On a weekend when Roger Federer won his 8th Wimbledon title and Disney announced its intention to release all the movies coming out over the next three years (these were the things that registered with me – your mileage will undoubtedly vary), the biggest news was that the newest incarnation of the Doctor will be, for the first time, female. This is not only a big thing for me – a viewer of Doctor Who since an unreasonably young age – but it means that the three big ongoing science fiction/genre fiction franchises (Star Wars, Star Trek (with its new Discovery series) and Doctor Who) will soon have female leads.
Certain authors and novels, if you come across them at the right age, will change your life. Terry Pratchett was one of those authors for me, and while his recent death was long anticipated, due to the cruelty of early-onset Alzheimer’s, the news, when it came, proved just as gut-wrenching as the original announcement of his illness had been.
Already, there have been plenty of appreciations of the man and his work. It’s a mark of both the nature of the man and the talent of the author that someone who primarily wrote comedic fantasy touched as many people across as many fields as he did.
I never met Terry Pratchett—the closest I came was during one of his visits to Dublin, when I spotted him walking in College Green, heading from Trinity College to (presumably) a pub, surrounded by a gaggle of students and admirers. It would have been nice to have the chance to talk to him, but at that stage he’d been talking to me through his work for years.
Books like Good Omens, Small Gods and Pyramids reduced me to helpless giggling more than any since Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Another author and decent human being taken too soon.) Across the 40 books of the Discworld series, Pratchett mixed the deftest wordplay with humour both low and cutting and serious thoughts that stole upon you in the midst of the laughter and stuck around long after the jokes were done.
As a kid growing up in a Northern Ireland still caught up in the lunacy of the Troubles, Pratchett provided constant reassurance that there was a better humanity out there. That being decent to other human beings mattered most of all, that you ought to be suspicious of anyone or any organisation that would tell you what to think, that being curious, patient, and argumentative were all good things. Thoughts that I found it hard to express, even as I was working them out in my own head, I found reflected in his prose.
As an aspiring writer, the most important thing I learned from him was that it was possible to underlay fantasy and science fiction writing with serious topics without preaching to your audience. I learned as well that language was a game, one that you won if you brought a smile to your audience’s face, or just made them pause and consider for a moment.
As a human being, he was, like his collaborator Neil Gaiman, like Douglas Adams and Charles Darwin, one of those people it was possible to admire without having to look up to them. Possessed of immense talent that never overwhelmed his innately decent humanity, yet driven by an inner anger that allowed him to churn out books of breathtaking quality and wit year after year.
That same anger helped him to deal with the unfairness of his diagnosis. Deeming it “an embuggerance,” he continued to live his life even more fully than before, fighting on behalf of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and those who believed that they had a right to end a life that had become unbearable. His eloquent arguments in favour of the right to die in the manner of his own choosing revived a debate that is still going on.
Reading Pratchett and authors like him and growing up where I did and among my family and friends has led me to the belief that if we have a purpose in life, it’s to increase the amount of happiness in the world, both your own and that of those around you. Far more than the number of books he sold, the joy that his work and personality brought to so many is a marker of his success in life.
If I ever have any kids, I’ll enjoy sharing his books with them. And whether or not they turn out to be fans like me, I hope that some of the lessons that I’ve learned in reading his books will be the same lessons I share with them.
It’s been way too long since I wrote in this blog. My writings have rarely been regular, but recent developments workwise have suppressed the writing impulse to the point where nothing has been appearing for several months. This is clearly unacceptable. So consider this a manifesto for getting back on track.
When I first set up this blog, it was as a receptacle for stray thoughts as I made my way eastwards around the world. (You can go all the way back and check it out if you like.) I also adorned it with some earlier blogging efforts and sprinkled a few of my more favoured attempts at fiction across the top. Further down the line, I began to throw a series of reviews at it, mostly books, cinema and games. Well, I’m still enjoying all of those, but the reviews have dwindled to nothing.
Along the way, there have also been moments of whimsy, political opinions and reflections on the current course of my life. All of this should provide plenty of material to keep the blog mill spinning. Which makes it all the more disappointing that it hasn’t. I still enjoy writing, it’s just that the moments where it previously fitted into my schedule have been shuffled around, and an attempt needs to be made to nail them down again.
There’s plenty to be said for commenting on the state of the world. Politics and the media are in no less surreal a state than they have been for the past few years. The Ferguson affair in the U.S. and the ISIS rearrangement of borders and peoples in the Middle East are raising hackles and some of the weirder excesses of both participants and commentators.
On a more personal level, my reading habit is finally getting back in gear after a few months (hell, call it a year and a bit) where it was hard to find time to fit reading into the rest of my life. Right now I’m rereading Julian May’s “Galactic Milieu” trilogy, having already raced through her “Saga of the Exiles.” May’s one of the best science fiction writers I’ve ever read, and the Saga of the Exiles would make a great TV miniseries in the mode of Game of Thrones. So add that to biweekly cinema excursions courtesy of a Meetup.com group and some PC and iOS game experiments (both good and bad), and there should be plenty of reviews emerging in the near future too.
Lastly, and most excitingly (for me at least), I’m finally planning to head off on a holiday lasting longer than a week. It’s been over two years at this stage, and it’s more than long overdue. The destination is Greece, as longstanding a travel goal as I have, and the itinerary is intended to take in as much beautiful scenery and sites of historical interest as the cradle of western civilisation has to offer.
So look for some brand new travel diaries coming towards the end of September. In the interim, I’ll try and keep the home fires burning by dropping the odd opinion, review and unusual fact into the hopper for general distribution. Possibly not tomorrow’s cinematic outing though. I’m not sure how much I’ll have to say about The Expendables 3.
In my kitchen cupboard sits a bowl that’s stands out from the crowd. My crockery tastes tend to run to bachelor minimalism, but this one has a faded floral border. It also has a couple of hairline cracks, one of which covers more than half its width. It may not be long for this world, but it’s the venue for my breakfast cereal every morning.
This bowl, along with one other plate in that cupboard, is the sole survivor from the package of crockery and cutlery that I was given when I moved down to Dublin from County Down, just over 19 years ago. At the time, I had just turned 19 myself. So, as of late September/early October this year, I’ve officially lived in Dublin as long as I did in Northern Ireland.
It’s not quite that neat, of course: my first year in Trinity College Dublin was very disrupted, and I spent most of it, especially the latter half, up north. Still, insofar as I can identify a tipping point, this is it. When I came down to Dublin to go to college, I was a kid. Now that I’m still in Dublin, having just finished a Masters course, I can’t really claim the same measure of youthfulness.
I will forever be from Northern Ireland. When I first moved to Dublin, I had to face the question of whether I was Irish or British. I definitely didn’t feel like the latter—growing up in a nationalist, Catholic family saw to that. But I didn’t feel like being Irish suited me either. The experience of growing up in the North during the Troubles was a thing all of its own. So I eventually settled on insisting on my Northern Irish identity.
Though being Northern Irish hasn’t changed, it no longer seems to cover everything. This is not necessarily a bad thing. One way of reading it is that there’s more to me than was when I first arrived here in Dublin. I recently added an Irish passport to my British one, so maybe what’s grown about me is the Irish part.
It’s a funny thing, to realise that you’ve built a life in a particular place. Friends, work, education, habitation. An interest in local culture and politics, a landscape littered with memories and associations. The same thing is true up North, of course, but up there it’s a case of experience accumulated in the accidental form of childhood. Down here in Dublin, it feels a little more deliberate. Or perhaps necessary is the right word.
Perhaps the nature of it then is that we all live multiple lives, often overlapping one another. Childhood, teenage years, college, first job, first house. Sometimes, as in my move to Dublin, you get a clear break that allows you to divide what came before from what came after. Not that live is usually that clean. It is, and always ought to be, a work in progress.
With my Masters over and a job hunt underway, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that another life has started, adding another layer to the person that I am. I have no idea where this current path will eventually take me. It might just be that 19 years down the line, I’ll get to write something entitled “The Trilocated Man”. Wouldn’t that be interesting?
This afternoon saw Apple’s latest media event taking place in an unusual venue for the company – New York – and without the oversight of the company’s late founder, Steve Jobs. The focus of the event was education, a subject that Jobs claimed was close to his heart, and although the event was very much U.S.-centric, the announcements made there have much wider implications.
There are three main prongs to Apple’s education push: The first part is an upgrade to the iBooks application for the company’s iPad device in order to enable it to deliver media-rich, interactive text books for students in the U.S., focusing first on the high school level. The aim is to provide cheaper (assuming you factor in the cost of the iPad itself), more engaging, more up-to-date text books for students. That Apple has managed to get some of the main textbook providers on board already is undoubtedly due to the fact that if the technology company succeeds in turning the textbook market electronic, it will simultaneously kill the market in second-hand textbooks.
Prong number two is the new iTunes U app. I’ve been using the iTunes University section of the iTunes Store for a while, as it has an amazing selection of free audio and video recordings of lecture series. The new app takes that idea to the next step, allowing educators to create and manage courses and deliver them to students. Together with the iBooks app, it’s nothing less than an effort to make tablet computers in general and the iPad in particular central to education in the U.S. And where the U.S. leads in this regard, the world is likely to follow.
However, for me – someone who isn’t involved directly in education at the moment – the most interesting element of the announcement was the third prong: the iBooks Author application for the Mac. Although the focus at the event was on using this application to create textbooks, it’s clear that there’s much more potential here: iBooks Author allows anyone to put together rich media books, using video, audio, pictures and 3D elements together with text in an easy drag and drop environment. I’ve already downloaded it and am tinkering with it now to check out its capabilities, but already it’s reminding me a lot of a storied application from Apple’s past: Hypercard.
If you don’t know what Hypercard is (and unless you used a Mac in the late ’80s, you probably don’t), you could take away a few elements of the above description of iBook Author and it would apply pretty well: Hypercard created stacks (read: ebooks) into which content creators could place audio, graphics and even video, linked together with a programming language that prefigured the HTML code of the World Wide Web. iBooks Author may not offer the same degree of interactivity and expandability, but the capability is definitely there, and the drag-and-drop creation is much easier. The ebooks sold through Apple’s iBook store may be called books, but they’re really standalone apps, designed to run on the iPad. They’ll deliver content first and foremost, but the manner in which they do so will be limited only by the imaginations of those who use the app itself.
Of course, this being a brand new program from Apple, some caution is warranted. It’s already been pointed out that the EULA attached to iBooks Author may be overreaching itself. Similarly, Apple’s applications and devices tend to really hit their stride only when they reach the 2.0 milestone. Compare the original iBooks app, a polished but underwhelming competitor to Amazon’s Kindle, with the new textbook delivery system it has become. iBooks Author has a limited number of templates at present, and it will be a while before its users get to grips with what it can do. Already, however, I’m impressed with what I can see and am looking forward to playing with it and seeing the results.
One of the great things about reading science fiction is receiving a glimpse into the future. It’s not true of every science fiction writer, but a great many of them are well read in the social and scientific trends of their day and weave that knowledge into their writing, extrapolating out to take a guess at where we all might be in a few decades, centuries, or millennia. Of course, predicting the future is a hard business, and it’s a truism that nothing dates so quickly as science fiction. Still, Verne had men travelling to the moon, Clarke foresaw the communications satellite, and Gibson gave us cyberpunk and the kind of brain-computer interfaces that are even now emerging into the light.
I’m even guilty of it myself, in the short stories that I’ve written that veer into the science fiction arena. I’m not claiming any great foresight, but I do enjoy finding here and there among the materials that I read an idea or two that sparks a story. In some cases, the original inspiration gets forgotten. So I don’t really know where I got the idea for “Life and Death on the Edge of Unreason“. I suspect I just liked the idea of an observation station orbiting a star about to go supernova. As settings for a detective story go, it’s pretty evocative.
It’s not the best story I’ve ever written – the fact is that a detective story in a panopticon society with instant access to information is never going to work well. Still, I was reminded pleasantly of it when I read this article, all about one of the main elements in the story – a charred planet surviving in a star’s outer layers. Pleased enough to be inspired to tidy it up and offer it here as some Christmas reading material. I hope you enjoy it.