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My phone just reminded me that my dissertation is due right now. Which wouldn’t have been a very useful reminder if I had been planning to submit today, but had somehow — incredibly! — forgotten.

Luckily I’ve got a two-week extension. I plan to actually submit in the next two or three days, though.

One Week Away

My dissertation is due in just under a week. I’m seeking an extension, because I’ve been a bit poorly and have lost a lot of work time over the last week, but I still hope to get it in on time.

But that will mean my course will be over. Which is a little bit saddening. I’ve enjoyed being a student again, even though this academic year’s particular situation has meant that the experience has been distinctly unlike a classic student one. Even, I’m sure, for Birkbeck, ‘London’s evening university.’

I have, for example, met none of my classmates in person. I’ve met exactly one member of staff, and that in the park in Gordon Square. I’ve never been in the department’s building. I’ve been into any Birkbeck building — the library — I think three times, maybe four.

Online classes have been fine, though. I wonder if creative writing, in its common workshopping format, works especially well over Teams or Zoom. Everyone takes turns to comment on the piece that’s being discussed, and there’s much less scope for interruptions, compared to in person. Of course the downside of that is that there’s less scope for conversation, for organic discussion. So we probably lost out in some ways, too.

Less, though, than students on other courses, and especially first year undergraduates. Like my daughter, who has done a year of uni and met practically no one on her course. It’s a strange state of affairs, to be sure.

But we move on. This novel extract isn’t going to dissert itself.

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge (Books 2021, 17)

The absence of an apostrophe in the title has disturbed me slightly since I heard of this book. I think I concluded that it was meant as a verbal statement: rainbows do end, after all. The fact that the last chapter is entitled, ‘The Missing Apostrophe’ comforts me.

The other Vinge books that I’ve read (which would appear from that to only be one, but that is misleading) are galaxy-spanning space operas. This, in contrast, is very compact in scale, being set almost entirely in San Diego, and on the net. It’s a near-future thriller about medical and technological advances and how things might be for someone who was nearly dead from Alzheimer’s and then was brought back.

It’s pretty good, but 2025, the year in which it is set, feels pretty close now. I guess it didn’t in 2006.

I sent my CV to a recruiter today, for the first time in a long time. Dissertation due in less than a fortnight, so I have to start thinking about what’s next.

In an ideal world I’d be able to make a living from writing. This was a programming-type recruiter, though.

Big Planet by Jack Vance (Books 2021, 16)

I actually read this before the previous one, but forget to write about it. Perhaps that’s because I didn’t enjoy it very much.

Jack Vance is considered one of the greats of SF, and I realised recently that I hadn’t read anything by him. And I had this big volume that Gollancz gave away at a convention some time, containing this and two other books (another novel and a collection of short stories). A sort of literary compilation album.

But not a Greatest Hits — or if it is, then things are pretty bad.

The main problem is that it’s dated. Usually we can work around that sort of thing, and I did — look at me, all finished with it — but the main thing here is that it’s just badly written. Cardboard characters, dodgy sexual politics, and a plot that, while interesting enough to get me through it, is far too easily resolved.

And there’s the background of an Earth empire or federation or similar, that we see essentially notthing of. Instead the action is all confined to the eponymous planet. It ‘revolutionised the planetary romance,’ according to the blurb. And, indeed it was important to the form according to the linked SF Encyclopedia entry.

So much for that. All I can say is, it didn’t do a lot for me.

Whit by Iain Banks (Books 2021, 15)

The human memory is an amazing thing. In this case, it’s amazing what it’s possible not to remember.

To wit: I remembered almost completely nothing about this book. That the main character was part of an odd religious community based near Stirling in Scotland; and that she had to make a trip to London by slightly unusual means to track down a musical and possibly apostate cousin: that’s as far as my memory went.

It came out in 1995, so twenty-six years have passed since I first read it. I would have said that I had reread it once, which you would hope might lock things down a bit in the brain. But on the plus side, it meant it was almost like reading a new Iain Banks book, so in that way the forgetting was good.

As you’d expect, a great deal more happens than what I remembered. It’s another family drama, in the vein of The Crow Road1 and The Steep Approach to Garbadale. Also has a very endearing main character, as well as religion that doesn’t sound too bad in its beliefs, apart from its rejection of most technology.

  1. Which I note that I’ve never written about here, except indirectly. Is it time to rerereread that, do you think? 

MA Latest

I realised the other day that it’s a year ago that I was applying for creative writing MAs, before being accepted on and choosing the one at Birkbeck.

Well that went fast.

2021 feels like it’s being disappearing even faster than 2020 did, which is strange. Or maybe not. The pandemic is far from over, of course, many things are still up in the air, and it could all change again in an instant.

But I’ve been lax in reporting on what’s been going on with the course . The summer term was all an optional lecture series, which largely consisted of members of staff interviewing writers, along with one or two pieces about the craft of writing. One on the structure of the novel, and one a session with some agents.

That last one probably had the most practical value — at least potentially — but they were all interesting.

Other than that, My dissertation is due in a month. Actually now just under four weeks. It consists of 15,000 words of creative writing (plus or minus 10%, so up to 16,500), plus a 3000-word preface (also plus or minus 10%). I have 23,000 words, of which I can’t use the first five or six thousand, because I already submitted them for an earlier assessment. So there’s plenty to work with.

It feels a little odd to have paused the forward flow — I intend this to be a novel, after all — to work on editing what I have so far. But it ought to be worthwhile for the novel, as well as being necessary for my dissertation. This period of working over what I’ve already done should give me a firmer base on which to build the rest.

I think I miss classes. I only had two a week for the first two terms, and a slightly more erratic schedule averaging to one a week for the third, but they provided structure, as well as a feeling of connection with others on the course. So I’m looking forward to an informal workshop session some of us have arranged for this week.

But beyond that, the future. What’s next?