Friday, December 14, 2007

Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe Review

While working and parenting, I’m normally only able to read about 5 pages of a book at the end of the day (just before my head hits the pillow). However I’m currently working my way through a series of dense, symbolic, almost Proustian books that are keeping me awake a little longer. And they’re – mumble it apologetically – science fiction. The series is called ‘The Book of the Long Sun’ by one of my favourite writers Gene Wolfe.

Having just finished two of the four novels in this series, it could be that I'm being premature by offering a review of them. However, I'm so besotted with Wolfe's prose that I really can't wait.

I bought `Litany of the Long Sun' (the collected volume of the first two books ‘Nightside the Long Sun’ and ‘Lake of the Long Sun’) some time ago and initially found the writing too obtuse and dense to progress beyond the first few pages. Initially things happen very slowly, with a very short period of time covered in great detail. I came back to it l

ast month, however, and found that it's one of those books that deserve persistence and, ultimately, offer incredibly rich rewards.

The books are set on the interior of what I guess you'd call a planet-sized tubular colony ship (known as `the whorl'), with the `long sun' acting like a giant solar fluorescent tube up the middle, providing heat and light. The ship has been on its journey for so long that none of the inhabitants remember that their world is artificial. However, this sci-fi setting belies the feverish imagination and literary intelligence that make this book so compelling.

The plot follows the young a priest – or ‘Patera’ – Silk as he attempts to save the Sun Street Manteion, the neighbourhood church he runs. It’s in the poorest area of the city-state of Viron and is bought by a powerful criminal kingpin named Blood.

Silk worships a pantheon of Gods, whose origin can be guessed by the fact that their Olympus is called ‘Mainframe’. However, Silk’s quest to save the Manteion is driven by a divine vision bestowed by ‘the Outsider’, who may be the ‘real’ God as we understand him. Mind you, another less miraculous explanation of Silk’s epiphany is offered towards the end of ‘Lake of the Long Sun’. As you can tell already, nothing is taken as read in a Wolfe novel. Everything is open to interpretation.

Indeed, Wolfe plays games with the reader– dropping in clues can easily be missed in the plot and intertextual references that connect with other Wolfe novels. For instance, the two-headed god named Pas in the Book of the Long Sun is the tyrant Typhon encountered in the Book of the New Sun. Silk is lame like Severian, the protagonist in the aforementioned tetralogy.

The characterisation is just as slippery: Silk is an earnestly just man, who strives to stay within the moral laws of his religion, but he is still capable of justifying compromises or capitulation with the criminal Blood in self-serving ways.

The writing style reminds me of 19th Century symbolist paintings - slippery of meaning, stoked by classical allusions, vivid imagery and mythological coda. Indeed, when I read it, I feel that I'm in the world depicted in the bejewelled fantastic paintings of Gustave Moreau. I find myself dreaming of the golden baroque images that Wolfe conjures up in his writing.

Of course, only being two books in, I have no idea of how Silk's story will progress or how all the symbolic threads that are being laid out will come together and resolve themselves. However, I'm enjoying the journey immensely...

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Panting Towards The Christmas Finishing Line

It's wrong to wish your life away, but I really am staggering on at work, desperate for Christmas to come. Oh, for a week of festive over-indulgence with not a single campaign brief in sight.

It's like being at the end of a marathon (not that I've ever run one, but bear with me while I let this analogy spin out): your legs are about to give way, you've had to shit yourself after 20 miles (do they sell incontinence pants for long-distance runners - 'Nike Skids' perhaps?) and you can feel your heart go all Douglas Adams. Yet you keep going, clinging to the thought of the finishing line.

In fact, I've been so keen for the festive season to come I've even been playing my 'Lovely Xmas' playlist at work. This has provoked mixed reactions, sadly. One habitually hungover account manager asked me to turn it down. I asked whether it was because she had a headache and she replied 'No, it's just shit music'. Bah, humbug indeed!

Friday, December 07, 2007

This site has rescued me from terminal grumpiness today. This is the funniest thing I've read for ages. It's a great idea - pulling stupid, Daily Mail reader comments from message boards and taking the piss out of them:

The best turn of phrase so far:

I’d like to weigh in with my important opinion on this important debate, but I’m afraid I’m busy having an important argument. We’re trying to decide whether it’s better to have an evil fireman force cat shit up your nose with a jetwash, or have dog shit slowly massaged into your gums by a stinky dentist.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Who is That Movie Deep Voiceover Man?

I just watched the ad for the DVD version of Transformers, another BIG DUMB movie. As a result, one question occurs to me. Who IS the man who does the voiceovers for ALL movie trailers and DVD ads? Is it just one man or are there a legion of them, all with the same gruff deep American voice? Can someone tell me?

Incidentally, the semiotics of the gruff, deep-voiced American voice are interesting. The deep voice is the voice of the tough-guy, but it's also paternal. The American accent denotes Hollywood authenticity, especially to a UK audience in the thrall of US culture. It seems irrational that there are no alternatives until you imagine someone else doing it. They just wouldn't seem as authoritative or exciting...

Monday, December 03, 2007

Hidebound Banners

I've been working on a Christmas banner campaign for a client, yet again coming up with creative for the usual banners (468 x 60 pixels), MPUs (300x250 pixels) and skyscrapers (120 x 600). This has led me to wonder why we're stuck with the same formats that we've had for years. Trying to get a message across in a box 468 by 60 pixels in an era of broadband media convergence just seems ridiculous. I mean, why is it 468 pixels long anyway? Seems entirely arbitrary to me (if anyone knows the reason, please do tell).

Of course, it could be argued that the formats fit around content rather than intruding upon it, thus satisfying usability requirements. However, why not have widescreen MPUs to accommodate movie trailers? Or fat banners that do something similar? They could still sit on the periphery of content, but deliver an experience that would actually entertain users.

For a young medium the internet already feels terribly hidebound in some of its traditions already...