2011 – In Review

Oh what a year it was.

I just want to give a quick summary of my year in science fiction and writing so please indulge me for a moment while I reminisce about films, tv and books. Please note that in some cases I will be discussing stuff not released in 2011, but that I personally watched/read/experienced for the first time.

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Post A Day 2011 – The Grand Finale

Ok so here is the final assessment including the questions posted by WP.

Why did you start the Post a Day/Week Challenge?
I was a new blogger and needed the practice and motivation to get into the swing of things. I write fiction and hadn’t written anything in a while, I thought blogging might help.

Describe the state of your blog at the time you started the challenge.
New blog, average hits of about 5 per day, no subscribers. Lots of ideas for what I wanted to do as I had spent the last few months thinking about it.

How did your blog evolve over the course of the challenge?
I stopped doing all of the Post A Day after two weeks because I didn’t feel it was for me. I wanted people to read my work, ponder it and contribute… quality not volume.

Did you post as often as you had hoped? Why or why not?
I’m posting something roughly every two days and this is better than I was hoping for so, yes.

What type of blogging strategy works best for you?
Doing it as the muse takes me but planning content to be spread out so that I don’t have six posts in a single day and then nothing for a few weeks. With my “Site of the Week” feature, I stack up about four or five on the trot so each is posted about a month after I have found the site. This usually allows me time to investigate the site and write a good review. I hope next year’s “Site of the Week” posts to be more thorough.

If you could go back to the beginning, what would you do differently?

What are you most proud of accomplishing this year?
Over 20 subscribers, most of whom have signed up in the last 2-3 months.

Name 3 great blogs you discovered through the challenge.
Unfortunately I don’t think I found any through Post A Day. All of those I interact with came through “tag surfer” which WordPress now seems to have discarded from the dashboard.

What surprised you about the challenge?
The lack of direction from WordPress. Too much repetition, too many missed days and calls for ideas from bloggers that were never used (some good ideas too).

I followed the suggestions daily and I noticed that few people tended to do all of them. Most seemed to do it a few months as a new blogger and then drift away.

What advice would you give to others who want to blog regularly?
Pick a specific subject and stick to it. Write the sort of blog that you would want to read.

What are your blogging goals for 2012?
World domination mwuhahahahahahaha!

Carry on doing my thing. I hope to spend more time fiction writing next year so my blog will increasingly be used to promote my work.

To those who stuck with post a day in 2011, congratulations and all the best for next year!

Book Review: The Tiger in the Well by Philip Pullman

Set about three years after The Shadow in the North, the third in the Sally Lockhart mysteries sees Sally a single mother in Victorian England following the death of Fred and working in partnership with Fred and Rosa’s extended family.

It has a bizarre yet simple premise. Sally’s husband wants a divorce, her complete estate and sole custody of their child. But Sally didn’t marry and the father of Harriet (her daughter) died in a fire. Somebody wants to take everything that Sally has and they are prepared to create false marriages and a seemingly water-tight paper trail to achieve their goal. What’s more, the person to whom she is supposed to be married is only a puppet in a complex game that also concerns the abuse of Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms of Russia, Poland and Germany. The person behind it is known only as Tzaddik and he is a kind of Victorian Keyser Soze.

This is longer than the two previous novels (over 400 where the others were around 200) and quite a complex mystery to unravel as the plot develops. Unfortunately, it isn’t as gripping as the previous two. It also suffers for the distinct lack of characters familiar from the last two books, especially Jim Taylor. Excellently played by Matt Smith in the two TV films, Jim is a colourful character who added a light-hearted touch to the previous two. He makes an appearance toward the end but early on his involvement is too thin.

Also missing is Rosa, sister to Fred who you would have thought might have been supportive of the mother of her niece, even if as we know, Sally can be as stubborn as a goat at times. These two variables and the bleakness of the plight of the immigrants makes it a far less enjoyable affair and a mystery that plods a little too comfortably. It’s no page-turner.

This is an interesting mystery but unfortunately, it isn’t as good as the other two. I’m looking forward to the final book The Tin Princess.

Publishing in the 21st century

Next year I want to make a serious push to get some of my work published in 2012. Thanks to The Guardian, I have some options to explore (as always here is the mobile link).

I know that my novel Dieu et mon Droit needs a rewrite and I’m undecided whether to work on that or my steampunk idea that exists solely as a three hundred word premise.

The side of me that likes a challenge wants to rewrite my completed novel. It will be a challenge as I am happy with most of it but there are some parts that do not work. It’s not something I want to do but I know I need to do it and I need to be brutal.

The mercenary in me thinks I might find it easier getting steampunk published in digital form but that means spending all next year writing a new novel when I have one already completed.

Oooooh decisions, decisions.

Site of the Week: Dickens’ Ghost Stories

If you know of any useful websites or perhaps run one yourself, feel free to recommend it. If I find your site suitable for my weekly feature then I will do my utmost to accommodate it. In return I might merely ask that you link to my blog. But please (and I mean this in the politest possible terms) do not ask me to advertise your commercial service.

Nothing too profound or useful for this festive edition. Charles Dickens was known for writing a number of ghost stories, the most famous of which is obviously A Christmas Carol. But this wasn’t the only ghost story he wrote, nor indeed was it the only Christmas story he wrote.

Ghost stories at Christmas has been a bit of a tradition that has fizzled out a bit in recent years. The only tv dramas I can think of in recent years is Mark Gatiss’ Crooked House and last year’s BBC2 drama Whistle and I’ll Come to you.

Some Dickensian reading for this week then. Enjoy and have a wonderful Christmas!

As next week is Boxing Day, there won’t be a Site of the Week. I’ll probably skip 2nd January as well. See you in 2012!

Dickens reads A Christmas Carol – audio

Charles Dickens was born in February 1812 so naturally next year, British tourism is going to milk it for all it is worth. Ahead of this, The Guardian has a piece about an audio recording of his granddaughter Monica Dickens here reading A Christmas Carol.

There is a free extract and interview in the links so if you are a Dickens fan, enjoy!

RIP Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, well-known polemicist, commentator and journalist has died of pneumonia at the age of 62. Having announced he had terminal cancer of the oesophagus in the summer of 2010 he knew his days were numbered.

Of British birth he became an American citizen just a few years ago having flitted between the US and UK for quite a few years. The typical firebrand that he was meant that once he’d taken citizenship he immediately set about the religious right and tearing down their interpretation of the Constitution.

No, he was not known for restraint in his words having clashed publicly with his brother Peter, attacked both the Clinton administration and despite generally being a supporter of the Bush administration he was highly critical of the evangelical support that Bush relied on to get him into office. Hitchens’ obituary of Jerry Falwell is brutal and a great antidote to the platitudes that followed his death. Hitchens declared later that “if we gave him [Falwell] an enema we could bury him in a matchbox”. Ouch!

Hitchens was the man who wrote the ‘Devil’s Advocate’ against the beatification of Mother Teresa (he was commissioned by the Vatican to wrote the negative commentary – this is standard practice when application for beatification is made). Describing her as a religious extremist who was obsessed with her own cult of personality. He proclaims she was “no friend to the poor” who ignored the wishes of her patrons (a summary of the book is here).

His most mainstream work (and the only one I have read) is God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Released the same year as Dawkins’ The God Delusion, in many ways it is its opposite. Where Dawkins book focuses largely on the absurdity of faith, Hitchens’ book demonstrates why religion’s impact does more harm than good to humanity. It is more caustic, more brutal and more sarcastic and it always surprises me why Dawkins and his book received a greater backlash from the pious-and-perpetually-outraged and the I’m-not-religious-but-I-like-to-take-offence-on-their-behalf brigade.

I also have on my shelf The Portable Atheist (of which he is editor). The one thing this massive tome is not is portable. It contains essays by atheists and agnostics of the modern era as well as the past. I’ve dipped in and out of it but not given it a thorough reading yet (target for 2012 perhaps).

Click here for a selection of his quotes on The Guardian website (mobile link).

He will be sorely missed. As a tribute I’m posting this 68 minute video of him discussing his book God is Not Great.

Arc is coming… look busy

I received an interesting press release in my e-mail inbox today about a new magazine called Arc from the team at New Scientist.

A new magazine about the future from the makers of New Scientist

February 2012 will see the debut of Arc, a bold new digital publication from the makers of New Scientist.

Arc will explore the future through cutting-edge science fiction and forward-looking essays by some of the world’s most celebrated authors – backed up with columns by thinkers and practitioners from the worlds of books, design, gaming, film and more.

Arc 1.1 is edited by Simon Ings, author of acclaimed genre-spanning novels The Weight of Numbers and Dead Water. Simon, who made his name with a trio of ground-breaking cyberpunk novels, is a frequent commentator on science, science fiction and all points in between.

“Arc is an experiment in how we talk about the future,” Simon explains. “We wanted to get past sterile ‘visions’ and dream up futures that evoke textures and flavours and passions.” The response, he says, has been amazing. “I feel like the dog that caught the-car,” he says. “The appetite to be part of this project has been huge. Writers have seized the opportunity to showcase their thoughts, their dreams, their anxieties and their opinions about our future.”

For New Scientist editor Sumit Paul-Choudhury, Arc is an opportunity to explore new territory. “We’ve known for many years that our readers are fascinated by the future and all the possibilities it raises. But as a magazine of science fact, we can’t indulge that fascination very often,” he explains. “Arc will explore the endless vistas opened up by today’s science and technology. While it’s a very different venture from New Scientist, it will share its unique combination of intelligence, wit and charm.”

John MacFarlane, Online Publisher of New Scientist, says “I am thrilled to be involved in the launch of this new title. The combination of superb content and an innovative digital publishing model make for a very exciting project and I am sure a broad range of readers will love Arc.”

Arc 1.1 will be available from mid-February 2012 on iPad, Kindle and as a limited print edition.

Interested readers are invited to register to find out more at www.arcfinity.org

New Scientist, the world’s leading science & technology weekly magazine, was launched in 1956 “for all those men and women who are interested in scientific discovery, and in its industrial, commercial and social consequences”. The brand’s mission is no different today – New Scientist reports, explores and interprets the results of human endeavour, explaining why a development is significant as well as putting social and cultural context around it, delivering more insight than any other current affairs or science source.

For any further information contact David Hunt at New Scientist on 020 7611 1286 or [email protected]

Interesting concept for a magazine and digital only which will allow me to put my brand-spanking new Kindle to good use (I’m getting one for Christmas). I do like reading a good essay and since leaving university I have really missed researching and writing them.

Further, I don’t get to do as many discussion pieces of futuristic concepts as I would like. I have written some pieces based on articles I have read in New Scientist but its format doesn’t always make for good discussions relevant to my blog. In a similar way, few works of (modern) science fiction are entirely about concepts that can be explored in a big way as they were say, at the dawn of the space age.

This magazine might make for an interesting read. If I sign up I’ll give an honest opinion in the new year.

Why Christmas is not too commercial

I wrote this last year as a formal debate for a political forum I was then moderator for. I quite enjoyed writing it and I had a real itch to write some essays (this was before I started the discussion pieces on this blog). Some cursory editing for those who have seen it before and I will put it up on red room soon. Incidentally, Angel’s Mass is on that site (I will get around to taking it off of Elfwood).

It is that time of year again when we eat, drink and be merry and in some cases, spend more than we can afford. This jovial season usually comes with a stark warning from the sort of people who run institutions that have more money and liquid wealth than a whole country of Christmas shoppers could hope to spend in a single lifetime. They warn us that Christmas is being attacked by the impious secularists (all Richard Dawkins’ fault of course, the scoundrel), transformed by the PC brigade into “Winterval” in order not to offend “The Muslims” and oppressed by anti-Christian hate-mongers who apparently feel offended at carol singers and nativity scenes. Charities and card shops are “banning” religious themed cards too.

The biggest tonguelashing though is reserved for “rampant commercialism”, the notion that there is too much focus on what we spend on ourselves and on each other and not on those that need it. Of course, there is always something to be said for not living beyond our means, and the economic problems of the last few years have certainly shown the dangers of the acquisition of too much debt.

There are several issues here. Every year many charities set up specific Christmas drives and appeals. The Salvation Army have brass bands in every major town and city and collect change from shoppers, the BBC annual charity fundraiser “Children in Need” which is just one month before Christmas always raises a lot of money. Last year I went to meet a friend in the city of Bath and on the drive out, I was quite surprised to see a soup kitchen just off of one of the main squares. Even the “adopt a…(animal of choice)” is a popular Christmas present with the charities that offer them such as WWF. In these economically fragile times, it is encouraging that charity has not suffered at Christmas. What is clear is that people are still conscious of the needy in society at a time of seemingly limitless spending.

The second is the bizarre notion that the focus on indulgence excludes charitable giving. Why must this be so black and white? If we are buying mince pies in November do we automatically sacrifice the money we would have given to the poppy appeal? It is a fact that people give to charity at Christmas, the time of year that they are most active.

The third issue is that we are forgetting the “true” meaning of Christmas in our indulgence. This “true” meaning, apparently, means giving thanks and praise to a man who even Theologians acknowledge was in all likelihood not born on 25th December (the same date as the ancient Roman Saturnalia). Many also acknowledge that this repackaging of an ancient festival was a device used to ease the transition of conversion from Pagan to Christian, a fact acknowledged by Christian groups that do no mark Christmas (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses) but that is another debate entirely. What is clear when we look to the past is that Christmas has always been about indulgence and celebration at the gloomiest time of the year.

One of the symbols of this apparent “commercialism” is the chocolate filled advent calendar. It may come as a great surprise to some that this was invented in Tudor England, as was the concealing of luxuries behind successive doors. Each day leading to Christmas Day would bring another treat, and what is chocolate today if not the most indulgent of treats?

The decorated tree, the bringing of evergreens into the house such as holly, ivy and mistletoe, the Christmas feast all go back even further than Christianity and were invented by Germanic pagans as a way of marking the new year (21st December, the shortest day after which daylight hours get longer) and bringing a bit of colour to the cold and darkness. There may be a spiritual meaning here, perhaps an encouragement of the arrival of spring in as soon a time as possible, but what we do know is that this celebration was marked in many ways as we do today.

Nor should we ever underestimate the meaning of giving. This is no better demonstrated in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The greatest emphasis of Scrooge’s redemption in the narrative is on that which he gives to those he has wronged directly, especially his long-suffering employee Bob Cratchit. The much-needed pay rise is beaten only in size by the enormous prize-winning Turkey that Scrooge sends him anonymously. We also never learn the value of the donation to the men collecting charity money for the poor because the actual value does not matter. The emphasis is on the thought of giving, the thought behind the giving in this case is the inclusion of “a great many back payments”.

But there is more to the commercial aspect of Christmas, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. In recent years, many towns and cities have gone to great effort to encourage an overall experience to the Christmas period against the endless advertising that hits us from the end of August. Christmas events are everywhere these days and they are as popular as ever. This fact can be attested by the success of festivals such as those at Ludlow and Portsmouth, markets at Lincoln, Bath and Winchester and many other historic cities. In the UK we now have a newfound love affair for Germany and have imported their traditional markets with enthusiasm; Birmingham’s annual event is now considered one of the biggest in the world. Of course, none of these events would go ahead if there wasn’t money to be made but their success can be put down to the balance they strike between commercial interest and providing an enjoyable experience. Who can begrudge these events if people enjoy them enough to return year after year?

It is true that the western world is becoming less religious but it is disingenuous – not to mention arrogant – to suggest that this is leading to selfishness and destructive commercialism.

So from my perspective, the commercial aspect of Christmas is merely a modern capitalist extension of something far more ancient than Christianity. It is the celebration of midwinter and brings some light and colour in the gloomiest, darkest, coldest time of the year. So, if you’re not against celebrating ancient pagan traditions that have survived the belief system itself, then decorate your house however you please, enjoy as much food as you can manage, spend what you can afford, ignore the Christmas adverts in August and raise a glass of sherry to the most wonderful and ancient celebration in history!