Summer at HappyKamper

SummerAtHappyKamper

(wakefieldpinball [CC / FLickr])

Welcome to HappyKamper, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll be your Kampster – that’s what we call it – for as long as you’re here so if there’s anything you need, anything at all, please feel free to ask me.

What’s that, sir?

Ah, the old ‘no toilet roll in my chalet’ question. A classic never ages.

You see, it’s the responsibility of the housekeeping staff to check that. I did ask them to make sure this time, but they requested me to attend to my own business. I won’t lie, those weren’t the exact words that were used, but it’s my job to make your stay as pleasant as possible – within budgetary constraints, naturally – and a verbatim report would not fit that brief.

I’m afraid they don’t trust me with a key to the toilet roll cupboard, so I’d suggest the quickest way to get some is to make a complaint online. You should get a reply within three days. If the wifi in the chalets is on the blink again, it’s usually reliable in the bar. And there’s a toilet in there as well, which you may be needing.

Any more questions?

Yes, madam, I’m afraid it is chucking it down with rain, and the forecast says it won’t let up all week. I hope you’ve brought a coat? Or an umbrella?

No?

Well, not to worry. Here at HappyKamper, we’ve anticipated the complete lack of forward planning that afflicts the English holidaymaker. I’m sure it rained in your summer holiday last year, didn’t it? And the year before that? And you were just as surprised and unprepapred for it then as you are now?

Yes, I thought so.

I should do a mindreading act for tomorrow night’s cabaret. I’d get paid more than I get for this, and I promise you I’ll be more sober than old whatsisname will be by the time he gets to Summer Lovin’.

Oh yes, ladies and gentlemen, you have a treat in store.

But back to the problem of the rain. I suggest you toddle along to the gift shop and buy one of their overpriced brollies emblazoned with the glorious clash of purple and orange that is the HappyKamper logo. If you’re lucky, it won’t fall apart before the end of the week, but you can always buy another if it does.

Sir, I heard your muttered question, and I will answer you. You are correct. This is my last day working here.

I’m tempted to add that HappyKamper can go to hell tomorrow, but by this time tomorrow, you’ll be telling my poor, benighted replacement that you’re there already.

Enjoy.

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Lessons from Brontosaurus

LessonsFromBrontosaurus

(Zachi Evenor [CC / Flickr])

“This is a brontosaurus,” said Miss Collinson. “Now, who can tell me what this is?”

Jasmin stuck her hand up. This was easy.

“Yes, Jasmin?”

“That’s a tyrannosaurus, Miss.”

“That’s right, Jasmin. They’re both di-no-saurs.” Miss Collinson pronounced the word slowly, emphasising every syllable. “Big, fierce dinosaurs. They lived a long time ago.”

Jasmin put her hand up again.

“If they were so big and fierce, how did people live with them?”

“That’s a very good question, Jasmin. You see, people didn’t live with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs came before there were any people. Now, let’s look at another…yes, Jasmin?”

“Miss, if there were no people when they were around, who called them Brontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus?”

“We did, Jasmin. Or at least, the people who discovered their fossils did.”

Jasmin put her hand up again.

“One more question, Jasmin.”

“If the dinosaurs were around before people, what was around before the dinosaurs?”

Miss Collinson frowned. “Well, I don’t know. Slime, probably. Maybe some fish…but we’re talking about dinosaurs today. Is that all your questions, Jasmin?”

“Yes, Miss.”

Because if Miss Collinson didn’t know something, nothing would ever be the same again.

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Greater Minds: Hilary Mantel on the life and project

Shortly before her death, Susan Sontag said ‘that somewhere along the line, one has to choose between the Life and the Project’. Hilary Mantel quoted her in the third of this year’s Reith lectures, while she was talking about the life of playwright Stanisława Przybyszewska; a woman whose life might have been longer had she been slightly less diligent in her pursuit of her project.

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Hilary Mantel in 2010 (Chris Boland [CC / Flickr])

Having spent a substantial amount of time and effort writing stories that, judging by the comments that you don’t see, are read by more spambots than people, the question of how much of the life should be devoted to the project struck a certain chord with me.

This train of thought runs on an entirely different track to my last pontification on Mantel’s Reith lectures, and I thoroughly recommend listening to the lectures themselves:

Lecture 1: The day is for the living: podcast and transcript.

Lecture 2: The Iron Maiden: podcast and transcript.

Lecture 3: Silence grips the Town: podcast and transcript.

Lecture 4: Can these bones live? podcast and transcript.

Lecture 5: Adaptation: podcast and transcript.

Animation by detail

Any writer of fiction will have wrestled with the problem of how to breathe life into the figures we conjure from our imagination. A biographer’s subjects once breathed for themselves, but they don’t spare her from the problem. Too much detail, too little detail

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Portrait of Susan Sontag in 2009 by Juan Fernando Bastos (Wikimedia commons)

or the wrong choice of detail will deprive the biographer’s subject of a second life on the page as thoroughly as if he were a figment of the writer’s imagination.

Mantel has spent much of the last decade writing her trilogy of Thomas Cromwell novels, from his rise to immense power under King Henry VIII to the same fate he’d arranged for many other inconvenients: he was executed for treason. Mantel has taken on the challenge of both the novelist and the biographer so perhaps it’s no wonder that her lectures are suffused with the Sontag’s choice: how far do we allow a project to take over our lives?

At first glance, Mantel may not be the obvious person to ask that of. She has two Booker prizes and a Damehood to her name, is a well enough regarded public intellectual to be invited to give the Reith lectures, and presumably the success of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies has left her more than comfortable financially. Her project appears to have set up her life in a way that most of us can only dream of.

Before writing her off as being too successful to talk about the travails of a struggling artist, we should remember that she was writing for decades to reach that position. While her previous novels were well regarded by critics, it wasn’t until she was well into her fifties that she achieved the prominence she enjoys now.

Robespierre’s last victim

She must have spent much of her life in a situation that anyone who has embarked on any project of ambition can relate to: wondering whether a project that’s likely to sink without trace is worth the time and effort it demands. Wondering whether anyone will read that half-written novel or set eyes on that half-finished sculpture.

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Stanisława Przybyszewska (Hansah [Wikimedia Commons])

Mantel’s third lecture explores that wondering not through her own experience, but through the tragic life of Stanislawa Przybyszewska. Born in 1900 as the product of artist’s affair with a famous but married playwright, Przybyszewska spent her childhood in Paris and Vienna before returning to her native Poland. After a brief marriage to a man who died of an overdose, it’s perhaps understandable that she closed the door on the world around her and immersed herself in history.

Przybyszewska devoted herself to writing a historically accurate play of the life of Maximilien Robespierre, one of the leaders of the French Revolution of 1789. For Przybyszewska, the project became an obsession and life an inconvenience. She neglected her health, prioritising morphine over food or warmth. As her health deteriorated, her play grew until she finally completed a document that was so comprehensive that it would have taken fourteen hours to stage in its entirety. It was rejected repeatedly, then her heart was further broken when it was staged but edited down to five hours.

Przybyszewska, Mantel tells us:

…couldn’t see the difference between the truth and the whole truth: for her, to omit was to falsify, and because she was anxious never to mis-state, she overdetermined her direction and her method. (Lecture 3)

She died at the age of 34, consumed and destroyed by the project:

Multiple causes of death were recorded, but actually she died of Robespierre. You don’t want to work like that, be like that. You hope your art will save you, not destroy you. But

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Maxmilien Robespierre in 1790 (DIREKTOR [Wikimedia Commons])

it’s a sad fact that bad art and good art feel remarkably the same, while they’re in process. (Lecture 3)

The resurrection project?

Her short life is, Mantel tells us, ‘an awful warning’ to any of us who are tempted to cede too much of the life to the project:

If anyone thinks writing is therapy – I beg them to look at this life. (Lecture 3)

Mantel’s lectures are peppered with hints that she has struggled to avoid, if not dying of her subjects, of allowing them to take over too much of her life. Most writers talk about their characters, but Mantel repeatedly refers to her own characters as ‘the dead’. She opened one lecture:

St Augustine says, the dead are invisible, they are not absent. You needn’t believe in ghosts to see that’s true…if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art. (Lecture 2)

Many writers will admit to a degree of obsession with their work. It may or may not be healthy, but sometimes you have to step beyond the rational to pursue the project that refuses to co-operate. However, I’ve never before heard a novelist talk about how we ‘chase the dead, shouting, ‘Come back!’’ (Lecture 2).

Mantel was of course speaking metaphorically, though I found I couldn’t avoid thinking about Beyond Black, one of her earlier novels that sees a woman called Alison physically tormented by the shades of men she knew as a child. I had the sense that there are times when Mantel feels that Thomas Cromwell and his contemporaries treat her as those

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Portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger (Dcoetzee [Wikimedia Commons])

ghosts treated Alison.

Yet while Mantel warned us not to follow Przybyszewska in abandoning the life for the project, she did not say that we should abandon the project altogether for the sake of the life. Mantel’s decades of pursuing the project did, after all, cumulate in success. She is warning us that the project is not a substitute for life and that if we’re tempted to regard it as therapy for the tribulations of life, we should keep poor Stanislawa Przybyszewska in the front of our minds lest we follow her example.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

Cold Freedom

ColdFreedom

(Martin Addison [CC / Flickr])

You want to know why I was waving a knife around in that shop? It’s a fair question, constable, so I’ll give you a fair answer. It was because there wouldn’t be no kids in a booze shop. They might’ve got upset.

I know you don’t understand. You’re still wondering why I didn’t at least try to nick anything, so you won’t catch up with that yet.

All right, I’ll try to explain.

I went straight from foster care to prison.

Don’t roll your eyes, I’m not feeding you a sob story. I know it’s not gonna stop you charging me. I’m explaining, like I said I would.

No one told me I’d best stop snatching phones when I turned eighteen. I’d done a couple of stretches as a young offender, which meant I had a record when I was charged as an adult and, well, you know what happens next.

I spent the next year and a half counting the days. I couldn’t wait to be free. No more bars, I thought, no more walls.

Then the day came and out I went.

Free.

But free to do what?

How’d you get a job when your address is wherever you haven’t been moved on from by you lot? How d’you fill in the forms for a council house when you can’t read half the words in the questions?

I didn’t take me long to learn something about freedom: it’s cold.

We’re off the record, right? I don’t want my brief hearing this. He might get my sentence suspended.

That’s right, I wasn’t gonna hurt no one. I’m just tired of freedom. I want a dry blanket and a hot meal.

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A Kentishman in Spain

AKentishmanInSpain

(Janice Waltzer [CC / Flickr])

“It’s a right scorcher, today is,” said Jonty.

“I know,” said Maggie. “I can’t do anything. I can’t even think straight.”

“Should’ve stayed at home,” said Jonty.

“What? You’ve been moaning about rain and cold all winter,” said Margaret. “That’s why we came to Spain in the first place.”

“Yeah, I know, but I didn’t want it this hot. And you can’t get a decent curry here either. I’ve looked.”

“What do you want a curry for? We didn’t come to Spain for a curry. We came because you wanted some sun. Well, here’s the sun.

“Not sun like this,” said Jonty. “I meant sun like we get back home in Kent. Nice and warm sun. Not sun that fries your head in ten minutes.”

“All right,” said Margaret. “Let’s have a cold drink.”

“Nah. It’s too early for beer and the coke tastes funny here.”

“Of course it tastes different. It’ Spanish coke. There wouldn’t be any point in coming here if everything was the same as it is at home.”

“Yeah,” said Jonty. “Well, that’s my point.”

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Greater Minds: Hilary Mantel on adapting the past

The Reith Lectures are an annual pleasure from the BBC to the world. Every year, a prominent speaker gives a series of lectures on a subject close to their heart, followed by questions from an audience that usually includes some equally prominent names. This year, the speaker was Dame Hilary Mantel, speaking on the relationship between the historical novelist and her subject.

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Hilary Mantel in 2010 (Chris Boland [CC / Flickr])

Mantel’s eleven novels add up to an impeccable qualification for speaking on the subject. Her best known books are Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which won the Booker Prize. They are the first two parts of a trilogy covering the life of Thomas Cromwell, hatchet man of King Henry VIII of England. From the audience’s response, there’s no shortage of people who can’t wait for the third novel.

There were five lectures this year rather than the usual four:

Lecture 1: The day is for the living: podcast and transcript.

Lecture 2: The Iron Maiden: podcast and transcript.

Lecture 3: Silence grips the Town: podcast and transcript.

Lecture 4: Can these bones live? podcast and transcript.

Lecture 5: Adaptation: podcast and transcript.

As usual with my Greater Minds podcasts, I’m not going to reprise the content of the lectures themselves – Hilary Mantel does not need me to speak for her – but I’m going to follow the thoughts her lectures sparked in my own mind. For what it’s worth, Wolf Hall was not among my favourite novels and I haven’t read Bring up the Bodies, but I find that

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(Gwydion M Williams [CC / Flickr])

Mantel delivered a great deal of food for thought for an occasional writer of historical short stories like me.

From the present to the past

The theme of adaptation runs throughout the lectures, and is the title of the final lecture. A historical novel starts long before the novelist puts the first word of the novel on paper. It often starts centuries before the novelist is even born, with the people who make – or are made or unmade by – the historical events that form the backdrop to the novel. They don’t see themselves as characters in a story any more than we do, though historical novels will undoubtedly be set in the time in which we live and people like us will be co-opted as characters:

We are not separate from history. It’s not an exam we pass. It’s something we are in. (Lecture 4)

A question that Mantel wrestles with throughout the lectures is whether we’d recognise a future historical novelist’s facsimiles of us. If we wouldn’t, neither would a Tudor recognise themselves in Mantel’s own fiction. When looking at history, it’s always tempting to assume a pattern of straightforward cause and effect that at least some people at the time understood. Mantel asks us to think of history in the same light as the

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(Matt [CC / Flickr])

political pantomimes we see played out in thirty second snippets and fumbling analysis we see daily on the television news:

It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that. (Lecture 1)

The professional historian’s job is to evaluate those sources and to try to find some sort of coherent pattern in them. If history is, in Arnold Toynbee’s phrase, ‘just one damned thing after another’, the academic historian at least tries to work out how one damned thing leads to another, if it does at all. Toynbee’s phrase is often quoted as a pearl of wisdom, usually by people who do not realise he was using it to characterise a view he disagreed with. Proof, if any were needed, that the commonly held view of the past is often misleading.

Where the biographer stops, the novelist begins

Mantel’s point is not that the pursuit of historical truth is futile, but that it can only be taken so far. In response to a question by biographer Stanley Wells, she said:

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A relic of Tudor times (zoe toseland [CC / Flickr])

I think the biographer stops working, downs tools a lot quicker than the novelist does because he says, like the historian, “I come to this frontier and after that, I cannot know”, and quite properly takes his hands off. (Lecture 5)

The historical record may show what a person did, but it rarely tells us exactly why they did it. Historical records may offer some clues, but won’t be complete enough to definitively complete the sentence that starts, ‘Napoleon invaded Russia because…’, or ‘Winston Churchill and David Lloyd-George introduced state pensions and free visits to doctors because…’, or, more pertinently to Mantel’s signature novels, ‘Thomas Cromwell framed Anne Boleyn because…’.

As we enter uncharted waters, the novelist can take the helm from the historian. Most historical novelists do not work in parallel to historians but follow in their footsteps. When the historians and biographers ‘down tools’ at the edge of the historical record, the novelist takes a few steps into the unknown:

Writers shouldn’t claim they are doing research when they mean they are skimming facts out of pre-existing texts. Unless they are also trained historians, novelists mostly don’t have the skills for original research from primary sources. Typically, we first meet the material

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(Jim Surkamp [CC / Flickr])

when it’s been filtered – by historians, biographers. In the early stages, that’s helpful. It helps you see shape, it stops you being distracted by irrelevant detail, and it keys you in to controversies. (Lecture 4)

Great men make constrained characters

Mantel is unusual in that she does use primary sources. Her Cromwell novels are also relatively unusual in that they are told from the perspective of a man whose life is reasonably well documented. Thomas Cromwell lived one of the best documented lives of 16th century England, which must have been a major constraint in adapting his life into fiction. A novel, after all, must tell a satisfying story. For that reason, the great men and women of history, who might make good subjects for biography, tend to make poor viewpoints for a novel.

In CJ Sansom’s Dissolution, Matthew Shardlake is free to gallivant around Henry VII’s England and see the dissolution of the monasteries first hand because being fictional, there is no historical record to tell him what to do or where to be. Thomas Cromwell can stay in London where he belongs, where he’s available for Shardlake to visit if and when the plot demands.

I suspect this is one of the reasons why King Arthur remains a perennially popular subject for fiction: he offers the writer the charisma of the great man without the limitations of a historical record.

Mantel_1

Hilary Mantel portrait by Nick Lord (Chris Beckett [CC / Flickr])

To take on a novel from the perspective of a decumented great man is a massive undertaking, which may explain why Mantel’s Cromwell novels are very large and take so long to write.

From the page to the stage

If the process of adaptation begins with the historian and is taken further by the novelist, much of Mantel’s final lecture revolves around what often happens next: the adaptation to stage and screen as has happened with Wolf Hall. The history of literature is littered with spats between novelists and the directors who adapted their work, but Mantel is in no hurry to add another one. She sees the process of adaptation from novel to screen as being a progression of the adaptation from lives that were once lived to lives adapted to the printed page:

Adaptation, done well, is not a secondary process… but an act of creation in itself. Indeed, the work of adaptation is happening every day…an event occurs once: everything else is reiteration, a performance. (Lecture 5)

Different media have different strengths and weaknesses. Mantel states that the ‘big set-piece is better left to the cinema’, while stage performances often require the audience to fill in the gaps with their imagination. At the climax of Shakespeare’s Richard III, she reminds us, the Battle of Bosworth Field is recreated with the few extras who can be fitted on stage to rattle their shields. The audience must conjure a clash of thousands in their imaginations. If they do so, they are rewarded by the vision of the man who had recently cries ‘let us to it pell mell, and if not to heaven, go we hand in hand to hell!’ offering his kingdom for a horse.

The shade of Robert Bolt

Disappointingly, she described the process of adaptation as being linear, from the events to the academic history to the novel to stage and screen. In fact, many periods of history

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A performance of Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for All Seasons’ (Amy Claxton [CC / Flickr])

have many fictional interpretations. If Mantel was interested enough in the reign of Henry VIII to make it the setting for a trilogy, she was presumably interested enough to have read or seen other adaptations. Many of her readers will have been following an interest in the period piqued by the Tudor novels of Philippa Gregory or the TV series, The Tudors. Mantel was not impressed by The Tudors, which ‘offered a strange blend of the ploddingly literal and the violently implausible’.

Throughout the lectures, I found myself unable to ignore one particular elephant in the room, which was that the second half of Wolf Hall read very much as a retelling of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially as Bolt made a modern hero out of Thomas More and glossed over his likely involvement in burning protestants. Bolt was more interested in an exploration of how conscience responds to power than in historical verisimilitude, but I would have been interested to know how Mantel saw the conversation that Wolf Hall looked as though it was having with A Man for All Seasons.

Doing better

One of the questions she was asked referred to a spat between historian Niall Ferguson and novelist Jane Smiley, which I have pontificated about in the past. Ferguson

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(Paul Cooper [CC / Flickr])

disparaged historical fiction as leading inevitably to having 21st sensibilities dressed up in Tudor costume. Having spent most of the past three quarters of an hour talking about how to avoid that, Mantel appears to have felt no need to offer a detailed answer, replying with simply, ‘I think we can do a little bit better than that’.

As a reader of historical fiction, I’m the first to appreciate when she and her colleagues do so. As an occasional writer of it, I must take that on board and endeavour to do so.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

Billboard in the Desert

BillboardInTheDesert

(Geof Wilson [CC / Flickr])

It was the mirage that led him to the town.

He knew what it was. He’d have died weeks ago if he hadn’t known how to distinguish the desert’s illusions from its reality. But it was as good a direction as any so he headed toward it, the taps of his footfalls punctuating the grind of the cart he towed behind him. The mirage matched him pace for pace, always the same distance ahead of him.

The mirage vanished in an eyeblink.

He wondered if its disappearance was a warning of a canyon blocking his path but no, when he squinted against the glare, he saw straight lines. In the desert, the only straight lines were those fashioned by human hands.

His footsteps quickened, excited out of the measured pace he could sustain from sunrise to sunset. Straight lines joined to form walls and windows. A gap showed him where a main street had once been, so he followed it between the rows of houses with sand piled half way up their front doors.

As he hauled his cart toward the centre of the town, the buildings grew taller. Brisk walls gave way to glass shopfronts, sporting names he remembered from his youth. Starbucks and McDonalds rubbed shoulders with the smaller stores named for the families that had once owned them. The sand was piled so high that when he passed a bus shelter, the roof was level with his eyes. Wherever the buses had come from and gone to was lost; the fragments of the schedule that had not been scoured away were bleached white by the sun.

He came to a crossroads that marked the centre of the town. It must have been busy once, judging by the billboards hired by people who expected them to be seen by thousands of eyes. Most of them bore nothing but faded scraps of paper, but some freak of shade and shelter had preserved a few words on one of them:

Coca-Cola forever.

He trudged into its shadow and allowed himself a sip from the water tank on the cart.

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Byron Close

ByronClose

(Dan Pearce [CC / Flickr])

Carys was watching Peppa Pig with Jamie when they kicked the door down.

Adrenaline took over. She didn’t remember leaping to her feet, she didn’t remember scooping Jamie into her arms but she was already dashing for the stairs when the man with the baseball bat appeared in the living room doorway.

“Gimme the gear,” he yelled, which set Jamie bawling.

The bat filled Carys’s vision. The man behind it was a blur, shouting words that made no sense.

Nowhere to run.

Nowhere to hide.

Someone else’s footsteps clumping up the stairs.

Somehow the remote control for the television was in her other hand. It felt better than facing him empty handed. “Get out of my house!”

“I want the gear.” The man smacked the bat into his palm. “And the cash…are you trying to put me on standby?”

“What gear?” Carys had to shout back over Jamie’s howling. “What are you on about?”

“The gear! The drugs! We know it’s here. Don’t lie.”

Something in his voice sounded less certain. Carys pulled her gaze off the bat to take a proper look at the man behind. Her gaze panned down from his greasy hair to his denim jacket. She felt a sudden urge to tell him he should keep shaving until he was old enough to carry off the stubbled look, but kept the thought to herself. Whatever he was here for, it wasn’t grooming tips.

A voice shouted from upstairs. “Get her to tell us where the cash is. There’s nothing up here but a bunch of Barry Manilow on vinyl.”

The man-boy with the baseball bat frowned. “Are you some sort of hipster?”

“There’s no drugs here,” Carys kept her voice low and level. “Really.”

“You sure about this, Wayne?” It was the voice from upstairs. “This don’t look right.”

“Don’t use my name, you moron,” said the man-boy. “And look harder. I know this is the place. Eight Byron Avenue. My man knows his stuff.”

“Byron Avenue?” Carys raised her voice enough to be heard upstairs. “This is Eight Byron Close, not Byron Avenue.”

“You what?” came the voice from upstairs. “Hang on, I’m checking on my phone.”

The man-boy called Wayne’s frown was deepening. The bat was now hanging from his hand instead of brandished for a swing, which Carys took as a good sign.

“It’s true,” came the voice. “We’re in the wrong house. Wayne, you’re a muppet.”

“Oh,” said Wayne. “Sorry.”

The footsteps thudded back down the stairs. Wayne turned and followed them to the door. Carys followed them. She very much wanted to see them leave the house.

She watched Wayne follow two other denim jackets out of the door. He turned on the threshold and dug in his pocket.

“Here’s fifty quid for the door,” he said.

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Fiction Review: Blindsight by Peter Watts

BlindsightA laser is asked to find darkness in a dark room. This will be easy, thinks the laser, how hard can it be to find what I’m surrounded by? Yet wherever the laser looks, all it sees is light.

The characters of Blindsight are not searching for darkness but for the nature of consciousness, which is what prompts a cantankerous biologist to come up with the parable of the laser in the first place. For while Blindsight is, on the surface, a classic space opera complete with mysterious aliens and a colourful crew captained by a vampire – whose existence is explained through creative palaeogenetics –  what sets Blindsight apart is that the vampires and aliens are really there for an exploration of the nature of consciousness.

The exploration starts in the mind of the narrator, Siri. His partial lobotomy has taken his ability to engage emotionally, but given him a talent for distilling peoples’ meanings from their words without colouring them with his own prejudices and interpretations. He’s so good at it that he’s packed off with crew of misfits to investigate a large alien somewhere beyond the orbit of Jupiter – beyond which, we’re told, nobody gets to goes without being at least a little vampire.

Siri’s crewmates have all augmented themselves to thrive in their chosen specialities in an age when computers are so smart that they’ve left nothing useful for unaugmented people to do. As Siri gets to know their ‘topology’, as he calls it, it becomes more apparent that their augments have left each of them with a consciousness that is not exactly baseline human.

Between them, they need to work out the intentions of an enormous alien entity calling itself Rorschach, which is as big as a decent sized moon. In case that isn’t hard enough for the characters to get their enhanced heads around, Rorschach incorporates a powerful electromagnetic field that interacts with neural impulses to leave the characters feeling like they’re working their way through the casebook of Oliver Sachs.

Blindsight asked me to make a certain amount of effort to keep up, and not because there’s anything difficult about the prose. Several times, I found myself having to read a passage twice to make sure I knew what was going on. By the time I finished the novel, I was left with many questions to make up my own mind about. Was Siri really as emotionally disengaged as he thought he was and if he wasn’t, how trustworthy were his impressions of the other characters? Was the vampire really in command or was it merely the acceptable voice of one of those annoyingly smart computers? Were the other crew making their own decisions or were the effects of that electromagnetic field less random and more lasting than they appreciated? Did Rorschach understand the joke inherent in choosing its name?

And ultimately, was Rorschach conscious or merely going through the motions? Because the only way to answer that question is to work out what consciousness really is, if it means anything at all beyond simply describing the way Homo sapiens happens to process sensory input.

It’s the mark of great literature that it can be an utterly engrossing read while leaving such fundamental questions in its wake.

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Posted in Book review: fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Coldwater Cottage – 18: The Ascent

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17


Coldwater CottageIan shot through the door and blinked at the grey light bathing the boulders below him. He grabbed his air gauge and lifted it in front of his eyes. Twenty bars. Not much, but enough to get to the surface. He turned to face the house as he kicked upward, and perhaps he heard a distant voice say, “she was never really alone here,” but he wasn’t sure.

Back in the eternal grey between the surface and the bottom, eyes darting between the depth gauge and the Celtic cross in his hand. The cross glinted as red seeped back into the colour of his drysuit. Ian looked up to see the sparkle of sunlight on the surface above him. His head burst into the air, and he took the sweetest breath he’d ever tasted, for all the salt he inhaled with it.

He opened the valve into his buoyancy jacket, but the sigh of air died from the moment it started. It was enough to keep him on the surface, but Ian shuddered at the thought that he’d surfaced with less than one more breath in his tank.

The boat bobbed about fifty meters away. He could see Jakki’s blonde head as she lay against the rubber side. He was only ten meters away by the time she saw him. She leapt to her feet, but staggered and lost her balance as the boat rolled.

“Ian!” Her voice was muffled by his hood, but he could hear the joy in it.

Ian slipped his mask down around his neck and threw his arms over the side of the boat. He opened his left hand and expected Jakki to grab the brooch. She glanced at it, looked at him and time stood still as he saw that old look of trust return to her face.

Jakki sprang forward, leaning over the side to throw her arms around his neck. “I knew you’d find it.”

Ian pressed his face into her shoulder. “Yes,” he said. “I found it.”


The full story is available from the Amazon Kindle store, and is part of the Steel in the Morning collection which is available in Kindle or paperback format.

Coldwater Cottage was originally published in Lamplight 1:2 and subsequently in the Lamplight Volume 1 annual.

Author notes

Goodreads

Cover by Manda Benson

Other stories by DJ Cockburn available online

Steel in the Morning

Newgate Jig

The Endocrine Tyranny

Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo

Foreclosure

Cassandra’s Cargo

Mars One

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