Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Nine lives and counting

Space, said Douglas Adams, is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely mind-bogglingly big it is…

But there’s a small and dwindling group of men who do. Men pushing 80 who’ve seen the Earth from deep space. The Apollo astronauts could hide our planet, all our lives and worries, behind the end of one thumb.

Journalist Andrew Smith was interviewing former astronaut Charlie Duke when word came through that Pete Conrad had been killed in a motorbike crash. Smith was taken by Duke’s forlorn comment that now there were only “nine of us” left – just nine remaining of just 12 men to ever have walked on the Moon. And so Smith set out to find and interview the remaining astronauts, before it was too late.

Moondust is an extraordinary, brilliant book, full of wit and revelation, Smith struggling to tease out what such an experience can have been like. He interviews not just the Moon men but their team-mates left 60 miles up in lunar orbit, the wives and children who suffered such heroes in ordinary life, the journalists who covered the show first time round and those now trying to prove whether it even really happened.

Throughout, Smith works hard to explain context: the context of these men’s lives now (signing autographs at conventions when they’re lower in the billing than some bloke from Lost In Space); the context of the unreconstructed worldview prevailing in their time; the context of international, domestic, office and personal politics which dictated the decisions being made; the context of Smith’s own life and the impact the Moon landings had on him.

This latter aspect might not appeal to everyone – and I found it a bit wearying at times. It’s in complete contrast to In The Shadow of the Moon, which the astronauts tell themselves accompanied by cleaned-up NASA footage. But Smith’s argument is that the missions to get “out there” is important only in what it showed us about ourselves. Standing on that barren, grey rock redefined our position and meaning here.

This human story should appeal to those who’ve never really got into Moon porn. It’s not all just Top Men talking at length about real, manly physics. In fact, the book is full of detail and observation that punctures the cool, controlled image of spacemen. Snot, for example, is,
“no fun at all in a weightless environment.”

Andrew Smith, Moondust, p. 163.

The unglamorous realities of space travel have long been reported – kids queued up at the space museum in Washington DC was astronauts’ toilet, which I think was from a space shuttle. But that strange looking contraption was modern, extravagant comfort compared to the first pioneers. As early as 1973, Buzz Aldrin’s book Return to Earth revealed,
“That the condoms they’d used for collecting urine were a great source of anguish because ‘our legs weren’t the only things that atrophied in space’… [and] that hydrogen bubbles in the water supply they used to rehydrate food had given them the farts and Columbia’s interior didn’t smell so good (there was ‘a considerable fragrance’) by the time they got home.”

Ibid., p. 101.

It changes our view of these healthy American heroes, filled to the gills with the “right stuff”, to hear of leaks in the condoms that resulted in reeking, “blobbing globules of piss”. (What a brilliantly vivid image; it makes me think of weightless Klingon bleeding in Star Trek VI, or the title sequence of Friday Night With Jonathan Ross.)
“This happened to Gordon Cooper on his Mercury flight and all he could do was herd them together every so often, so that he knew where they were. The rubbers on Apollo had the same problems, but were connected through a hose and valve directly into space. Not only was it easy to catch yourself in the mechanism, but opening the valve brought the hungry tug of absolute vacuum.”
Ibid., p. 247.

And it gets worse. The following grotesque quotation is not suitable for those of a nervous disposition:
“Defecation was the real deal. To do this on Apollo, you had to climb to the lower right side of the craft while your crewmates moved as far away from you as they possibly could – which anyone who’s seen one of the capsules will appreciate wasn’t far. There, you got completely naked, removing rings, watches, everything, because you couldn’t be sure what was going to happen next; then you positioned a special plastic bag as best you could, and went, hoping that everything went in it. Remember that you’re floating; the bag is floating; your shit is floating. Charlie [Duke] says: ‘Anything you can imagine happening… happened.’ Thus there is the tale of the stool that went freelance on one flight … So unspeakable was the hour-long process of dumping and getting cleaned up afterwards that I heard rumours of one astronaut dosing himself with Imodium, which enabled him to hold it for eight whole days.”
Ibid., p. 248.

It’s like some kind of disconnect; the extraordinary aspiration and physics and enterprise, yet inextricable from such humbling, basic human functionality. Smith is also good at connecting the dots, using this beastly detail to explain – though not excuse – the absence of women in the crews.
“Even I find it hard to imagine men and women of his generation sharing these experiences.”
Ibid., p. 247.

The lesson is that space isn’t just big, it’s weird and counter-intuitive. Smith explains space sickness – where those of us who use exterior signals completely lose our bearings – and the complexities of orbital mechanics. Thrust lifts you into a higher orbit, which has weaker gravity and where it’s further to get round to the same place again (because the circumference of the orbit is bigger). Thus increasing your speed to catch something up actually puts you further away.
“Bizarre as it sounds the solution … is to decrease velocity, so sinking to a lower, shorter, faster orbit, then to gradually transfer back up to the original one at precisely the right point to meet the target. This stuff is called ‘orbital mechanics’ and it manifestly is rocket science.”
Ibid., pp. 147-8.

And even more incredibly this stuff was being sussed out and tested, with men putting their lives at risk, by, in Aldrin’s own phrase:
“earnest young engineers, their holstered slide rules slapping against their belts.”
Ibid., p. 211.

The computers by which mission control monitored proceedings were, by modern standards, not even pocket calculator stuff. It makes the whole thing as much foolhardy as brilliant. And so, you’d think, a whole lot more endearing. But there’s also a dark side to the story.

On the side of these engineers was German rocket scientist Werner von Braun, a controversial figure then and now. As in the James Bond novel Moonraker, German rocketry was a valuable commodity in the early Cold War, but came with a difficult moral dimension. Reg Turnhill, the BBC’s aerospace correspondent for two decades, couldn’t shake von Braun’s hand for some years. Reg’s
“eldest son was born prematurely when one of the first V-2 rocket-bombs von Braun designed during World War II fell on Sydenham.”
Ibid., p. 39.

And the man Reg describes working for NASA could come right out of Bond:
“To begin with, his thick accent and mouth full of metal teeth were ‘quite revolting for the viewer’, but one day Reg turned round and, lo, the engineer was speaking perfect English through a gallery of gleaming white teeth.”

Smith teases at the controversy. Did von Braun know about the slave labour conditions under which his work for the Nazis was carried out? Was he complicit in the regime? Did he see the punishment and executions? How much of his past was swept under the carpet so as not to inconvenience the mission? And, madly, mixed up in all that is what sounds like some insanely inspired sitcom.
“Prior to his flight, [Apollo astronaut Edgar] Mitchell spent a week sharing a house with the rocket scientist [von Braun] and Arthur C. Clarke, who was by then regarded as one of the most influential futurist thinkers on the planet, because for that brief period sci-fi was seen as something more than escapism.”
Ibid., p. 69.

There’s a definite sense of the transcendent in that period up to Apollo 11; a sense that anything can be and will be achieved, whatever the sacrifice needed. I’ve talked before that the term “single-minded” is a euphemism for someone being a shit. Here, marriages suffered and collapsed; children suffered dad’s who were impossible role models and who set impossible standards. And von Braun’s involvement is troubling because it exemplifies the any cost approach.

Other German scientists were found out for their part in torture and horrific treatment, and were retired from the programme. Even those who worked with von Braun, who liked him, are sceptical of his innocence; they argue he would have worked under any flag, that the politics didn’t matter half as much as the achievement.

Certainly, von Braun had bold ambitions for where the programme would go next. In 1969, with the Moon landing still a tantalising probability, he presented Congress with a plan for,
“nuclear rockets assembled in Moon bases, to reach the red planet in the early 1980s.”
Ibid., p. 107.

Which is ironic, really. There’s a suggestion that NASA would have been better served with space planes instead of rockets – they would have been safer and more sustainable, so the space age might have lasted longer than December 1972. But von Braun’s lobbying and the fact rockets could be produced faster than new versions of the X-15 seem to have decided things. The single-mindedness turned out to be as counter-intuitive as space.

All the astronauts Smith speaks to yearn to go back to the Moon. I’m not sure whether that’s because they personally need to return – infected with a bug for moondust as some people are bewitched by Africa. Perhaps, like Tennyson’s Ulysees, the old men crave one last great adventure. They’ve all got reasons for insisting on the importance of man going back: science; pioneering spirit; resources and profit; just to beat the Chinese. John Young even claims we have to get off-planet if the species is to survive, that there’s a
“1 in 455 chance of humanity failing to see out the next century … You’re about ten times more likely to get killed in a civilization-ending event than you are of getting killed on a commercial airline flight.”
Ibid., p. 215.

But is this all just skirting around the debilitating sense of anti-climax, the mundane paucity of the human world they have returned to? Is the yearning to return just a way to validate those incredible 10 days off-planet, and the shadow they cast on the rest of their lives?

Smith following them round, begging for interviews, seeing them at expensive dinners and signings, and sadly reports their tetchy in-bickering. There’s a sense that the astronauts – every one of them either an only child or eldest sibling – are still squabbling alpha males.

They are all in their own ways competitive, high-achieving and selfish. They have their own obsessions – religious, artistic or political – and nothing gets in the way. These are, of course, the necessary characteristics to achieve something so improbably and audacious as getting to the Moon. Something so manifestly incredible that huge numbers don’t believe it.

The restless disquiet with life that Smith charts is not down to what they saw out in space. If they have had trouble adjusting to post-lunar life, it seems it’s because there’s nowhere further to go. They can’t describe or explain what it was like to be there, but that can’t stop the endless queue of people asking that very question. The tragedy is not that there are only nine Moonwalkers left, but that, despite our protests, they could never hope to share the experience with the rest of us.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Why the Sontarans are silly

The Mr Potatoheads of Dr Who are back on our screens tomorrow night. The toad-faced Sontarans whose heads snugly fit their helmets of course first appeared in The Time Warrior, back when Sarah Jane Smith seemed a really neat idea. I only realised recently that Kevin Lindsay, the chap playing Sontaran Linx is also Cho-je what first uses the word “regenerate” and whose little-pushes makes Jon Pertwee Tom Baker.

Lindsay returned in the following year’s follow-up, The Sontaran Experiment, playing a matching Sontaran called Styre. Did I mention how much I dearly adore The Sontaran Experiment? Yes, I think I did.

It’s important Kevin Lindsay plays both Sontarans since they’re meant to be clones. But, because he sadly died soon after, their returns in The Invasion of Time, The Two Doctors, A Fix With Sontarans, Shakedown and Mind Game (yes, they all count) were all played by different people. Some of these people even dared to be tall, more ferret than potato.

But just because they’re clones, Sontarans don’t all need to be identical. In fact, in their endless war with the jellyfish shape-changer Rutans, there’s good reason why they might want different body types in stock. They can have short, fat ones for short, fat missions, and tall ones for reaching stuff from shelves. By varying their numbers of fingers or the contours on their heads, they’re also proofing themselves against blights to one strain like parasites and diseases.

We already know that variation is part of how human apes exist, and how we’re not quite the same as bonobos. By trying stuff out our genes keep on surviving. Yet for all the evident success with which we swarm over the planet (destroying our own habitat like any other cancerous parasite), it’s a bit of mucky, inefficient process. There’s extinctions, starvations and various kinds of mutation that are, frankly, not very nice.

Indeed, the first Sontaran we meet berates Sarah for the silliness of this binary reproductive system. Cloning would, he sort-of argues, obviate all the associated weird rituals of pair bonding, like the sacrifice of costly dinner and plants’ gonads to a potential mate. Civilisation has worked out all sorts of strange rules to insist it’s all about what’s best for the children, and not merely some messy, peculiar fun.

No, I don’t want to swap the bedroom for a laboratory – sorry, Dr; you’re not off the hook just yet. But the idea of cloning questions the gestalt of assumptions making up our ever more sexualised society. That’s why it’s such a contentious subject; sex and its related feints and formalities are intrinsic to how we organise our lives.

Anyway. This is all just a lead-up to an old, old joke from one of my old, old fanzines. Because the Sontarans, right, they catch hold of Sarah and notice she’s not a boy. “The hair is finer,” says Linx and Styre, “the thorax of a different construction.” And that’s quite spectacularly silly.

The cultural assumptions of this stupid ape would have blurted, “And blimey, she’s got tits!”

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Persian automatic

I’d meant to read Persepolis for ages, but the new film version and not being able to think what else to get the Dr for an anniversary present finally got me buying a copy. I didn’t know that much about it till then; it was about Iran and it was meant to be good. Perhaps it would have something to do with the ancient city.

It’s a memoir by Marjane Satrapi, growing up during interesting times as the Shah falls, fundamentalism grips the country and then the long war with Iraq. It’s a keenly observed, often shocking, often very funny comic strip, narrated and drawn in deceptively simple style.

Yes, a comic strip. Just deal with it.

Iran is, obviously, a timely, provocative subject and the book is an insightful, personal view. But it’s more than that, and I think particularly effective because of its being a comic.

Alan Moore has argued that what sets comics apart from other media is the potential for juxtaposition. Satrapi is very good at gleaning the ironies from her mixed-up life. There’s a complex, compelling blend of personal incident and observation alongside a broader political and cultural history.

For example, her nervous Uncle Taher suffers a third heart attack at the sound of a grenade. Marjane and her auntie rush to the hospital and struggle to get past the bureaucracy. Her auntie needs permission to see her husband, and the director who can grant this turns out to be her former, “creepy window washer” – a ne’er-do-well doing fine under the wartime regime, a fundamentalist now who won’t even look at a woman.

And then… Oh, how do I quote from a comic strip? Here goes:
“After the director we went to see the chief of staff, Dr. Fathi.

Dr Fathi: ‘Ma’am, we’ll do what we can. We are terribly strapped at the moment.

‘Look in this room. They’re all victims of chemical weapons.

‘The Germans sell chemical weapons to Iran and Iraq. The wounded are then sent to Germany to be treated. Veritable human guinea pigs.’

Marjane’s auntie, shouting: ‘Why are you telling me this?! I couldn’t care less. I want my husband to get well!’”

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis, p. 122.

There’s a constant undercurrent of incredible violence. Deaths and beatings are part of daily life even before the war with Iraq. Marjane’s family are descended from the deposed royals (the surname “Satrapi” is a clue to that) and she goes to see her favourite uncle in prison the night before he is executed.

The frustrated anger at the regime and the constant sense of vulnerability and loss give the book an awful depth. Like Maus, the suffering is juxtaposed and made in any way bearable by funny and wry observance, petty human jealousies and foibles including the author’s own.

She feels awkward in the street one time, so reports an innocent man for making lude suggestions and gets him arrested. Or she and her babysitter conspire to chat up the next door neighbour. Her middle class, leftie parents still stick by social orders that define who can date who. After their next-door neighbours are flattened in an Iraqi raid – Marjane glimpses the mangled something that is left of their daughter, her age – they send her to study in Austria.

It’s again with the contrasts, Marjane a duck out of water who barely speaks the language. The richness and ease of the West sits uncomfortably with what we’ve already seen, and there’s something comic about the punk “rebellion” compared to Marjane’s parents smuggling posters of Kim Wilde. Marjanne stands to lose far more buying illegal pop music tapes in Iran than she does hash for her Austrian friends. The book as a whole is constantly probing, exploring and monkeying around with ideas of freedom and independence – what that means, what we do with it, what our obligations are. (Hence the title of this post, do you see?)

Marjane finds herself in the difficult, lonely state of the migrant: a misfitting foreigner who doesn’t ever quite get accepted by the new country; and changed by her sojourn so that she doesn’t fit at home any more. We see the colossal pressures she’s put under by petty racism and mean-mindedness; a far worse affect than the guilty parties can ever have considered. In fact, what with lying nuns and and a landlady who assumes she’s a whore, Marjane is lucky to survive her time away from home.

She names names as she details her clumsy assignations with boys: one who turned out to be gay; one who was a shit; the husband she should never have married. Yet she’s also often guarded about details in a way she’s not when describing torture and brutality. It surprised me when she admits to jealous sniping friends that, at 19, she’s lost her virginity. When and who with, I thought. And do I really want to flick back to see?

But what’s most extraordinary is how she makes the specific general. These are personal, individual experiences in a world so distant from our own, and yet it’s the tale of ordinary people with ordinary wants and feelings.

I think that easy empathy is helped by Marjane’s drawing style. It’s simplistic – deceptively so when you note the keenly observed cars and buildings – and high contrast, without shading or grey. Things are always either black or white (again a juxtaposition with what’s being shown). Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics argues that this simplification to the abstract makes the people depicted more universal – the less detailed, realistic and specific a drawing of a person, the more it becomes not just any but everyone.

This also makes it easy to print this film tie-in edition on ordinary paperback paper, with its rough pulpy feel and potential for yellowy lignin. (I looked into the feasibility of doing something with Adrian Salmon’s similarly high-contrast illustrations, but a Benny comic proved to be a more expensive proposition than a year of audios and books all together.) You might need to squint to read all the captions, but the format disguises this being a comic; it might be an ordinary, proper sort of book.

Only doing things an ordinary, proper book couldn’t do: showing not telling that we are not different, whatever war, religion and politics might try to claim.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Johtaja lähtee eläkkeelle

The shiny new issue of Finnish sci-fi magazine Spin includes a translation of the interview what Leslie McMurtry did with me last year, plus a short story of mine never previously published. And one I'm really rather pleased with.

You have to buy the magazine to read it, and even then only if you can read Finnish. Which I don't; but how exciting to look as if I do.

As a tantalising wossname, the English translation of the story's title is - or should be - "The Case of the Retiring Magnate".

Also, the Blake's 7 people have issued a press release about the return of Michael Keating of Vila. And that includes mention of me writing a play about Blake's friend Jenna Stannis.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Time out with the wife

The Dr's book is due out next month and the media circus has already begun. She's interviewed in this week's Time Out - the second time she's been in that magazine (the last time she was talking about, ahem, Roman marital aids).

The old girl will also be harping on about suggestive bits of cloth at the National Gallery on 14 May.

Yesterday, we celebrated my finishing a first draft of something as yet unannounced by stopping for a pint in the new-look Bridge House Tavern. It's spangly and trendily grey, and all a bit yummy mummy.

I'd just found a table in the much extended pub garden, and was wondering if this was the first time this year that's allowed drinking outside. And the heavens suddenly opened. So we skulked indoors, I suggested the title for her next book and then we went for medicinal curry.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

They don't know the words

So. Doctor Who then.

Is Rose Tyler eating all the bees?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

But who's counting?

The BBC's Doctor Who website has posted a review of The Pirate Loop by the reading group from Bishop of Llandaff school in Cardiff - that is, Sarah, Lauren, Bethan P, Bethan M, Rosie, Enya and Lydia.
"It wasn't very good and it didn't interest me very much."
Bethan P.

The girls gave me 7 out of 10 - which is what Trev got for Wishing Well, meaning Jim is the winner in the Decemberist gang; Peacemaker got 9.

Though showing all us Decemberists just how it should be done, Terrance's revenge got 9.5.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Like a magic ninja

Doctor Who and the Defining Patterns

Hooray! I have as of this morning my copies of Defining Patterns, which have been sat in the Post Office awaiting my collection. It’s a thrilling looking book, with my story, “The Great Escapes” alongside some cracking stuff. There’s competition winner Michael Coen and the Big Finish debut of Ace creator Ian Briggs. What more could you possibly want?

Meanwhile, Sin Deniz has interviewed me for his regular blog on sci-fi writers.

And, perhaps most excitingly of all, you, yes you can buy photographs of me from as little as £3.99.

Scrolling down the list, there’s two of me, one of Peter Davison, one of Chas from Chas & Dave… But David Darlington can be had in no less than four exciting action poses.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Etymological space

My friend Suetekh once told me that she collects definitions of science fiction. Ones where Star Wars isn’t allowed, or that start with Frankestein, Poe or the Iliad. Ones that try to draw a line between sf and fantasy or sf and magic realism. Ones that try to impose some moral purpose on stories, underlining science, speculation or gedankenexperiment. Ones that even have the balls to argue sf is everything, and all other writing merely its sub-genres.

We laughed. We had more cake. We went on to talk about the mad-looking things that live at the bottom of oceans.

I must admit, I was never very bothered by any of that definitions stuff. Sure, it helps to be able to ring-fence an area that you’re writing or talking about, but there’s a fundamental difference between something being about rockets and it being any good or interesting. Too often definitions are merely a territorial marker, the definer staking a claim to the kind of stuff he likes, as a tiger might mark a tree.

In my own recent researches, I’ve noticed all kinds of effort to define the sub-genres of sf, or even to explain – as if to a sick relative – that they’re not sub-genres at all.

The main one is what we call the “what if” sorts of story, set in worlds where Hitler wins the Second World War or where Martin Luther ended up Pope. Just as with sci-fi, there’s those who argue that this isn’t just about coming up with wheezes for good and strange stories. Oh no, they say, if Winston Churchill was writing this kind of thing, it’s got to be serious, academic history.

But what are these kinds of stories called?

Those who call it “alternate history” need to look in a dictionary. Alternate means “every other”. “Alternative history” is better, but still carries a sense that there’s only one possible other option.

“Counterfactual” makes me think “lie”. “Parallel universe” misses the point that most of these kinds of stories include a revelation about where their history diverged from our own. In geometry, parallels don’t ever meet. (Hence the title of “Parallel Lives”; people who are not as close as they seem, so that [Spoiler] falls through the cracks.)

I quite like “allohistory” – meaning “other” in the same way as “allegory”. But people don’t use this very often, and can look puzzled if you do. Ho hum.

Another common term is “utopia”, which literally means “no place” and tends to describe any fictional ideal – do you see what Doctor Who did there? The saint who coined the term in 1516 meant an island of sunshine and sheep, and generally people know what you mean. But what about something like Nineteen Eighty-Four which is evidently the opposite? Or that staple of science fiction, where what seems to be an island of sunshine and sheep turns out to be all monstrous?

These are surely two different things; the state that’s in no way a utopia, and the state that says it is and yet is not. I’ve seen critics carefully define these two terms from each other, labelling them “dystopia” as opposed to “anti-utopia”. The trouble is, different critics apply the labels different ways round.

There are also different kinds of utopia: heterotopia, extropia, techno-utopia. It all gets rather fiddly.

Tom Moylan’s “Demand the Impossible” also argues that utopias can’t be fixed points; that in fact they breakdown if they ever stop striving to be better. What he calls a “critical utopia” is continually self-assessing, asking difficult questions. I argued in Foundation a long time ago that that’s exactly what happens in Iain M Banks’s Culture stories, since we usually see the utopian Culture through the eyes of someone off-message.

Utopia is, then, the journey not the destination. It is the aspiration to make better worlds, the methodology, processess, questions. Literally, it is the state of being, not the place.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


So, says Scott, what am I up to? And I realise I haven’t posted one of those sorts of posts in ages. So here goes…

I’m almost at the end of a month’s contract working full-time for a Government department, writing and editing things. Next week I start three or four weeks on a part-work magazine.

By Friday, I need to have fully proofed “How The Doctor Changed My Life” – I’m on page 162 as of this moment. I’m monstrously delighted with how it’s all come out, a testament to the hard work and brilliance of the 25 first-time authors. We’re embroiled in discussions of marketing and stuff, and I’ve seen a first draft of the glorious cover. More on all that very soon.

I was meant to have until 6 May to finish something that’s not been announced yet, but the editor’s asked if I can get it in sooner and I likes a challenge. It currently includes the words “Sugar Puffs”, “micturate” and “Noel Edmonds”.

I’ve got two other unannounced things to be in on 12 May. One of them was given to me as a sort of replacement for something I pitched for which didn’t seem like it would happen. And then this week it did – I’ve now got until the end of May to finish it. So all in all I shall have no evenings or weekends until the beginning of June.

By then I shall not be freelancing during the week and can concentrate all my energies on the three sizeable projects that will be taking up most of my summer. Two of them haven’t been announced yet but the third is my very own, original novel, which I am determined to actually spend some time on. I’ve got, since people aren’t asking, about 10,000 words of it not very well written and a small universe of notes.

I’ve got two short films to write for Codename Moose, and a short story for Sin Deniz. And after that, we shall see.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Creature, I name you…

What the internet can tell us about the names of Dr Who’s friends.

  • Rose
    Well, duh, it’s after the pretty flower. But it might also come from the Germanic “hros” – or horse. No, really.
  • Adam
    The Hebrew word for man; there’s maybe some Biblical punnery on similar Hebrew words meaning “red” (the colour, apparently, of human skin), “making” and “earth”. But the Biblical Adam was also tempted by new knowledge. Was that Nurse called Eve?
  • Jack
    Shorter form of Iohannes (also the source of John), derived from the Hebrew for “God is gracious”. Which goes with him being brought back to life by shiny-eyed goddess Rose. (But then it’s not his real name anyway, is it? Considering his brother, I think Jack’s really called Pinkish.)
  • Mickey
    Michael is Hebrew for “like God”; in the Book of Revelation he’s the leader of Heaven’s armies and the patron saint of soldiers.
  • Martha
    Aramaic for “lady” or “mistress”. But not in the sense of being the other woman.
  • Donna
    Means “lady” in Italian. And as a feminine version of the old Celtic “Donald”, it means “ruler of the world”.

Monday, April 14, 2008

I went ape

For reasons of research on something I cannot yet speak of, I have been looking into physics. Specifically, I have been learning about orbital rendezvous and delta-v calculations – the sorts of tricky manouvre one does in rockets in space. You know, real space travel, not all those sci-fi cheats.

The Dr has patiently zoned out of my efforts to explain some of this stuff. She ignored almost all of the DVD of In The Shadow of the Moon, though she was rather moved by the former moon-walkers having trouble coming back to reality. They found God, they drank, they just fidgeted about – though none of them got a job in the music industry in the way that Polly ffaze-Avatron did.

As I’ve said before, the Dr considers all this space stuff to be “moon porn”. Not even my top facts impressed her – like that it took the Apollo missions three days to reach the moon; less time it took the first passenger flights to reach Australia.

I even foolishly attempted to explain to her the late Craig Hinton’s theories that Martian civilisation would have seemed somewhat Egyptian, what with the Ice Warriors and Khufu both being under the yoke of the Osirans. She likes Egyptians. She’s even quite tickled by the idea that the pyramids came from space. Just so long as it wasn’t from mid-70s low-budget Doctor Who space.

She’s also not a great fan of monkeys, and points out that they’re always the baddies. See, for example, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pirates of the Caribbean or the apes that kidnap Mowgli. Against this, I can offer… er… Muggle Wump in The Twits and... um… Cheetah off of Tarzan. And Bernice’s friend the lemur.

Can anyone do any better?

More importantly, what a marvellous conjoinment of the Dr’s two horrors is this news of space monkeys.

The title for this post is, of course, the greatest Knock Knock joke ever.

Friday, April 11, 2008

London under London

I’m a bit of a sucker for the tunnels of London. There’s the space-age aluminium and toughened glass all through the Jubilee line extension that I put into The Time Travellers. Compare that with the hand-made feel of the oldest Tube stations, where the tunnels themselves have kinks in them because horses would freak out if they saw the whole corridor in one go. There’s the echo of the Greenwich foot tunnel and the strangeness of London’s ancient rivers – the various prefixes of bourne, Effra or the Fleet – having once been the highways of the boating city and now all packed up in pipes.

There are few enough opportunities to explore these strange places – a few guided tours, sometimes just tracing the route above ground. And so I’m rather envious to read Neil Gaiman’s description of the brickwork in the Victorian sewers, which he got to explore while researching Neverwhere.

Neverwhere was, originally, a BBC TV series. I must admit it’s not one I remember well – neither fully nor fondly – and I don’t even know how much of it I stuck with. As I recall, it had an awkward, stagey and video feel to it, at a time when telly drama was otherwise all coarse-grained and gritty. It’s not just that it was of its time; it was failing to keep up. The theatricality of fantasy seemed retro in the late 80s when the BBC produced their Chronicles of Narnia. That had featured animated (e.g. cartoon) special effects, like your watching pre-viz placeholders.

Which I suppose just shows the amazing affect digital grading and CGI has had on telly. And in some ways I’m glad there was no Droo in the 90s because it could only have looked cheaper and worse.

The book version of Neverwhere is not constrained by the production values, nor by budgets or regular episode lengths. I don’t know how much Gaiman has expanded or revised the plot but it doesn’t feel like a novelisation – there’s too many characters, too much strange incident, too much you couldn’t pull off in telly. Or, perhaps, it’s very faithful to a script that would have been a huge headache to realise.

The basic wheeze is that a bloke called Richard finds himself in an underground London which mirrors and warps our own. There’s a real Earl at Earl’s Court and Hammersmith is a bloke with a hammer and anvil.

Structurally, it’s very like Gaiman’s later – and, I think, better – Stardust. In both, a rubbish bloke is punching above his weight in the girlfriend department, getting all attached to some posh, demanding girl. She has him jump through all kinds of hoops to please her – but really she just doesn’t like him being him.

I can’t imagine why this bit early on struck a chord:

“Richard found himself, on otherwise sensible weekends, accompanying her to places like the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, where he learned that walking around museums too long hurts your feet, that the great art treasures of the world all blur into each other after a while, and that it is almost beyond the human capacity for belief to accept how much museum cafeterias will brazenly charge for a slice of cake and cup of tea.

‘Here’s your tea, and your éclair,’ he told her. ‘It would have cost less to buy you one of those Tintorettos.’

‘Don’t exaggerate,’ said Jessica, cheerfully. ‘Anyway, there aren’t any Tintorettos at the Tate.’"

Then, being a bit naïve and well-meaning, rubbish bloke ends up on the wrong side of the divide between the real world and the fantastic. It’s all magic and dangerous strangeness, and he’s hardly equipped to survive it. But his well-meaning naivety and all sorts of chance events and encounters mean he gets by okay. And everyone’s after this sulky, gothy girl for her her special powers. But our rubbish bloke comes slowly to realise that he just wants her for her.

(Four years ago today, I married the sulky, gothy girl what drags me round museums…)

The book is a mish-mash of warped London history and elegant flights of fancy. It kept reminding me of other things – Christopher Fowler’s Roofworld is in many ways this book on its head, while the visceral feel of the undercity is very Perdido Street Station.

It’s goth and nasty and people abruptly die or disappear, all shackled to strange and terrible rules that don’t quite meet with logic. It’s also brimming with vivid images and smells – curries and sewer-folk, leaking wounds and vomit. I’d be tempted to mention Bakhtinian ideas of “grotesque” body horror, if I could remember those bits of my degree.

(I must also point out to the ladies of fandom that on page 260 there’s a shopping trolley that goes “squee, squee”.)

There’s candles and mirrors like in lots of Gaiman’s work, and some elements like the angel could have been lifted straight from Sandman. Like Stardust, for all the not-as-random-as-it-seems violence and viciousness, the easy-going nature of the protagonist rubbish bloke and his desire for no more than an easy life gives the whole thing a warm and enthusiastic feeling. Very RTD, I thought.

What’s also like new Doctor Who – and still rare in other fantasy telly – is how good it is on roles for black actors. London Below is just as much a cultural melting pot as the London upstairs. I guess that’s down to the TV version being produced by Lenny Henry’s production company, just as Gaiman admitted Anansi Boys came about because Henry bemoaned the lack of black characters in horror movies.

It’s an atmospheric and enjoyable book, but sometimes the narrating voice is too knowing and though there are great set pieces it never quite surprises. Perhaps it’s merely lacking an edge that’s there in Gaiman’s later novels. Perhaps if it hadn’t first been written for telly the reveals could have been wilder. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this very good book had one better just under the surface…

Thursday, April 10, 2008


The editor occassionaly known as Cindy Knees has posted details of his forthcoming anthology, In The Footsteps of Gilgamesh. Due out in April 2009, it’s a collection of science-fiction stories with an Assyrian twist.

And one of them will be by me.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

I do my moves, I do my moves

Drat and double drat. Having cut shapes in the temple of dance Friday night for the benefit of some very special ladies, I now discover my trademark styles are on the internet for everyone to scouse. Or, alternatively, laugh at.


Very special ladies

No thanks at all to Will for spotting these.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

“I like to play with things a while before annihilation”

Regular viewers of the Sci-Fi Channel may have seen my ugly mug recently, maconieing on “The Flash Gordon Story” for Free@Last TV. Did the filming back in January and got to meet Peter Duncan - for almost long enough to say hello and things.

One bit they didn’t use in the final cut was my answer to the question “Isn’t Ming, you know, a bit racist?”

And the thing is, yes he is. He’s a terrible stereotype in the style of Fu Manchu and the opium-guzzling East what crops up in Sherlock Holmes and other Very British and American stories (leaving aside for the moment who it was growing and pushing the opium). But Ming is part of the naïve exoticism of Flash, where every instalment needs to be filled with colour and wild new things at which to gawp. For all Flash is not in Kansas any more, he seeks out and embraces the strange – that’s why we follow his adventures, to see what he’ll meet next. The oriental is just one of a hodge-podge of sources that make unlikely cohabitants in Flash’s stories. “Real”, lab-coated scientists get equal weighting to pointy-hatted wizards, while there’s chatty lion-headed people alongside actual lions…

Which makes Ming and his sultry daughter less the imperialist cliché of contemporary pulp shockers and like other gaudy newspaper strips of the time, such as Rupert the Bear. So Princess Aura is sort of sister to Pong Ping.

ETA: Lordy, this is my 600th post.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Sacred flame, sacred fire

“How many London tour guides, one wonders, will be speaking Mandarin in 2012?”
Jonathan Clements, Beijing – The Biography of a City, pp. 146-7.

Thus speaks my friend Jonathan of the extraordinary transformation being wrought on Beijing in the lead-up to this summer’s Olympic Games. He’s a witty, energetic guide on what’s a break-neck walking guide through merely several millennia. And since this guide at least speaks Mandarin, we’re privy to all kinds of additional insights about what the locals are saying.

It’s not just the massive programme of learning English that concerns Jonathan; he addresses the contraversial building programme that’s demolishing people’s homes in favour of Olympic hotels and facilities. He connects this to how the country has always demolished its past – the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the ebb and flow of different kingdoms and dynasties, built on each other’s ruins. There’s a particularly good story about the fall of the last emperor, and his family’s name being mothballed… But you’ll have to read the book.

It’s an often bloody story, full of tyrants, their spectacular and costly follies and of failed assassins. But Jonathan – as you’d know if you’d employed him – constantly makes bright connections between the most disparate elements. The brutal grand narrative is peppered with wry observance and top fact. Mulan, for example, was actually a Mongol and went home to her parents by camel.

It’s a fascinating if brisk journey, from the cave in which were discovered the teeth of Peking Man to the aftermath of the student protest in Tiananmen Square. And key to that protest was the students’ understanding of compelling, iconographic imagery – their makeshift Goddess of Liberty being dismantled by police; one man and his shopping bag against a tank. Images that lit up the whole world.

And of course today and yesterday Beijing has again been the subject of potent and embarrassing images. The Olympic flame surrounded by concentric rings of burly security in London, and snuffed out in Paris today.
“One wonders who in the Chinese politburo had the clever idea of sending police into Tibet heavy handedly in the first place, because without that most assuredly the protests would have been much smaller. And whoever remembers now that Steven Spielberg resigned from the Beijing Olympics not because of Tibet but because of Darfur.”
Jon Snow, Snowmail, 7 April 2008.

Jonathan says the Chinese hoped to pour luck on the Beijing Games by beginning them at 8 minutes past 8 on the 8th day of the 8th month – 8 being thought a lucky number. And yet, given there are subjects they really don’t want addressed (Tibet, Darfur, HIV, human rights, a free media…), they’ve rather shot themselves in the foot with even their own logo.

“The city has not one but five mascots … a menagerie of Chinese creatures, conceived as ‘collectable’ for all those capitalist visitors whose children should pester them to bring back not one cuddly toy, or action figure,or key chain, but five. … Foreign visitors can collect the entire set as if they are Pokémon or some other consumerist craze, form the ubiquitous panda and the predicatble fish (for water sports) to a politically sensitive Tibetan antelope.”
Clements, pp. 145-6

The protests don’t merely raise attention to Tibet; they mock the heftily corporate image of the Olympics themselves. As well as gazing in amazement as Konnie Huq got mauled on telly last night, the Dr berated the footage of the Athenian ceremony where the Olympic flame first got lit. No, the ancient Athenians wouldn’t have employed any gracefully moving, toga’d women. The birthplace of democracy didn’t include women in the vote until as late as 1952. If you want to be authentic, the Dr explained in all sobriety, you’d want lots of naked, oilly boys.

And yet I think the Olympic Games can serve an important purpose. The 1936 Olympic Games were famously held in Berlin by the relatively new Nazi regime. Goebbels introduced such fun things as the logo of overlapping rings and the chase with the Olympic flame. And there were many protests and demonstrations against what these co-opted Games might stand for.

Yet two things. First, the Nazis had to applaud Jesse Owens winning his gold medals – proving very publically the falseness of their ideas about racial superiority. And also, for fear of offending foreign visitors, the persecution of Jewish people and industry was damped down while the Games were going on. I don’t think even the Nazis knew to what terrible extremes their racial policies would lead over the next decade. And yet even at this relatively early stage, they knew that what they were doing was wrong.

That’s certainly not to say that there shouldn’t be protests; rather that that protests can have very real effects. Sport can expose the contradictions of politics, because it’s at heart about fair play and equal chances. The playing field is a great leveller. The Olympic Games holds that principle sacred, which is why – I would argue – its such a powerful stick with which to beat a host nation.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Exposed at last

Appearing round London from today and in a special exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery are Franklyn Rodgers’ splendid portraits of 30 black British actors. It’s part of the 4 The Record Initiative which seeks to raise the profile of black British talent, celebrating them as positive role models.

The Dr has been the initiative’s Learning Officer for over a year now and it’s all very exciting to see it being real.

She’s not quite as excited as I am about how many of the actors featured have also been in Doctor Who – and not just the new series and Big Finish. Earl Cameron was in nothing less than The Tenth Planet (and Thunderball and an episode of The Prisoner, which makes him pretty damn cool). I helpfully pointed the Dr in the way of DWM’s covers featuring Mickey and Martha, and also Gary Gillatt’s brilliant essay on race in Old Show in Doctor Who From A to Z.

And – hooray! – they get included on page 28 of “Getting a Credit” (PDF 7 MB), “the story of Black British actors on television … aimed at A-Level Media and Theatre Studies students and teachers”.

P.S. I am also quite excited about Doctor Who tomorrow. And Torchwood. And the Doctor and Donna on Jonathan Ross’ show. Woo and eek and squee.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Trause: a snake

My post two years ago on The Brooklyn Follies suggests Paul Auster’s work is all aimiable stuff with little incident but musing and conversation. But I realise that’s not right; there’s a terriific sense of threat in a lot of his work, of contentment living on borrowed and overdue time. And another quality that makes him so addictive: Auster is really weird.

And it’s odd that it’s two years since I last read any of his stuff having been so devoted. But really it’s just ‘cos I’d pretty much read everything, and was saving his latest one. (There’s a new book out in August, and also some more films, too; see Paul Auster news.)

Travels in the Scriptorium has the same eerie feel as The Music of Chance and In The Country of Last Things. There’s the same sort of man caught up in a world of strange rules which hint at terrible violence. There’s the same doubt about whether these rules and repurcussions are real or just in his mind. There’s the same eerie sense that he may be imprisoning himself. It is a mystery story where, to the protagonist, everything is mysterious.

In this case, we don’t even know the guy’s name – he’s just referred to as Mr Blank. He spends the whole of the book in one room, but for trips to the toilet. And his main concern – without ever daring to find out – is whether they’ve locked him in.

“He can't remember how long he has been here or the nature of the circumstances that precipitated his removal to this place. Perhaps he has always been here; perhaps this is where he has lived since the day he was born. What he knows is that his heart is filled with an implacable sense of guilt. At the same time, he can't escape the feeling that he is the victim of a terrible injustice."
Paul Auster, Travels in the Scriptorium, p. 2.

Blank is an old man with a past he can’t quite remember. That might be due to the coloured pills they feed him, or maybe they’re limiting his decline. As the book continues we learn Blank once had great authority, sending people out on gruelling missions. Though this seems to have done them terrible harm, none of them holds it against him. Or do they?

Anna, the pretty nurse who he’s known for at least 20 years, is said to be the only one of his visitors we can trust – but how do we know that for sure? The other visitors – another nurse, a policeman and a lawyer – all offer tantalising glimpses of Blank’s life, without ever explaining who or what he is. And always events are being watched by hidden cameras and a microphone.

Our job as readers is to piece together the tantalising hints. There are, as always in Auster, stories within stories that inform our thinking. In this case, Blank has a manuscript to read, an allohistory of a different Amercian civil war, where people are sent on missions that are not what they seem. The implication seems to be that this is Blank’s own story – he wrote or inspired or informed it. A clue to his identity is the name of the given author, John Trause; another of the anagrams of or playings on Auster’s own name who crop up as writers in his stories.

In counterpoint to the unfixable and unknowable there are arresting, vivid moments. Mr Blank breaks his fingernails as he tries to peel off a label, and there’s a lot of detail about his pissing and erections. This intimacy helps us to share Blank’s own sense of dislocation; we are trapped inside his muddle as he is.

It reminded me quite a bit of the feel of Lost Highway or of a few things by David Cronenberg. You know things aren’t right, that rules are being transgressed, but there’s a dream-like lack of certainty about what.


… for …

… the …

… ending …

… coming …


The ending, I think, suggests that Blank is the author, his missions the stories he’s written and his characters now in charge. There’s a sense of the inmates taking over the asylum, of roles somehow being reversed. It’s a clever-clever po-mo conclusion, and not long ago me and D. were discussing how we’d both written plays about a guy realising he’s in a play ‘cos we’re both so original. But I’m not sure that’s what the book is doing, and it’s the uncertainty that lifts my slight disappointment and keeps me pondering on.

There’s also something chilling about the nature of his confinement; all he and we’ve discovered in this single brief day will be forgotten by tomorrow. I fear how my own characters might set upon their creator. Especially the one I killed so many times.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Plain speaking

There is a theory I am quite drawn to that humans have factory settings. The idea is that Homo sapiens developed and evolved to fit particular circumstances and that we still fit that specific groove. Depending on where you measure from, that means our default mode is the one that corresponds to the Great Rift Valley or an area just north of Johannesburg. We are built to escape from lions.

It’s an idea explored a bit in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy. A bloke called Frank links the things that stimulate him – going for runs, trying out different foods, solving problems and getting himself laid – to the behaviours that would ensure early man prospered.

Running, goes the example, is ingrained in us because back on the savannah you’d chase after your meals and sometimes things would chase after you. A varied diet is a useful thing to like because you’d always be on the move. It helps if you can live off what’s on offer. Problem solving and curiosity leads to experimentation, tool use and becoming the planet’s dominant species. And getting to pass on your genetic sequence is the only way these qualities survive. That we get a thrill from these things explains how we’re not extinct.

It’s a nice idea and one that I’m more drawn to having been to Africa. I understand all the things other people have said about how you feel drawn to it, in your blood. Yes, it’s all very romantic and just the kind of absolutist genes-make-us-do-what-we-do guff that often has me throwing books across the room. But it’s a nice idea. I can see its use in stories. And I’ve already used it in my other work. Because it helps explain what the written word is for.

Words tell us what stuff is doing and where it is. The simplest proper sentence is a thing and what it’s doing – or, to use the technical terminology, a noun and a verb: “Simon writes”. The smallest version of this construction in the English language, and so the smallest proper sentence, is “I am”.

Pretty much everything else – adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions and prepositions – is just qualifying this construction, placing the thing and what it’s doing in the context of other things and actions. It’s all about making sense of where things are.

(We also need something to help flag up when this is especially important information or in need of an urgent response. These are called interjections.)

I’ve heard some people object to this reductionist idea, saying that language is for all other kinds of expression. And yet poetry struggles to find the best and most concise expression, so that it can’t pack the same meaning into fewer words. The best prose can use the richest vocabulary to precisely, vividly position you in a scene – or even the opposite when the author wants you caught up somewhere strange.

Our language is, then, fit for purpose, doing no more than it needed to back in our early days in Africa. A system for explaining where things are is good for hunting, good for teamwork, good for survival. It allows something that most animals cannot do, the sharing of individual solutions. And in its abstraction from the real, it works as a model for testing new ideas.

This can all be achieved simply and easily, the complexity of a sentence never more than it needs to be. So when you’re writing think of early Homo Sapiens, just getting used to being out of the trees. If he doesn’t keep things simple, specific and straight-forward, he’s going to be something’s lunch.

It doesn’t need to be harder than that. Indeed the whole point of Sir Ernest Gower’s “Plain Words” is that is shouldn’t be harder than that. But I don’t think he used “plain” to mean “savannah”.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Starship pensioners

John Perry has had a good innings. He goes to visit his wife’s grave one last time; they had 40 years of pretty good marriage until a sudden stroke killed her. He says goodbye to his son, who is doing well and a mayor. He does a round of seeing people and closing off the threads; apologising, explaining, sleeping-with where he needs to. And then he joins the army.

John Scalzi’s book “Old Man’s War” takes 100 pages for its hero to get off Earth, and another 50 before he’s fighting aliens – by which time we’re halfway through. But essentially this is a novel about Space War, and Scalzi acknowledges his debt to Robert Heinlein and et cetera.

I must admit I’m not a great admirer of the meatheaded antics of buzzcut Starship Troopers, and Scalzi manages to nick all the high-action thrills and violence yuou’d expect while by turns deepening, subverting and generally make good on the generic conventions.

Faced with a uiniverse of unrepetant evil aliens (many of them with fanatical religious motivations) Earth is using anything’s it got to stop its colonies being wiped out or swallowed whole. And one way of doing that is to enlist the old-folk; people who’ve had good lives and lots of varied experience, and are on borrowed time. It’s difficult to say much more without spoiling the many brilliant surprises.

Helpfully, John Perry soon teams up with a retired physics teacher, who can explain or at least speculate about the various physics bits. We get some fun about the space-life “beanstalks” that get recruits off planet Earth, and there’s some clever stuff about the consequences of travelling apparently faster than light. The aliens encountered are all successively different, weird and horrid so the fighting half of the book is backed with mad and thrilling incident.

I especially liked the scale employed; this is a huge conflict against very tricky foes. And at one point Scalzi nicely undercuts the wish-fulfilment wonder of his sci-fi army’s toys and gadgets. The coolness of their weapons isn’t just a write self-abusing; it’s used to further mark the huge scale of the problem.
“‘There has never been a military in the entire history of the human race that has gone to war equipped with more than the least it needs to fight its enemy. War is expensive. It costs money and it costs lives and no civilization has an infinite amount of either. So when you fight, you conserve. You use and equip only as much as you have to, never more.’”

John Scalzi, Old Man’s War, p. 138.

The brutal, epic violence that ensues is also matched with a goofy wit, characters cracking self-effacing jokes and generally not taking things too seriously. As a result, what could have been – and usually is in tales of Space War – bludgeoningly gruff tale of hellavu-tough heroes is more about the troubled lives of ordinary Joes.

It’s great fun and a rip-roaring read, but three things niggle. First, John is continually blessed with guiding angels. He’s the one who just happens to become leader of his gang; he’s the one whose old life just happens to get another officer onside; he’s the one to survive a particular incident, to solve a way of killing a particular baddie, and he’s the one to have a billion-to-one chance encounter that otherwise never, ever happens. The growing implausibility of this plot-convenient luck loosens his hold on being an ordinary Joe. I think it bothers most because it makes him much more like the gracelessly lucky and boasting heroes of generic Space War shlock.

Second is the relentless evil of the monsters. They have no redeeming features whatever – and one man suggesting we might at least try negotiation is very quickly dealt with in gruesome, comic style. Many of the aliens seem driven by fanatical religion which never really aspires much about crude cliché.

The human soldiers seem to have no religion at all. Where they can, they collect the bodies of the fallen but they don’t seem to go in for funerals or memorials – we’re told there are posthumous medals. People are legally dead when they sign up, so marriage effectively doesn’t happen either – as John himself acknowledges. And though there’s a mention of Hindu and Muslim conscripts early on, they are clearly not in the same take-up as John and are never mentioned again. A sergeant major barks that there’s no ethnic minorities in this war, and a computer says there’s counselling for those with ethical concerns. And that’s it; the whole tangled issue of different beliefs is conveniently brushed aside.

There are already sequels which are now added to the list of things I must somehow get to; a queue of books now snaking away beyond the haze of the horizon. Books Two are too often a diminishing return, so I don’t feel a great urgency to see what happens next. But this first instalment is a rip-roaring read and will be loved (to nick a line from Jonathan Ross) by teenage boys of any age or sex.