Here we are at the end of 2008, which turned out to be a huge year in my life. I'd have to go back a long way to find a more eventful one.
Sadly, it began with the loss of my mother in hospital early in January - ironically enough with just me and a nurse present, as my father and sister who'd been keeping long vigils were both getting some much-needed and overdue rest. Given what Mum had been through during the previous year, it was almost a blessing when the end came, but of course that kind of cliched talk is little consolation to those of us left behind, especially my dad, who lost his life partner after a marriage that lasted well over 60 years. Since then, I've spent a lot of time with my family, travelling frequently to Newcastle ... where Jenny and I will very likely return permanently at the end of next year.
I've been further afield twice, with short trips overseas to New Zealand early in the year, for a long-overdue holiday with Jenny, and to the UK late in the year, funded by the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in Liverpool.
This has been a big working year. I had light teaching loads in both semesters, which is just as well when you add up the rest of what had to be done. I'd written a first draft of my PhD thesis in 2007, but this had major structural problems and was far too ambitious. In 2008, I produced a second version that was completely different, considerably shorter, much more tightly focused, essentially a new work. This means I have tens of thousands of unused material lying around from the first version, waiting for me to get back to it some time, to see what I can do with all the metaethical argument and fundamental normative theory that never made it into the new version of the thesis.
After various ups and downs, I finally submitted the thesis in late August. My examiners were very quick, and I found out in November that both had given it the thumbs-up with no revisions required. Save for the formal graduation, I now have the long-awaited second PhD, and now have to work out if I can find a publisher for it.
At the same time, I've been working on the Voices of Disbelief project with Udo Schuklenk. This went surprisingly smoothly but still had its own ups and downs. Editing an original anthology like this is a job comparable in size to writing a book of similar length, though in some ways it's more like managing a small business. For a start, intense effort went into finding high-profile people who were prepared to contribute to such a book. While we've ended up with 50 contributors in addition to ourselves, we actually wrote to a vastly greater number. Some of our emails were probably never received. Some people ignored us. One or two were dismissive. Many were gracious, but apologised because they were too busy. In retrospect, it's perhaps surprising that so many took us as seriously as they did, since quite a few of the people who ended up on board would never have heard of either of us.
In March, if I recall correctly, Blackwell came on board as publisher. We settled a list of about 60 people, but as the year went on the line-up changed slightly. Some folks had to drop out with illness or for other personal or professional reasons. In one case, one of my dearest friends had to drop out because of very serious illness. If she reads this, I send her my love. Udo and I ended up taking some essays a fair bit longer than we originally planned. After some to-ing and fro-ing we only added one name to our original list to balance those who had to leave the project, but with those longer pieces the manuscript we've ended up with is over 120,000 words.
The actual editing was a great privilege but also a challenge. Some essays, of course, scarcely needed editing at all - the authors sensed exactly what we had in mind. Others took quite a bit of work, though always the aim was to make the voice of the author as clear as possible, rather than to impose the views of the editors. Bear in mind that we had a great diversity of authors, some far more experienced as professional writers than others, some of them writing in English even though it is not their first language, some of them with impressive careers as professional novelists, some as academic philosophers, some as journalists, some as activists in the world of sceptics, humanists, and secularists. They all produced excellent essays, but sometimes the essays needed some tweaking or even rethinking. Then blending all this into the best book we could all make it was not always straightforward. Once Udo and I decided to accept essays of well over 3000 words (sensing that we were likely to end up with more like 50 than 60 authors), we were constantly worried that we'd end up with something too long overall and be forced to go back and ask some authors for cuts.
But I must add immediately that the authors were wonderfully responsive whenever we made suggestions or raised issues for them to consider, and the whole exercise was an amazing learning experience. The final mix of essays ranging from about 500 words to about 6000 words is more interesting than what we originally had in mind (with everything between 1500 and 3000). Best of all from my viewpoint, I've made some friendships out of the exercise. I certainly hope to work again with all these fantastic people.
We were able to submit the manuscript only one day after our 1 December deadline, and we now await proofs from Blackwell. We'll need to do a final layer of proofing and then, alas, put together an index (a task that some people enjoy, but I can't say that it's my cup of tea). Based on our best information, the book will actually be published in about July or August. Thanks to all the authors, once again.
Meanwhile, I took over in January as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. During the year we published three substantial issues and have started on a fourth. Almost all of the material we've published so far had been accepted before I came on board, so it'll be some time before I really make my mark on the journal. However, it all required editing, or further editing, and in this case quite a lot of what we'd accepted was from authors whose first language is not English. We needed to work closely with them to help them express themselves as clearly as possible for an English-speaking audience. My aim as an editor is always to help the authors express themselves with the maximum accuracy and clarity, not to impose my own beliefs, and I like to think that the partnership with the JET contributors has been pretty successful so far.
Another challenge with editing JET is that it's an interdisciplinary journal. Whatever claims of polymathy I might have, I can't possibly be expert across the vast range of displines that have something important to contribute. That means I need help, and I'm still at a relatively early stage in building up the network that I need to rely upon. Submissions are not getting reviewed as quickly as I'd like, and I must take some of the blame for this, as I haven't always found it easy getting the right reviewers quickly. Hopefully, that will improve. We're certainly working on it. Meanwhile, we've pretty much cleared the backlog that had been building up, and are well placed to continue the journal's flagship role.
Thanks especially to Marcelo Rinesi, whose work as managing editor has been invaluable.
While working on those projects, I've spent far too many hours at the computer wasting my time playing games (often in the form of Facebook apps), engaging in unproductive net surfing, and generally sitting here in my office getting unfit and fat. I must do something about that next year.
Jenny has had a breakthrough year, with the publication of her highest-profile story to date - "Trolls' Night Out" in Jack Dann's Dreaming Again anthology (which also contain my story "Manannan's Children"). She has her first solo book coming out next year, having sold her brillant standalone novella The Priestess and the Slave. This has been backed up by several other sales. To cap it all, she now has a daunting task ahead as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards - a great honour, but not an easy job.
One thing that I've failed to do in 2008 is get much reading done. I normally read over 100 books each year. This year, the final count was 74. Note to self: Must do better. I also haven't done much getting out to see movies. My workout schedule faded away completely, but that's partly because I've been carrying a minor shoulder injury all year and having a lot of trouble getting it 100 per cent better despite hydrodilatation and lots of time at the physiotherapist. No sooner have I got it back to about 95 per cent than I've somehow hurt my right hand.
Ah for the days when I used to get some minor injuries if I worked out too hard, but could actually recover from them. In that sense, middle age sucks. All in all, I've spent too much time in 2008 locked away in front of the computer.
But I've also managed to spend quite a lot of time enjoying the company of friends and family. What with losing one of my parents, I've had much reason to think about what I really want to achieve during this limited life. Obviously, I'm ambitious in many ways, if you haven't noticed, and I'm constantly looking out for partners in worthwhile projects ... since I (like to think that) I work well in a team, whether I'm contributing as a writer or as an editor. I have certain talents and skills, modest as they be, and I like to use them. But I've realised over the past 18 months that the most important thing of all is that the small group of people I love never doubt that I love them. I hope you don't, those of you who happen to read this, and I'll do my best to make sure you don't.
On that note, Happy New Year everybody! May 2009 be a better year for those who found 2008 tough going. May it be a good year for us all.