Back in the saddle

The Beloved Other is getting past the crisis at Wreck Tech: one of her courses finished today, and she’s pretty sure she passed the final exam. That makes easier going for the rest of the term, with no more classes on Wednesdays. Easter is on its way, the sky is getting lighter, and I have been taking stiff doses of vitamin D to rev my sluggish metabolism. And I have, thanks partly to the encouragement of my 3.6 Loyal Readers, begun slowly working again.

Where Angels Die has lain fallow so long (and against my original intentions) that I could not look at it without a pang of guilt. Part of the trouble was that I published the first episode without having done enough of the necessary background work. And then the second episode proved stubborn, and I made four or five false starts over the course of many months. But I think (and my Editorial Consultant, the fine and capable Wendy S. Delmater, agrees) that I have nailed it this time round.

So here, after long delay, is the opening chapter of Episode 2, ‘The Little Charter’.


Chapter 1


There was a commotion at the gate of Angel Keep, and Ham Yushon, known to all and sundry as Greyhand, was the first man out to see to it. It was his business to be first, as Baron Vail’s unofficial steward: first to arrive whenever there was news, first to bear the word back to his master. Things were so much harder to manage if the Baron heard six conflicting stories first and Greyhand had to set him straight. He was not a man who took confusion in his stride. [Read more…]

Happy St. Ersatz Day!

Begob and begorrah, ’tis St. Paddy’s Day, that special time o’ the year when authentic Irish bars are filled with authentic Irishmen drinking authentic Irish green beer… men with authentic Irish names like O’Schmidt, O’Mukherjee, and O’Chang.

In the spirit of which, we bring you this fine performance of ‘Danny Boy’, by three of the finest authentic Irish singers of our time.

Sláinte mhuppet!

Wodehouse submits to an Editor

In my recent illness, I have been reading large quantities or gobs of the early P. G. Wodehouse. A few years ago, Golgotha Press, a firm of whose existence I until recently remained culpably unaware, released a vast compendium of thirty-odd Wodehouse books which had fallen into the public domain, for the derisory price of a dollar. (You can find them on iTunes if you search for Wodehouse, but the collection does not appear to be available on Amazon.) Under U.S. copyright law, I am told, anything published before 1923 is fair game, and I have been dining these many days on aged roast Wodehouse.

If anybody wants to know what it was like for Wodehouse, as a short-story writer in the early years of the twentieth century, to submit his work to a magazine, the process was essentially the same as it is today. Observe the following account: [Read more…]

Catching up

I should perhaps let you know, my 3.6 Loyal Readers, that I have been bogged down in a new set of troubles, now that the old ones have partly lifted. Fortunately, the new ones do not bid to be as durable. They don’t make ’em like they used to – thank God. [Read more…]

C.S.L. on dialogue

In correcting dialogue it is useful to imagine it being acted on the stage or at least read aloud. Is there anything which, before a large audience, you wd. feel embarrassed at – anything which an actor wd. find it difficult to say? It must always sound like real conversation but must be in reality clearer and more economical than that. Literature is an art of illusion.

—C. S. Lewis

(From a letter to Sister Penelope CSMV, 31 August 1948. Printed in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. 2.)

Happy Belated New Year

Well, 2017 was more or less a write-off as far as my writing was concerned; hoping for a write-on this year, if there is such a thing.

Not that the whole year was wasted. I did much work patching up the relationship with the Beloved Other, and more work putting ghosts to rest in my own head. This partly explains why I was never able to produce for more than a few days at a time; that, and a general want of mental maintenance. The last couple of months, I have been taking apart, cleaning, repairing, and reassembling all the instruments of my own internal orchestra; new strings for the fiddles, new reeds for the woodwinds, new thingumbobs for the doohickeys in the whatchamacallum section. (Is exploding TNT a percussion or a wind instrument? Depends where the gas comes out.) At present the band is tuning up and doing finger exercises, and it sounds as ghastly as that always does.

This week, the Beloved Other began a highly accelerated program of studies at an institution which I shall choose to call Rectocranial Polytechnic, or Wreck Tech for short. It is the kind of institution that Canada, it appears, excels at producing, where the faculty are highly accomplished practitioners in their field, but have long forgotten what it is like to be a raw beginner, and what their students need to be taught, which doesn’t much matter because they don’t know how to teach anyway. Nevertheless, Wreck Tech has a shining reputation for turning out good technicians in many fields. I attribute this chiefly to the industry and initiative and cooperative ingenuity of the students, who seem to have an admirable knack for doing through the grapevine what their instructors should have done in class. At least that is my impression so far.

A minor but typical example of how things are done at Wreck Tech: When you start out as a student, you are assigned a Wreck Tech email account with a default password. This is all well and good. The password is emailed to your Wreck Tech email, which you cannot open without the password. You could not ask for a more classic instance of what I call ‘Can Opener in a Can’.

(‘Yes, I did want a can opener, but now I need another can opener to open the can that the can opener is in.’—‘I can sell you another one.’—‘Is that one in a can, too?’—‘Of course. Can openers always come in cans.’—‘May worms rot all your insides, and may the Great Bird of Corruption come to feast on them and eat your innards instead and leave the worms behind.’)

It took a good deal of effort to get round that one. There is, fortunately, a PDF in the bowels of the Wreck Tech web servers that explains how the default password is constructed for each student, and I was able to find it by a modest application of Google-fu. Needless to say, that information was not given out to the students, either in printed or electronic form. It was left hidden in the monstrous and unnavigable depths of the website.

Institutional buildings are infamous for their bad design and baffling layout, but they are nothing compared to institutional websites. There are physical limits to how convoluted and inaccessible a building can be: for instance, it is not actually possible to build an office block in the shape of a Klein bottle. But the arcane complexity of a computer system is limited only by the diabolical imagination of the designer; and so much better if the designer does not have to use it himself.

Anyway, the Beloved Other is beginning to get the hang of things at Wreck Tech, and I am beginning to have time for my own work again. I wish you all (3.6 Loyal Readers and sundry visitors) a happy and prosperous New Year, and I hope and intend to have some new writing for you soon.

Many thanks to all!

I am heartily glad to see my 3.6 Loyal Readers still here (and with their fractional numbers apparently augmented), and thank you all for your kind comments, and for welcoming me back to active blogging. Your warm reception gives me the courage I need to keep working.

There is, alas, yet another unexpected delay on the Superversive collection. Part II of that book is a survey of seminal works in epic fantasy (portions freely adapted from my 1977 series of posts some years back), with a view to identifying the cause of the growing gap (in my judgement) between what epic fantasy can be and what it too often is. It appears obvious now, in not-quite-hindsight, that my recent piece, ‘Gormenghast and the Great Tradition’, has got to be included in that section; but it will want editing for the purpose, because some of the same ground is covered in Part I.

It also seems to me that I need to explain why it is epic fantasy particularly that I choose as my particular topic for that book, given that virtually any kind of literature (except, perhaps, outright pornography) can be done in a superversive way. The short answer is that epic fantasy offers a big canvas, bold colours, and a great variety of ways in which the moral choices of the characters can directly affect the world around them. These qualities make a story more entertaining, and they also lend themselves naturally to the business of ‘superversion’. It is, of course, convenient that for me, they also make for enjoyable reading and fluent writing; my own ideas for stories nearly always present themselves in that form. I could as easily make my points about some other kind of fiction, but I could not, perhaps, make them so clearly. Even this short answer, as you can see, begins to ramify itself and raise more questions; and so I am having to write a long introductory chapter to explain myself and ‘situate’ the reader.

A couple of small items of late news: A gentleman by the name of Bob Gassel inquires about my series on M*A*S*H, and wants to know if I am going to finish it off and give him some closure. I am happy to say that I have always intended that, and sheepish to admit that it has fallen by the wayside among many cares. Over the holidays, I hope to make time to binge-watch selected episodes from the last seasons of that series, and write a piece on what I find there. Also, I have received an offer which may possibly see one of my books translated into Spanish! My late mother would not have cared to read the book in question, but I think she would be gratified to hear of it.

Gormenghast and the Great Tradition

I began this essai in April, soon after John Wright wrote the blog post to which it refers, and shortly before I was taken ill. I offer it now with apologies, having decided that it still had something to say, and was worth finishing. —T. S.

John C. Wright, in a post at Castalia House, asks:

Why in the world does anyone consider the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake to be fantasy?

He sketches his own scheme of genre classification, which is radial rather than Aristotelian. In case any of my 3.6 Loyal Readers are unfamiliar with these terms, I offer brief definitions.

Aristotelian categories work by genus and species. (These words were borrowed from Aristotle by modern biologists and used in a different way. Ignore the biological usage for the present.) A genus is a category of things, distinguished by some particular quality only found among its members. This quality is called the differentia. A genus can be subdivided into species, by identifying some additional differentia to distinguish members of that species from the other members of the genus. The classical example is the definition, ‘Man is a rational animal.’ Animal is a genus: we can list off ways in which animals are unlike (say) plants, rocks, or locomotives. Man is a species within that genus, differentiated from the others because he is capable of reasoning.

(At this point, the Village Wag will claim that most men are anything but rational. This is a red herring. All humans, except infants and the severely brain-damaged, are capable of some form of rational thinking process. All of them fail to think rationally on some occasions, and some of them fail on nearly all occasions. This does not take away the capacity, which is the differentia of the species Man. A can-opener is still a can-opener, even if you never take it out of the shrink-wrap. Nuts to the Village Wag.)

There is an alternative system, less talked about but sometimes more useful. A radial category consists of a prototype, which is considered an ordinary or definitive member of the category, and any number of other things which share certain qualities with the prototype. If X is the prototype, the category can be defined as ‘things like X’. The similarity may be greater or lesser, so that there are central and peripheral members of the category.

To take an example used by Wittgenstein, chess is a game, and a ‘central’ game at that; it will do no harm to take it as our prototype for the class game. Chess is played for amusement (though in a professional match, it may be for the amusement of spectators); it has set rules and procedures; it is played with definite equipment (chessmen), in a definite playing-ground (the chessboard); it is a competition between the players, with a fixed standard (checkmate) to determine who wins and who loses. Football is unlike chess in some ways – it has many players instead of just two, and it is a contest of athletic rather than intellectual skill; but it, too, is played for amusement, with set rules, equipment, and playing-ground, in a competition with a winner and a loser. The details of play are very different, but in all the essential points, it is just as much a game as chess.

Tabletop role-playing games, on the other hand, are a peripheral member of the category. They are definitely played for amusement. Some equipment is used, and while the playing-ground is usually an imaginary place, it does have sufficient existence for the purpose of the game (like the imaginary chessboard in mental chess). But the rules and procedures are alterable at the game master’s whim, there is no defined winner or loser, and the players normally act in cooperation rather than competition. We feel that these entertainments count as games, but they are very atypical games.

Narrative fiction can be treated as an Aristotelian or a radial category, whichever you prefer. But once you come to subdivide it (for convenience in choosing stories that you are likely to enjoy), you immediately find yourself in a thicket of radial categories that cannot be approached in any other way. A mother reads ‘Cinderella’ to her child, and the child wants to hear ‘more stories like that’. Maybe what the child really wants is more about fairy godmothers, or young girls who marry charming princes, or magical transformations. But whatever the child wants, the mother is likely to find it in the radial category of ‘things like “Cinderella”’, which we call, for convenience, fairy tales. [Read more…]

When last seen

Just to let the 3.6 Loyal Readers know, I am still alive and (more or less) functioning. For some months past, I have had a number of illnesses that nagged at me and prevented me from doing much in the way of useful work, and it finally became clear that I would have to shut down and give my full attention to getting well.

I seem to have kicked the worst of the major depression that afflicted me earlier in the year (despite the happiness due to cows and ice cream), thanks to a concentrated bout of cognitive behavioral therapy. My G.P., at any rate, says I look noticeably happier; though I still get the mopes too easily. There have been assorted physical maladies as well, too tedious to report, and none life-threatening or requiring surgery. This weekend I have spent largely horizontal, trying to talk a severe back pain into going away so that I could rest. (The Beloved Other could hardly sleep at all last night because I had to keep getting up, taking medication, moving about, etc., etc. I feel considerably worse for her than for myself.) Of course the medication required has been industriously burning a hole in my belly, which gives me the curious feeling of having one continuous ache going right through my body from front to back: as if a Hong Kong architect were trying to carve a dragon hole in my torso.

I have made tentative arrangements for a sort of miniature writing retreat after my recovery, when I hope to get some real work done. In the meantime, I offer my sad and humble apologies to you all.

Happiness and cows

Yesterday, the Beloved Other and I went up to Banff for the day. We swam in the hot springs, had a picnic lunch at Lake Minnewanka, and on the way home, we stopped at Mackay’s ice cream parlour in Cochrane, which I heartily recommend to anyone. Their ice cream is as sound as their business philosophy, as expressed by this sign on their premises.

[Read more…]