EAnotes

The God Star

October 17th, 2018

I’m delighted to say that my story, The God Star, has just been published by the excellent On The Premises magazine. It’s the third story of mine they’ve published, so Tarl and Co. evidently have excellent taste. It’s available to read online completely free. Here’s a taster:

“Don’t die here.”

I stopped, the tube of champagne resting on my lips, and looked at the man drifting opposite me, silhouetted by the seething energies of the Ratnayeke Rift.

“Not quite the toast I expected.” I tried a smile. “Maybe, ‘Good luck’ or ‘Cheers’ or,” I remembered his name, “‘Salud’.”

To read the rest of the story, go here.

Adventures in Bookland: Scott-King’s Modern Europe by Evelyn Waugh

October 9th, 2018


Light, bright, witty Waugh – which of course means it’s still better than 99.9% of other books published. Actually, calling it a book is stretching the point – it’s a novella, written shortly after the end of World War II as Europe was settling into the long stasis of Cold War and Iron Curtain, with Waugh parellelling his pre-war jibes at post-colonial African states with a post-war whittling of a European dictator state, fictitious but bearing close resemblances to Franco’s Spain. An English academic is invited to a conference on his obscure speciality, an equally obscure poet, and finds himself part of the general ineptness of a police state. It’s incompetently evil – Waugh was evidently a believer in the maxim that most evil men are banal bureaucrats rather than Machiavellian geniuses, and here he enjoys himself hugely at their expense. A joy to read, as always with Waugh.

 

Adventures in Bookland: 1066: What Fates Impose by G.K. Holloway

October 9th, 2018


The title asks a question: what fates impose? Having read the book, the answer has to be that they impose a ruthless, Machiavellian Norman king on England. G.K. Holloway’s excellent retelling of the many events that all came to a fateful conclusion on a muddy field outside Hastings is a brilliant exercise in imaginative history: he takes what we know and, through the writer’s craft, brings the people who lived the events to life – and death, sadly. For this is the one drawback to the book, although it is also a testament to Holloway’s ability as a writer: he makes of Harold such an engaging and sympathetic character that, as events drew on and I passed the mid point in the book, I found myself reading slower and slower, just one chapter rather than two or three (the chapters are generally short, so that often meant just reading two or three pages each night). The problem, of course, is that we all know what will happen in the end. This is the great strength of historical fiction but also the burden it places upon the reader: you can’t say, oh, it’s just a story. Holloway makes the characters, in particular that of Harold, come to life in such a way that the bloody battle of 14 October 1066 almost becomes a personal tragedy where people we know and care about are cut down. This is testament to good writing but makes for fraught reading by the end of the book, as Harold’s wife and mother search for his body on the battlefield. Highly recommended (if you can bear it).

 

Adventures in Bookland: Tank Men by Robert Kershaw

October 4th, 2018

From the perspective of the PBI (‘the poor bloody infantry’) the tank men in their apparently invulnerable behemoths must seem like they have it made. All right, not as good as the fly boys, who spend a couple of hours swanning around in the air and then get to go home for a decent meal and good night’s sleep, but at least the tankers don’t have to worry about being mown down by machine gun fire or losing a foot to an anti-personnel mine.

But what Robert Kershaw does in this wonderful introduction to tank warfare is exactly what it says on the cover: the human story of tanks at war. He intersperses this with the engineering and military developments of tank warfare, telling how the new weapon was developed in response to the stalemate of the World War I trenches and was then unleashed in blitzkrieg in the Second World War, but the heart of the story is the human experience of the tank men in all its discomfort, noise and sheer exhaustion. All right, the poor bloody infantry might have to march all day, but come nightfall they could sleep. Driving a tank, particularly the Soviet tanks of World War II that, in typical Russian fashion, gave no thought to human comfort and little to survivability, was almost as exhausting as marching all day, but come nightfall, the crew had to dismount and, like the cavalrymen of previous wars, see to the comfort and maintenance of their precious, not to say temperamental, mount before getting any rest and food themselves. For the driver and loader, this might mean no sleep until 2am, followed by another pre-dawn reveille.

Then there was the fear of what British tankers called ‘a brew-up’: being trapped in a tank on fire. At least submariners just drowned. The crew of a brewed-up thank sometimes had to be extracted afterwards with a spoon.

Tanks are more survivable and certainly more comfortable now. Kershaw largely ends the story at the end of World War II, with a small nod towards the Gulf War in which he served as a correspondent, but the story he tells is compelling and fascinating. Highly recommended.

 

Adventures in Bookland: The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson

October 4th, 2018

There’s one obvious way that Boris Johnson resembles the man who is obviously his political hero, Winston Churchill: they are both instantly recognisable from their Christian names. Boris. Winston. How many other politicians can say that? Whether Boris will prove to be any match to Winston remains to be seen: the current events of Brexit and his response will determine his place in our history. On the face of it, this might seem ridiculous, but Winston was seen, by a large sector of his own party before the events that would make his name, in much the same light as many people in the Conservative Party see Boris: a vain, impulsive chancer, only interested in his own glory. That Johnson wrote this appreciation of Churchill is a sketch towards the making of his political future, should chance, tactics and providence play out in line with his prognostications. Sometimes, a politician, at least one interested in something other than the mundane details of petty policy, must stake out a vision of the future that will, or will not, be vindicated by future events. The only other politician instantly known by his first name in the last half century was Enoch Powell: he staked his future on a vision that, thankfully, has not been vindicated and as a result is now but a footnote in history, a man of extraordinary brilliance who played the wrong Cassandra. The future awaits Boris: events will see apotheosis or irrelevance, as it did for Churchill.

 

Adventures in the Land: Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen Donaldson

October 4th, 2018

It was 1979, I was 16 and lost in Middle-earth. I’d been lost there for a year. I never wanted to escape but this was in a time when all that there was of Middle-earth was The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – not even The Silmarillion had been published yet, let alone the twelve volumes of the History of Middle-earth. I had copied out, by hand, the map of Middle-earth and hung it on my bedroom wall. I had traced the Shire map and put it on my desk. Each night, I prayed that I might wake up in Middle-earth and leave this mundane world of O-levels and drear behind. I never wanted to leave Middle-earth, but there wasn’t that much of it out there yet.

So it’s no surprise that, when I saw a book commended with the tag line, ‘Comparable to Tolkien at his best’, I picked it up. If memory serves, it was The Sunday Times that had made the comparison. I read the back cover and I was sold.

Thus began my travels in the Land. At 16, I drove through the hundreds and hundreds of pages of the first and second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, six volumes in all that must have come in at something close to twice the length of The Lord of the Rings, with the time-rich dedication that is only possible when you’re a teenager. I loved it, the richness of the Land, the invention of the Bloodguard, warriors so oathbound that even death waits in thrall to their sworn word, the Giants, creatures of mirth and story rather than the dim-witted foils of Jack, and most of all the Land itself. I loved it until…in common with almost everyone else who has ever read the books, I ended up so irritated, frustrated and fed up with Thomas Covenant that I just wanted to wring his neck. Just stop the self-pity and do something man.

For Thomas Covenant is the wearer of a white-gold ring, the wielder of wild magic, a leper granted health in a world of wonders and the bloody idiot wants nothing to do with it. Come on! I went to bed each night praying to wake up in Middle-earth: he gets the Land which, while not Middle-earth, is still pretty good, and all he wants to do is go back. I mean, why? He’s a leper, he’s lost, lonely, bitter and isolated. Why would he want to go back?

So my initial joy at finding a world as involving as Middle-earth slowly frizzled away, gnawed away by overwhelming character irritation.

But when I got married, the ring I chose was a plain band of white gold.

Acceptance notes – no.17 in a series

October 2nd, 2018

Yay! An acceptance note. For my story, The God Star, from the excellent On the Premises magazine, who have published another story by me, Neighbour From Heaven.

Dear Edoardo:

Thank you for entering the 32nd “On The Premises” short story contest. We received 377 entries. Your entry earned an honorable mention, so we will soon pay you $60 in US funds.

That’s pretty good considering I didn’t even win!

Mountain, Sea, Forest, Desert: Landscapes of the Soul

September 14th, 2018

Mountain, sea, forest, desert. Each has its devotees, people who repair to them again and again, forsaking all other temptations. For some it’s the wish to test themselves, for others it’s exploration and the lure of the unknown over the brow of the next hill. For some it’s strictly business, for others it is simple pleasure. For me, it’s mountain, hill and moor, for you it could be something else. But why should this be the case? Why is that these places call us – for it is a call and, notoriously and tragically, a siren call for some.

Anyone who has knocked around with climbers for a while will have a similar story. This is mine. I met Yossi Brain at university and he took me climbing a few times. But what for me was a passing interest became for him the key question of his life. So when he survived a 3,000 metre fall off Mont Blanc he had to decide what was more important – climbing or the journalistic career he had set out upon. The mountains won. Yossi gave up his job, moved to South America and became a mountain guide in the Andes, only to perish a few years later in a stupid little avalanche. His climbing partner on Mont Blanc, who also survived the fall that should have killed them both, predeceased him. In Mike Clarke’s case, an overhanging cornice broke off, fell and snapped his neck. Neither man made it to thirty.

Yossi on the summit of Cotopaxi, 9 January 1998.

What was it that called them out of the normal and the everyday, through the barriers of exhaustion and discomfort that must needs be endured to climb these sorts of peaks, and took them to their early deaths? According to Aristotle, men desire what is good, at least in their eyes, so where is the good in a pile of rock that is as insensible of your ascent as it is of your death?

Perhaps I can sketch out an answer by first tracing the growth of my own passion, one less lethal than that of my friend, but just as unlikely when I think about it. For as long as I can remember, the woods and rivers, moors and hills of England have been my passion. Yet I grew up, and still live, in a city, as do the vast majority of the population. However, my imagination was primed by childhood reading – The Wind in the Willows, Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine adventures (set in real countryside you can visit the author promised in the foreword to each book) and The Lord of the Rings. Each of these provided a vision of an England unknown and, at least in the case of The Lord of the Rings, unknowable, yet the landscapes they described seemed somehow more real than my world of brick and road and car.

Little did my eight-year-old self know that it was setting off down a well-travelled road. ‘It was in fairy-stories that I first divined… the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine,’ wrote Tolkien and though the tales I read were different, they suffused my imagined England with a secret fire.

We do not see the world with virgin eyes, but rather through a lens that has been ground in the ideas and stories and experiences of generations of our forefathers. Only Adam ever saw the world fresh, and he promptly gave names to everything and changed them forever. But the stories we tell are not static. Mountains were once avoided. They were the haunt of demons and dragons, storm and sudden, unexpected danger. They might provide a temporary refuge for the hunted, and a home for the hunter and the shepherd, but they were generally seen as benighted places. Then, as Romanticism took hold, the mountains became places first of inspiration and then of aspiration. The age of the mountain climber had begun, and it soon produced its heroes and its martyrs.

By Carsten.nebel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3494027

In the early accounts of mountaineering expeditions there is much talk of conquering and exploring, a language in line with the imperial ethos of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Coming more up to date, the themes tend towards the personal: testing your limits and overcoming them, ideas more appropriate for our narcissistic times. In all this we see our shifting cultural mores reflected and refracted in the heights. A number of writers, notably Robert Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind) and Simon Schama (Landscape and Memory), have written about how we construct our view of the natural world and their books are eminently worth reading.  But they don’t ask, let alone attempt to answer, why we should fall in love with a particular landscape. It was the desert for Wilfred Thesiger and Edward Abbey, the woods for Henry David Thoreau, the sea for Herman Melville and the cold of the far north for Jack London. Simply reeling them off gives part of the answer: many of these men responded to what was there. Melville was a sailor, Thoreau lived in thickly wooded New England and a young Jack London set off to the Klondike Gold Rush – what else were they going to write about?

But for Abbey it was love and there lies the mystery. Yes, this love was in part a product of his reading and his culture, and shaped by it, but the peculiarity of this sort of affair is that it survives the encounter with brutal reality, and in fact is strengthened by it. Through stories and films it’s relatively easy to get a view of mountains or seas or deserts as romantic places of untrammelled freedom, but the experience of the places themselves is different. Days of exhaustion and cold, seasickness, the flattening heat, all of these should serve to correct the romantic ideal. And, for many, they do. A long traverse of an all too exposed sea cliff with Yossi was enough to put me off climbing. Nothing is better calculated to give the lie to the post-modern fantasy of a constructed reality than a mountain. Try deconstructing your way down that, Derrida.

By Nepenthes – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5623273

Perhaps a clue as to why different people are attracted to different landscapes lies in the different methods of approaching those places. Mountaineers and climbers go into lonely places, but they do so in groups or pairs. There is a little remarked aspect of community to climbers, as well as the more familiar personal testing against limits of endurance. And extreme experiences undergone together make for the sort of bond not found elsewhere. So part of the answer as to why climbers are drawn to the mountains may lie here, in the shared encounter with the wild and the high.

Compare this to sailors. A sailor may be alone or with a crew, but the most vital part of his voyage is the boat. This is seen most clearly with solo sailors, when a deep and intimate union is created between man and vessel. Sailing becomes as rhythmical as the ocean’s waves, and this rhythm once found can be hard to let go, most famously in the case of Bernard Moitessier, a contestant in the first round the world, solo, non-stop yacht race. Rather than finish the race, he kept on going, sailing in the end almost twice around the world.

By Brocken Inaglory – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3379848

Although these attempts to find a cultural or social key to people’s response to the natural world are illuminating, I still get the impression that they miss something. Beyond everything else, there is a vision. And, yes, I know visions are mediated through culture and environment, but there is still something lurking at the heart of our experience of the natural world and producing our response to it that seems to transcend cultures and times as much as it exemplifies them. For, more than anything else, it’s the sense that we’re encountering something real that drives us up mountains and onto moors and over waves of water and sand. And I would like to suggest that at the heart of this is the sacramental or symbolic nature of these landscapes. Now, hold your horses at the back there. This is not necessarily a religious view, for we need to understand what is meant by the sacramental and the symbolic in this view.

A sign is not a symbol. A sign points at whatever it is signifying, but it partakes in nothing of the thing signified – road signs are good examples of this. But a symbol both points beyond itself and, simultaneously, makes present in a real way that towards which it points. So a wolf both symbolises the wild and makes the wild present. But, hang on, the wolf itself isn’t interested in human concepts of the wild – it has no idea that it now howls out of any number of T-shirts, usually next to a wise old Red Indian shaman – so aren’t we just plastering our human ideas over something to which they do not apply? That would be the usual argument nowadays, an argument strongly if unconsciously rooted in the default position of relativistic thinking that our culture assumes, but I think it is wrong. Let’s take an example from an area in which there is little dispute that human concepts are an accurate reflection of what’s out there in the real world: mathematics. There are three beans on a table. The beans both point beyond themselves to the mathematical concept of threeness and also bring that number to the table. The beans are obviously insensible of their numeric properties, yet they have them. Similarly, the wolf is unaware that it is wild, but it is.

Our cultural tendency to assign a reality to numerical values that we do not give to qualitative ideas goes back to the French philosopher, Descartes, who famously declared that he thought, therefore he was. He less famously, but more influentially, went on to argue that only numbers were real, being measurable, whereas the qualities by which we actually experience the world – things like colour, touch, taste – were purely subjective and thus, by implication, unreal. And so we come, by long and tortured philosophical byways, to a culture that is unsure of the reality of anything.

By Brazilian things – http://brazilian-things-page.tumblr.com, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61588374

The natural landscapes represent the antithesis to this. They are really real, and perhaps never more so than when they destroy our carefully constructed imaginings amid a welter of storm and heat and wind. Somewhere deep inside we know the difference between the airy imaginings of our mind and the deep reality of things, and mountains and sea, forest and desert bring us more closely into contact with this deep reality than anything else in our world today. As such, it becomes possible to see why people will pursue this vision to the gates of death.

St Augustine once said that there is a God-sized hole in man, and we cannot rest content until that hole is filled. Even a card-carrying atheist could accept that Augustine is on to something here, for it seems to me that we have a thirst for something more, something beyond the walls of our increasingly constricted and trammelled world, and the land and the sea, in all their various moods and modes, give us that something more, for they truly do make present what they point towards. What Yossi saw on the mountain tops was really there, and although it cost him his life, the vision was not a phantasm but something real. He died, but not for a lie.

The dreams and visions that take us out of our everyday homes and lives and into the wild places are the place where our cultural and personal histories encounter a wider reality that stretches beyond any limits known to us. A mountain is not just a hunk of rock and the sea is more than a lot of water, and these perceptions we have of them are true. We should not be embarrassed of them.

I’m Not Inclined to Boast…

September 5th, 2018

… but Conrad certainly is!

in Canada.

And number 3 in the overall Kindle chart!

Not to mention number 1 in Australia too!

Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army is now officially a best seller!

via GIPHY

 

Adventures in Bookland: Cadia Stands by Justin Hill

September 2nd, 2018

Regular readers will know of my admiration for Justin Hill. I’d rate him the best of contemporary writers of historical fiction, so I picked up this Warhammer 40k novel with a huge amount of interest: had the 40k universe found a writer as good as Dan Abnett? Yes. Hill is as good as Abnett. This story bears comparison with Abnett’s second Gaunt’s Ghosts novel, Ghostmaker, where he explores the characters and settings of the Ghosts. Cadia Stands even though it doesn’t. The planet falls to Chaos and Hill follows its fall through the stories of many different companies, many of them fighting doomed rearguard actions that demonstrate that the title is true: Cadia does still stand. It’s a kaleidoscopic literary technique, showcasing Hill’s talent as a writer, and one that mirrors, in the book’s structure, the fall of one of the Imperium’s most important bastions. I look forward very much to Hill’s next foray into the 40k universe.