So they've found something like the Higgs boson, which might possess exactly the predicted properties; and if it doesn't quite match, it's still the particle manifestation of the Higgs field: cool stuff. And wasn't it fun watching newscasters talking to physicists, trying to get some bullet-point sentences for their programmes?

Highlights: the excellent Jim al-Khalili saying that in a hundred years' time, no one would remember Bob Diamond (the number-one headline maker that day); but they would remember the Higgs boson discovery. Secondly, the marvellous Brian Cox on the Daily Politics late-night show, where he impressed the heck out of Andrew Neil, Alastair Darling and Michael Portillo (which, okay, might not rank as Professor Cox's highest achievement). Regarding the importance of science and science education, he pointed out that it took more money to bail out the banks than has been spent on British science in two thousand years...

Other stuff: I made some major non-writing commitments this year, in the software engineering world. For weeks at a time, I've been suspending my normal practice of writing every day: I've had to be able to dream about software, and sort things out while I'm asleep. Even reading novels has been distracting - but then, the last three have been excellent.

Helsinki White is Jim Thompson's third Nordic thriller (see my earlier post on his first two books). Finland may have been named best-country-to-live-in by economists a few years back, but it seems to have been caught up in the same rise of racist fascism that's infecting its neighbours - the political background to this book is serious indeed. One of my Swedish friends knew Stieg Larsson very well - this is fighting the same good fight, and it needs to be done.

Thompson also manages something quite daring: the protagonist and his colleagues act in a gung-ho armed-and-dangerous fashion (different from the previous books), which superficially resembles a Chris Ryan/Stephen Leather thriller - while at the same time, the reader understands that there is something deeply wrong with their operating this way. Intelligent risk-taking - it makes me wonder what unexpected direction the fourth book will take.

The Retribution is a reminder that Val McDermid is a terrific writer at the height of her powers, who can write about some truly nasty stuff, deeply affecting only because the characters are so ordinary and human. I've been a fan of McDermid's writing since her early novels published by The Women's Press - which, unless I'm mistaken, was the late '70s. (I remember buying the first couple of Lindsay Gordon books in a secondhand bookshop on the Bristol Road in Brum.) Back then, there was a spark of something compelling (for me) in her writing; it grew through the Kate Brannigan books; and her third phase is widely known, so you don't need me to tell you how good she is.

I hadn't kept up with John Irving's writing, which is pretty poor on my part, considering how long it takes him to produce a novel. (I think I've written about the same number of books as him, by now. And he had a whopping head start.) Never mind the width, feel the quality... Last Night in Twisted River joins The World According to Garp and A Widow for One Year as a novel-about-a-novelist that actually entertains, while Irving continues to do what he does best: ironic humour in the midst of tragedy. I've experienced it, but I've never tried to write about it. It's hard, but Irving makes it appear effortless. Loved the book. (A Widow for One Year remains my favourite.) And I've still got his most recent book to read.

Irving decries the tendency of interviewers (and others) to focus on the parts of a novel that come from real life, while the truth is, a writer's job is to make stuff up. I agree with him, and yet I understand the compulsion: James Thompson's second book features American in-laws visiting the Finnish detective and his American wife, and some (multi-layered) misunderstanding and conflicts - and I found myself wondering where it came from in Thompson's life (he's American with a Finnish wife). None of my business. Plus it fits the book perfectly: it's there to support the story, and that's all anyone can know.

All of which might tempt you to think that SF and fantasy are the purest forms of writing around, because we make everything up...

Another thought: John Irving's autobiography is thin, in contrast to his novels, and focuses on his collegiate wrestling career (that's real wrestling, not the fake professional stuff - in Britain, real grappling means judo or BJJ - that's Brazilian Ju Jitsu - because we don't have the serious sport of wrestling). The thing is, writing isn't a spectator sport: there's nothing to see, not in the process. (The end result is everything.) And that's why I write about martial arts from time to time.

But if you're here because you're into SF, there's a limit to how much you care or know about karate and MMA and the rest. Let's stick to some brief mentions:

Michael Clarke's excellent book, Shin Gi Tai, is "for adults only", which means that's it's not for those with fantasies of becoming deadly fighters - it's about examining why you train: to discover who you are. I'm 55 years old and I train six days a week: there's got to be an intelligent, mature reason for it.

I'd like to think that, on balance, martial arts training is more likely to make you a good person than otherwise - because (optimistically) I like to think that people can reveal their good hearts if they're strong enough to withstand the normal battering of life. But then, but then...

I won't link to the newspaper articles (Google is your friend), but I'm glad that the seventh-dan scumbag known as Harry Cook has been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Parents, for Heaven's sake, just because some Durham-educated academic in white pyjamas lords it around in his dojo, that doesn't make it safe to leave your children in his charge. (When the hell did dojos become day-care centres, anyway?) Cook wrote well-regarded articles on the martial virtues for many years (hypocrisy being the least of the bastard's sins), and I find it interesting that the only person who publicly denounced him throughout that time was the enfant terrible Steve Morris, who clearly sensed he was a jerk. (And if he'd suspected what was really going on, he would probably have hammered Cook into mincemeat. In his 60s, Steve beat the bejasus out of a professional cage fighter in his prime - easily. Someone like Cook wouldn't last a second.)

Well, I don't normally do vituperation, but there are some things I feel strongly about.

Michael Clarke was the only karate person I know of to point the finger at Cook, when the case came to light a year ago (other than some forum comments that followed). There might be others; I couldn't bear to investigate further.

On a much better note, Clarke's Shin Gi Tai, while it's about traditional Okinawan karate, refers to a highly regarded author in the field of modern self-protection, which is very different from normal martial arts training. (Not fighting is the best skill: involving not just woolly words like 'awareness', but specific drilled-in strategies of observation - from environmental geometry to the differing behaviours required to defuse a primate-posturing type of confrontation, in contrast to confronting human predators. Plus sorting out your own personal difficulties with and attitudes towards violence, well in advance. You don't learn this in a dojo. And no, I'm not an authority.) The guy is Rory Miller, and his stuff is worth checking out: a must-have if you're a martial artist concerned with self defence.

There's an SF/Fantasy connection: his wife is a writer (and karateka), and he's friends with a couple of good people I've met once or twice, including Steve Barnes. I missed the chance to train with Mr Miller in the UK a while back, but one of my friends attended. Good stuff.

One of the first people to bring martial arts into the security arena was a fearsome good guy called Terry O'Neill (now 7th dan - I trained with him once, in 1978 or '79), who used to do the business on the doors of violent nightclubs in Liverpool, in particular the Banyan Tree, which is the nightclub attached to the Adelphi Hotel. A lot of British fandom have, er, interesting memories of that hotel... Checking in for an Eastercon once, in the early hours of a Saturday morning, Yvonne and I thought we'd wandered into a war zone by mistake. It was... interesting.

Back to the world of computing for me. And you might wonder whether I'll be late handing in the last Ragnarok book, Resonance, even after that nice Mr Burns painted such a lovely cover for it.


It's time to blog less and work more.