Monday, September 27, 2010

The fictional facts of June

A chum has asked how I came up with June, the one-off companion in Doctor Who and the Slitheen Excursion. Figured it might be of interest to a wider audience.

26 March 2008

Big cheese Justin Richards asks if I’d write a Slitheen novel. “It'd be set in the past on earth (probably – I'm open to offers!), c50,000 words, Doctor with no companion.”

27 March

I reply with the usual serious, stoic professionalism:

“Ha ha, yes I'd love to. I'd quite like to do something based around the Acropolis in Athens - going back to Ancient Greece but also somehow incorporating the night in 1687 when the Turks blew the place up.

According to Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man", the Greeks what built the Acropolis were at about the same level of sophistication as the Mayans were when the Spanish turned up and wiped them out (they hadn't discovered the load-bearing abilities of arches, for example).

When you say no companion, can I create a one-book one? Maybe a girl from the near future (when the Elgin marbles have been given back to the Athenians)?

Also, woohoo!”

We knock some ideas back and forth, first thinking that the book might start with June visiting the British Museum, then (because that's how The Stone Rose begins) with June on a school trip.

I set to work on a first synopsis, which begins:

“June is 17 and not very confident about her forthcoming A-levels. She’s on a college trip to the Palace of Westminster (not, she has learnt that morning, the “Houses of Parliament”) when she spots the Doctor. He must be important because he doesn’t have a security pass – not even the pastel-coloured stickers that they give to the tourists – and yet the policemen with machine guns let him go where he likes.

June dares to follow him and saves his life when a monster jumps out on him. The Doctor stops the monster by talking nonsense. It feeds on nonsense and illogic – so the Palace is like a restaurant. The Doctor owes June a favour and she asks if he can help with her essay. She’s got to write about the history of democracy.”

She’s called June after my mother-in-law, who has loyally read all my stuff and who likes David Tennant.

Justin has notes on the story itself, and as I work on these over the next week two things occur about June. First, it would help for her to know a bit about Ancient Greece. If I tell the story from her perspective, she can explain the context as we go, rather than relying on lots of exposition from the Doctor. I make her a bit older and a university student, so she’s a bit more of an expert. In fact, I’ll put her on the degree course that my wife and some of our friends did. Then I can pick their brains.

Second, the Doctor’s met all his New Series companions in London so far, so let’s do something different. I could set my prologue in a museum in Manchester (there’s a cast of the Parthenon frieze above the main staircase of Manchester Art Gallery), or I could just cut to the chase…

5 April

Version 2 of the synopsis now begins:

“The Acropolis in Athens, present day. June is 20 and on holiday before her final year at university, where she’s studying Classics. She’s taking notes, ignoring the other, brasher tourists, and trying to work out how she can get this all into her dissertation.

And then she spots the TARDIS materialising down on the road to the theatre. A skinny man emerges… and is promptly set upon by some monsters. No one else notices so June hurries down to investigate.”

16 April

Justin is happy with the synopsis, and just needs a shorter, two-page version for sending to Cardiff for approval.

23 April

Cardiff approves the outline – I’ve now got until 1 October to get the thing written. And a Primeval novel to write at the same time.

I’ve been making notes and reading up on the history. Ken Dowden’s The Uses of Greek Mythology has got me thinking how the events of this story will be retold after the Doctor has gone, so I’m reading Louise Schofield’s The Myceneans looking for stuff I can provide an origin for: bull-leaping, the worship of bulls generally, Deukalion, an image on p.104 of a warrior woman (possibly Athena) in a boars’ tusk helmet and holding a baby griffin...

And I’ve an idea how to tie June into that. One bit of scribble in my notebook reads:

“June's dad is more English than the English, though he was born in Uganda + had to leave when Amin expelled the Indians. These identities are complex. And, of course, the statue of June (i.e. Athena) at the Acropolis has her as a white girl.”

19 May

I visit the set of Primeval as research for that book. Get to meet Laila Rouass who's playing new regular character Dr Sarah Page – an archaeologist working in the British Museum. It looks like the new series of Primeval will air in February 2009, a good two months before my Slitheen book comes out. So if I stick to my plans for June it'll look like I'm copying. Or, since I'm writing both books at the same time, there's more chance I'll get confused.

It’s not that I’m planning to #racefail and make her someone else. It’s more how I’ll portray her. I’m telling my story from June’s perspective anyway, so let’s see her character from her thoughts and actions and not what she looks like.

Think now I could have done that by giving her a surname that suggested her heritage, as we tried to do with Emily Chaudhry. (Though note plenty of companions don’t have surnames: Vicki, Polly, Leela, Adric, Nyssa and Ace.) I shall leave that to the fanfic.

8 June

June is visiting Athens with some other backpackers, ones who don't share her enthusiasm. Extract from my notebook:

“Unreliable history; Chinese whispers etc. & at start June cross cause has read her friend's diary, and it paints June as na├»ve + wowed by it all. And bored, just wants pizza and beer. And June sees the tourists, only stopping to take photos, not LOOKING, THINKING, IMAGINING”

5 July

I watch Journey's End and the Doctor’s left travelling on his own and all gloomy. It makes more sense for June to be travelling on her own, too, escaping stuff back at home.

10 September

I’m still trying to seed clues about June’s heritage into the book, but they all feel clunky and awkward. From the first draft of chapter one:

“'You're not from round here, are you?'

June's eyes narrowed. 'I'm English,' she told him.

'Oh yes,' said the Doctor. 'From somewhere round Winchester if I'm not mist judging by the accent. But you've spent some time recently in Birmingham + you like the Aussie soaps.'”

Instead, I decide I’m not going to tell you what she looks like at all. We know what sort of person she is from the things she thinks, says and does. We know what drives her – there’s plenty of stuff about what Greece means to her and why she’s out here alone. We see how her perspectives are changed by being with the Doctor. But otherwise the wheeze is she’s an everywoman, looking however the reader wants. In fact, I’m hoping she might even be the reader.

I take solace in this when the angrier end of the internet declares she’s “dull” or “generic”. (Though my favourite comment so far is from someone who’s cross I’ve got “basic fictional facts wrong”.)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Pornography in hospitals

"Pornography in Hosptials" by Ben Goldacre in today's Guardian. The Dr encouraged me to respond:
"Fascinating article, thank you. We finished our final course of IVF earlier this year with no good result and are now looking into adoption. We found the whole process of IVF utterly harrowing: I blogged about it at http://0tralala.blogspot.com/2010/02/ivf.html and then again at http://0tralala.blogspot.com/2010/04/game-over.html.

We were caught between three health authorities so I've used the wanking rooms in four different hospitals in the last few years.

They all provide instructions. For the initial tests into infertility, you're meant to abstain from sex for three days prior to producing a specimen. When it gets to the IVF itself the instructions are more complex – you have to ejaculate as near to 48 hours before as possible, and then on the day itself, once the eggs have been prepared, everyone's just down the corridor waiting on you. So no pressure.

But otherwise the hospitals do very different things. Hospital #1 had a photocopied sheet (which I kept because I thought no one would believe me) that explains things like, “The specimen must be obtained by masturbation...”. It also says, in bold, “NB There are no facilities for the specimen to be produced at [Hospital #1]” and that specimens must be delivered within 45 minutes.

This is something of a bother if you live 45 minutes away from the hospital by car, and worse if you don't have a car. At exactly what stage in the process do you ring for the taxi – before or after?

The taxi driver will inevitably arrive earlier than you're expecting, and then – as you sit red-faced and guilty in the cab – will not know where the hospital is. So you get out the photocopied sheet for the address, and realise as you show it to him that it says in big letters “Semen samples for infertility investigation”.

There is not a lot of dignity in this process.

I've sadly not been able to find the photocopied sheet from Hospital #2, but I'm pretty sure I kept it because it said something along the lines of, “Please do not produce specimens in the waiting room.” I assume they need to tell us this based on past experience.

At Hospital #3 there's a special toilet cubicle with its own key and a small offering of tatty pornography. You collect the key from the nice lady at reception, who provides you with a pot and a brown envelope. You produce your specimen, fill in the label on the jar and hide the jar in the envelope. You then take it back to reception, but don't hand it to the receptionist. Instead, you put it in one of the lockers opposite, lock the door and hand the key to the locker and the key to the wanking room to the receptionist. That way, of course, she won't know what you've just done.

If someone else is waiting for the room, you don't hand the key to them. Instead, you pass it to the receptionist who leaves a beat before handing it the next wanker. You shuffle off, trying not to make eye contact.

Worse is when the next person is already waiting before you go in. You find yourself wondering if you've been to quick or slow. Is there a study on the optimum time spent having a wank?

Because of building work at Hospital #3, our last go at IVF was split between there and at Hospital #4, with me dashing across town in a taxi to deliver freshly harvested bits of my wife. Hospital #4 is an altogether different operation, with a very smart room for a better class of wank. There's a light outside the door to let other people know its occupied, a DVD player as well as the magazines, and a comfy leather chair. Well, I say “comfy” - it would be in any other circumstance. You try not to wonder if the seat is warm from the last occupant, and not to make the chair squeak.

Instead of a locker system, you put your labelled jar into a pneumatic tube. It's like a wank from the future.

The porn was still just as cheap and tatty as that in Hospital #3 – which I'm sure will come as some comfort to taxpayers and think-tanks. And it's a stressy, pressured thing to have to do anyway, and so spectacularly unerotic. As a bloke, this is your one contribution to a process that is, for your partner, awful and intrusive and bruising - physically and mentally. You spend most of your time as a useless spare part, while the person you love goes through hell.

You get used to the matter-of-fact and brutal language with which your plumbing and parts are discussed. You get used to the numbers these tests produce, and the stark probabilities of success. You and your partner are utterly objectified, cuts of meat on the slab.

I appreciate the objections to porn, and in the context a workplace. But as my blog post says, there's a lot of weird reactions to IVF, and the way some people judge you for it – or seem to – is particularly cruel.

IVF is a desperate and terrible thing to go through. I'd have stabbed myself in the eye if the doctors had said it increased the chances of success. £20 a year on some tatty jazz mags doesn't seem very excessive."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Forthcoming events

Suddenly I'm quite busy. A freelance gig is now going to run pretty much full-time til Christmas, and I've a number of commitments to fit in around it. This is truly a GOOD THING, but don't expect much action here on t'blog.

Here are two things I'm up to:

Astrobiology at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich
Thursday 14 October, 18:30-21:00
The range of talks, screenings and activities include "Good monster/bad monster – scientists and writers discuss what makes a believable alien lifeform. With Simon Guerrier and Dr Zita Martins." (Part of Sci-Fi London)

Sci-fi Egypt at Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
Saturday 23 October, 19:00-21:00
Time travel back to Ancient Egypt to see monsters and aliens pitted against the Egyptian Gods. From the Daleks, who visited the building of the Pyramids, to the Stargates which reach across space and time, the history of Egypt has been a rich source for science-fiction. Grab a free trail, written by Doctor Who books author Simon Guerrier, on Egypt's use in sci-fi and explore the Petrie Museum with a glass of wine! (Part of the Bloomsbury Festival)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

"There are more wild horses in Australia than any other country."

YouTube now boasts two clips from Rode Trip, the documentary made by my brother/boss following two people riding across Australia on horses they tamed themselves. (I was script editor on the film and did a day's interviewing for it.)



Wednesday, September 08, 2010

"Where they burn books..."

Was going to write something about book-burning, then remembered I already had:
"We pass through Bebelplatz, the square where the Nazis burnt 25,000 books.

The well-read Dr quotes Heine’s remark that,
“where they burn books they will also, in the end, burn people,”
and wonders whether the burning of the Satanic Verses all those years ago was the first symptom of more recent religious tensions. I start to answer that burning books is easier than burning people, but that’s not actually true.

The destruction of books is the destruction of social structure. The law is in books, as is religion and science and history. To burn a book is a refusal to empathise, to think, to engage. When you have burned down people’s ideas and opinions there is nothing left to stop you burning the people down, too.

Bebelplatz is an empty, open space amid the university, and though there are a couple of artworks about books in general, I think there should be something more lasting. They should have something like the stalls of mixed second-hand reading outside the National Film Theatre, with all kinds of well-thumbed, unsuitable ideas at tantalisingly affordable prices."

Monday, September 06, 2010

Monument to certainty

The Monument, London
This is the Monument, built between 1671 and 1677 to commemorate the Great Fire of London.


Climb the 311 steps to the viewing platform – as I did on Tuesday – and as well as the nice views you get a certificate. But the Monument is more than just a memorial to the fire. It was built by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke – members of the Royal Society.

Robert Hooke
This is Hooke in a modern painting by Rita Greer. He deduced the wave theory of light and the law of elasticity – which is named after him. He was a pioneer of surveying and map-making. He wasn't a little guy in science. But it was to Hooke that Isaac Newton wrote his famous remark, “If I have seen further [than others] it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

It's a back-handed compliment: Hooke had come close to deducing – before Newton – that gravity follows an inverse square law and that this explains the movement of the planets. Newton developed Hooke's ideas but – Hooke felt – didn't credit him sufficiently. So perhaps Newton's remark is rubbing Hooke's nose in it: the “giant” Newton was standing on had a stoop and may have been a hunchback.

The remark though, is often seen as a testament to scientific endeavour – scientists and mathematicians building on the work of their peers and predecessors. That's why it's engraved on £2 coins (though perhaps that's not the best example of engineering prowess - the coin also shows a a series of cogs in a circle, but there's an odd number so the machinery would not be able to turn as it would pull against itself). As Jacob Bronowski said in The Ascent of Man,
“Year by year, we devise more precise instruments with which to observe nature with more fineness.”
Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man (1973), p. 356.

The Flea, seen by Robert Hooke
This is Hooke's drawing of a flea from Micrographia, published in 1665. It was the Royal Society's first major book – and the first scientific bestseller.

Micrographia isn't just about looking at tiny things through a microscope. It includes drawings of distant objects, such as the Moon and the star cluster Pleiades (see below). Large and small, these observations changed our view of the universe and our place in it. Theories on gravity needed more and better data about the stars – that meant better telescopes.

In principle, the mathematics of improving a telescope are simple. A lens defracts the light so when you look through it things seem bigger. Look through two lenses at once and they're bigger still. The easiest way to do that is to place a lens at either end of a tube. Increase the distance between the two lenses and you increase the magnification. So to really study the stars, Hooke needed a really long tube...

The Monument, London
The Monument was built as a zenith telescope – one that looks straight up. By looking at a fixed star, Hooke hoped to gain evidence that the Earth moved round the Sun. Maths provided the theory: now Hooke would prove it for certain.

Looking down from the top
The spiral staircase inside means there's a clear view all the way up to the top of the Monument, where a trapdoor would open to reveal the sky. To make the telescope even longer, Hooke worked down in the small cellar – you can see it through the grill in the floor as you begin your climb.

Sadly, though, the telescope didn't work. The vibration from London's traffic meant the readings were never accurate enough. The mathematics of lenses is simple, but the reality is more complicated.

Equal-height steps at the Monument, London
The Monument was used for other experiments. The steps were designed to be used in pressure studies, and are all exactly six inches high.

Hooke continued to study the stars. He worked on the design of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, the first purpose-built research facility in the country. And the more we've discovered since Hooke about space and the position of the stars, the more we come back to the problems that vexed him.

Me at Jodrell Bank
This is me at the 76-metre Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank. It's the third-largest steerable radio telescope in the world. But, like the Monument, size isn't everything. Just beside it is a 38-metre Mark II dish which turned out to be much more accurate and better at listening to higher frequencies.

The moon and Pleiades, seen by Robert Hooke
There's also the accuracy of the observations we make. “Astronomical instruments have been improved,” says Jacob Bronowski.
“We look at the position of a star as it was determined then and now, and it seems to us that we are closer and closer to finding it precisely.

Spot the star
“But when we actually compare our individual observations today, we are astonished and chagrined to find them as scattered within themselves as ever. We had hoped that the human errors would disappear ... but it turns out that the errors cannot be taken out of the observations. And that is true of stars, of atoms, or just ... hearing the report of somebody's speech.”

Ibid., p. 358.


Bronowski called this,
“the crucial paradox of knowledge ... we seem to be running after a goal which lurches away from us to infinity.”

Ibid., p. 356.

Since Newton, we tend to assume that the laws of nature are regular, simple and mathematical, and that any deviation from that regularity in our measurements is likely to be our own error. Mathematics can help clarify our observations.
“When an observer looks at a star, he knows there is a multitude of causes for error. So he takes several readings, and he hopes, naturally, that the best estimate of the star's position is the average – the centre of the scatter.”

Ibid., p. 358.


The mean average of a star
Johann Gauss (1777 to 1855), sometimes known as the “Prince of Mathematicians”,
“pushed on to ask what the scatter of the errors tells us. He devised the Gaussian curve in which the scatter is summarised by the deviation, the spread, of the curve. And from this came a far-reaching idea: the scatter marks an area of uncertainty.

An area of uncertainty
We are not sure that the true position is the centre. All we can say is that it lies in the area of uncertainty, and that the area is calculable from the observed scatter of the individual observations.”

Ibid.


Looking up at the spiral staircase in the Monument, London
The folly of the Monument is not that it didn't work as a telescope but that Hooke, looking up through it from his cellar, was looking for certainty, for proof of the mathematical theory. It's not that maths or physics are uncertain, but measurement is. Bronowski described measurement as "personal". Maths doesn't prove with certainty, but it can show the extent of what we don't know.

(Thanks to Simon Belcher, Danny Kodicek and Marek Kukula who looked this over, and Marcus du Sautoy who pointed out the cogs on £2 coins.)

Friday, September 03, 2010

Books finished, August 2010

Oh, no books
Ah. Have been a bit busy on other things - research and job hunting and a new on-spec novel which is currently called "The Dream". But am almost at the end of two books now, so September might be bumper crop.

In other news, the cast for my mini-series Graceless has been announced, and I really couldn't be happier.