Objects of Desire

I am, like most, subject to uncontrollable lusts for certain items, most frequently gadgets. My most recent indulgence was an Orange San Francisco phone - itself a rebranded ZTE Blade, manufactured in China. It is, according to pretty much everyone I've asked, pretty much the best smartphone you can get for under a hundred quid. It's barely been out of my hands since I bought it, though I'm tempted to root it sometime soon and change networks - Orange's PAYG data allowance is paltry, and rooting would hopefully allow me to upgrade the Android operating system as well as switch networks and get rid of some of the truly foul and irredeemably buggy Orange software that currently infects it. Before the phone, it was the Kindle; and before the Kindle, it was the current generation of Macbooks.

Apart from gadgets, I have a weird thing for shoulder bags. I have a couple - a canvas green one I got from Gap years ago that's served me well, and a memory foam-lined laptop bag that's excellent. The Gap bag is getting a bit knackered now, and although I don't really need a laptop bag that much, since I rarely take my laptop out with me, the idea of getting something that combined the possible benefits of both did occur from time to time. The desire manifested into object-lust when I saw someone in the street with a bag that looked much like this one: the Pell-Mell messenger bag.

It ain't cheap, though, at least by my standards, at just over a hundred quid. But it's quality, hand-made stuff, and seems to get rave reviews from more places than just Amazon. The idea of a good, solid shoulder-bag/satchel that could last me a twenty years has a lot of appeal. I'm not completely stuck on the idea of getting a Pell-Mell, though - there might be equally good but cheaper leather shoulder bags out there worth considering. If you know of any, leave a comment.


I finished the first draft of Thousand Emperors Tuesday afternoon, and entered into a state of general collapse after that. It's a feeling I've had before - like I'd been worked over with a couple of baseball bats the week before, but for some reason didn't notice until now. The only reason I can think of why I might feel that way is that there's a certain tension generated in a process you know is going to take several months of incremental work; the tension just sort of slowly builds up and up and up, and isn't really released until you type THE END. Then I just sort of shuffle around blinking like I've been locked in a cave for five years. Given writing isn't that physically labour intensive, you wouldn't think it could have that kind of effect on me; and indeed during these times I usually find myself trying to work out how just typing for a couple hours a day could possibly have that kind of effect. But it does.

Now I've got two months or so of hardcore editing to do. I gather some people find this harder than just making stuff up, but I actually find it easier than sitting in front of a laptop trying to will two thousand words into existence day after day after day. At least, when you're revising, you already know what the story is or should be. All you're doing is rearranging words and events in a hopefully more attractive and/or interesting way. So, head down again, really, and not to re-emerge until sometime in July...when I send this off, and get started on A River Across The Sky, a new book set in the same universe as Stealing Light and its sequels (but not, itself, a direct sequel to any of those).


Taipei Mon Amour

At the moment, Taiwan is facing a new election, between the two main parties the DPP and KMT. The KMT are the old guard, who fled the Maoist revolution on the mainland, bringing with them the entire Chinese gold and foreign currency reserve. The DPP only came into existence in the mid-Eighties, as part of moves towards eventual democratisation.

To cut a very long and confusing story short, you just need to know that the KMT, despite having fled mainland China, are the party who most favour renewed cultural and economic contact with the Chinese government. The DPP are the ones who generally want an official declaration of independence from China; and despite being one of the boom economies of the Asian-Pacific, a lot of maps still show Taiwan as being part of China.

You have no idea how much this pisses off a lot of Taiwanese. Things got bad enough in the mid-Nineties that the Chinese military forces fired some 'test missiles' over Taiwan when they thought the then-DPP President was getting too cozy with Washington. Cue a major political crisis.

At the moment, the KMT are in charge again, and things are terribly cosy between President Ma and Beijing. Things, however, are not necessarily looking good for Ma in the upcoming elections, which means the DPP could wind up back in power. Which is why I find the following recent statement taken from the BBC news so weirdly entertaining:
"We don't need outsiders' help to win votes (said Sun Yang-Ming, vice president of the Cross-Strait Interflow Prospect Foundation, a government-linked think tank), but we hope they will avoid such actions as making threats or conducting military manoeuvres, including test-firing missiles."
Does make our politics look a bit bland, by comparison, doesn't it?


SF Writing Class

The Imp of the Perverse landed upon my shoulders a while back and demanded I do something I've never done before: teach a science fiction creative writing class. It had occurred to me that with five books in print so far, I was at least partly qualified to take whatever it is I do that persuades publishers to give me ridiculous sums of money and try and stuff that same knowledge into the heads of a bunch of complete strangers.

The pay is terrible, by the way, so transcendentally minuscule that, when I dropped by Strathclyde University for a chat with the woman organizing the Summer Learning Programme, she actually cringed upon describing the level of remuneration concerned, as if expecting me to leap to my feet and heap invective upon her and her shrivelled, miserly soul. She needn't have worried. Having already done my research, I was already entirely aware of the meagre compensation involved.

Which is my roundabout way of informing you that, no, I am not doing this for the money. What exactly I am doing it for is harder to define, although certainly an interview with the Canadian author, Robert J. Sawyer, served as an influence: he describes how teaching classes on sf writing in Toronto helped him better understand just what it is he does when he writes, a statement that brings to mind the old saying that one of the best ways to really understand a subject is to teach it.

Actually, there's another reason. I once took part in an evening creative writing class many years ago which was, quite simply, transcendentally awful (sorry, but it's my word for today: transcendentally). But as the years passed and I slowly evolved into a pro writer, I began to wonder if perhaps, given the opportunity, I couldn't help but do better.

Strathclyde University, in their wisdom, took my class proposals and chopped them in two, so I in fact will be teaching two courses as part of their Summer Learning Programme: Writing SF in late July, and Understanding SF in August. Each class consists of just two two-hour classes, which isn't really a great deal of time at all, so maybe I'll have to learn how to talk really, really fast. But if it goes well for me and for the University, there's the possibility of longer, more in-depth classes in the future.

So what's my Unique Selling Point, as they like to say in marketing seminars? Well, for a start, it's a class on science fiction writing run by an actual working science fiction writer. Beyond that, the aim is to take all the things I've learned while writing that I wish I'd known at the start, and cram them into the heads of people who are themselves only just starting out.

The emphasis, in the writing class, anyway, is on fiction more than it is science, since the rules are the same regardless of what genre you work in. But the science part will most certainly be there, in the form of digressions regarding worldbuilding and creating a sense of verisimilitude. The intention is to incorporate some level of workshopping, but it remains to be seen just how practical this proves to be in a class that only lasts a total of four hours.

The other class, Understanding SF, is a quick guide through the history of the genre. To some extent it's aimed more at those not entirely familiar with the genre, but I'm going to try and demonstrate why the 20th Century might not have taken the shape it did if not for the influence of science fiction.

The SF Writing Workshop lasts two weeks, starting Monday 25th July, from 6 to 8 in the evening. Understanding SF runs from Friday 12 August for two weeks, and takes place between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. Both cost £19 each, and you can book these and any other of the Summer Programme classes at www.strath.ac.uk/cllsummer