A sense of Wonderland

I have always loved the Alice books – especially the Martin Gardner annotated versions.

I had read the books as a child but then discovered the annotated version in the old South Shields library in my early teens and became hooked on both Lewis Carroll and maths and science. I bought the paperback version when it first came out and carried it with me on every move and have since bought the hardbacks of the original, the Definitive edition with further annotations by Gardner and the 150th anniversary edition with still further notes from other Carrollians. I also have lots of sequels by other hands and books about Carroll and Alice.

It was inevitable that at some point I would write a story inspired by the books and this is it – Trapped in the Memory Palace. It features Simon from the London Institute of Parapsychology and some of the things I have learned while doing daily meditations with Sangha Live and information on the brain.

Confessions of a Book Browser

I recently read a history of Shakespeare and Company in Paris (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shakespeare-Company-Paris-History-Heart/dp/B01EL38QUW) which is a beautifully illustrated memoire of the post war years. The name, of course, originated from the original bookshop run by Sylvia Beach (detailed in her own memoir https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shakespeare-Company-Sylvia-Beach/dp/0803260970/ref=pd_lpo_1?pd_rd_i=0803260970&psc=1) which was haunted by the lost generation of American authors and James Joyce and which published the first edition of Ulysses.

This got me thinking about my favourite bookshops past and present – of which Shakespeare and Co is one. It was also prompted by talking to a neighbour who, like me, used to root through the cheap books in Woolworths, many of which were imported as ballast from America. One of my more recent favourite places to browse for remainders was in Galloway and Porter in Cambridge – now sadly closed – and I love browsing through titles in charity shops. If you are in Frinton in Essex visit the St Helena Hospice bookstore.

The only unfortunate thing about charity shops is they (along with Amazon) have taken a large slice out of the second hand book market so many shops have now vanished. Charity shops are good for recent bestsellers, and Amazon is fine if you know what you want, but nothing beats a browse through a mishmash of volumes and coming across something you didn’t know you wanted but have to have. Barnabees Books in Saxmundham is one of my current favourites. The owner makes regular attempts to sort the vast number of volumes into categories but there will always be piles where you can find odd bedfellows.

When it comes to new books it is also better to go independent rather than Waterstones. The choice of stock of the owner is always more interesting than an identikit set of shelves. When I was a student in Manchester I used to haunt Orbit Books (originally House on the Borderland) run by the sadly departed Dave Britton. Funded by soft porn magazines and regularly raided by the Police who would confiscate titles that were openly on sale in W H Smith, the heart was an eclectic collection of science fiction and fantasy along with more unusual titles and Dave’s encyclopedic knowledge guided me to writers like Kenneth Patchen. Dave later founded Savoy Books which published the definitive beautiful editions of The Exploits of Englebrecht and A Voyage to Arcturus as well as books no-one else would publish. At one stage M John Harrison would sit in a secret room there writing one of his Viriconium books commissioned by Savoy and he pseudonymously stars Dave Britton in his story Egnaro. This sponsorship of writers in bookshops goes back to Sylvia Beech and is continued in the present day Shakespeare and Co.

Dave also recommended Dark They Were and Golden Eyed and Compendium Books in London. The former was in what looked like a bomb crater in Soho and had a more interesting selection than you currently find in Forbidden Planet (apart from the main branch in London). The latter was a hotbed of radicalism and the esoteric in Camden where you could always find something interesting – including the hippy clientele. Both are now sadly gone.

If you visit New York you have to go to Strand Books with its miles of titles (featured as the shop Edie’s son works in Absolutely Fabulous) and in Seattle you used to be able to drink in the inspiration for Frasier’s Cafe Nervosa in the Elliott Bay Bookstore – now relocated but with a cafe still in its old building.

I can’t leave the topic without mentioning The Scientific Anglian in Norwich. The crumbling fire hazard was not somewhere I bought many books, but it was always a pleasure to talk to its owner Norman Peake before he retired about not just books, but the history of the city. I pay homage to him (and unfortunately kill him off) in my novel Masonic Fire.

Visiting bookshops is a joy for the eclectic reader, although you will end up with shelves of the things. Quelle domage.

Writing Counts – 2B /-2B

One of my favourite genres of stories is mathematical fiction. This love was originally inspired by reading Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice as an 11 year old and getting a clearer picture of the mathematical and philosophical jokes Lewis Carroll placed in the two Alice books and his other work.

That encouraged me to seek out Gardner’s other books of mathematical puzzles and encountered some of his own mathematical fiction including The No Sided Professor. He also led me to read Edwin Abbot’s seminal Flatland. At the same time I was reading science fiction and loved the work of John Sladek which also played lots of games with concepts in maths and science and whose author shared Gardner’s love of puzzles.

Although I didn’t know it at the time the Oulipo members – whose founders included mathematicians as well as writers – were also experimenting with the use of maths as a way of developing creativity though formal constraints.

Since then I have devoured the works of Oulipo and its fellow travellers as well as science fiction writers and others who have blended the queen of sciences with literature.

There are three basic categories of mathematical fiction:

  • stories about mathematicans (my least favourite although I would recommend Mark Blacklock’s Hinton ;
  • stories explaining maths in a fictional framework (Gardner’s own work, Flatland and work by Ian Stewart);
  • and, best of all, stories which are either about maths itself, or whose structure is based on mathematical concepts. In this category, the works of the amazing Rudy Rucker and some stories by Connie Willis stand out alongside much of Sladek’s work and a lot of work by members of Oulipo. A better known example is work by Jorge Luis Borges.

There are a number of anthologies that are good entry points to the genre, including the recently published Penguin Book of Oulipo edited by Philip Terry. If you can get hold of a copy, Rudy Rucker’s Mathenauts is an almost perfect selection and the earlier two books by Clifford Fadiman – Mathematical Magpie and Fantasia Mathematica are also excellent. William Frucht’s Imaginary Numbers is not quite as strong (partially because the other three have most of the best in them) and the recently published Dangerous Dimensions by Henry Batholemew has a fascinating set of horror stories using maths as a keystone.

Flatland is still in print, of course, with a version annotated by Ian Stewart, and you can also seek out the works of Charles Hinton whose semi mystical inquiries into the fourth dimension often take fictional form. There are also a number of (sort of) sequels to Flatland by others including some by Hinton, Dionys Burger’s Sphereland, Stewart’s Flatterland, Rucker’s Spaceland (and many of his other works) and the facsinating The Planiverse by A K Dewdney. The Annotated Alice has just had a 150th anniversary edition published which includes new annotations from The Lewis Carroll Society of North America and some by Gardner that were not included in the Millennium edition. Speaking of Gardner, it’s worth checking out his novel Visitors from Oz.

Sequels to Alice by other hands are generally not as maths based with the exception of Alice in Quantumland by Robert Gilmore (although still worth looking at). I would recommend, Gilbert Adair’s Alice Through the Needle’s Eye and Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice.

If those are not enough, seek out the wonderful Mathematical Fiction page by Alex Kasman which is an exhaustive cataloguing of the genre categorised by reading age and including critiques and descriptions.

Post Lockdown story – Alfred Jarry Psychic Detective

This is a (sort of) post lockdown story whose title came to me while meditating and I knew it was too good not to write. I then read a couple of anthologies of psychic detective stories including one (Dangerous Dimensions edited by Henry Bartholomew) of maths based horror stories, which gave me the plot and format.

The setting is my alternative version of fin de siecle Paris from my novel The Revolutionary Tapestry but you don’t need to know that – I just needed a reason to be able to write about Jarry without betraying his real life, although his character and most of his history are the same. You also don’t need to know about his life, or the writings of Howard Hinton, but if you do you will recognise quotes and understand more of the maths.

Although Hinton’s ideas about the fourth dimension underpin a lot of the stories in Dangerous Dimensions, he is only referenced in the prologue. Perhaps because of his personal life (he was a convicted bigamist) his lack of academic standing (a teacher not a university lecturer) or simply because he was a more obscure figure. His quasi mystical view of higher dimensions fit perfectly with ‘Pataphysics, however, as imaginary solutions and a view of the universe supplemental to this.

The story – Alfred Jarry – Psychic Detective – is here.

Fictional Research

I don’t know how others do research for stories, but I use a combination of reference books and Google. For me Google is a supplement to answer questions after having read the reference books rather than an initial go to.

In writing stories which I hope will be accepted by Black Coat Press‘ Tales of the Shadowmen series I have been reading a lot as it is important to get details of characters and their timelines right. I was aware of many of the characters in French science fiction and pulps but hadn’t read too many of the stories in the originals. The first starting point was Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier’s two Shadowmen reference volumes – both from Black Coat – and the Crossovers books from Win Scott Eckert and Sean Lee Levin. ¬†However as the stories featuring the characters are constantly developing by other authors and devotees of the Wold Newton Universe are constantly finding new links to other media, keeping up does involve lots of visiting websites and writing notes. I’ve attached my list of reference books used in the process in case anyone else is travelling on the same journey and would welcome further suggestions. Unfortunately the Lofficier’s giant volume on French science fiction, fantasy and horror is out of print and there don’t seem to be any copies available at a reasonable price online. Luckily their Cool French Comics site has a regularly updated biography and timeline for most of them.

One reason the research is essential is that the work of fitting in characters to the overall WNU timeline often means changing the dates of the original stories. This is sometimes because of internal inconsistencies – Rouletabille’s first adventure: The Adventure of the Yellow Room, is supposed to be set in 1892, but later books suggest a better date would be 1902. Devotees of the Sherlock Holmes canon know how casual Dr Watson was in chronicling his friend’s continuity – sometimes to protect clients and sometimes because he just forgot. One could suggest it is just bad form for authors not to consider the needs of writers 100 years later.

The trick in writing crossover stories for me is to concentrate on the story and characters and avoid the temptation to forget the plot and write out the research.  While there are now thousands of characters that exist in the same WNU that doesn’t mean it is likely they would have had adventures together even if they were in the same time period, or that shoehorning them together makes for a coherent story. There are some strange team ups that work such as Peter Cannon’s Scream for Jeeves, but others that seem a little forced. Hopefully that is a trap I will avoid.

Lockdown Stories 26 – Act of Gods

This is number 26 of my Lockdown Stories (I lost count after doing two posts at once) – Act of Gods.

It is another story featuring Tom, Simon and the London Institute of Parapsychology. It gave me the chance to delve into further aspects of the way this universe works, but also talk about issues of race and privilege. When I started the series I took on board several standard tropes which sit below even the best fantasy fiction. The main characters are generally “special” with a destiny that sets them apart from the rest of humanity even if they come from humble origins or an outsider group. Norman Spinrad satirised the same tropes in golden age science fiction in his wonderful The Iron Dream – supposedly a novel written by an Adolf Hitler who moved to the US in the 30s and became a science fiction writer.

There are always honourable exceptions – especially Terry Pratchett who used his books to simultaneously question the assumptions of fantasy and the real world. However I have become uncomfortable with the idea that magicians are part of an exclusive club which in my view mirrors the exclusive club of the elite in our society. Having Tom as a voice which challenges that is something I will continue as I write more.

Lockdown Stories No 24 – Slay Ride

This is number 24 in my lockdown stories – Slay Ride. I’ve always wanted to do a Christmas story, and although this is a bit late, here it is.

It features the Monster Club who were also in Necrocomicon and are junior members of the London Institute of Parapsychology.

There are a couple of more stories I am in the process of writing, but if you have any suggestions for future stories – a lead character, location and genre – I would be pleased to receive them. Plan is that I will edit all the stories in February and then produce them in book form with profits going to a local food bank.

Lockdown 23 – Crossed Lines

This is number 23 of my lockdown stories – Crossed Lines. It features Simon and Tom again from the London Institute of Parapsychology but only in the framing story. The Crossed Lines were a real thing in the days of turn dial phones and those switchboards where they would put plugs in and out of a big board to connect you.

The plan is still to publish all of the stories as a book with profits going to a local food bank. If you would like to help, you can give me a suggestion of lead character, genre and location which I can turn into a story. Just email me at timnewtonanderson@gmail.com or comment on this post or message me at my Facebook page Tim Newton Anderson.

Lockdown Stories No 22 – The ‘Pataphysical Detectives

This is the latest of my lockdown stories – The ‘Pataphysical Detectives.

It is one of my stories of the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics – not the real organisation of which I’m a member, but what it could be in an ideal world. Although I’ve tried a bit harder to use some of the pioneering techniques developed by pataphysical writers it’s still a bit of a grab bag of jokes, cultural references and random ideas I can’t be bothered to develop properly, so it doesn’t pretend to be a proper story.

Like all of the other lockdown stories it will be published when revised in a book whose profits will go to a local food bank. I’m still open to suggestions for other stories if you email the genre, main character and location to me at timnewtonanderson@gmail.com or comment at the bottom of this post.

If you do enjoy the story there are more in my e-book The Cat Factory and Other Stories.

Lockdown Stories No 21 – The Portrait of Damian Black

This is the 21st of my stories for Lockdown. There has been a bit of a gap due to family issues, but I’m now back writing and here is The Portrait of Damian Black.

This features the London Institute of Parapsychology – which is also in Necrocomicon and The Vanishing Countries of Middle Europe as well as my to be edited novel Masonic Fire or Chasing the Dragon.

I’m still open to suggestions for further stories. Just email me at timnewtonanderson@gmail.com, comment on this page or send me a Facebook message with a character, setting and genre and I will do my best to create a story based on them to be included in the collection of Lockdown Stories which will come out later this year as a book with profits going to a local foodbank.