron Man. His tests, helped – and hindered – by the AI that runs his house are certainly the movie’s comedic highlight. The crux of the story, where Stark realises the true intent of his business partner, didn’t work so well for me. From then on, the story loses some of its emotional and narrative dynamic and just becomes a lead up to a fight scene between two men in exoskeletons.

And then that fight didn’t seem all that good. After spending so much time on Stark’s journey to superhero-hood, this climactic scene felt as if it had been condensed to prevent the film as a whole being too long. Also, sitting in the fourth row from the front, I wasn’t best-placed to see it. The antagonists fill the screen and the action is so fast that it often appears as a big blur.

In fact, all the action scenes were fairly modest. After the pyrotechnics of Die Hard 4.0 and the robotic choreography of Transformers last year, action films have a new benchmark – and Iron Man doesn’t reach it.

But it is very good – it’s engaging, it’s humorous, it looks a million dollars … well, make that about $200 milion (not counting the dye on Downey’s moustache in the close-up shots). And if you stay right to the end fo the credits you get to see Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury providing a prelude to the sequel (although I don’t believe the rumours that it will be a Rastafarian-themed film entitled I an’ Iron Man).

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