Three interviews

Yes, everyone, livejournal is back!!!!

And so I have three sets of interview questions, which I will answer as follows:


  1. Your LJ is always very interesting to read and you exhibit an eclectic range of interests. What has led you to have such a diverse range of interests; and do you feel that this range of interests led you to seek out your work, or your work led you to broaden your interests?

    On the first point, well, that’s very nice of you to say so. As to the rest, I’ve definitely always been of an eclectic turn of mind. My work has never been more than one part of what I do and who I am, and I’ve tended to only seek work in areas in which I am already at least a little bit interested. But I’m not sure I would go as far as to say that it is my range of interests that leads me to seek out particular lines of work. My range of interests certainly drives my livejournal posts, however!

  2. Some years ago Updike wrote a novel entitled “Memories of the Ford Administration”. What are yours?

    I was seven when Ford became president, and nine when his term ended, so I don’t remember a lot! Having said that, I do remember the two assassination attempts in September 1975. In October 1975 I really started reading the news, with the long dying of General Franco in Spain and the IRA siege in Monasterevin being the stories I would follow in the Irish Times each morning.

    In retrospect, Ford’s big contribution to history was the Helsinki Accords, which I am convinced played a far greater role in the eventual fall of Communism and liberation of eastern Europe than any of Reagan’s later policies.

  3. Given your analyses of SF book award winners do you think book awards reward the best novels, or are other factors at play?

    Part of the reason I am so fascinated by the process of award-making is that it is so clearly a political process, and therefore can be subjected to the same sort of analysis as any other voting process that produces winners and losers. Some people get upset when I say this, or when I follow through by pointing out, say, that the Hugo Awards are much more likely to go to men, and slightly less likely to go to left-wing books, than the Nebulas; or that authors born in a particular time period have won more awards. But I don’t think anything is lost by querying the process.

    Obviously the quality of the book is going to be one factor, indeed, one hopes, an important one; but the voters in the Hugos and Nebulas (and I concentrate on them because they give me so many data points) are clearly influenced by other factors; local heroes from the place the WorldCon is being held, for instance, or a much-loved author producing his or her first work in years and being rewarded as much for past performance as for the quality of that particular nomination. See answer to a later question for the worst recent example.

  4. Which Wodehouse books would you recommend to someone new to his work?

    That one is difficult. Though all the many Wodehouse books are pretty similar, I think I would recommend starting with the sequence of four Blandings Castle novels, Summer Lightning (1929), Heavy Weather (1933), Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939), and Full Moon (1947). They are all pretty short, and if they don’t grab you, probably Wodehouse is not for you.

  5. If you had the power to erase one film, one book, and one TV show from history with the consequence that no-one was aware they had ever existed what would you choose and why?

    I wouldn’t. Freedom of speech includes freedom to write total crap (and then my freedom to mock it afterwards).

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  1. What’s the best thing about being a father?

    Crumbs, a very difficult question. Being a parent reorients your entire state of mind; the total priority in your life is assuring the well-being of the small creatures who depend on you. The best individual moments are when you do something that they like, and they appreciate it, whether that is tickling their toes, cooking them a meal, or taking them up the Eiffel Tower. But parenthood is such an all-consuming condition that I think it’s impossible to pick out any one thing that is good (or even bad) about it.

  2. I get the impression you have friends dotted all over Europe. Is this the case? How do you go about maintaining long distance friendships with people in other countries?

    Working as I do in international politics, in an environment which includes a great deal of enforced socialising (international conferences, diplomatic receptions, etc), I make a lot of international friendships just by doing my job; and that of course means correspondence and stayng in touch on work-related issues – and these relationships have more of the quality of friendships because I am on the labour-of-love end of the spectrum rather than the its-a-job-innit end.

    But I also an instinctive and compulsive networker – a year ago I read the self-help book Never Eat Alone and was struck (indeed slightly appalled) by how well it described my own behaviour. So that’s another part of the answer, and I carry the networking behaviour through to my fannish and on-line activities.

  3. Why do you book blog? What do you get out of it?

    At first it was out of a feeling that since I read so many books so quickly, this would be a way of capturing the content in some slightly more permanent form; and also that if I read a book knowing in advance that I was going to write it up, I would find myself reading more deeply and getting more from the reading experience.

    Now I do it at least as much to entertain, primarily to entertain myself, though I have to admit that the feedback I get from people who like reading my bookblog entries is (usually) very gratifying.

  4. How do you feel about the way geek and sf communities sometimes characterise themselves as being full of people with autistic-spectrum-type tendencies? Do you think it raises genuine awareness of autistic spectrum disorders, or does it only create misunderstandings?

    In a lot of cases outside fandom (and I go into this in more depth below) when people make remarks like “X behaves autistically” they are just being rude. But the key difference in what you are talking about is that the group, or members of it, characterise themselves in this way. I think it probably is objectively true that the geek and sf communities, especially on-line, are especially attractive to people with autistic spectrum disorders. However, I don’t think it really does much to raise awareness, especially if it is just used as an excuse for bad behaviour.

  5. How important is your career to you? If it all fell to pieces tomorrow how would you feel and what would you do?

    See above re parenting, for the overall importance. I think anyone who works in politics (at least, anyone sane who works in politics) has to be aware that they could be out of a job tomorrow if the wind were to change. I don’t let it worry me too much; politics was my hobby before it became my career, and I imagine I could work my way into administration or technical writing if I had to start from scratch. (Indeed, here in Belgium I think there is a vast untapped market for editing people’s written English to make it sound more like a native speaker’s.)

From  :

  1. How on Earth do you find the time to read so many books?

    I read very fast; and over the last few months I have also been deliberately reading shorter books!

    Speed-reading is one of the single most useful skills you can acquire, along with touch-typing (which I can’t do).

  2. You got very angry about George Osbourne’s off the cuff remarks about autism early in the year. What is the balance to be struck between holding people accountable for their remarks and avoiding public figures sticking entirely to vetted talking points?

    To take the Osborne point first: disability isn’t funny.   made this point, slightly differently, re Jack Straw. It isn’t funny to have only one leg, it isn’t funny to be blind, it isn’t funny to be deaf, it isn’t funny to have a mental illness, it isn’t funny to have an autistic spectrum disorder.

    You ask a very good question about holding people accountable for their remarks vs eliminating spontaneity. I have run across this one is a slightly different context recently as well, on a mailing list where I got into yet another Chomsky debate, with his supporters arguing that remarks attributed to the great man in newspaper articles (even ones which he wrote himself) should not be held to the same standards of truth and accuracy as his more scholarly work.

    I say, bollocks. I don’t see any reason why people, whether Noam Chomsky, George Osborne or me, should not be held accountable for remarks they make in their public capacity, whether scripted or not. Sometimes they will slip – I know I do; I once told a joke at a conference which offended someone in the audience (she came and told me so afterwards), and in that case all you can do is apologise (as Osborne failed to do), and resolve to be more careful with knowing your listeners’ sensibilities in future.

    Rhetoric is not taught in schools as a subject, as far as I know; I wish it were, and I wish people were better trained in the art of being spontaneous and intelligent at the same time. Myself, I tend to plan my public presentations fairly rigidly these days, ensuring that there is a joke at the beginning, a joke in the middle, and a joke somewhere near the end, with hopefully some actual content in between. But I also usually do speaking points rather than a full script, so it comes across as more spontaneous than perhaps it actually is. It really isn’t all that difficult to be spontaneous without being offensive, and I wonder what those who argue to the contrary are trying to excuse.

  3. What is your favourite language?

    I’m being lazy and cutting and pasting from the last time I answered this question, with added link to the Jubilate chamber choir.

    I just love the sound of both Italian and Finnish. Italian hardly needs explanation. Finnish – well, just listen to some of Koskenniemi’s lyrics to Sibelius’ music (these are the official lyrics for Finlandia):

    Oi Suomi, katso, Sinun päiväs koittaa,
    yön uhka karkoitettu on jo pois,
    ja aamun kiuru kirkkaudessa soittaa
    kuin itse taivahan kansi sois.
    Yön vallat aamun valkeus jo voittaa
    sun päiväs koittaa, oi synnyinmaa.

    Oi nouse, Suomi, nosta korkealle
    pääs seppelöimä suurten muistojen,
    oi nouse, Suomi, näytit maailmalle
    sa että karkoitit orjuuden
    ja ettet taipunut sa sorron alle,
    on aamus alkanut, synnyinmaa.

    I love the look of Georgian, even though I can’t read it:

    დილასა ადრე მოვიდა იგი ნაზარდი სოსანი,
    ძოწეულითა მოსილი, პირად ბროლ-ბადახშოსანი,
    პირ-ოქრო რიდე ეხვია, შვენოდა ქარქაშოსანი,
    მეფესა გასლვად აწვევდა, მოდგა თეთრ-ტაიჭოსანი.

    (Note how the last four syllables of each line rhyme. Obvious now I point it out, isn’t it.)

    I like speaking Dutch. Not something I do very often, but normally rather shocks native speakers – especially here in Flanders, where they assume I must actually be Dutch (ie from the hated North).

  4. Can you ever imagine yourself going into politics (ie as an elected representative)?

    Yes. I have in fact stood for election twice, in 1990 and more recently in 1996. On neither occasion did I come very close to winning, and this left me with the strong feeling that next time I stand in an election it will be for real.

    Having said that, my family circumstances would make it pretty irresponsible of me to take on the commitment of running an election campaign at the moment. Also at present, politics is my work rather than my hobby (my hobby being livejournal and fandom) so I’m not looking to ramp up my political engagement in that way.

    But I do like the feel of the European Parliament, and it frustrates me that an institution with so much potential punches so far below its weight in the debate on the EU’s foreign policy capabilities (mainly because the foreign affairs committee has been captured by an unrepresentative clique). If I stood for election it would probably be to try and get one of the British Lib Dem seats there. Not before 2014 at the earliest, though.

  5. What is the worst book ever to win a Hugo or Nebula?

    Tricky. My least favourite Nebula winners are The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro, The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov, The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer, and Neuromancer by William Gibson. My least favourite Hugo winners are Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer, Neuromancer by William Gibson, Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh, Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh, The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov and They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley.

    Much as I hate The Gods Themselves, I think two much more recent books are so awful that their winning the respective awards is just incomprehensible.

    Well, not totally incomprehensible in one case: Hominids clearly won the Hugo in 2003 because the WorldCon was in Canada that year, and Sawyer is obviously a very popular figure in fandom in that part of the world. But I find it difficult to believe that anyone who voted for Hominids had actually read any of the other nominees.

    Feeble as that excuse is, there can be no similar plea of mitigation for the Nebula voters giving their 2001 award to The Quantum Rose, with its clichéd romantic plot and desperately contrived attempts to draw parallels with quantum physics. (Unless the other books on the shortlist were even worse. But they included A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin, so I think that theory fails too.)

    Apart from that, I suspect Neuromancer may not have been a very worthy winner, but I can’t remember anything about it despite having reread it several times.

As usual, if you would like questions, ask.

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