Friday, 29 June 2007

Tony Blair: a personal reflection on his downfall

My blogs of late have been rather theoretical, related to the fact that I have been preoccupied with finishing The Infinite Day which, God willing, I look as though I’m going to do by the deadline of end July.

As I have commented before in these pages, the problem with writing fiction is that fantasy is often a pale shadow of reality. There could be no greater evidence of this sad truth than the fact that our former prime minister, who must be held in large measure responsible for the bloody fiasco of Iraq, is now some sort of envoy to the Middle East. Anyway, I thought I would brighten things up by telling a true and Blair-related story about how for, the briefest of periods, I worked for the Syrian secret police.

While running a geology field trip for some Americans through the Middle East in 2001, I left Lebanon at one of the more obscure border checkpoints with Syria. Despite its rather agricultural status it had nevertheless more than its fair share of men in military uniform. It fell to me as a partial Arabic speaker to take all the passports and try and get them stamped. They were dutifully taken but some ten minutes later it was obvious that processing them was extremely slow. The problem was plain; the secret policeman (actually, he wasn’t very secret) was inputting the names into the computer but obviously had no real knowledge of a QWERTY keyboard, or I suspect, any language other than Arabic. With the benign lunacy that comes over me at such points in life I asked him if he’d like me to do the typing. I was expecting a brush off but instead he was profoundly grateful.

So within moments, I found myself seated at a terminal whose wires no doubt ended up somewhere in the datafiles of the Syrian secret service. (Actually, that is an oversimplification: there are eight known branches of the Syrian secret service and a presumed ninth branch to watch over the other eight.) Now if my name was Bruce Willis or Matt Damon, I would tell you how I instantly got to the root directory and locked down the entire missile system. Instead, I simply and dutifully (but see footnote) keyed in the passport names. Very soon, I was surrounded by an admiring branch of men in somewhat disreputable camouflage who clearly thought this was wonderful and plainly wanted a foreigner of their own to do their typing. The conversation turned, as it inevitably does when bored secret policeman find themselves in possession of a non-local, to politics. ‘What,’ I was asked, ‘did I think of Blair and Bush?’

You will of course realise that I had now got myself into a difficult position. Conducting political debate in one’s native tongue is hard enough but in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by people who, however apparently charming as individuals, have a professional reputation for sticking sharp objects into orifices, is tricky indeed. One slight mispronunciation of an obscure Arabic verb could mean you have insulted the Syrian president and are going to be eating sand for the rest of your truncated lifespan.

However, seized with an adrenaline-induced inspiration, I grabbed a piece of paper and drew a stick man with a stick dog on a lead. ‘This,’ I said, rising to my feet with the air of a man who has a car to catch, ‘is Bush, and this is Blair.’ And amid universal hilarity and the pinning of the paper on the notice board (where for all I know, it still is), I left with the shaking of hands and expressions of universal and probably genuine goodwill.

And incidentally (here's the footnote) those of you who are concerned about such things may be interested to know that either due to my cunning or my poor typing ability not a single name ended up in the computer without being misspelt. For all I know Syrian intelligence is still looking for a Doctor Chris Malley who entered its territory six years ago and has not yet apparently left.

Good luck guys. With Blair around you’ll need it.

Friday, 22 June 2007

On issues of progress and ugliness

It’s all supposed to be downhill at this point in writing a book. Writers are supposed to surge forwards on a great, liberating rush of words to the finish and enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the loose ends tied up and right restored to the world(s). Well, I’m not sure that I have ever found it to be so, and certainly not with The Infinite Day. It’s a little bit like when you drive a long distance and finally, you can see your destination and rejoice because it is so close. Then suddenly the road bends and you realise there are many turns and diversions before you really reach where you are going. Anyway, we will get there, but it’s a long tiring haul.

One other thing is that this week I have posted again on the Speculative Faith website, which frequently has some very interesting articles; not all mine I have to say.

The one I have done this week includes one of the few discussions that I am aware of as to which parts of Lord of the Rings Adolf Hitler would have liked. It also raises the vexed issue of why we tend to link evil and ugliness. This is actually a tricky one because here the atheistic evolutionists have a neat explanation. They say that it is an essential part of evolution that we seek out mates who are in good shape. In other words, beauty is good and to be sought because it indicates good genes. Ugliness is to be shunned, because it indicates suspect genetic material. I feel there should be a good knockdown argument against this but it eludes me. There are certainly a lot of pretty women married to some jolly ugly men.

Anyway, so the argument goes, it is only a short step for the boundary to be blurred between the physically good and the morally good. You know the devastatingly simple equation: good people are pretty; bad people are ugly. What is more worrying (and really does deserve an act of Parliament to ban it but no one dare propose it), is to assume that all pretty people are good and all ugly people are evil.

One observation here would simply be that this is not an argument the Bible makes. The only real indications we have of Satan’s form are that he can appear as an angel of light. There are no references to Christ’s physical form, only the prophetic hint in Isaiah that he would be disfigured by suffering. God, we are reliably informed, looks on the inside. Would that popular culture did the same.

And now back to The Infinite Day.

Friday, 15 June 2007

On epic battles

Let me tell you a secret about the plot of The Infinite Day. It's this: there is a big battle at the end.

I can't imagine too many of my readers being surprised by that. But it’s worth considering why this is such an unsurprising statement and why I am not guilty of that greatest of sins, spoiling the plot. You see, I have come to realise that it is totally expected – indeed, it is a given – that the final part of the final book of an epic trilogy will have a big battle, in which good beats the living daylights out of evil. I carried out a mental experiment the other day trying to think of what would happen if, in my novel, all the gathering forces simply vanished quietly, without coming together in a great and violent confrontation. I realised I couldn't find a way of doing it that would not lead to a profound sense of anti-climax, and possibly even cries of ‘we want our money back’. The great and final crescendo of violence seems to be more than a cliché; it seems to be something that has to be there.

But where does this demand for a no-holds-barred, final battle in which good triumphs come from? Is it perhaps built into the genre? I suppose you could have epic fantasy without a big battle at the end, but would it still be epic? It’s a little bit like imagining a long and involving account of climbing a mountain that didn't actually have the climbers reaching the summit. That would most definitely be an anti-climax. Does this battle fulfill the same role as that famous and much abused scene at the end of detective novels where the great detective reveals the killer to some assembled group?

You could even argue that it is because in our hearts we know that one day, evil will, in reality, be confronted and overturned. Is it more than coincidence that the book of books, the Bible itself, ends with a climactic battle?

Frankly, I don't know the answer. And actually, my most pressing issue at the moment is not theorising on the origins of such battles or their significance, it is actually describing them in a way that is credible and believable.

But it would be nice to know why everybody expects that, in the penultimate chapter, swords will be drawn, guns will be fired, blood will be shed and good will win.

Friday, 8 June 2007

The shadow of the near future

As I come to the end of writing The Infinite Day I find myself in some ways in the most difficult part of the book. Some of the issues I do not want to go into here because they involve plot spoilers. But there are other things.

One is that I am forced to discuss the near future, rather than the far-future in which the book is set. This is largely because of something introduced in Book 1 and alluded to ever since; the great intervention of God's Spirit in the 2050s and the subsequent rebellion four decades later. This raises a well-known paradox of science fiction; it is far easier to write of a hundred years hence than ten years.

Why this should be is worth exploring. It is not simply that it is safer to write of the far future. You know the sort of thing: “All being well, many of my readers will live to see 2050; none will see the 13th millennium AD so I can happily write anything about it.” (By the way, it also gives you a longer period of time for your work to become a ‘prophetic classic’.)

A hundred years is also a long enough time for technologies to a) be invented, b) be tested, and c) become widespread plagues on society (see, for example, cars, television and the Internet) whereas ten years doesn't really bring too many changes. The result is that we are prepared to believe all manner of strange things may have occurred in a hundred years time; we are less convinced that such things may have happened within a decade.

There is another reason why the near future is problematic. It is that a decade from now things will, no doubt, be a mixture of the predictable and unexpected. So on the predictable: there will be overcrowding, culture wars, environmental disasters. Culturally, there will be Pirates of the Caribbean 14 and Oceans 24 available for digital download in our home cinemas and the Rolling Stones will still be performing gigs somewhere. But it’s the unexpected that concerns us: the world can change very rapidly in a very short period of time and that is hard to get right.

Imagine if, in 1997, Chris Walley had written a book set in 2007. Some things he might have got right: for example, there were growing concerns about the environment, and the unstoppable rise of the digital economy was already pretty much taken for granted ten years ago. But what about the unexpected events? 9/11 for instance exceeded the imagination of the most bizarre fantasist. And who, ten years ago, could have had seen British and American armies mired in Iraq and the widespread dismissal of the fundamental values of justice in Guantanamo Bay and the ‘extraordinary rendition’ procedures? Surely, a dark fantasy, critics would have said. Truly, truth is stranger than fiction.

Friday, 1 June 2007

How to finish a big book

It has been half term this week, and I have been able to really have a good long go at The Infinite Day. And as I come to the end of the week, I’m able to report that the end is literally in sight. Perhaps another 30 pages to go and lots of notes to work from. However my deadline for manuscript delivery is the last day of July and the fact is that I need to go back to the beginning and tidy up the manuscript. So there is still a lot to be done. If you pray, pray on!

For any would-be writers, I offer a couple of thoughts on this matter of finishing books. The first is that you really do need determination. Writing is hard work, and it’s easy to put it to one side and go for a walk, read a book or surf the web. You have to stick at it.

The second is an odd characteristic; it is ruthlessness. I have a cast of many characters, each of whom have their own foibles, problems and concerns. The temptation to pursue all of these fascinating characters and try to deal with their individual fates has to be resisted. If you’re not careful, you end up creating an infinite world, which of course, requires a book of infinite length. So I have had to curtail all sorts of fascinating matter which has to become the literary equivalent of ‘the road not travelled’. Readers will just have to use their own imaginations to decide what X said to Y after three months absence or what exactly lies behind the terse comment on some minor character ‘he was killed on the battlefield’. (I made that up, but you know what I mean.)

Anyway I must press on and get back to the book. Even blogs can be a diversion.

Have a good week.