idle hands

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I’ve been slowly sinking further into the Twitter lark over the past few months. Baby steps, you know? But I’m really quite immersed now. Which is another way of saying: if you’re actually curious about what I’m doing, seeing, thinking etc., you should probably follow me on Twitter these days. I show up over there a whole lot more than here nowadays.

As a sampler, just three things I’ve talked about, or tweeted about, or retweeted over there of late:

An Inventory of crap on the ocean floor.

A vaguely surreal, cumulatively creepy drive through the streets of the world capital of mad and sad: Pyongyang, North Korea. The longer I watched it, the more I found myself thinking ‘this is just … weird.’ So clean, so empty, so lifeless. So few people.

See what fun I’m having over there? Honestly, this is what fun looks like. Really. Anyway, feel free to follow my fun.

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I Grew A Beard

Hard to say why, exactly. Impulse. Because I can. Idle curiosity.

It is, I fear, not a very convincing beard. Insufficient density. Lack of uniformity. Needs tending in some way, obviously, but I’m not sure I was signing on for tending when I began this experiment. Certainly not for the nurturing that looks to be required if a pleasing effect is going to be produced.

Funny how I’ve got a pair of discrete white/grey chin tufts showing through, though. The whole thing’s a subtly different colour than my head hair, too.

So, a possibly failed experiment (though kind of fun). What do we think? Beard good, beard bad? You decide! Actually, no: I decide. My face, my responsibility to take the weighty decision.

Made me wonder, though: should every man for whom such a thing is an option grow their beard out a bit at least once in their life? Just on principle? It’s there, waiting to be expressed, a part of you. If you never let it come out to play, not even once, there’s an aspect of you that you’ll never see or know.

Maybe not. It’s just a scrappy strew of hair, after all.

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Seems only fitting, for such an ill-omened date as Friday the 13th, to address a rather morbid topic. So: I learned a new word the other day, and it’s one I rather like: micromort.  A micromort is a unit of measurement equal to a one in a million chance of dying.  Very appropriate for our data-rich, risk-averse, analytical age.  (And it sounds good, too – try saying it a few times, and it starts to take on a sinister quality, doesn’t it?  Or maybe that’s just me…)

From Wikipedia, I learn that the following activities add one micromort to your personal doom-tally:

eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter;

travelling in a canoe for 6 minutes;

drinking the water in Miami for 1 year;

drinking half a litre of wine.

(Among many other interesting statistics).  To which I say: wow, those canoes are killers.

Got me thinking, though, about the fatality risks associated with fulfilling certain specific character roles in epic speculative fiction, particularly of the fantastical or space opera-y kind, but also including things like superhero movies.  Some quick mental arithmetic (actually, none at all), lead me to suggest the following crude approximations, expressed as micromorts per novel/film/story.

Being the main villain: I’ll go with 650,000 micromorts, since most resolutions seem to be of the terminal sort for the big bad.  Taking on that role is an excellent short term strategy, since you’ve a good chance of making it almost all the way to the end, but that last big hurdle – the heroic climax – is a killer.  Literally.  Still, there’s a chance you might be needed for a sequel, so survival remains a possibility.

Being the main hero/heroine: 10,000 micromorts. Good prospect of survival, especially if you have been designed by the invisible author with reader identification in mind and the story is told more or less entirely from your point of view.  (If auditioning for this role, play up your capacity for reader identification for all it’s worth, I’d say).  Again, sequel potential is important.  Death risk probably declines to no more than a few micromorts if sequels beckon; unless you’re in the hands of a slippery creator who thinks a ghost would make a fun protagonist for the next few volumes …

Being the hero/heroine’s mentor: Let’s say 500,000 micromorts.  Bad news for anyone aspiring to be mentor to a future hero: I don’t fancy your chances much.  Sorry.  Obi Wan Kenobi, whoever Sean Connery played in Highlander, Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, Gandalf (well, not really, but sort of), the list goes on and on …  Precedent is against you.  That’s all I’m saying.

Being the hero/heroine’s love interest: 150,000 micromorts. Pretty safe as roles go, but not an entirely comfortable option.  There exist some cruel creators who might feel a dead lover is the best possible motivation for the central character.  Unfortunately, I can think of no easy way of identifying such creators in advance, so you’ll just have to cross your fingers and hope for the best …

Being the comic relief: Ooooh … 250,000 micromorts.  Dangerous, to be sure, but not quite as dangerous as being a mentor, I think.  Mind you, there exist some comic relief characters for whom 250,000 micromorts would be widely considered an offensively low figure.  I speak of Jar Jar Binks, obviously.

Being a redshirt: 1,000,000 micromorts.  By definition.

Being a character in my Godless World trilogy: This one is in fact based on some (very crude) mathematical analysis.  Specifically, a quick scan of the cast list at the end of Fall of Thanes.  Rather alarmingly, the figure looks to be in excess of 300,000 micromorts.  It’s seriously inflated by the fact that not every named character appears in the cast list, and those that do have a higher than average chance of expiring, but even so … I’m not likely to be getting many volunteers for roles in my future work with that sort of track record.

(A parenthetical afterthought: in the unlikely event that anyone feels tempted to make a comment that incorporates plot spoilers for The Godless World, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t.  I’m inclined towards a ‘minimum-spoiling’ comment policy in general and certainly as far as my own work is concerned.)


An interview with Neil Williamson, a Scottish writer of speculative fiction, who has a short story in contention for one of the annual British Science Fiction Association awards. I thought I’d pass it on for various reasons, including (a) there’s some discussion of the Scottish sf/fantasy scene, which is not a particular corner of the genre diaspora that gets talked about all that often (except in Scotland, I suppose), (b) the interviewer is Jeff Vandermeer, who is the sort of chap who’s well worth following around the internet, if you’re not already doing so, in a nice non-stalkery way, obviously, and (c) I get mentioned in the interview. Which is nice. But not important, of course.

First saw this on the indispensible SF Signal, by the way.

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Three unrelated items, except that they’re all very loosely about writing, I guess.  Sort of.

First, a wise and insightful (by which I mean complimnetary about my work, obviously) review of Speculative Horizons, Patrick’s St Denis’ anthology coming from Subterranean Press in a couple of months or so.  Apparently orders made through the Subterranean Press website get priority, so that should probably be your first port of call if interested, but it does seem to now be avilable for pre-order through the usual online channels (such as here and here) and they should be able to fill your order assuming it doesn’t sell out elsewhere first.  Either way, get your orders in!  Buy, buy buy!  Or not.  No pressure.

Second, one of the things I like listening to on my tiny little mp3 player: recordings of convention panels.  Yeah, I know.  Most folks like up to the minute tunes from popular musical combos; I like convention panels.  What can I say? (In fact, the truth is, to my knowledge there is not one single piece of music on my mp3 player.  Not a one.  It’s podcasts from top to bottom. Weird, huh?)  Anyway: panels.  You never quite know what you’re going to get with them, but that’s part of the fun.  Wordpunk radio has put out a few recordings from the recent Alt.Fiction event in Derby (which I’d recommend, by the way: I was at the 2008 version, and it was good fun.).  Here they are:

The Publishing Panel

The Writing for Comics Panel

The Authors from BBC Books Panel

The Fantasy Panel

It’s just like you were there yourself!  Virtual conventioneering!  There might be more to come for all I know, but those are the ones they’ve released so far.

Third and finally, I wasted a good two minutes with the entirely pointless I Write Like gizmo.  Here’s the verdicts:

First chapter of Winterbirth: I write like Margaret Mitchell.

Second chapter of The Edinburgh Dead: I write like James Joyce.

The blog post preceding this one: I write like Dan Brown.

So there you have it … wait, What?  Winterbirth is stylistically indistinguishable from Gone With the Wind?  Holy cow.  And as one of the legions of well-intentioned folk who’ve started but never finished Ulysses (and I even quite liked the bits of it I read, just couldn’t bring myself to see it through to the end, and my attention span’s much, much too short these days to launch another attempt on it – in fact, come to think of it, there’s a blog post somewhere in the category: ‘books I really quite like, but despite that never finished’) … anyway, I promise – promise – you The Edinburgh Dead is not remotely Joyceian.  Not remotely.  And surely if my blog posts were Dan Brown duplicates, I’d have an awful lot more readers, wouldn’t I?  And a bigger house, come to that.

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Every now and again I like to google ‘crushing the frantic penguins’.  It’s an odd thing to do, I know, but there’s a certain history to it: here and here.  Basically, it just amuses me (and pretty much nobody else, I know, but indulge me) that searching for a more or less random, if memorable, phrase from the works of H P Lovecraft leads you directly to some weird places on the internet. Here’s an update on where the trail of tragically flattened flightless birds leads these days.  (I note in passing, and with only a little tremor of pride, that the first place it leads is still to one of my own posts on the topic 2 years ago.  I am number one in at least something.)

Anyway, here’s indisputable evidence that I’m on to something.  The seventh result on Google is … Lady Gaga.  I rest my case.  All important cultural phenomena (or should that be ephemera?) can be accessed through the gateway of crushed penguins.  Though whether this wholly unintentional Lovecraftian homage truly counts as an important cultural phenomenom I leave you to decide for yourself:

Yikes.  On the sfnal front, Lady Gaga does always make me think of something out of a William Gibson novel.  I suspect most of her fans are thinking of entirely different things while watching her …

As a brain cleanser, here’s the next oddity ‘crushing the fantic penguins’ led me to.  It appears to be a proposal to create some kind of inorganic monstrosity, all in the best interests of humanity.  I think.  I’m not sure I got my head around it all, though it sounds either bonkers or extraordinary:

To be fair, it’s probably not strictly bonkers: there’s a longer talk on the subject at the TED talks site, with much highbrow disucssion of the idea in the comments.

And finally, amalgamorphs.  A pleasing word, though I’m not sure it’s actually made it into any credible dictionary