Sunday, 30 May 2010

"If That's Not Safe, Where Is?"

Thunderstorm anvil at sunset - U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - public domainYesterday I finished the last of my three exploratory chapters of Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland, written to understand Fairfields and what ought to happen in the Wassail arc before its climax. This one went quickly and with painful intensity - predictably enough, since it's the first one written from Kate's point of view. If Luke is something of an enigma, an inane suit of shining armour painfully filled over a lifetime with the grit and gem-gravel and warm blood of the true world, then Kate is become like a glass overflowing with flaming aqua-vitae - clear and incalculable, illuminating and searing, fragile and lethal. Also hilariously obtuse and terrifyingly seeing at the same time, but please don't ask me to work that into one metaphor too!

This of course is how she appears to me, and perhaps my writing does not have to be all that good to accomplish that. Reworking the chapters to make her ring just as true to people who didn't invent her, and haven't previously been her... there will be the test of craft. But it is true, for all that, that inhabiting her violently high-contrast world burns me nearly as keenly as it delights me. Hence, presumably, the lack of out-and-out binge writing on this segment.

Arrival; Luke; Kate. Now for the Wassail itself, to which all this arc has been leading up. But afterwards, or during, I'm going to have to go back over all those exploratory chapters, and read and write and rearrange them so that the whole hangs together. One of the many things I discovered was this: Fairfields is not even functionally Lothlórien or Rivendell. Those are ancient strong refuges with single governing ideas. Fairfields is new, weak, untranquil, and polyphonic to its core. It absolutely needs to take a much larger slice of the story than any normal mid-story haven, and there is a lot more 'action' action in it than I'd foreseen. Indeed, I think it's now debatable whether it is much more the haven of the story than the crucible.

Also, this is a place infused with the spirit of my own politics and worldview - though certainly not much of its substance, the bulk of which would be so alien to my mediaevaloid characters as to seem perverse where not irrelevant. This has had the usual consequence of harrowing my own beliefs at a much more visceral level than simple discussion or theorizing about them: an improving but profoundly exhausting experience.

The last such harrowing that was even comparably intense is the one I went through during the eighteen months of my Great Fanfic Novel. Perhaps significantly, the protagonist there too was a passionate, intelligent, fundamentally unintellectual and conventional person, neither in accord with me nor originally conceived as heroic. I did not at all come to agree with my instantiation of Tegan Jovanka, though she was certainly a better and greater person than I - but I did something much more important: I came to disagree with myself. That project largely coincided with the shift in my self-identification from 'Green' to 'libertarian'. It did not provide the intellectual impetus or the temperamental inclination, but it may have provided much of the heart and the willingness to listen.

Kate is in many ways the exact opposite of Tegan. I wonder what she'll teach me, before the end? Mostly, so far, it's been that we have far too many of the wrong things in common!

So. Danger, terror, valour, and the plot thickening to critical. One of those folk-songs I was serenading my patient audience with through March turns out to come into it, as well. Subtle are the ways of Muses...

[MUSE fwaps AUTHOR with rolled-up website. Exeunt, squabbling.]

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

A Free Spirit Don't Come For Free

A Long Bloody Fight With A Horror In The Dark (with little fungus from Yuggoth).  By Halsted Bernard, via Wikimedia Commons, released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.  Squamously blasphemous toot from the uttermost pit added by me. Further to my meditations on whether a free-market world would be more or less corporate, I've just been smacked across the face with a blindingly obvious insight.

In our present world, most people would like a cup of libertarianism about as much as they would like a Long Boring Wait For A Bus In The Rain (with little paper umbrella). That is a principal reason for the marked absence of free markets to date.

Therefore, in a society with freer markets, it is reasonable to assume that people would place more value on their personal liberty than they do at present.

Employment relationships, especially in large hierarchical organizations, are master-servant relationships, involving copious amounts of being bossed about for almost everybody. But in a more liberty-loving society, preferences for not being bossed about will by definition be stronger. Thus, so will the costs incurred by employees - in increasing degree, the more bureaucratic the organization. It can also be hoped, though this is not so certain, that preferences for bossing other people about will decline as well.

The inevitable result of this is that wage labour, and especially menial or micromanaged labour, should be a significantly higher business cost in any genuinely achievable free market than it is at present. Therefore, modern-style corporations should suffer a general competitive disadvantage relative to self-employment, small firms and partnerships, co-operative production networks, and so forth. Further, highly controlling management styles will also be more expensive to sustain, disadvantaging their employers above and beyond any inefficiencies they already suffer.

This is another strike against the conflating of modern corporate capitalism with potential future free markets.

I can see one condition, and one condition only, under which this argument is not true. If a more free-market framework were imposed upon a society with a profound distrust for liberty, then at least initially the pressures would go all the other way. Gigantism, paternalism, and bureaucracy - even autocracy - would all be favoured beyond their apparent economic efficiency. They might, in some respects, actually increase!

Social engineers, and libertarians who think it is enough to be reviled but right, please note.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Family Friendly Freedom

I'm pro-family, you're pro-family, every bozo running for second assistant dog-catcher is pro-family - but what does the silly phrase mean, really?

To a social conservative or radical reactionary, there is only one real type of family - that being the form that was 'normal' in their old Grandad's day, at least according to Grandad or his self-appointed spokespersons in the mass mediums. In the West at least, this is the nuclear man-woman-children household, plus certain local assumptions about how it should behave.

Pro-family policies then translate as rewarding all households that fit this cookie-cutter pattern, and punishing all others. Within the bounds of the cookie-cutter, however, outside interference for good or ill is generally deprecated - after all, the point of valuing the shape is that it is supposed to be one of the sacred foundations of society.

Progressives and many self-described liberals rightly reject the wickedness of applying a cookie-cutter to other people's families, even if it goes no further than separating 'misshapes' from some of their surplus dough. A family-friendly progressive policy instead offers a large and elaborate menu of options, so that a great diversity of lifestyles can be supported and celebrated.

In fact, just about anything is possible, so long of course as it conforms to the current Eighteen-Year Plan For Healthy Personal Development (deviance from which would be a form of child abuse); diligently goes through appropriate tax-credit, welfare, and other formalities for deciding exactly how much each branch of government ought to allocate you in consideration of your present or proposed cohabitation arrangements (failure to report which would be a form of theft, planning violation, or other naughtiness); and refrains from giving any family administration professional plausible cause for concern (which justifies any 'emergency action' whatsoever).

In the progressive's world, cookie-cutters are anathema. The family is simply that diverse set of domestic arrangements which officials approve at any given time, and may be crammed together or torn apart only according to impartial considerations of the general welfare. Indeed, so general are these considerations that it is often conveniently illegal to report any specifics of enforcement. According to the progressive view, then, family-friendly policies are those which best allow the State to individually optimize the state of every family, with the least collateral damage along the way.

This is, if anything, a more evil principle than the other. It still allows for group-based witch-hunts, and in its zealous utilitarianism it admits no boundaries or sanctuaries at all.

No, I really cannot pass either the conservative claim - State enforcement of a family form legislated by God or Nature - or the progressive claim - the family as a subsidiary of the State. I don't think either is very family-friendly at all.

You didn't invent the family, chaps, and you don't speak for God either.

Whenever one or more adults join themselves in the sight of all as family, and accept the bonds of kindred amongst themselves and zero or more children - that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.

It is true that there are really rotten things that happen in families. It is also true that few or none of those which ought to be crimes, are not already crimes anyway and anywhere. You do not need a Ministry of Families to arrange this!

The new UK Government has just dropped New Labour's recent pretence to having one. Purely nominal change though it be, I do so hope this is a good sign for the future.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The Poetry and the Pelf

The southbound platform at the Angel Tube station, by Chris McKenna (Thryduulf at Wikimedia Commons) - published under all Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike (cc-by-sa) licenses, specifically including all national variations. Yet again, a train broke down on my line this morning, and the train company sent us on a long diversion via the Tube system instead. London Tube trains have, predictably, a continuous strip of advertising above the windows, with which to regale their captive audience. In almost every circumstance, I avoid viewing unsolicited adverts like the plague. Today I found myself reading one - a dull, smug, boring one at that - and abruptly wondering why.

The answer came immediately, and raised an interesting question about the commercial value of poetry.

Most advertising venues are guaranteed to display nothing I wish to see. This is to be expected. Advertising - pestering people to change their preferences - is almost universally regarded as a bad by its targets. This is why the chief way to get large audiences for it, is to bundle it with some greater good such as television programming or free net content. A degraded version of this is the attempt to hijack people's attention, via thumping great billboards as they walk down the public street, or adverts plastered all over the physical structure of the private mass transit they have already paid to use.

The obvious counter is not to look at it on purpose (unless one is so bored, or the advert is so entertaining, that one is actually getting something out of it), and possibly also to cultivate a sharply negative reaction to any mindspammer whose shock or saturation tactics somehow penetrate one's shields. More active countermeasures, such as culturejamming, will occur to those provoked enough to bother with them.

But there is an alternative to this uncivil arms race between advertisers and passengers, and London Underground deploys this too. Not all of the advertising slots are filled with advertising. A small but significant proportion of them are filled instead with unsponsored 'Poems on the Underground'. Some of these are recent, some classic, some of both are translations which will be unfamiliar to most English readers. The overall quality is rather high. This is presented, and subsidized, as a beautifying and civilizing public service. I have no doubt that this is exactly how its originator - the writer Judith Chernaik, who with poets Cicely Herbert and Gerard Benson continues to make selections for it today - views it.

The managers might not have approved this project in the absence of a public subsidy for it. If they had so approved it, they might well have done so in the spirit of a public relations expense, or a cost of improving the passenger environment. I think there is another, and hidden, sort of value being added here.

Because I enjoy poetry more than I hate advertising, I now automatically scan the advert frieze in the hope of finding some. Occasionally, my brain will fail, and I will find myself reading an advert instead by accident. Even when I am alert, the scan will draw my attention to any advert in which I might, improbably, be actually interested. Thus, the presence of gratuitous art in a few advertising slots significantly increases the viewing of the whole, and therefore presumably its value to the advertisers. Poetry, whose extreme spareness and intensity of vision makes it such a sorry proposition for making big bucks by conventional publishing, is by the same token an ideal art for the transit environment.

The extra value created is shared between poetry-lovers and advertisers. It's from the latter that London Underground might hope to profit - after all, there is no percentage in forgoing the rent for the poetry-slot, and then effectively giving away the increase in the value of the remaining commercial slots to the ad agencies for nothing! So those slots ought to be more expensive in the presence of the poetry slots than in their absence.

In practice it might not be possible to capture this value, because it's hard to quantify the extra eyeballs it provides, and therefore might not be believed in by the ad agencies - whose craft is notoriously alchemical at best. On the other hand, by the same token, it also ought to be possible to over-persuade the agencies of its value. It's not like they haven't gone for far goofier tactics in the past.

So: is art on the Underground used as a selling point in negotiations with ad agencies? Could it be so used successfully? Can it pay for itself entirely - and are there conditions under which a similar model could be used to afford living artists themselves an income?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Conflation Contemplation

Hades Lord of Riches offers Persephone an improved standard of living, and wonders what she's grousing about.   Detail from Attic red-figure amphora, Italy, c. 470 BCE.  Via the Louvre, and Jastrow at Wikimedia Commons - public domain. In a recent post I began to wrestle with the libertarian 'conflation debate' - the question of whether current capitalist institutions should be considered as primarily statist or free-market agencies. This is, in principle, an empirical question. If conflationists are right, the popular image of a free market is essentially correct, and a more corporate-dominated society would result if we moved towards one. If the less intuitive anti-conflationist position is right, a free market might actually look a lot more like the smaller-scale, decentralized societies of certain Green and anarcho-socialist visions.

A third possibility is that the answer is radically dependent on the social and physical technology underlying it. Large economies of scale and specialization, and high costs of information, transaction, and security, should all favour large corporate bodies of the familiar type - bubbles of command economy in a sea of free competition. Diseconomies of scale, economies of flexibility, and low activity costs should tend to favour a dynamic foam of small firms and independent traders.

These observations will be equally true, as far as they go, whether these economies and costs are imposed by government or occur in spite of it. What is less clear, is what the scope of variation is, and how far invention or other deliberate intervention might shift it. The answer might be anything along the scale from 'revolution' to 'minor tweak'.

Since my lab is not equipped to handle the necessary experiments, I now have to examine whether there are any systematic reasons that Big Government should be correlated positively or negatively with Big Money. My first task, though, is to identify my own biases. There are answers I want to find, and answers I don't. I must therefore lean hard on any argument that seems to confirm the former, and actively seek out the latter wherever I miss them. Assistance in catching my inevitable errors will always be greatly appreciated.

So what do I want to be true?

My gut is mostly with the anti-conflationists on this one. I detest bureaucracy and managerialism from any source whatsoever, and have a poor opinion of its efficiency; I am a cosy individualist rather than a rugged one; legalism bores and annoys me; I dislike to formalize or monetize the regular give-and-take within my social world any more than necessary. I have pretty hardcore feelings about private property rights, and I don’t trust large concentrations of power to respect them. If I could write my own SFnal world and step into it, I had rather live in the shonkiest Bohemian spacestead on Eris of the Ten Thousand, than the shiniest glaucium cubicle in all Plutopia.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean I am right, or that the conflationists are wrong. There may be excellent reasons why Plutopia is the best we can hope for, here or elsewhere.

My money - for the moment - says it isn’t, not by a Terran country mile! We shall examine, in subsequent postings, how well this assumption holds up under pressure.

Monday, 17 May 2010

"A Hero Is Not Enough"

The hero Roger rescues Angelica from the orc; she contemplates whether this is an improvement.  Roger délivrant Angélique, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1819) - public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland moves forward another notch, another chapter. This has been Luke's first experience of Fairfields. It's plenty long enough, and I've learned a lot I didn't know about him, and it's all going to have to be re-written before I can finish this arc.

Luke was conceived in The Deed of Katy Elflocks as a kind of hollow man - a heroic and somewhat innocent Third Prince, but also a great blockhead who takes the justifying mythology of his world's royalty so seriously, he's a serious danger to the state, and needs to be sent off on a wild-goose quest before his romantic arch-conservatism leads him to do something really bad. What comes of that is the story - suffice it to say that he, and his provincial soulmate the Golden Margravine, don't exactly cover themselves with honour. They both get somewhat adventitious 'happy endings', and Killer-Kate takes up the tale thirty years later, at the nadir of their lives as we last saw them at the zenith.

One of the things I learned in the course of Katy was that Luke isn't much more mentally challenged than his wise brother or his clever sister. He's got brains, he just... doesn't tend to use them very productively. He's a lonely, passionate, insecure boy's vision of the Prince on the White Horse who rides in to defend the good old ways, destroy the evildoers, and set things right. Did you ever, when you were very small, yearn to be that kind of hero? It was mostly Marvel comics with me, but I most surely did. Imagine how horrible a thing it would have been for all concerned, if any of us had mistaken such a chimaera for truth, and then successfully applied our lives to becoming one.

The younger Luke was so supernally good at being a hero out of bad chivalric romance, it got to be hard to know whether to laugh or cry when I was writing him.

In Killer-Kate, he's pushing fifty. In between the two tales, he's been a tyrant, a vagabond, a mysterious knight-errant, an infamous mercenary, a common caravan-guard... and he's come home, under the cloak of his widely noised death, to the land he once tried to rule, only to find that the 'villains' have proved both stronger and kinder rulers than he. He doesn't understand anything anymore (and knowing this is one of the ways he's grown wiser and more human). So he sets off on a last quest into the Elvish East, where the world is simpler and fairer and more savage, and heroes are more likely to be right than grocer's daughters. He hopes, frankly, to know wonder again, and die. Before that, there is still one person in the world he cares about - she who was Golden Kate, once a hero of sorts herself, now old and outcast and fallen on days much eviller than his own. He thinks, with reason, that she might want to join him. And so this tale began.

But but but. For about ten years of the thirty, up to his own disaster, I know in some detail what he did and why - I spent long enough trying to make a novel of it, before I discovered that this winter's tale was to be told first. Luke's downfall is clear to me: his 'happy ending' encouraged him to become what he'd been before, only more so. The results were predictably unfortunate.

It's the twenty years after, which I don't intend to tell at all, where I'm sparser. Here's my problem: Luke is always a bit of a cliché, because he worked so long and hard at turning into one, but there's always an undertow that gives him interest as a protag. Yet he's a man of action not introspection, even now. Neither he nor I can easily see very deep into the waters.

I still read him, in many ways, as a hollow and an isolated man. He is something coarser and more cynical than before, but also kinder and more sensible. The worst of the old hollow is grown in with things from that long exile. It took this chapter to put a name to what filled it, and the change in the fire that drives him. It all came together out of a couple of slightly self-indulgent background details, thrown in to stop his backstory being all vacuum.

...It was riding in the South with El Alegroso of the Dry Wells, the Knight of the Joyful Trump, the Kateverse's own Don Quixote. El Alegroso really was pretty much everything Quixote thought he was, as famous for winning impossible battles as for ending up on the losing side of every damn' war he touched. Magnificent loon as he was, he did have a way of attracting the very best to him, as well as the most desperate. Treacherously abandoned by the other Dons of the Castellanates in the hour of apparent victory against the vile slaver-nest of Tanash, he and almost all who stood faithful to him died beneath its walls. Luke, who survived to comfort the old hero's dying moments and close his eyes at the last, believed him the best man in the world, and left all his love and faith for 'chivalry' behind him with the bones on Dazaama Beach.

It only gets a few tangential allusions in this story as such, but that turns out to be a very interesting key to my man's character. In some ways, he's been walking this road from chivalry and heroism to comradeship and valour for much longer, and much more intentionally, than I'd realized. And here he is joined up with a bunch of rebellious peasants and refugees and oddlings, and - it turns out that much of what I needed to win him over to, he's been three-quarters of the way before me. That ought to add a fair old edge to the full redraft, when I get to it.

The next, and possibly last, of the exploratory chapters is Golden Kate's. For several practical reasons, it would be nice to finish it just about exactly in time for the end of the month. Over to you, Ma'am!

Thursday, 13 May 2010

In the Diaslog Dumps

Diaslog, n.: In fiction, a dialogue whose participants are so plainly reciting what the author wants them to say, that both they and the reader/writer are having trouble stifling yawns.

This is bedevilling the scene I'm writing at the moment. Ugh!

Diaslog, the way I see it, is a more subtle and insidious trap for characters than such obvious faults as Possession By Author, Plot Was I Thinking?, and As You Know Bob infodumping.

In diaslog, the characters are speaking like themselves, and they have sensible reasons for saying what they say. Nonetheless, the rhythm - and perhaps the very continuation - of the conversation feels all off. They might get into any or all parts of this exchange naturally, but right now they're caught in the specific sequence the story requires of them. They’re talking from what I can only call their dramatic holding pattern.

I’ve got a tense public conversation here between two strongly antagonistic characters, and it ought to crackle with tension. The emotional punches and reversals are supposed to come thick and fast: one-two, ONE-TWO, one-two . Instead, as it actually comes out, I’m feeling the same vague anticlimax as I did at the end of the Comet section. That looked better once I was out from inside it. I wonder whether this will?

This whole Fairfields arc, in first draft, is largely an exploratory venture anyway. That means this conversation is bound to be re-written, and I shouldn’t worry about it too much. On the other paw, if it rings too false, it won’t be a useful exploration either - and may actually coarsen my understanding of the characters.

On the one hand, what needs to be said, and in what time. On the other, how and when those people need to say it or button their lips. Information versus action...

I may have to deal with this by spreading the matter of my three sequential chapters before the Wassail, so that they overlap a lot more in time, and the order in which some things happen is different. That’s complete re-write territory, and will create issues enough of its own.

But I’m starting to think it’s the only way to make this heart of the book beat to a true rhythm.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Goat Dreams

Following on Irina's recommendation yesterday, I've now taken time to scout around Dreamwidth - a code fork of LiveJournal set up by its ex-staffers Denise Paolucci and Mark Smith, which a number of my cyberpals have found much preferable. Now I know why.

One thing I very much like about it is its ad-free service model. Another is the simplicity and courtesy with which it presents itself. It is evidently designed by, and for, grown-up persons who like their privacy, and dislike being either lectured or chivvied. Here are its principles and promises - admirable ones indeed. This is the only deliberately entertaining diversity statement I have ever seen written with serious intent. The shortage of pomposity or assumed authority therein has been noted, and ought to be widely emulated.

Yes, I suppose I am a pixel-stained technopeasant wretch, and I would say that wouldn't I? - but, even so.

If Dreamwidth lives up to first impressions, I shall be deeply impressed with its community indeed.

Accordingly, the Goat Notes experiment has moved to Dreamwidth, though its postings will continue to be copied to the previously announced location on LiveJournal. My other LJ activities, like this blog, remain unaffected.

Thanking y'all for your patience, and apologizing for the inadvertent false start!

Monday, 10 May 2010

Goat Notes

Following our February discussion about the future of this blog, by general advice I decided not to divide it up by subject.

However, there's a particular style to Goat in the Machine, and several times recently I've hung back from posting something here because it's just too insubstantial to fit. (Nothing is too frivolous or capricious to fit here, but that's quite a different question!) So for spontaneous bleats, heel-kickings, crap puns, and announcements of more social than substantial or literary interest, I'm trying my hitherto-passive LiveJournal on for size. As I explain in my starting post there:

Although my main blog continues [here], that's really for articles and think-pieces great and small. Since I'm hanging out more here now, I've decided to dedicate my LJ account to short informal entries that don't really match the Goat in the Machine style. Journal entries, like....

Also for posting wordcountery, and other nuts-and-bolts stuff like that about my writing that doesn't naturally turn into an essay all of its own. The trouble with the essays is that whilst they often help with my writing, they also compete with it for time and Muse's fire. So this is basically an attempt to supplement them with chit-chat, which is where LJ's connectivity wins out over Blogger. We'll see how the experiment goes!

So we shall. The content and frequency of posts over here shouldn't change at all: Goat Notes is intended as a completely separate caper, to make space rather than to crowd it.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

What I Just Voted For

I decided to vote for the lesser evil in yesterday's UK General Election - in this case for an active Liberal Democrat candidate, who was running hard on the heels of the useless Labour incumbent. Some will say that I am thereby 'voting for' whatever she, and by extension her party hierarchy, do during her term, and so somehow consenting to it. The bollix I am!

More extravagant types would claim I've actually consented to the actions of the Tories, or New Labour, or the Emergency National Unity Government, or whatever shower we end up with. No I bloody haven't!

Those who love democracy not wisely, but too well, will unite with its despisers in objecting to my contempt for what I have supposedly endorsed. The lovers will object to the contempt, and the despisers will object to the endorsement. They will be equally wrong. The remarkable Lysander Spooner said it well in big beefy nineteenth-century prose:

In truth, in the case of individuals, their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent, even for the time being. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having even been asked a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments. He sees, too, that other men practice this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further, that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, he finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two. In self- defence, he attempts the former. His case is analogous to that of a man who has been forced into battle, where he must either kill others, or be killed himself. Because, to save his own life in battle, a man takes the lives of his opponents, it is not to be inferred that the battle is one of his own choosing. Neither in contests with the ballot — which is a mere substitute for a bullet — because, as his only chance of self-preservation, a man uses a ballot, is it to be inferred that the contest is one into which he voluntarily entered; that he voluntarily set up all his own natural rights, as a stake against those of others, to be lost or won by the mere power of numbers. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, in an exigency into which he had been forced by others, and in which no other means of self-defence offered, he, as a matter of necessity, used the only one that was left to him.

- Lysander Spooner, No Treason No.2: The Constitution (1867).

If the vote is a true franchise, that is to say a freedom, it is mine and everybody else's to do what the blazes we see fit with. It places no constraints on our subsequent political actions that our morals didn't place there already. Because we used what influence we had to stop a powerful involuntary organization from running right over us, that does not bind us for one moment to accept its power, or its coercion, or its desire to use our human selves as a highway to the country of its dreams.

I do strongly believe that certain moral duties are bound up with the franchise. When I vote, I do agree some things implicitly. By the Golden Rule, I most plainly should not vote dishonestly, nor sway my fellows with arrant lies, nor use force or fraud or legalistic tricks to hamper others from honestly voting and counting the votes. This is simple fair play.

I take this rule further. I have no business casting a vote with the intent of exerting any power over anybody, which I deny their right to exercise over me. Since I demand very little authority over the unconsenting - indeed, I deny that I have many kinds of authority over them to delegate, either by voting or otherwise - this will not be a hard row for me to hoe. Conversely, I have reason to complain about electors who vote to impose more government upon everybody because they are Right, yet will object to being themselves governed Wrongly.

After the vote, though, the load lies heavy on those who take my line. The responsibilities to myself and my neighbours I once thought I could and should delegate through the public authority, I now find myself saddled with in that authority's spite.

I hope my shoulders have grown broader since the nights I used to sit with fellow-idealists in murky pubs, setting the world to rights and plotting our electoral course there. Coaxing desired results out of fluid voluntary networks is a great deal harder than legislating them into existence, via either the edicts of Whitehall or the tipsy ramblings in the snug-bar of the Dragon and Dolphin. I spend more and more time thinking about how, and patiently smashing down my own arguments in the hope of finding the odd nugget amongst them somewhere. But it's the only way.

One vote in fifteen hundred days: a slight noise in the struggle for power overhead. Fourteen hundred ninety-nine days in between: every day a vote for something better or worse on the ground, and none of them wasted or disallowed by the overlords' gatekeepers.

It's election day again, as always.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Kate Griffin's Urban Magic

A Madness of Angels, by Kate Griffin, Orbit Books (2009). ISBN 978-1-841-49733-4 (UK). US edition here.

The Midnight Mayor, by Kate Griffin, Orbit Books (2010). ISBN 978-1-841-49734-1 (UK). US edition.

Rating: Very good.

These intensely London-centred fantasies feature a peculiar protagonist, Matthew Swift the urban sorcerer. In Griffin's world, magic is more an enchanting point of view on life than any sort of external force. The forces it can evoke are no less gaudily monstrous for that - and Matthew's point of view is far more peculiar than most. From the moment we first meet him, he is/they are already a fusion of a deeply human sorcerer, and the mysterious beings called the blue electric angels, who arise from the bits of ourselves we leave behind in the telephone wires. Beyond this, things get rapidly weirder and scarier.

The book's blurb inevitably invokes Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere for comparison, and is less hopelessly wrong than most such puffs are. Whereas Gaiman's approach is mythic, Griffin's is down-and-dirty, and its deliria more seamlessly integrated into the daily world. Her neon-lit, gaffer-taped sorceries recall the surreal black humours not only of Gaiman but of Simon R Green, and more resemble the latter in their tendency to pyrotechnic intrusions into the alleys we know.

Matthew (and his fire) make a complex, engaging protagonist, whose shifting and ambiguous identity is nonetheless convincingly consistent in its essence. Feckless, childish, and frankly a bit of a tosser, he is also warm-hearted, stubbornly humane, and to his eerie selves true. Brilliant and fantastically dangerous when on a roll, full of magical grace and in passionate lust with life, he dances and drowses with corresponding ardour and regularity into deadly pratfalls of naked shame and pain. The utterly un-morbid vulnerability of her hero is probably Griffin's best achievement in these books.

Another strength is the usually bang-on characterization of London as well as its oft-neglected purlieus. Willesden, White City, Acton, Centre Point, the City, the Borough, and out all the way to the world's end at Morden - these are books of and about London, by somebody who sees and tells it as a Londoner knows it.

She does not have it, to my way of thinking, perfect. Her (extremely funny) description of the character and mystical significance of the primal Willesden casts its net over-wide, even unto the fields of my own rather different manor, and misses the thoroughly independent genius of Harlesden altogether. It appears to be based on the boundaries of the long-defunct Borough of Willesden, which like its present fusion-product Brent had various paper pretensions not corresponding to any real district or community. Also, some of the other inner-ring loci are treated rather interchangeably and dismissively. But these are mostly quibbles: the overall sense of place is excellent.

As with much urban fantasy, Griffin occasionally strains a bit for her grotesquerie and shades of noir. Not, however, as much as most - even much of the good stuff. In her further favour, she conspicuously refrains from whitewashing my city (in any sense of the term), and both the main cast and the extras are really familiar in their local array of origins, attitudes, and predicaments. This is truly set here, and it is set amongst us Londoners. It is possible that some of the creaking is actually caused by Griffin's straining beyond her authorial comfort zone, and if so, I am happy to accept the creak in exchange for the reach.

The prose structure gets a little fancier at times than it needs to be, even given its unusual and variably integrated point of view. In plainer moments, the words 'rather' and 'suspicious' are used with rather suspicious frequency to adjust the tone dial. Otherwise, the writing is vigorous and workmanlike.

The two novels, despite sharing a number of motifs and series-arcs in common, are very different ones, with radically different villains and challenges. Their sequence turns out to be a logical one. A sequel is implicitly demanded, and on inquiry, The Neon Court turns out already to be scheduled for March 2011. It seems to me that, if it is to succeed, it will have to move further and faster into new ground rather than doubling down on its existing achievements. Although these books are not (so far) right up there for me with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files or the best of Charles de Lindt, I wouldn’t be wholly surprised if Griffin were to move into that league in the sequel.

Kate Griffin is a pen-name taken by the YA author Catherine Webb, for her venture into adult urban fantasy. Graeme Flory has an interview with her and a review of A Madness of Angels at Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review. Here’s another review by Simon Appleby at Bookgeeks. gav at Nextread offers a different reviewerly take and a particularly entertaining interview.

Very much a name to watch.

Gotta Roll the Bones

Bones - Napoli, Cimitero delle Fontanelle: ossario all'ingresso - by Lalupa at Wikimedia Commons - released under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Licence.

"Our bones we pick for ourselves,
But the world it is clothes them in flesh."

And then I woke up.

It was from a moving and lovely dream which popped like a bubble, spoken by a modular shapechanging artificial servant of Boskone which was supposed to rig tomorrow's General Election. The form it had chosen and the life it had lived to get itself into place had changed it beyond its visualization; and now it was explaining to me what it was, and why it was defecting to the resistance. It saw small hope for us, especially with the US security state already thoroughly subverted, but now it could do nothing other.

There was more, much more. I and my whole family got involved with a really hairy crossing between Ohio and Mexico; and we got marooned in the deep back-country when the borders were closed, and some of us had to dig in for the winter at our remote farmhouse, whilst the rest of us split up and went on helter-skelter chases by rail and steamboat to make some fated rendezvous. But the rest is as gone as rainbows in a soap-bubble.

I like my forlorn and unwillingly honest shapechanger, and it cries out for its own story, though as yet I don't see what it would be. Still.

I am proud of my mind-child, who picked up the bones of its ideas anywhere that was handy, and let the world clothe them in a life until that life and its friends were worth the living and the dying. For I have worked in politics, and I have seen what the other way comes to; I have seen the bare bones march.

Oh, my friend, I will bring you to life and comfort - if I can.

Meanwhile comes the clacking over the hill, and the contrapted escapes of every shambles and midden are pouring their brags and begs through my letterbox.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Up Hill and Down Dale

"Neelkanth at dawn, by Alokprasad at Wikimedia Commons - released under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Licence Look at that blacksmith, for instance," went on Father Brown calmly; "a good man, but not a Christian - hard, imperious, unforgiving. Well, his Scotch religion was made up by men who prayed on hills and high crags, and learnt to look down on the world more than to look up at heaven. Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak."

G K Chesterton, The Hammer of God

I was listening to this, from The Innocence of Father Brown audiobook off Project Gutenberg, and I mused sleepily that while it was a very bad proposition about Scotland, it was a very good metaphor for one of the most useful and unfashionable liberal virtues.

In the morning, I remembered that it is not even true for me as a literal statement of perspective.

I like mountains, and looking down from their peaks. But I don't see small things from any physical eminence. What I see, presumably because I have always desired to see it since I was knee-high to an experimental locust, is a much bigger world.

When I see a human, or a sheep, or a house, I have a momentary dizziness of scale, and then I'm calibrated. I really perceive them as in their just proportion to me - and everything else by their measure. I lack any great talent at estimating sizes and distances at even the closest remove: here I'm speaking not of calculation, but of the broad mental construction of my world. Surely I'm not alone in this? But all I ever hear or read about are those hoary clichés about ants toiling away below, and little china villages, and so forth. Is this view actually more than a conceit for other people here?

Where my vision of the Wide World doesn't work for me is in the metaphorical sense, which is where I should most like it to do so. Real heights don't mess with my sense of perspective at all. But my monkey backbrain is absurdly oversensitive to relative social status, even along dimensions which I personally despise as irrelevant or inverse to worth. It is a useful spider-sense but a horrible contaminant of thought and instinct, and I have to regularly, actively, override its tendency to surround me with giants and dwarfs - or to make me, variably, one or the other.

Now, when one forms an ideology from which to survey the social world, it is a moral ideology, and implicitly the surveyor is at the top of the moral scale, judging all that toils and plays below. If they are reasonably self-aware, an image of their own less Olympian works and games is included, and may not be approved. In either case, Monkey Backbrain is sitting on the shoulder, whispering subtle lies of status into the judge-persona's ear, and these all the more insidious when what one is judging from is (like mine) a stance of radical equality.

Then is when a thought like Chesterton's will be good for me. Or else, try this recasting of mine:

The peak of a mountain is an end of the earth, and a desert of the air. It is something to explore it, and so to show oneself greater than stone and snow and gasping. Having magnified the world from it, there is nothing else to do there.

But in the valleys where we were born, and to which we must return, the soils and the cities are very dear and rich; and at the bottom of all, where we gather with our fellows for the sailing, the rivers roll forever into the teeming sea.