Because science into life doesn't go

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Back to School

So, I'm now officially that old dude who goes to uni to be ridiculed by all the youngsters. Actually, that's not true. A combination of not looking my age and a being amongst a group of more mature students, meant I blended in okay. Here's the evidence to prove it.

There's about twenty or so students studying Evolutionary and Adaptive Systems (EASy). Only three or four are doing it part-time, like me. It was a little disconcerting when the course organiser kept mentioning part-timers, and the special requirements they have. The phrase part-timer always has an air of slacker about it. Which in my case is about right. I probably could do this course full-time, but I want to study more leisurely and give myself plenty of time to write over the next two years.

During the induction we we told about the various modules and got a flavour of how this course pans out. Basically, because it's such a cutting-edge area, there are no textbooks written, no this-is-how-it-is style teaching. In the seminars they want us to read papers and then have great ideological and technically debates amongst ourselves. Needless to say, this is in stark contrast to my physics degree where most the theories were developed hundreds of years ago by stuffy gentlemen in tweed jackets, and repeated ad nauseam to legions of drolling nerds. Bring it on!

Also the MSc will involve lots of hands-on work--from programming projects to robot design. There's a lab dedicated for the EASy students. It looks like a cross between a child's play area and the computing section at the local library. An enormous table takes up the whole of the middle of the room, laden with lego bricks and wheels and electronic equipment, while PCs line the walls. It's open 24 hours a day, so if I get into this shit, I could be spending a lot of time in there. For myself, as a part-timer, this term only involves Maths and Programming modules, which should be easy, but not especially exciting. The good stuff will start next term.

After all this geekery, I went on to the football trials. There must have been over a hundred and fifty trialists. The first thing we did was fitness work which was going fine until we had to do the running version of the cycling Madison without the slingshot part. As a pair, both guys run around a 100m track. One has to run 3/4 speed while the other jogs. When the 3/4 speed runner catches their partner, they tag them, and swap roles. Do this five or six times and you'll be knackered! I definitely didn't shine here. Shortly after this, some passing drills began, and it was at this stage that people were told to drop out. "Guy in the Converse shoes. Thanks very much, you can go now." Everyone started getting nervous with their touch....

Fortunately, I survived the cull and made it to the 11-a-side trial games where I performed alright. Still lack fitness, but I passed well, ran a lot, and helped organise the team. Back for the final trial on Sunday, where, fingers-crossed, I'll make one of the teams.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Submission Frenzy

They say: You gotta be in it to win it.

That applies as much to the National Lottery as publishing fiction, but it's never made me cross my fingers and buy a ticket. It is the same reasoning that has made me wary of being a submission junky. Although my writing process is very methodical, afterwards, my judgement of a piece is based on intuitive feelings. Aside from some stupidly optimistic vibes right at the beginning of my current writing life, the main feeling I have had for my work has been mild dissatisfaction. It's like the shape of the story on the page isn't the Platonic one in my mind, but an ugly facsimile. Editing helps, but it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Under these circumstances, it is hard to send a story out. You know it's almost certainly going to be rejected, and if it is accepted, part of you will be disappointed that it isn't quite as you'd like it. It reminds me a goal a team-mate scored in a football match many years ago. He was on the half-way line and the keeper was out of position off his line. He took a chance and scored. Everyone on the team was ecstatic (it was turning point in the match) except him. He bent over and shook his head. Because he hadn't intended to score in that exact fashion--he'd sliced the ball slightly--he was disappointed. That's where I'm coming from in my submission reluctance.

However, I think I've managed to get past this stage now--partly because I have more belief in my stories since Clarion. I can tell more easily why something doesn't feel right, and I can begin to make amends.

So, my stats thus far:

Submissions: 35
Acceptances: 0
Rejections: 27
Withdrawals: 1
Pending: 7

The silver-lining of rejections is that, provided you keep generating fresh material, you end up with more and more subs in play, and can cling to the "You gotta be in it to win it" motto.

Devonshire Cream

I spent many summers holidays in Devon and Cornwall, and despite the intervening years, it is still a magical part of the country.

A few of my favourite things here: cream teas, coastal walks, Alice-in-Wonderland cottages (expect a bruised head from the low doorways), Cornish pasties, the smell of dung, games of Backgammon, the UK surf scene (Hawaii, it ain't), reading nooks, seaspray, sandy beaches.

If you visit England, make sure that you come here.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

It's a Wind-Up, right?

While in Corfu, I ploughed through Murakami's six-hundred pager "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle", smashing my fifty pages a day goal in the process.

The great thing about Murakami is how easy he is to read (that's based on only two of his novels, mind, "Dance Dance Dance" and the above. Which perhaps isn't saying much as they're almost identical in tone and structure). He begins with Okada, the first-person protagonist, an unemployed paralegal, cooking pasta to classical music. Somehow, he makes it riveting, and before you know it you've joined Okada in his gentle unease, precipitated by a strange phone call from an anonymous woman telling him if he gives her ten minutes then they'll "understand" one another.


We join this most ordinary of men through such adventures as plodding up and down the bricked-up alley behind his house, spending eleven days staring at the faces of shoppers, and sitting at the bottom of a dry-well. Sounds fascinating, doesn't it? Well, Murakami has a way with words, and actually makes it fascinating. I think the tension and suspense has two sources. First, Okada is your stock everyman. Few words are spared on his description. The effect is that the things in this novel aren't only within the domain of exceptional people. These things can happen to anyone, including yourself. Secondly, Murakami makes you, as a reader, confront everyday reality and realise that the events we take as ordinary are anything but on close inspection. He makes you want to go out to, for example, the dry-cleaners, like Okada, and really study the surroundings.

What is frustrating, however, is the lack of cohesion. Perhaps, the tapestry of very loosely connected stories is a thematic device, but overall the plot suffers as a result. By the last page there are numerous plot threads still hanging and plenty of unexplained happenings. The way I read it undermined my sympathy for Okada. Instead of a being a mystic, channelling latent historical forces and supernatural abilities, Okada is in fact, a fool. Coincidental events taking on cosmic meaning seems to be a strong element of Murakami's fiction, but for me, this doesn't work. There's just too much hand-waving when it comes down to the mechanics of what's going on. To take one example, an old Japanese soldier is given the chance to kill his Russian master in a work camp in Siberia. The Russian gives the soldier a gun and two bullets, and allows him to shoot at point-blank range. He misses. Twice. The explanation? The Russian is evil and fated to live. That's just too much of an intrusion into physicial reality for my liking.

Still, all the individual tales are extremely readable in their own right, so it's always a pleasure to read Murakami at the chapter level. Now, if only he can wrap things together in a more satisfying way...

As regards my own writing, I've finished re-drafting one of my Clarion stories. It's even got a shiny new name thanks to Sean. "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" (is it okay to nick song titles?). Anyone want to read and give me final thoughts? It'll bring you good karma if you do, rest assured.

A Week in Corfu

I'll let the pics speak for themselves and only mention a couple of things.

Despite only being a small island, Corfu seems to have enough room to satisfy the Club 18-30 crowd AND those seeking more leisurely times. If you hire a scooter you can get to deserted villages or beaches within twenty minutes. The most surreal moment was getting back to Corfu's airport and seeing all my fellow passengers from my flight out--most looking worse than when they came. On the plane I even sat next to the same couple as I'd flown in with. Weird.

If you visit you should try to get to Benitses--a laid-back village about ten km south of Corfu Town--and in particular, go to a restaurant named "Chicken George" at the south end of the town. There you will meet Alex, the generous host, and if you're lucky, Viki, the gorgeous, friendly waitress.