Lonely Planet

While in conversation with a Canadian travel writer of my acquaintance, Troy Parfitt (author of 'Notes From The Other China'), a recently published book by a one-time contributing editor to the Lonely Planet series of travel guides was mentioned. The book is called 'Do Travel Writers Go To Hell', and is by one Thomas Kohnstamm. Turns out he's been featured in a few newspaper articles, and the book sounds interesting enough to go straight into my Amazon wishlist. From an article in the Telegraph:
"The image of the conscientious travel writer has been dealt a blow by a tell-all memoir by a Lonely Planet author, who discloses that he spent more time chasing women and selling drugs than checking train timetables.

Modern guide books like to portray themselves as the definitive source of information on how holidaymakers can enjoy themselves in far-flung corners of the globe without damaging the environment or upsetting local people.

But in a warts-and-all account of how he came to write Lonely Planet's guide to Brazil, the American writer Thomas Kohnstamm has revealed a world where good reviews may be exchanged for sex or a free room for the night, and decisions on which restaurants to include are dependent on the whims of a hard-up author without time to check the details.

In Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?, Mr Kohnstamm, 32, discloses that there was nothing lonely about his three years travelling through Latin America, working on a dozen different titles."

He tries to explain himself here.

Reason No:546 why having the IQ of an amoeba is good news for science fiction writers

It occurred to me the other day, while referring to an online series of photographs of unfinished hotels lost in the Egyptian desert, that I've always had a certain fascination with architecture. This interest stems from my childhood, when I liked to build weird houses out of lego bricks. It reached its culmination in my just pre-teens, when I had to sit an IQ test of some sort. One of the questions - and here, I only vaguely recall something almost certainly coloured and changed by the intervening years, although it stands out sufficiently that I recall little else from that time - involved a series of highly simplified representations of a 'house'. Each drawing consisted of a simple rectangle with a roof - a low triangle - on top. Each had little squares or rectangles for windows, a door and a chimney; each had the door, chimney and windows arranged in different patterns. The question required me to pick whichever was the 'correct' house.

In retrospect, I believe the author of the test required me to pick the rectangle that had four window-squares neatly tucked up close to each corner of the main house-shape; a door, standing at the middle and bottom of the house-shape; and the upright chimney-rectangle positioned on top of the roof but slightly to one side. A classic child's drawing of a house, in other words.

Unfortunately, the author of said question perhaps hadn't anticipated it being answered by a kid obsessed with Marvel Comics and classic science fiction who admired not only the range of architecture evident in films like Logan's Run or Forbidden Planet, who not only held a special place in his heart for the underground lair of the Mole Man, an early nemesis of the Fantastic Four, but had also created several line drawings in the past of his own preferred abode, namely a continental truck-sized mobile home with caterpillar wheels, two levels, a roof-mounted observation bubble, and a tidy little fusion reactor for power where the engine should have been.

I picked a different house for my answer. Not the wrong answer, you understand; another answer. I knew they wanted me to pick the 'right' house, but I was already far too contrary and disinterested in other people's ideas of the right way to do things.

I picked the one with three windows, running in a diagonal line from the top left corner of the house-shape to the bottom right, with the front door squeezed in between the bottom right window and the very edge of the house-shape. My reasoning was simple; obviously the house was open-plan (a personal favourite), with an open stairwell running from one end of an attic-space that had been opened up for a second bedroom down to a front door to one side of the building, while interior dividing walls had been replaced and the supporting columns integrated into the general look-and-feel of the interior space. This struck me as a much more interesting place to live.

I stand by my decision. I suspect that if I'd answered the 'right' way I would now be a moderately successful Call Centre Manager rather than a moderately successful science fiction author. But then, later in life, I did another IQ test out of a book owned by a flatmate and proved to have an IQ of 17, so perhaps you should take anything I say with a pinch of salt.

The point of all this stems from the fact that what most impressed me about my visit to Malaysia was some of the architecture, specifically the twin towers that dominate the skyline there just as much as the equally lofty Taipei 101 tower dominates the skyline of Taipei, in a very science-fictional way. I could tell you about my visit to the bird sanctuary, or my tour around the Chinatown night-market next door to a gigantic mosque, but I can't deny I found myself constantly staring at certain examples of gargantuan architecture with a deep fascination.

So it was with some relief I read an article in the Guardian Online that proves I'm a long, long way from being alone; it seems the British Dan Dare comic strip, with its alien skylines and imagined architecture, was a massive influence on many modern British architects. I like to think the architects mentioned might have sat similar tests, and might also have picked the 'wrong' answer.


Lost Hotels

It occurs to me that writing a second draft of a book is a bit like making a highly detailed painting then putting it into a magic box that turns it into an instant jigsaw. Except you don't get to reassemble the jigsaw for another six months. And not only that, after those six months are up none of the pieces appear to fit any more, so you have to re-shape them by hand. One by one. Hundreds of them. Until they fit together. Sort of.

This blog on unfinished hotels lost in the Egyptian desert got mentioned on Boing Boing. It occurred to me if I were thinking of making a dirt-cheap sf movie set on another planet, preferably one featuring an abandoned colony, I could do a lot worse for shooting locations.



A while back I mentioned something about writing a short - a very, very short script - for something to do with the BBC. As in, one minute short. It actually got filmed several weeks back and it's been completed, along with two other short-short films, and is getting shown in one of the viewing rooms at BBC Scotland in the middle of the week. Annoyingly/unsurprisingly, I can't be there, but I'm hoping I can persuade my 'script editor on the inside' to send me a copy. It's very nice when you can add a sentence like 'wrote a screenplay for the BBC and had it produced' to your writing CV. Even if it's, er, only a minute long. The film is called 'Unbound' and, with any luck, will prove to be very, very violent.


Back from Malaysia


I spent a long weekend there in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia along with my girlfriend; we were staying at my brother's house, and my mother was there at the same time, having flown in from Scotland for ten days or so. It's as close to the equator as I've ever managed to get, and I recall glancing outside the window at the satellite dish on the house exterior and noting it pointed almost straight up, whereas in Scotland I'm sure they're angled (somewhat unsurprisingly once you think about it) towards the horizon. The people are a mix of Malay and Chinese. I did visit the Twin Towers in the city centre, until recently the tallest buildings in the world. I wonder if it's possible to base a round the world trip on visiting purportedly tallest-buildings-in-the-world?


I'm about a fifth of the way through the rewrite/edit on the first-ish draft (like the concept of 'first draft' really has any meaning any more in an age of word processors), and so far everything seems okay. I only ever say something I'm working on is 'okay' because by the time there's enough there to pass any kind of comment on - usually by about the forty thousand word mark - The Book has simply become that thing I stare at for at least a couple hours a day. I simply can't judge it with any degree of genuine objectivity. It has, by this point, become little more than a Bunch Of Words; a Bunch of Words that a certain publisher so far appears prepared to write out large cheques for, a trend I hope may continue. I remain pleasantly surprised each and every time that cheque appears in my hands.

Actually, that's not quite correct. I can pass some judgement on what I'm writing. I measure the book by whether or not I start skipping paragraphs when I re-read a chapter I wrote several weeks before. If I catch myself skipping paragraphs, it's because what I've written is boring me. If it's boring me, I have the options of - cutting it out altogether, making it more interesting by inserting action or various revelations, or simply shortening it drastically.

I finally got around to watching the Will Smith version of I Am Legend the other night. It's an experience that always reminds me of the Dumb Lieutenant in cliched cop shows. The Dumb Lieutenant is the guy who's always warning the hero - let's call him Brannigan - that if he crosses the line one more time, he loses his badge. Yet episode after episode, Brannigan is proved right in his rule-breaking methods; and yet the Dumb Lieutenant goes right back to shouting threats at Brannigan by the next week, despite the turnover of solved cases. The Dumb Lieutenant never learns.

Sometimes, when I watch Hollywood blockbuster science fiction movies, I feel like that Dumb Lieutenant. I worry I'll hate what I'm going to see. I know based on past experience, hating what I'm about to see is pretty much inevitable. Yet there's some part of me that believes against all sanity and experience that well, maybe, just maybe this'll be quite good because how could they get this wrong?

Like the Dumb Lieutenant, no matter how often the evidence fails to match my expectations, I refuse to learn.

And then they not only get it wrong, they get it so wrong that I remember the other problem with these Hollywood blockbusters - that I come away feeling insulted. So insulted I do things like immediately go to the Amazon UK website and post lengthy reviews starting with the words 'This film is an act of cowardice'. That's how insulted I felt.

Here's the review in full:
"This film is an act of cowardice. It takes everything that was good and original in Richard Mathieson's novel I Am Legend and removes it, along with the author's intended and necessary subtext, resulting in something so generic and ridiculously bland that it plays like a DisneyWorld version of 28 Days Later.

Let's be clear; the first half is reasonably gripping, but then it descends into a welter of cop-outs - most galling is the whole 'God sent me to help you' subplot. Even more galling is the end voice-over in which the film's makers pretty much demonstrate their complete and utter contempt first for Mathieson, and then for their audience. What happened, Mr Smith et al, couldn't handle the original, bleak but telling ending? Are you so scared of your own audience you just had to tag on that happily-ever-after, or chase away any sense of moral ambiguity on the part of the hero? Seriously, how can you or any of the rest of the people responsible for this turgid nonsense truly sleep at night, and was it worth it for the dollars you made off the back of it?

And by the way - although the scenes of a CGI abandoned New York are impressive, that doesn't extend to the CGI vampires who look, unsurprisingly, like stiff-limbed and unconvincing cartoons. And for creatures who have apparently been reduced to snarling, mindless beasts for the better part of three years, they do all seem to still wear neatly belted trousers. I also entirely fail to understand how an airborne virus can also give the infected the ability to climb walls like oversized geckos.

This is Romero for the after-schoolers; soft, bland, edges safely rounded off, with monsters whose decency is preserved and plenty of mentions of God 'having a plan for us all' that nearly had me kicking in the TV screen."

That wasn't the original review; the original review contained phrases like 'should be taken out and shot', and 'as morally justifiable as digging up Richard Mathieson's skeletal corpse in order to perform gross sex acts with his remains', but I wasn't sure Amazon would publish that.


short stories

Okay, so I finally got around to posting up that vampire story I mentioned some time ago in a previous post. I'm posting it on my own blog because, after submitting it here and there a couple of times, I just couldn't be arsed with the effort required and it ended up being shelved for a couple of years. A combination of reticence and typical, writerly what-if-everyone-hates-it kept it there until recently, when I was over at flurb.net, reading how Rudy Rucker started up his own personal e-zine because he, too, couldn't be arsed submitting his stuff to other people's e-zines.

The story is called The Ranch, and you can find it here. It's a vampire horror story, be warned, written a few days after making the statement at the Glasgow SF Writer's Circle that I hated vampire stories and there was nothing new or genuinely interesting that could possibly be done with them. By writing the story I quite possibly hoisted myself with my own petard but, at the same time, you know, the story is about why I hate vampire stories. Plus, I get to do a cheap willy gag.

Love or loathe it as you will.