Archive for May, 2011

It’s been a depressing kind of a week. Having finally started work on the text of my novel the previous week – the novel that everyone keeps asking me about and that barely exists – this week the going has been hard and slow.

I’ve been trying to spend a fair amount of time on it; Monday and Tuesday are pretty much write-offs in terms of novel work, however – on Monday I have a blog post to research and write, while on Tuesday I have a roleplaying game to prepare for. Then the rest of the week I was plagued by a lack of sleep, which saw me getting up at progressively later and later times, cutting my writing time short.

Then when I did try to write, it didn’t flow at like it had on the second day (when I got a couple of thousand words down). On Wednesday I tried to rewrite the scene that I’d started, and got bogged down in the details of the logic of my protrayal of the characters – basically, I changed how they reacted and then had to incorporate the new with the old without completely redoing everything. I still got a thousand words done that day.

Then I spent a chunk of time drawing maps of a keep because I couldn’t visualise the characters’ walk through it. Useful work, I suppose, now that it’s done, but it takes up time and it’s pretty superfluous to the end product. Then I worried about not knowing what the characters were going to do in the immediate future.

By the time I finally felt a little happier about progressing on Friday, my daily output had dwindled to less than 600 words. That said, I started pretty late on Friday and had homework to do in advance of my Korean class.

The Korean class has been distinctly less than marvelous, too. The teacher spends most of the time talking – and very quickly – and doesn’t provide many opportunities for the students to speak. Still it was my last class with her for the time being – after a test on Friday, I progressed the next level.

Another thing that’s been bothering me has been pain in my left hip and in my left shoulder. Also, inability to sleep. These things seem to be reciprocal: sleeping on my side has probably given me a sore shoulder, which now makes it harder for me to sleep. I imagine my writing also factors into the equation: my experience this past week has left me feeling like I have no imagination and barely have the ability to string words into sentences (even my ability to have a conversation seems to be dwindling away). And if I can’t even make a go of writing, what the hell am I supposed to do with my life?

On the plus side, I started reading Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself and it’s shaping up to be pretty good.

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This was mentioned recently by Patrick St Denis on his well known blog, Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist. He recommended it, so when I saw a secondhand copy here in Seoul in What the Book?, I bought it. I already knew that Pat, for some reason, likes Dan Brown – and that should have been enough to prevent me wasting my money.

I try to finish any book I start, but sometimes a novel is just too awful. William Horwood’s Duncton Wood was the last one; others include The Crystal Shard by R A Salvatore and the first of Robin Hobb’s Liveship books.

Deryni Rising is actually quite an old fantasy novel – the first edition dates from 1970, which puts it between the growth of popularity of The Lord of the Rings in the sixties and the blooming of contemporary fantasy in the late seventies that wa spearheaded by Terry Brooks’s Shannara series and Stephen R Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books. This age is perhaps a mitigating factor in the novel’s awfulness. Or perhaps not. TLotR is not really noted for the high literary standard of its writing, either.

Deryni Rising reads to me like a parody of bad fantasy. Here’s an excerpt from the opening paragraphs:

Brion Haldane, King of Gwynedd, Prince of Meara, Lord of the Purple March … was not a big man, though regal bearing and a catlike grace had convinced many a would-be adversary that he was. But his enemies rarely had time to notice this technicality.

… When he spoke, whether with the crackle of authority or the lower tones of persuasion, men listened and obeyed.

This king then gets murdered, but not without giving his heir – conveniently left alive by the bad guys (they have ‘plans’ for him) – a warning of the danger. (This is what’s called an ‘inciting incident’ in literary terminology; they’re usually a bit more subtle than this.)

The novel was shaping up to be pretty basic, cliché, utterly non-challenging stuff; young adult literature in the worst sense. It reminded me of David Eddings’s Pawn of Prophecy, another lame fantasy work I read back in the days when I had more time to read bad novels.

Oh, well; you live and learn.

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I’m now coming to the end of my course of steroids for my colitis and things are well on bowel front. I’m back to full health – one bowel movement per day, no more bowel pain, probably back up to normal weight (although I haven’t weighed myself lately). In fact, my belly is getting a bit round – not from fat, just from food inside it, I suppose. The steroids have probably given me a bad bout of acne on my face, neck and especially scalp – which is beginning to clear up now, as well.

I had a mild cold all the time I was in America with Habiba, and I’ve only just got over it. For a while towards the end, it seemed to have cause my ears to get blocked – not so much as with water, but as the effect caused by the change in pressure when going up or down in an aeroplane. That’s cleared up now.

One side effect of the trip to the States is that I’ve had a flare-up of sciatica, due to carring heavy backpacks a lot and not keeping up with my core muscle exercises. I’m going back to the gym now (at Habiba’s insistence) and hopefully lots of crunches and the like will help. I just spent half an hour or so playing my guitar (something I don’t do very often, sadly); it made the pain in my left hip/buttock/upper thigh area worse.

Summer is fast approaching, unfortunately. Summer is too hot – and far too humid. It’s already pretty warm (and it’s been raining a lot the past week, which is a little unusual for Korea for this time of year).

The increasing warmth brings increased levels of sweat. When I went back to Britain the year before last I brought back half a dozen Lynx Africa deodorant sticks. I finished the last one a while ago, and I won’t be getting Lynx again (or Axe as it’s called in the rest of the world): the aluminium content causes staining – a lot of my tops have white stains on the underams. I’ve been using Old Spice lately, but it doesn’t work as well as Lynx – by the latter part of the day I end up being a bit whiffy, even if I haven’t been doing anything strenuous.

After some research, I’ve shaved my armpits (again – I tried that for a while back in 2006 or 7) and have started using white vinegar. That wouldn’t seem to the be best idea to reduce bad smells, but it seems to work well. The idea is that the vinegar changes the ph level of the skin, preventing the bacteria that cause odour from doing whatever it is they do.

I’m happy to be back home – it means I can get back to work on my various projects (there still doesn’t seem to be time enough to do justice to all of them). I’ve been continuing to prepare the ground for my novel (actually, it’s a trilogy, as far as I can tell) – and have now started writing the first chapter (again).

My blog (Elements of Fantasy) has been taking up all my writing time on Monday. On Mondays, my aim is to produce an analysis of one aspect of fantasy. There are various reasons for this. It’s good practice to write to a deadline. It’s also a form of autodidacticism – writing about this subject involves a lot of research, and the more I learn about fantasy, the better I can write it. It also seems to be a good idea to have an online presence that is more than just a diary (like this blog) to support my career as a writer (this comes from reading Kristen Lamb’s blog on the social media for writers).

I’m also running my roleplaying game. The first adventure is pretty much over, but now I may have given the player characters too much wealth and too much knowledge. However, this could work well if I can use this to catapult them into the main campaign story (which is still pretty nebulous at the moment). I also have a deadline motivating me to get the main story underway – if I get a job later in the year, as I plan, I will have much less time for writing, and running the game will have to go (I’ve already neglected my short story work for lack of time).

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I subscribed to F&SF for a time a few years ago and always liked it, but rarely got round to reading each edition – even though they only come out every couple of months. I bought this edition at What the Book? in Seoul. It contains eleven short stories (although they’re actually categorised as one novella, two novelettes (a fairly pointless term referring to an intermediary form between the short story and novel) and eight short stories) and one poem, as well as regular columns.

‘Scatter My Ashes’ by Albert E Cowdrey begins interestingly, with a writer working on a commissioned book about a family only to discover that their wealth was based on malignant sorcery. The credibility of the narrative takes a turn for the worst when the main characters discover the family’s matriarch’s servant is actually a hundred-year-old golem – the problem being that they take it completely in their stride without questioning it at all. The rest of the story was an anticlimax.

‘A Pocketful of Faces’ is an interesting and creepy techno-thriller by Paul di Filippo about identity theft using programmable face-grafts. It too is let down by its ending – which is too abrupt and ridiculous.

‘The Paper Menagerie’ by Ken Liu is the best story in the magazine, and one of the shortest. The narrator is a Chinese-American whose mother was a mail-order bride and who is able to make living origami figures. As the protagonist grows he becomes more and more disillusioned with his family and his heritage until his mother dies and he realises it’s too late to reconnect with her. I found it incredibly moving.

‘The Evening and the Morning’ by Sheila Finch is apparently part of a series of stories in the same universe, although I wasn’t familiar with her work. This is the longest story here – the novella – and contained the weakest writing. It also had some annoying aspects – like an AI that only communicated information when it was convenient to the story and characters who go on a mission to a strange planet (actually, a long-deserted Earth) without means of communicating with each other.

‘Night Gauntlet’ is a collaborative story by several author and was written in the style of H P Lovecraft – or at least as a homage to his work. It was OK – nothing especially memorable. ‘Happy Ending 2.0’ by James Patrick Kelly is a tale of marital lack of bliss with an ending that sits on the corner of interesting and confusing.

‘The Second Kalandar’s Tale’ by Francis Marion Soty is apparently a retelling of a story from A Thousand and One Nights, and is an entertaining odyssey concerning a love affair with an imprisoned beauty and outwitting and finally battling a vengeful demon. ‘Bodyguard’ by Karl Bunker is a story of a man trying to help an alien race on a doomed planet, but who ends up meeting his own doom. A decent story, but nothing special.

‘Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls’ by Kali Wallace is perhaps the most interesting story in the magazine. It’s about a character who appears at first to be a disabled young woman, but it gradually emerges that she is in fact an experimental humanoid sentient plant. Although it’s a little over-long, it’s an interesting tale.

‘The Ifs of Time’ by James Stoddard is another highlight of the volume. It concerns three characters in an infinte house telling stories to prolong their existence – and incidentally freezing time for everyone else. The protagonist confronts them with a true story, breaking their hold on the world. The best part of this story is the stories within the story – tales about time and death. Especially memorable was the one about people aware of their impending death travelling to the countryside to await the end; it turns out that they are, in fact, simulations and their deaths are caused by their processes running out of memory; at the very end they freeze and spend the rest of eternity in one endless final moment.

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A quote from Douglas Adams – one of my heroes – who died ten years ago yesterday at the depressingly young age of 49. Here’s what the Guardian has to say about the occasion.

And here are some more Adams quotations.

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Truths were carved from the identical wood as were lies – words – and so sank or floated with equal ease. But since truths were carved by the World, they rarely appeased Men and their innumerable vanities. Men had no taste for facts that did not ornament or enrich, and so they wilfully – if not knowingly – panelled their lives with shining and intricate falsehoods.

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This is the second book in The Aspect-Emperor series, which itself is the second trilogy in a projected nine-book sequence called The Second Apocalypse. The first series, The Prince of Nothing was one of the best fantasies of recent years; the first book of the second trilogy, The Judging Eye, was, in some ways, better paced, but, overall, didn’t live up to that standard. The White-Luck Warrior is both a little better and a little worse than its predecessor.

There are three main elements to the story: the northward trek of boy king Sorweel amid the Great Ordeal, the gargantuan army led by Aspect-Emperor Anasûrimbor Kellhus, to do battle with the Unholy Consult at Golgotterath; the near-parallel northward trek of Drusas Achamian, Anasûrimbor Mimara (the Emperor’s step-daughter), and a band of scalpers to the legendary Great Library of Sauglish; and the machinations back at the Imperial capital Momemn involving the Emperor’s wife and regent, Esmenet, her psychotic five-year-old son, Kelmomas, the Empire’s religious leader and half-brother of the Emperor, Maithanet.

This latter area of the plot also includes the introduction of the eponymous White-Luck Warrior, a mysterious figure on a divine mission to kill the Emperor, whom the gods fear and hate. The White-Luck Warrior himself is only a minor character and his origins, nature and destiny remain mysterious throughout the novel – which is not exactly satisfying, given that the book is named for him.

Also, the cosmological underpinnings of the world of the Three Seas are explored in a little more detail than in previous books (or maybe I just thought about it more). It’s still not clear to me exactly what I should believe about this world. This is probably deliberate on the author’s part – this ambiguity is essential to the tension over whether the Emperor is ultimately a force for good or evil. There are apparently one hundred gods (the Hundred), which are fragments of the God of Gods. Yatwer, the Mother, is crucially important to the background of the story, but my sense of her and these other subsidiary deities is still very vague.

This is a longer book than The Judging Eye, and as such it feels more complete and does more. There is more reflection and philosophising present – which is a double-edged sword: it is part of Bakker’s unique style, but it also becomes tedious and is not always easy to understand. A lot of the extra bulk of the story is taken up with travel. The first two plot threads mentioned above basically represent the characters involved getting from A to B. These journeys are enlivened by dramatic confrontations – especially an epic battle between the Men of the Ordeal and limitless hordes of Sranc (although this takes place early on and leaves the narrative with a feeling of having peaked too soon); they are still just long passages of people travelling, however, and not the most edifying read.

The other thing that makes Bakker’s work a cut above the rest is his writing. He writes in an elevated style that recalls Tolkien, but without the naïve nature poetry; small but significant parts of the narrative give you the feel of reading the fictional history of the events described. However, the pleasure of this exercise in quasi-archaic language is compromised by some of the author’s lexical choices – specifically, anachronistic words like ‘okay’ (nineteenth or early twentieth century slang) or phrases like ‘the end of the line’ (a train travel metaphor – not really appropriate for a world in which trains don’t exist).

Additionally there are numerous misuses of language that should have been picked up during editing and proofreading; using ‘trod’ as a present tense verb, ‘loathe’ when ‘loath’ was meant, and ‘breath’ when ‘breathe’ was meant – all of these examples occurred more than once. Extremely annoying and disappointing.

On the other hand, Bakker, like Iain M Banks, has a special genius for inventing names and nomenclature that give his secondary world a unique texture and authenticity. The Aspect-Emperor commands Exalt-Generals and Exalt-Ministers, Believer-Kings and Palatines, Grandees and Satraps, Patridomoses and Chieftain-Generals. The Great Ordeal is populated with Ainoni, Agmundrmen, Kidruhil, Ketyai, Cengemi, Conriyans, Shigeki, Tydonni, Invishi and Nilnameshi. The sheer number of names and terms is pretty bewildering, but it adds something vital to the baroque texture of the work.

Despite its flaws I enjoyed reading The White-Luck Warrior – just about. It was pretty dry in places and Bakker runs the risk of flogging a dead horse with his characters’ constant navel-gazing. Still, now that most of the characters have arrived at where they want to be, the scene is set for a fascinating and dramatic conclusion to the series in The Unholy Consult.

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On Friday last week, there was a funeral service at the Abode (the Sufi community in upstate New York where Habiba’s mum lives) for Habiba’s father, Ramana. It took place in the library, which is housed in a large room in of one of the main buildings. The buildings themselves are quite old, having been built by Shakers in the 19th century, I think. It was attended by maybe fifty people and was quite informal – I was overdressed in my shirt and jacket.

The service was led by Ramana’s guide and two other officiants dressed in white robes. It began with a Leonard Cohen song, included readings from world religions, poetry and reminiscences of Ramana, and concluded with The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’. Afterwards, there was buffet lunch in the dining hall downstairs.

The service was very emotional for Habiba; Noor, her mum, I think was affected, too, but in general seemed more phlegmatic. Several of the other guests shed tears as they talked about Ramana.

I was on camera duties, so I recorded most of the service as best I could. My camera is not primarily designed for video and only takes 15 minutes footage at a time; I had to reduce the resolution halfway through to conserve space – and still maxed out my 4 GB memory card before the end. Now I’m in the process of uploading everything to Facebook.

The following day, Saturday, Habiba and I took the Megabus service to New York and thence to Washington DC, to attend her brother Vakil and his partner Shannon’s wedding on Sunday. We stayed at the very nice house of friends of Habiba and her mother. The basement was a near-self-contained and quite large apartment; we were woken up on Sunday morning by the maid coming to use the washing machine in the bathroom.

The wedding took place in a small hotel in downtown DC and was officiated by a friend of Shannon’s; he turned out to be a very efficient officiant as the ceremony was over in about five minutes – which everyone agreed was good. The officiant said a few words about marriage, the rings were brought to the front by Shannon’s young niece, the couple exchange ther vows, Shannon’s father put in a request for grandchildren, and then we all ate.

Afterwards Vakil and Shannon took me, Habiba and Noor on a walk through the National Mall, where we saw the White House, the Washington Monument, the brand new World War II Memorial (which, they explained, was designed to capture the architectural style of the 1940s – ie, a fascist style), the Lincoln Memorial (the Reflecting Pool was being dug up) and the Vietnam War Memorial. Then we went back to Shannon and Vakil’s place, where dinner was leftover wedding lunch (I had my third tasty cheesecake of the day).

On Monday, the five of us drove to Annapolis in Maryland. We found a place to park in a residential area, which was adjacent to an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay. Ramana had been a keen sailor, so the family wanted to go there to spread his ashes in the water. We stood on little jetty in the sunshine and Vakil and Habiba said a few words. Then he, she and Noorunnisa took turns pouring the ashes into the water.

Afterwards, we walked around and had lunch at a diner that specialises in crab – I had the crab omelet (and Vakil and Shannons’ leftover chili cheese fries) and found it to be good. Habiba bought an expensive and fancy pair of Wellington boots for herself and a cute cat salt cellar and pepper pot for me. I bought some replica historical coins and bank notes from a small museum.

Finally, Noor dropped us in Washington, where Shannon and Vakil headed home, Habiba and I headed to Union Station to take the train back up to New York, and she headed to the airport to likewise head home.

So it was an event-filled weekend, but very fulfilling. The funeral was a gentle affair that showed the love that Ramana’s friends and family had for him. The wedding, while perfunctory compared to others (even Korean weddings), was pleasantly straightforward and full of good feeling. The spreading of Ramana’s ashes was a similarly simple and peaceful moment where the family said their symbolic final goodbye.

These ceremonies and the whole of our visit has given me a greater understanding of Habiba’s family and has brought me closer to them. Personal closeness to another person is a very difficult state for me to achieve – or even comprehend – so it’s been a valuable time for me as well as Habiba.

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