Sunday 25 March 2012

I Ran

Back from the Sport Relief run - lovely day for it. Warm, clear skies, great atmosphere with everyone very happy to be out and about. Thanks again to all who sponsored me, and who retweeted my requests for sponsorship - much appreciated. I left my decision to enter until relatively late in proceedings, but as an asthmatic with an on-off chest infection for the last week or so, I couldn't really commit to the run until I knew I was up for it. (Of course I could always have hobbled around, I suppose). Aside from my generous sponsors, both friends and family, I must thank my wife for not only putting the word out, but also being there on the day with camera and encouragement. In the end we raised 340 pounds for Sport Relief (edit: now up to 400 pounds, which is astonishing!).

Here are some snaps. I was feeling a bit apprehensive about the whole thing to start with - 3 miles is not much but I'd already seen one man being helped out of the earlier 6 mile run with what looked like a painful knee injury.

The calm before the storm:

Enjoying a last sip of fruit juice.

The start! Brilliant mix of adults and kids of all abilities.

About half way around. It's an up and down course and the steep bit seemed to get a bit steeper each lap, the swines.


27 minutes after the start, it's over! I feel as knackered as I look. Time for a celebratory ice cream, and then we stayed to watch the 1 mile run which had a very good turn out.

Once again, thanks for the support.

Friday 23 March 2012

Silent Running Man (see what I did there?)

This Sunday, I'll be running three miles for Sport Relief. You can find out a bit more about it, and sponsor me if you so wish, by following this link:


Wednesday 21 March 2012

Wordy Rappinghood

How much is a decent day's work for the jobbing writer? I've often been asked about my own working habits, and I've tried as far as possible to answer honestly. I aim to produce 3000 words each working day, which for me is essentially the normal working week; I'll generally do a bit of work on weekends, but that's more about catching up and maintaining momentum, than hitting a set target.

But that aim of 3000 words is exactly that: an aim. It's something I'll do my best to achieve, and on a good day, or near a deadline, I'll shoot well past it. But I won't kill myself if I don't hit it; what counts is that week in, week out, there's a sense of productivity. 3000 words is a short chapter, or about half of a normal one (by my standards). It's half to a third of a short story. It's a fiftieth of a long novel. The main thing is that if I can hit somewhere between 10 and 15,000 words of fiction a week, I know that the work is going well and that I will eventually produce enough raw wordage to begin to shape a submission-quality draft. The secret to finishing a novel is not writing tens of thousands of words in a single caffeine-fuelled writing binge, but steady work over many months. Most of us will know what it's like to work ridiculously hard to meet a deadline, but by the same token we will also know the draining muscular and mental fatigue that follows. We all have to do it sometimes (I've done 10,000 words in one day) but that's no way to sustain a writing career that one hopes will span decades, rather than years.

However - here's the key thing: I didn't always write 3000 words a day and I'd hate anyone to think that this was some absolute gold standard that must be met. Far from it: I know writers who produce much less than this, and who do perfectly well. I also know at least one writer who cranks out 5000 words a day, again to no obvious detriment to either career or health. Ultimately, the individual must find the working habits that best suit their lifestyle and temperament. Do you produce 500 meticulously polished words of near-publishable prose, or 3000 words of rougher material that nonetheless moves the story along and can be edited and shaped further down the line?

When I had a day job, and a lengthy commute to and from work, I found it just about manageable to produce 2000 words of fiction an evening. But this wasn't always easy, and I could only do it because my wife was there to keep me suitably fed and watered. And that 2000 words was only achieved when I'd already had a good number of years of serious work behind me. I certainly couldn't hit anything like that wordage when I was beginning to find my way into writing.

Writing is an art, but as with any art there are elements of craft which can only be learned with time. The novice writer struggles with the basic units of prose: it's tricky to put together a decent sentence, let alone more than one. The rhythm's off. One sentence doesn't lead fluidly into the next. That paragraph break feels like it's in the wrong place, but you can't quite put your finger on where it ought to be. But if you work at it hard enough, and over a long enough period, you'll eventually get to the point where you'll have internalised the basics well enough to be able to write almost effortlessly on the level of sentence and paragraph. (That's not to say that it's all suddenly become easy, it's just that you've raised your game enough to be worrying about a whole truckload of other things). During this phase you're a bit like a learner driver, still trying to get to grips with the rudiments of clutch, throttle and brakes. And just as you wouldn't set out to drive 5000 miles before you'd got to grips with the basics of gear shifting, so I don't think it's realistic to set yourself difficult word targets before you've reached some basic level of fluency with the elements of prose. Put another way, by all means try and write 2000 or 3000 words if you think you can attain that, but don't feel too bad if you can't. Like most things, it will come with time.

Speaking for myself, I did 2000 words today. But I also did a lengthy telephone interview, and tomorrow I have a function to prepare for. The key thing is flexibility. Find a personal work target, set it, and aim for it as best you can. Be strict, but at the same time cut yourself some slack when the goal is clearly unattainable. We all have off days. If you exhaust yourself trying to meet today's target, you're probably not going to have too easy a time of it meeting tomorrow's...

Thursday 8 March 2012

Monday 5 March 2012

New Art Riot: Tug on this

Felt tip sketch, after an original pencil drawing by Frank Rines.

Friday 2 March 2012

Silent Running

(This short piece on the film Silent Running appeared in Cinema Futura, edited by Mark Morris, in 2010.)

In the future, some kind of catastrophe – planned or otherwise - has befallen Earth’s once great natural environments. All that’s left is a handful of domed preserves, drifting through the solar system attached like glistening seed pods to huge skeletal space freighters. After the order arrives to jettison the forests, blow them up with nuclear bombs, and return the ships to commercial use, most of the crew are jubilant about the prospects for returning home. But one ecologically-minded astronaut – the begowned, plant-loving hippy Freeman Lowell – decides he isn’t going to stand for this. Before very long he’s killed the other crewmembers, taken the ship off on a white-knuckle ride through Saturn’s rings, and begun bonding with the maintenance drones. Lowell is eventually forced to sacrifice himself to save the last forest, itself left in the care of the final fully-functioning drone. The film closes with touching images of the robot tending the garden, continuing the task that humans couldn’t be trusted not to screw up.

It’s safe to say that Silent Running is implausible on many levels. I can excuse the habitats in space – maybe the domes already existed before Earth’s ecosystem went wrong – but it’s not at all clear why they need to be shepherded around attached to enormous spaceships. It’s even less clear why they need to be blown up, rather than just left to orbit the sun on their own. The story wouldn’t kick in unless the domes were imperiled, though, and (minor understatement ahead) it’s not as if the decisions of governments and corporations always make absolute, binding sense in the real world. Setting aside the dubious combination of magical artificial gravity on a ship that in all other respects appears to be bolted together from late-twentieth century components (an aircraft carrier was used for the impressively spacious interior shots), what is perhaps more problematic is the time it takes the treehugging Lowell to realise that the reason his sole surviving forest might be ailing, on the wrong side of Saturn, is that the Sun is now a very long away away. Long before the penny drops he hefts a yellow cue ball, as if almost making the connection…

Despite these problems I love Silent Running unreservedly. Emerging at the tail-end of the Apollo era, it’s as much a part of the early seventies as After the Goldrush, and should be seen in that context. When I saw it for the first time, at the other end of the seventies, it slotted neatly into place as the missing jigsaw piece tieing together the other big SF films of the last decade, of which it seemed to share a consensus view about the way the future was going to look. It had the plausible industrial design of 2001: A Space Odyssey: the huge, grey-clad spaceships sliding ponderously past the camera, the control rooms filled with complex navigational hardware and shuffling readouts, the emphasis on artificial intelligence as an essential component of our spacefaring future. It had the shuffling, bipedal robots that I had glimpsed in background scenes in Star Wars. It had the downbeat, working stiffs in space aesthetic of Dark Star (prefiguring Alien, which I didn’t see until several years later). Above all else, and for all its moments of humour, it was terribly, terribly sad: things just didn’t go well for Freeman Lowell or anyone around him. Stars Wars changed matters, of course, but the one thing you didn’t go to seventies SF for was a happy ending.

The connection with 2001 ran deeper than I appreciated at the time. The director, Douglas Trumbull, had led the effects team on that film. One of the key differences between Clarke’s novel and the film is that in the book the Discovery travels to Saturn, not Jupiter. In fact the change to Saturn was Kubrick’s idea – he was keen on the idea of showing the rings, and having the Discovery fly among them. Clarke rewrote the story accordingly. But Trumbull’s team, already under pressure with existing work, “went ape” and vetoed the change, which is why it remains Jupiter in the film. It’s tempting to view the Saturn sequences in Silent Running as Trumbull returning to do justice to the ringed planet, but in truth the Saturn encounter, while dramatic, is not even the most impressive element in the film, and doesn’t really improve upon anything in Kubrick’s masterpiece. While some of the spaceship effects are good, by far the best things about Silent Running are the convincingly rendered interior shots – the domes and vast, mechanized cargo bays - and the marvellously realised drones, all of which were operated by amputee actors.

Comparisons with 2001 rather miss the point, though. The earlier film was meticulously plotted and designed, with a logical basis for everything that occurs or is shown, whereas Silent Running functions better as a dreamily rationalised eco-parable. It’s all about conservation, ultimately, and the lengths one could or should go to in order to protect something utterly irreplaceable.

The film has been accused of being morally dubious, but I don’t go along with that. We’re not invited to sympathise with Lowell’s actions – even he seems rightfully appalled by what he has done – but merely to accept that, given the tremendous stakes, a good man might act in this way. After he has killed his colleagues, Lowell touches his conservation pledge, as if desperately trying to reassure himself that he has done the right thing. This is not a man with a clear conscience. And while he does end up saving one of the forests, he doesn’t save himself. In fact Bruce Dern succeeds in portraying Lowell as at least mildly unhinged from the very outset. Still, each time I watch the film I can’t help but put myself in Lowell’s position and wonder if what he does is in any way justifiable. One could argue that the stakes are artificially high – that in the real world it would never come down to a simple choice between murder and losing the last forest in existence. But setting up that kind of duality is one of the things that science fiction does rather well, and Silent Running does it as effectively as any SF film I know.

One final point: early in the film we’re told that the domed preserves were created around the turn of the century. Later, we learn that Lowell has been involved with the project for nine years, and was there from the beginning – thus neatly placing the action around 2009 or 2010. Thankfully, of course, in the enlightened world of the real 2010, we don’t have to worry about anyone cutting down forests any more, or the Earth’s climate going bananas.

Copyright Alastair Reynolds, 2010.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Presented without comment

One of my first record purchases. A snip at 1.49p.