Monday, July 30, 2012

I Read Dickens: The Uncommercial Traveller

(I am in the middle of a read of a set of Dickens that belonged to my Great Grandfather and now belong to my Mother. From scanning the spines it's pretty complete fiction-wise, and has some non-fiction; it may be his complete published works. We'll find out at the end when I compare it to someone else's list.)

The Uncommercial Traveller is a set of stories and reminiscences by Dickens in his character as an uncommercial traveller. As might be expected he travels about, but, rather than just being a tourist, he researches and interviews. It's like human interest journalism, except he changes the names (his home town of Chatham is referred to as Dullborough) to protect the innocent.

All in all, they're a mixture of fairly slight pieces, one of which is a very bad dinner at a (Kentish?) seaside town in an inn called the Temeraire, and the more serious ones which are generally about issues that have been resolved sometime in the last 140 years. Some of them were entertaining, some were interesting, most of them piled detail on detail to make their case, which is fine if a bit slow. Again I'd suggest this for completists, although some have historical interest as well. Dating from the last decade of Dickens' life, they are all pretty well polished.

Read This: Dickens fans will find out some interesting things - his love of walks, his insomnia, his passion for finding out details of places, especially London. There's a bit there for people interested in Victorian History.
Don't Read This: If the verbose Victorian style does nothing for you, or if the melodramatic discussion of tragedy or the lengthy domestic comedy of the period is not of interest.
Available Online: Here amongst other places.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Beginning is a Very Delicate Time

Here's an assignment we had to do for the Creative Writing Class: Take two pieces, one published, one by us, and rewrite the start to try and hook us in. After some false starts (I looked through Jim's book of H P Lovecraft short stories and EVERY SINGLE ONE WAS EXCELLENT) I went for the start of Ian Fleming's The Man With The Golden Gun.

The Secret Service holds much that is kept secret even from very senior officers in the organisation. Only M and his Chief of Staff know absolutely everything there is to know. The latter is responsible for keeping the Top Secret record known as ‘The War Book’ so that, in the event of the death of both of them, the whole story, apart from what is available to individual Sections and Stations, would be available to their successors.
-Ian Fleming, The Man With The Golden Gun

There are secrets so important to the Secret Service that only M and his Chief of Staff know them. Even very senior officers are not aware of all the contents of ‘The War Book’, the record kept so that, in the event of the death of both them, the whole story would be known to their successors.

Obviously this is just an edit, a tightening. It is my personal opinion that Fleming's pedantic attention to detail helps to ground the crazy ridiculous nonsense that Bond gets involved in. However, the story needs to get up some momentum before grinding away at this stuff. In other words my opening really ought to have been:
James Bond had been Missing in Action for a year before he telephoned Secret Service Headquarters.
or even
James Bond had returned from the dead.
before going into the details of what happens when you try to contact the public face of the Secret Service.

By the way The Man With The Golden Gun, Fleming's last Bond novel, is not great, but it is hilarious in parts. I honestly didn't think I could top my novel interpretation of Diamonds are Forever (In Two Parts) but the actual text of the psychologists report on Scaramanga is very funny, partly deliberately and partly not. I will return to this.

Onwards. Back in March I wrote a poem which I modestly called Genius.
I make a wish and know what will happen
In their own time things will come true, or not
We will only find out when now is then
The past is full of things that I forgot

In their own time things will come true, or not
My memories made of regrets and mistakes
The past is full of things that I forgot
I must hope that this time it's not a fake

My memories made of regrets and mistakes
I try to speak but my vocal cords cramp
I must hope that this time it's not a fake
Hands trembling I reach out and rub the lamp

I try to speak but my vocal cords cramp
We will only find out when now is then
Hands trembling I reach out and rub the lamp
I make a wish and know what will happen
I rewrote the start. Which knocked on to rewriting half the damn poem.
Make a wish not knowing what will happen
Things not true now will become so in time
Not sure of the what, but certain of when
My memory has no reason or rhyme

Things not true now will become so in time
The past has only regrets and mistakes
My memory has no reason or rhyme
I must hope that this time it's not a fake

The past has only regrets and mistakes
When I try to speak my vocal cords cramp
I must hope that this time it's not a fake
Hands trembling, I reach out and rub the lamp

When I try to speak my vocal cords cramp
Not sure of the what, but certain of when
Hands trembling I reach out and rub the lamp
Make a wish not knowing what will happen
This was considered by the class to be less successful; the lack of an "I" at the start defuses all the power. See, I prefer that the lamp rubber[1] not know what will happen, but others seem to think that is less important than identifying that this is something someone is doing rather than a general intention or instruction. Duly noted! Here's an attempt to preserve a. the scan, b. the I, and c. the line "When I try to speak my vocal cords cramp[2];
I make a wish not knowing what happens
Things not true now will become so in time
Not sure of the what, but certain of when
My memory has no reason or rhyme

Things not true now will become so in time
The past has only regrets and mistakes
My memory has no reason or rhyme
I must hope that this time it's not a fake

The past has only regrets and mistakes
When I try to speak my vocal cords cramp
I must hope that this time it's not a fake
Hands trembling, I reach out and rub the lamp

When I try to speak my vocal cords cramp
Not sure of the what, but certain of when
Hands trembling I reach out and rub the lamp
I make a wish, not knowing what happens
Reason and rhyme was not liked by some as it's a cliche, but I do. I think that the tutor's point that reworking prose usually improves it, but reworking poetry is more mixed in results was a wise one.

[1] Obviously the double entendre was pointed out. Poetry criticism should only be done by people with clean minds!
[2] Rub the lamp and vocal cords cramp are the two fragments that I built the poem around. Of course now I re-read and wonder if they could go the other way around.
I make a wish not knowing what happens
Things not true now will become so in time
Not sure of the what, but certain of when
My memory has no reason or rhyme

Things not true now will become so in time
The past has only regrets and mistakes
My memory has no reason or rhyme
I must hope that this time it's not a fake

The past has only regrets and mistakes
Hands trembling, I reach out and rub the lamp
I must hope that this time it's not a fake
When I try to speak my vocal cords cramp

Hands trembling, I reach out and rub the lamp
Not sure of the what, but certain of when
When I try to speak my vocal cords cramp
I make a wish, not knowing what happens
Originally the lamp went at the end of the third verse as that's the last new line in a pantun, so the last chance to change the poem. Since my go-to literary technique is the last minute twist I've focused on that as the revelation of what the pantun is about. Of course what this is about isn't actually rubbing a lamp, but fear, tension, uncertainty and fate, so the vocal cords cramping is just as good there.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Write What You Know: Feudalism Revisited

I'm taking a look at the unsatisfying NaNoWriMo fantasy novel I wrote last year. As part of that I have a few things to think about, some old, some new, and I'm doing some of it in public, here. So last December amongst other things I had this to say about feudalism: "In a feudal setting the greatest crime is to betray your lord."

Let's be clear on this; chivalry and honour are the bright cover on power coming from a naked sword. Nevertheless, that cover is important. One does not simply betray an oath. One works around it, obeys the word, not the spirit, blames it on someone else, claims one was under duress and gets the Pope to absolve you of it. You try your best to avoid giving it, negotiate the wording, bribe someone to interfere with the proceedings. You pretend ignorance, make excuses about the weather and the harvest, say you would have fulfilled your obligations, but... You don't flat out break the oath. Oathbreakers are accursed and damned. If you don't keep your oath, even in the breach, why would anyone take oath with you?

But what feudalism is really about is an exchange of land for service. The king grants land to his lords, who pay his taxes[1] and call up armies when he needs them. The oath is just the vehicle for this exchange. All the rest of it - powers of justice, decentralised authority, monopolies, rights to tolls, fish, hunt, graze etc. is about what you can do to run your land. So importantly, when we have the feudal system and oaths, we have chivalry, but we also have lawyers.

[1] This is more complex than it sounds. There are of course, regular taxes, tolls, dues etc. but to pay for wars and so forth, the King will often have to declare a tax at the very same time that his vassals are taking the most productive workers out of the fields to form an army. Not surprisingly this is unpopular at the best of times, and during the feudal period it was never the best of times. Worse than that; taxing income was not the usual way things were done, what with it mostly not being a cash economy, and dependent on the harvest(s). Instead a proportion of your wealth is what was taxed. Peasants, of course, don't own anything, so they don't have to pay a lot. Lords, who actually own stuff, do. However, you don't get to be a lord with lots of stuff by giving it away, so you get it back by squeezing the peasants, which is why they don't have much stuff in the first place.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I Read Books: The Old Curiosity Shop

Correspondence between yr humble scribe and Charles Dickens:



I have recently finished reading your novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, which was originally serialised in the publication Master Humphrey's Clock. I wish to congratulate you on your excellent depiction of attempting to deal with a relative with a gambling addiction, and your entertaining story of dealing with a man addicted to being a d---. I must also admire your craft in creating such a sensation in the public over the fate of Little Nell.

However, if I have one criticism, it is this; that the novel is distinctly lacking in badassery. If you could correct this in your next novel, which I believe will be serialised under the title Barnaby Rudge, you will have proved yourself not only the most Popular, but also one of the Greatest men of letters in the English language.

Yours Faithfully,

Neil W---




Thank you for your kind words regarding my recent work, which you have certainly read and commented on in a timely manner. Unfortunately due to the confusion in the date and the unsuitable language I will not be able to publish your letter.

I am unfamiliar with the word "badassery". In attempting to puzzle over it's meaning, I have broken it down. As for "bad", there are certainly several "bad" characters in the novel, notably Daniel Quilp, possibly the most repulsive of my creations. The word "ass" is more of a puzzle; a notable quadruped makes several appearances, but he is clearly defined as a pony. In addition, he is not so much bad as irascible. If you refer to the word metaphorically, then, again, Mr Quilp could well be an a--.

I will leave you with one final thought; as you are no doubt aware many people including close and dear friends of mine expressed an opinion on their desired ending of The Old Curiosity Shop before it's conclusion. In the end I followed my own advice, as I intend to with future works.

Yours Faithfully,

Charles Dickens.


For more of my Dickens reviews, most of which are more useful than this one, click here.
To read The Old Curiosity Shop online, click here.

Friday, July 13, 2012

You And Me Could Write A Bad Romance

So our Creative Writing Class spent the last two lessons on the romance genre. Obviously this degenerated into a discussion of pornography and Fifty Shades of Grey, slightly hampered by the fact that only two of us had read any of Ms James work that wasn't a selection. But that's not important. What everyone is dying to find out is what I find romantic. This question is not really answered here in this tripley titled piece:

Withdrawal Method
Caution and Precaution
Girl Trouble

It was a perfect summer’s day at the beach. The slight breeze didn’t disturb the sand and carried the salt smell of the sea to me. The blazing sun beat down on my back. I lay on the towel and waited.

“Gwendolyn, I... I built you a castle.”

I rolled over. It was impressive. Simon had made it nearly waist high, with a central keep and a dozen surrounding towers. It was decorated with flags and seashells. As I watched, he swung his spade, breaking a dam and water flowed into the moat.

“I built it because it’s a castle. For you. You’re, you’re my princess, and when we’re together it’s like a fairytale.”

He stopped for a moment. I looked at his thin figure, not shown to his best advantage in swimming trunks. He was just what I wanted, he did what he was told and had a good car. His only flaw was never getting to the point.

“Gwendolyn, I’ve been thinking about what you said. And, and I have an answer for you.”

Well at last! I’d made my proposal hours ago. I know girls shouldn’t take the lead in this kind of thing, but honestly, we’d never get anywhere if I had to wait for him. I sat up, took off my sunglasses and stared up at him, my eyes bright with anticipation.

“Gwendolyn, I... GACK!” The castle collapsed and sand sprayed across Simon’s face, into his eyes and mouth.

A tall, laughing, dark haired figure appeared in the ruins of the sandcastle. “How d’ya like that, bozo?” he said.

Simon wiped his face and put his glasses back on. “I, you... what do you...?”

The arrival stepped closer, towering a head taller, his powerful tanned torso contrasting with Simon’s pale skin. “Something to say shrimpy? I didn’t think so.” He turned to me.

“Hey gorgeous. How about we make like a tree and leave.”

I looked him up and down. “Do you have a car?” I asked.

“Like you wouldn’t believe.”

I stood up, brushed the sand from my long legs. I pulled my summer dress on over my bikini, adjusting the bodice over the bow on the front, pulled my golden hair back into a ponytail then picked up my bag. “Okay, let’s go.”

“But Gwendolyn!”

I looked down at Simon. “Sorry baby. But I think this guy can give me everything I want.”


In Joey’s red convertible we raced down the coast road. He drove fast and aggressively, watching me from the corner of his eye to see how I reacted. I was a little nervous.

“I think you should cool it a little Joey.”

“I don’t know what that dweeb did in his car, but this is how a man drives.”

“I know and I like it. But the cops sometimes wait out on the edge of town to catch speeders. I don’t want you to get in trouble, not when we’re only just getting started.”

He grinned at me, and eased off, so that we hit town at the speed limit.

“Can we go by the bank? I need to do something there, before it closes for the day. After that I’m totally free.”

“Sure baby,” he said, and pulled in right across the street. I checked my reflection in the vanity mirror, added a touch of lipstick.

“Wait right here,” I said. “I won’t be long.”

Smoke and flames followed me as I ran out of the bank. I threw the bag in the car and jumped in after it. Joey looked at me in shock. “What the hell happened Gwen?”

I smiled, white teeth between scarlet lips. “I had to make a withdrawal.” I pointed the gun at him. “I think you’d better drive.”

Sirens screaming behind us, we raced down the highway. I ran my fingers over his strong, manly hands that clutched white knuckled at the steering wheel. Looking at the blood stained banknotes that had fallen out of the bag I snuggled up to him, pressing myself against his chest, and kissed his strained, grimacing face.

“You know, I think this could be the start of a beautiful fucking partnership."
Official Soundtrack[1]:

Well, the first thing is that I have taken a lot of cliched genre-romance elements[2] and given them a twist, but I have twisted them so far that this is no longer romance. Secondly, I tried it with family friendly language, but the last section isn't as strong without the fucking. It has to be that word because by placing it out of usual adjectival order, after the beautiful, it implies both it's literal and metaphorical meaning. As was pointed out, in a film if we were using obscenity, then Joey would probably swear like a one eyed carpenter, or maybe a fishwife.

My use of first person was criticised. Mills and Boon, it seems, insist on a third person voice which influences the rest of the romance genre. By using first person I am hinting something is up. Interesting as I went for first person in order to make the surprise at the change stronger[3].

Several hints earlier make it clear that Gwen is very self-centred, making the twist more plausible, which was admired. The word "bodice", and the phrase "strong, manly hands" were suggested by my brother, who also had a couple of comments on the first draft. I may have used them in the rewrite, can't remember. I have juiced up the ending; previously the bank wasn't on fire and the money wasn't bloodstained. If I'm going with both real and preceived romance cliches, I should go with some crime and thriller ones.

[1] The actual song in my head while writing this was Guns 'n' Roses Sweet Child of Mine. Because we all want it, here's that very song being played on electric harp by twins.
[2] Some so cliched that they don't appear any more.
[3] One suggestion was that I went for first person because I want to be a woman. Well, you know, it's like Spain. I'd go there on holiday, but I wouldn't want to live there.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I Read Books: Moon Over Soho

1. The Preface, which is all about ME: This is a sequel to Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch, which I wrote a fair, restrained and generally positive review of back in January. I went out and bought Moon Over Soho and failed to review it for no very good reason. To celebrate the publication of the third book in the series I'm now going to talk about the second. IT MAKES SENSE TO ME.

2. The Premise, which is recycled from the first review: Our hero, Peter Grant, is a copper, a member of the Metropolitan Police Service. Having completed his two years probation he doesn't quite have the aptitude to be a thief-taker and is being considered for the Case Progression Unit (the department that deals with the paperwork). However he gets involved in a case with supernatural aspects and becomes an apprentice wizard. After the fall out of the end of Rivers of London he now works full time keeping the Queen's Peace amongst the uncanny and unusual.

3. The Mystery, which comes in three parts: There are mysterious deaths of Jazzmen, which is of especial interest to Peter as he is the son of London's least successful jazz legend. There is the case of the vagina dentata[1], which is foreshadowed in Rivers of London. Finally there's some other weirdness going down, which is a bit complex and spoilery. In addition Peter is up against Lady Ty, incarnate goddess of one of the Thames tributaries, who wants to put the policing of the supernatural on a more modern and professional footing, under her guidance of course.

4. The Backstory, which is of some interest: To spoil; once upon a time England and Europe had a number of thriving magical traditions. Then WW2 came along. The Nazis co-opted or killed the magicians of occupied Europe, and there was an apocalyptic battle in 1945 that wiped out most of the magicians on both sides. After this, there was no one left to run the magic school in England[2], and most of the survivors sank into the background[3]. Until now, when the magic is making a comeback.

5. The Humour, and also the conflict: Magic is (mostly) old school. Policing is an uneasy balance of old school and new school. Peter, of mixed race, is unhappy when his boss (born circa 1900) refers to the bad guys as 'Black Magicians', and suggests 'Ethically Challenged Magical Practitioners'. Magic also tends to break technology, leading to Peter to improvise some useful nonsense about an EMP. "What's an EMP?" asks his boss.

6. The Horror, of which there is sufficient: One of the characters was quite savagely injured at the end of Rivers of London. She only appears on page when Peter goes to see her, when it's heart wrenchingly tragic, but as she's convalescing - read bored - she's quite present, and still pretty sarcastic, in text and email. This is generally how the book handles these elements - light hearted and with humour, but not backing away from how terrible the events are. The work the black... I mean, the ethically challenged magical practitioners, operating without the moral code of Peter and his boss, have, and continue to do some very nasty things.

7. The Wrapup, in which I say whatever I couldn't shoehorn into one of the other sections, then repeat myself: Without intending to, Peter is clearly recruiting a new generation of wizards and auxiliaries. This is good, to help keep the series fresh, and possibly expand the scope. Aaronovitch, a former TV writer, seems to be putting together a larger cast of recurring characters, or perhaps he's simply putting in all the bits he likes but jettisoned from the first book to strip it back to stand alone. Who knows? I mean, until I (or you) read the next book. Or we could ask him I suppose. So anyway, 21st century meets policing, which combines IT data and forensic science with old fashioned boots on the street/ kicking in doors/ up the arse, meets magic, which has been in stasis since 1945. What's not to like?

Read This: If you liked the first one. Also if you like urban fantasy, London, police procedurals and all that stuff.
Don't Read This: If you don't read books. Also if all the stuff in the Read This bores you to death.
Also: The third book, Whispers Underground, is out now in hardback.

[1] Don't look this up at work. Or if you have castration anxieties.
[2] Which Peter refers to as "Hogwarts".
[3] We meet the archivist, answering the question of who reads the reports that the magic police write.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Horror 2: Mathematics

As noted yesterday, I had written a perfectly good horror story, but didn't present it at the first class, as we only had time for half the class and I was in Group A[1] who had gone first the previous time we split in two. Then on the Wednesday I got an interview for a Maths teacher training job, part of which was to give a 20 minute lesson on Prime Factor Decomposition. So I sat down and wrote a lesson plan, and when I was done I had this story in my head[2].

Prime Factor Decomposition

The white painted walls of the maths room looked very tall and were bare from head height to the windows by the ceiling. It was a perfect cube. Mark had found that out during a lesson when they measured everything. It seemed appropriate for the room to be a regular geometric shape, although they said it was just the way it had ended up when they turned the old gym into four classrooms after the accident.

“Prime factor decomposition,” said Miss Anderson. “We know what prime numbers are – yes we do Jack, don’t make that face – and factors are numbers that divide exactly into another number. Decomposition means to break down, so what we’re doing is breaking numbers down into the prime numbers that make them up.”

“Miss, why are we doing this?”

“You mean other than that it’ll be in your GCSE exam?” Every time she was sarcastic, her Australian accent got harsher. Mark wondered if she knew that. His mind drifted away from the room for a moment.

“... every integer – that’s whole number Billie – is made up of prime numbers. It’s axiomatic. Which means it has to be the case for maths to make sense.”

“Maths doesn’t make sense,” said Jenny in what she thought was a mutter.

“Making sense is the very thing that mathematicians have been working on for hundreds of years. If I have one pen and another pen then I have two pens. We can see that. But if we take the pens away, and just write 1 + 1 = 2, does that actually mean anything? Can we prove it logically, or is it just an improvisation, a coincidental observation? If I can’t prove it then one day I might take one pen, add another pen and end up with three pens. Then all of maths would need to be worked out again.”

“So you could have... maybe ... a four sided triangle?” said Gwen.

“Or a cube with 9 corners,” said Jack.

“Vertexes. No, vertices[3],” said Mark.

“That’s silly,” said Jenny.

“Don’t shout out,” said Miss Anderson. “Also it’s not just silly. It’s insane.
“If maths changed then the whole universe could transform itself. We measure everything with numbers. We wouldn’t know how many or much of anything there was. Time and space would change unpredictably. What we know – what we think we know – would be wrong and the world would seem to be a psychotic nightmare.

“But we’ve got distracted from the lesson. Find the prime factors of the numbers on the board.”

The class settled down to the problems. Miss Anderson walked up a row and stopped at a desk with exercise book and pen but no pupil.

“Where’s Jeffrey? I must have sent him to pupil services half an hour ago.”

Mark realised that he couldn’t remember Jeff going through the door. He did the thing with his eyes and looked into the ninth vertex of the room. He could see Jeff’s tortured face amongst the uncountable bones and bodies crammed into that space.

“I don’t think he’s coming back miss.”

(3 x 3 x 3 x 19 = 513 words)
I told the class the story behind the story and the tutor said she was glad something came out of lesson planning. This is, at it's heart, an old fashioned science fiction story with the science in this case being maths. It's also a bit of an homage to parodies of the Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits, where everything suddenly turns out to be completely nuts.

Although loosely based on my lesson plan, Miss Anderson deviates from it by talking about some of the philosophical underpinnings of mathematics. Bertrand Russell attempted to prove from rigorous logical axioms that 1 + 1 = 2, and thought he'd cracked it, but as it turned out he needed to use between one and three axioms[4] that couldn't themselves be proven. Of course, you can prove them if you take some other axioms, but as it turns out these axioms also cannot be proven without yet more... Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem proved that any logical system complete enough to handle arithmetic would always have unprovable axioms as part of it. Thank goodness Miss Anderson stops before she gets that far. Anyway, my point is that the story is mathematical-philosophically sound and you can't prove otherwise.

Some of this is based on real experience. As far as I know there is no classroom that is a perfect cube. The old gym being split into four classrooms is true, but there was no accident; it was because another building was being refurbished and so not able to be used for a term. Miss Anderson is borrowed from the largest shared universe of them all, real life, although she doesn't get distracted in this way in class, has acquired a fictional name and never lost a pupil into another dimension. If you're reading this, sorry Miss.

So the (creative writing) class enjoyed this. One of them wasn't 100% clear that verticies are the corners of 3D shapes. Do I need to re-write that part? I explain what prime factor decomposition is, get into the philosophical underpinnings of mathematics and put a twist in at the end all in 513 words which is pretty ambitious I have to say. Maybe I didn't quite get there on 3 dimensional geometry but I'm okay with that. The prime factor decomposition of the word count at the end amused most people.

One class member showed it to his 14 year old daughter who then showed it to some of her friends[5]. They liked it. The "uncountable bones and bodies" bit of ramming a joke against the horror was enjoyed by teenagers. Who would have thought! The main criticism from them was that you don't really get to know the characters. Well, hell, 513 words, two or three mathematical concepts to lead up to all of reality being broken and mass death. I'm sorry my character development isn't all there[6].

Finally, I didn't - couldn't? - write about something that actually horrifies me. So, like yesterday, I've combined things that concern and disgust me, and sidle up towards my fears without ever getting too deep in.

[1] A... for Anguish!
[2] Well... sort of. In fact I'd got the call on the Wednesday morning just as I was heading out and got email confirmation later that day. Being busy all day, I briefly revised Prime Factor Decomposition, went to bed and had crazy mathematical dreams. While eating breakfast I thought of all the things that could go wrong in a lesson. "That's a real horror story," I joked to myself. THEN I sat down to write the lesson plan.
[3] What the hell blogger? Your spellcheck wants to insist on vertexes as the plural of verticies? Both are actually okay!
[4] How many depends on which criticism I'm following at that moment.
[5] The prime factor decomposition lesson was for Year 9, who are 13-14 year olds, mostly 14 at this time of year.
[6] The word limit - 700 words - is pretty tough. My tendency to hammer home the story with a twist or revelation in the last paragraph, sentence or word means I am unwilling to just give the first part, so I wrote this as stripped down as I could, which I think has worked just fine, but does mean something has to give. In this case, we get a description of the classroom, a few clues about characters, but you have to fill in the class yourself. Hopefully most people reading this have been to school, or at least seen a school on television, so can fill in the blanks.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Horror 1: Celestial Mechanics and Tidal Forces

Introduction: The task from my Creative Writing class was to write a horror story of 700 words or less. As an additional challenge, or for those lacking inspiration, we could try and use the character we created earlier in the term. So I went away, and thought about what would happen if or when Lady Jane caught up with Heinrich von Schneemann and wrote it. It will make more sense if you read the linked stuff above.

However for these longer pieces only half the class present each lesson, and I was in the second group. Between lessons I had a new idea, wrote that, and decided I would let the others look at the second one. So for the first time ever I present:

Out of His Depth

Heinrich von Schneemann opened the door with difficulty and peered down the dark stairs. He couldn’t see to the bottom, but could hear water whispering. He flicked the switch outside the door and an electric light illuminated the room.

The air was damp with a slight breeze, with a faint hint of the marsh. Small dark shapes scattered across the floor, away from the light. When he reached the bottom the shimmering wet mirror of the floor rippled under his feet. He only just avoided soaking his patent leather shoe in a puddle.

The far side of the room was fully underwater, and the rough stone wall was pierced by a tunnel. Peering through a metal grate he thought he could see the full moon reflected on the river.

 “Good evening Mr von Schneemann. This is a curious room, isn’t it?”

Schneemann whirled around. At the top of the stairs stood Lady Jane. She had changed out of her dinner dress and was now in a sensibly cut dark blue suit with dull black boots. She held a handbag loosely in her hand.

“At high tide the water fills the room up to the top step. At low tide it used to be accessible by water before the tunnel was blocked. The door is, if not concealed, quite discrete. It is also thick and plated with iron on the inside, although that may be to keep rats from gnawing it rather than to muffle any sound. I do believe that General MacTavish’s ancestors may, shockingly, have used this hidden dock for smuggling.”

Her hard eyes belied her casual tone.

“Lady Glenshire. I did not expect to see you here.”

“No, you intended to meet the very foolish Ellen Conquest. She blabbed to her best friend, a slightly more sensible young lady, who is my protégé. It was a simple matter to substitute my note.”

Schneemann started towards the stairs. “Lady Glenshire, there has been a misunderstanding...”

Lady Jane produced from her bag a metallic object that shone in the electric light. “This is the Mark IV Webley revolver I carried during the Boxer Rebellion. As further misunderstandings would be unfortunate, let us simply take it as read that you have flattered, lied and blackmailed yourself into a position to destroy the Conquest family.”

“In my time in London society I have learned many things, my lady. About your husband for example.”

“His affairs are of no concern to me.”

Schneemann exploded. “Gottverdammt Englisch Schweinhund! You don’t know. What those people have done. To my mother. To me!”

“I know that your mother was made a scapegoat and disowned by her guardian, Sir John Conquest. That she fled the country and after some indignities became the mistress of Graf von Schneemann. That instead of being a scion of an influential English or noble German family you have been forced to seek your fortune around the world.

“I also know that in the name of avenging the injustice done to one naive young woman you plan to ruin another innocent young woman. I do not intend to permit that.”
Hearing the tragedy of his life so bluntly explained seemed to drain the energy from Schneemann.

“You have style, Mr von Schneemann, and if you had confined your attention to those responsible for your mother’s disgrace – and perhaps the footwear of ladies with more pairs of boots than sense – I might have been inclined to let events take their course. As it is however, this is goodbye.”

After turning and removing the key from the door Lady Jane stepped over to a rough table to scribble a note. Hearing a noise, she whirled, reaching into her bag.
“Jenkins! What are you doing out here?”

The hulking man servant bowed his head. “Miss Bedford insisted I remain close at hand my lady.”

“How sensible of her. I shall go and reassure her that all is well. Could you find an envelope for this, and put it in the post for Inspector Foxworthy, Scotland Yard?”

“I can go to the telegram office, my lady.”

“No, the morning is soon enough,” said Lady Jane. She walked to the wall and flicked off a switch. “There’s no hurry.”

Technical Notes: This is the version I edited down to 701 words from an original of 809. I have the 2nd draft of 744 words, but I thought I'd go with this one that I've stripped to the bone and polished to a fine sheen - the version I would have presented in class.

There is a problem with this scenario. I really want it to be a spring tide - higher than normal. Spring tides occur at[1] the full moon. For reasons of celestial mechanics and gravitational dynamics, at full moon high tide would be around midnight and noon, with low tide at six in the morning and evening.

The logic of the story means it should take place late at night, probably at midnight. The set up for the room requires that it should be low water when Schneemann enters, with the tide coming in over the next few hours, so he should enter at six in the evening, when everyone will be dressing for dinner, but that doesn't really work, or six in the morning which is kind of late for an Edwardian country weekend.

My solution is to assume that General MacTavish's house is on a river with a large tidal range that eventually has an estuary on the east coast. Such rivers in England have their tides later as the water has to move out of the Atlantic and up the Channel or down the North Sea and all the way upstream. The Thames would probably do, but someone has stuck London where I want a country house set in a lonely marsh.

Character: Schneemann's backstory was always something along these lines. He is not just a shoe obsessed conman, but bent on revenge. His slightly camp, war-comic style German swearing was previously admired by one of the class, whose mother is German, so I put a bit more in here.

The question of what would happen if Lady Jane came up against Heinrich von Schneemann came up as an aside in class. Clearly no one would go home happy. I had in mind a classic superhero meet-fight-team up, but the idea of horror, along with Lady Jane's amorality in True Crime, had her lock him in a flooding room.

Your interpretation of what happens next is as good as mine, but I reckon he doesn't drown, and even with the efficiency of the Edwardian Postal service Lady Jane probably has a good eighteen hours to force her own resolution on the responsible members of the Conquest family. They will not enjoy the experience. After that, Schneemann may go to jail, or it could be that Lady Jane has need of a man of action with a subtle mind dealing with her business interests in China or India...

[1] Or slightly after.

Friday, July 06, 2012

I Read Books: The Lost Fleet: Beyond The Frontier: Invincible

1. Covers.
So here we are, again reading a Jack Campbell space opera and again having a pop at the cover. And why not? Even the author has a go in this one.
He felt himself smiling. "Can you at least avoid calling me Black Jack while you're making your money by selling the story of our time together?"

Tanya shook her head. "Nope. I'm sure marketing will insist on it. I can just imagine the kind of book cover they'll insist on. Some really heroic pose by you doing something you never did, probably. Maybe in battle armor. With a gun."
- Invincible page 318

Hmm. The UK cover of Invincible has spaceships shooting at each other overlaid with targeting marks, which does better represent the contents of the book, although Geary sitting and thinking or having a meeting with a small group might actually be best, assuming Titan books didn't actually want to sell any copies. Other countries covers are interesting; Poland goes from baroque Warhammer 40K style armour, through 80s action hero singlet, to dystopian police state riot gear. Some change in art direction there.

The ship mentioned in the title is both thematically and literally referenced; possibly the most strongly used title in the story since Dauntless.

2. Quibbles. Also Spoilers.
Seriously man. Seriously. Geary and Desjani are married and in the same chain of command (Geary as Commanding Admiral, Desjani as his Flag Captain). This is acceptable. Sexual contact between them is against regulations. I would have thought the emotional relationship would be more destabilising - the conflict between marital relationship and the military one, as well as the difficulty of having to order someone you love into danger[1]. Something is screwed up[2] here. Of course, as becomes clear, Fleet Headquarters and the Alliance are screwed up.

3. Aliens. More Quibbles. More Spoilers.
So at the end of The Lost Fleet: Beyond The Frontier: Dreadnought the fleet is lost again; having crossed through several systems of the Enigma race who have done their very best to remain mysterious, they ended up trapped in another star system inhabited by another alien race.

This race, eventually known as the Kicks, are classic uncommunicative killing machine aliens. With, of course, the twist that they are herbivore herd animals, that look like metre tall teddy bear cows. As herbivores, they don't negotiate with carnivores, they form a phalanx and run them underfoot.

The alien expert's analysis and Geary's inspiration for fighting them seems just a touch pat. They're herbivores, so they stampede and charge. Still, my argument, that the way we fight is based on our enemies[3], seems to have been anticipated; the situation that the Kicks live in would not tend for them to innovate.

In general the alien analysis and communication takes place off page. Partly this is due to Geary's developing confidence in delegating, partly due to the fact that the details of translation, important as they are, are less interesting than the content of the message.

The other aliens in the novel work okay - the enigmas continue mysterious but malignant, the other race adaptable and elegant, although curiously lacking in one particular common item[4].

4. Endings and Sequels.
 Campbell's next novel gives us the story of what happens in the Syndic worlds following the end of the war. Are we slightly spoilered, or just teased by the end of Invincible? Only one way to find out I guess. Or perhaps wait until October for The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight.

Campbell[5] assures us that there will be more Lost Fleet novels. Geary is running towards a dangerous selection of conspiracies, many aimed at him, some at those around him and even more worryingly, others acting in his name. Can he return his fleet with honour and convince those who fear him to just stop without any shooting? Can he even sacrifice himself without becoming a martyr and causing the very civil war he wants to avoid? Geary and the series is at his best on the bridge of a starship, but a close second is navigating the shoals of honour and duty. Campbell might just pull off the best novel in the series. If he does, we all win. If he doesn't I'll bake a cake in the shape of the book and eat it, so I win, and maybe I'll put pictures up here so you can enjoy it too[6].

[1] By banning shipmates from having sex, you run the danger on board relationships will be hidden and become abusive. This may be an acceptable trade-off for a difficult situation.
[2] Or not, as the case may be.
[3] Or our perception of our enemies.
[4] Due to the continuing equipment failures on the fleet, I suspect that half the ships are being held together by that commodity.
[5] In his guise as Hemry.
[6] I wasn't sure how to end this, so just riffed off eating the book for a bit.