Monday, January 31, 2011

MAD... literally MAD...

Out in all good DVD shops now is the 1971 Doctor Who story The Mutants, which features another documentary by me and the brother. Here is a clip because you are good:

It's also been announced that I've written another adventure for the Second Doctor Who, The Memory Cheats, starring Wendy Padbury as Doctor Who's friend Zoe.

And I've written an episode of the new series of Dark Shadows, based on the spooky US TV show. My story, The Creeping Fog, is out in June.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

William Herschel's telescope

Space school today was on identifying constellations, and I've drawn spidery diagrams of such things as Boote, Canis Major and the the big and little bears.

Since I was at the Royal Observatory, I also took advantage of the sunshine to snap some pics of William Herschel's 40-foot telescope, which I mentioned in my recent post on the origins of the Big Bang theory.

William Herschel's 40-foot telescope, Greenwich
William Herschel's 40-foot telescope, GreenwichThe caption in front of the telescope says:
"This is the remaining section of a 40-foot (12m) reflecting telescope, built for the astronomer William Herschel, who became famous for his discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781.

The telescope was the largest in the world and cost over £4000, paid for by King George III. Completed in 1789 and erected at Herschel's home near Slough, about 30 miles (45km) west of Greenwich, it soon became a tourist attraction. Some people likened it to the Colossus of Rhodes, and it was even marked on the 1830 Ordnance Survey map of the area.

Sadly, the Herschels did not use the great telescope for much serious astronomy since it was difficult to set up and maintain. William's son had it dismantled in 1840. Most of the tube was destroyed when a tree fell on it 30 years later.

You can find out more about William Herschel's work in the Weller Astronomy Galleries in the Astronomy Centre on this site."
NB you might want to do that before 8 March 2011, while it's still free.

Last year, I also posted about another telescope in London, the Monument.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Do not read this book

Another old review for Vortex, this one from January 2010.

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, by Jesse Bullington

Hegel and Manfried Grossbart cross 14th Century Europe robbing and killing and generally pissing off anything that comes in their way. In the first few pages they butcher the wife and family of a yeoman turnip-grower called Heinrich in front of him. Heinrich's friends – and Heinrich himself – are soon in pursuit, so Hegel and Manfried think they'll head for Egypt, which has tombs they can plunder.

That's just the start of Hegel and Manfried's problems. There are monsters and witches around every corner and the plague is tearing through whole towns. Every few pages there seems to be someone to stab or maim or steal from.

I'm not really the audience for this book; I'm bored by gory horror movies and gangster memoirs about who they killed and how much they loved their mums. But there's really not a lot to like about this book. The two leads are vicious, mean and stupid, with little interest in the things they encounter on their journey.

This is a problem, since its chiefly through their eyes that we see the world. In the 100-page sequence set in Venice, there are a couple of mentions of bridges but little else to describe one of the most distinctive cities in the world. There are occasional glimpses of the setting – the Pope is Avignon, the Venetians have sacked Constantinople – but there's little interaction or insight. The bibliography cites more than four pages of books which helped in “realistically rendering the historical world”, but the Grossbarts don't care to learn anything from their adventure and remain unchanged by all that befalls them. They're in this for the violence.

It's not just the two leads – there's not a sympathetic soul in the whole story. Everyone is greedy, vain and stupid. Perhaps it's an accurate portrait of a nasty, brutish age, but it makes for a wearisome read. It's a very violent book, peppered with long descriptions of things being gouged and broken. There's a lot of vomit, too, and the one sex scene (p. 63) is a lesson in grotesque, over-written misogyny:
“Withered breasts swaying pendulously, her tongue flicked over her few teeth and severed their drool-bond. He shrivelled even as he came inside her cold clamminess, screaming in terror at the realization he had been bewitched and wrenching away from her headfirst into the tipped table. He blacked out and vomited simultaneously, her cruel laughter following him into nightmares that stood no chance of besting his first sexual encounter.”
The witch – and manticore, mermaid and demons – allow ever more disgusting abuses of people's bodies, though the constant bludgeoning has only a dulling effect on the reader. The prose style doesn't help, every clause crammed with adjectives. On page 283, a section jumps between different characters in different rooms without any hint to the reader what and who is where.

There are some well-realised, exciting moments – as when they burn house down round a demon – and some attempt at humour as the Grossbarts discuss religious doctrine. But I struggled to care about the brothers or their story. The book ends with them hoist by their own petard, trapped inside the tomb they've come so far to rob. I spoil this for you now so you won't waste your time on the worst book I've read in years.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Big Bang theory

"Your maths is correct, but your physics is abominable," said Albert Einstein (in French) of a 1927 paper by a Catholic priest.

Abbe Georges Lemaitre, from a small university in Belgium, had published 'A homogeneous universe of constant mass and growing radius accounting for the radial velocity of extragalactic nebulae' in the Annales de la Societe Scientifique de Bruxelles. Lemaitre - who had previously worked with Arthur Eddington at Cambridge and then Harlow Shapley at Cambridge, Massachussets - proposed the idea of an expanding universe. At the time, Einstein and physicists generally believed in a "finite, closed and static" universe, a "cosmological constant" - despite the fact that his own theory of relativity suggested otherwise.

But Lemaitre,
"derived the relation for an expanding universe to be between the speed of a galaxy receding from an observer and its distance from the observer. Lemaitre also provided the first observational estimate of the slope of the speed-distance curve that later became known as Hubble's law when the American astronomer Edwin Hubble reported his initial observations on galaxies in 1929. These two important properties of the universe were proposed two years before the measurements that would begin a new era in astrophysical cosmology."
When Hubble published his observations, Lemaitre sent his own paper to Eddington and Einstein quickly confirmed that his theory "fits well into the general theory of relativity". There were still lots of questions to be asked about what drove the expansion, and several notable physicists were still skeptical (the "Big Bang" was initially a term of contempt for the idea), but Lemaitre has been called "the father of the Big Bang".

And yet, the idea had been proposed 150 years previously. Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove's Trillion Year Spree refers to a footnote in Erasmus Darwin's 1791 verse discussion, The Economy of Vegetation.

The footnote explains Darwin's response to William Herschel's own "sublime and curious" ideas about the construction of the heavens. Herschel had discovered 1,000s of star clusters (and the planet Uranus) with his telescope. (You can see Herschel's 40-foot telescope at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and visit his house in Bath.)

According to Darwin, Herschel had observed that there were proportionately fewer stars around the clusters, and concluded that infinite space had first been evenly sprinkled with stars but that, through gravity, they had "coagulated" together. Herschel also observed that the stars were moving round some central axis (that is, that the Milky Galaxy is slowly turning), and concluded that they must "have emerged or been projected from the material, where they were produced."
"It may be objected, that if the stars have been projected from a Chaos by explosions, that they must have returned again into it from the known laws of gravitation; this however, would not happen, if the whole of Chaos, like grains of gunpowder, was exploded at the same time, and dispersed through infinite space at once, or in quick succession, in every possible direction."
Erasmus Darwin, footnote to Canto I, line 105 of The Economy of Vegetation (1791)
I didn't know much about Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) until reading Trillion Year Spree, whose authors - taking their lead from Desmond King-Hele's The Essential Writings of Erasmus Darwin (1968) - devote three and a half pages to him. Hele, they say "lists seventy-five subjects in which he was a pioneer".
"Many inventions stand to Erasmus Darwin's credit, such as new types of carriages and coal carts, a speaking machine, a mechanical ferry, rotary pumps, and horizontal windmills. He also seems to have invented - or at least proposed - a rocket motor powered by hydrogen and oxygen. His rough sketch shows the two gases stored in separate compartments and fed into a cylindrical combustion chamber with exit nozzle at one end - a good approximation of the workings of a modern rocket, and formulated long before the ideas of the Russian rocket pioneer Tsiolkovsky were set to paper."
Brian Aldiss with David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree, p. 35.
Darwin's long poems with their awkward rhymes might often seem "daft" to us now (though Aldiss and Wingrove cite some of his deft lines), and his reputation was damaged by parodies in his own time.
"Parodies of his verse in George Canning's Anti-Jacobin, entitled The Loves of the Triangles, mocked Darwin's ideas, laughing at his bold imaginative strokes. That electricity could ever have widespread practical application, that mankind could have evolved from lowly life forms, that the hills could be older than the Bible claimed - those were the sorts of madnesses which set readers of the Anti-Jacobin tittering. Canning recognized the subversive element in Darwin's thought and effectively brought low his reputation."
Ibid., p. 36.
He was also eclipsed by his grandson Charles, though Erasmus's Zoonomia, published in two volumes in 1794 and 96,
"explains the systems of sexual selection, with emphasis on promiscuity, the search for food, and the need for protection in living things, and how these factors, interweaving with natural habitats, control the diversity of life in all its changing forms."
Ibid., p. 36.
Erasmus acknowledged that these "evolutionary processes need time as well as space" and "emphasizes the the great age of the Earth", contradicting the "then-accepted view" of Bishop Ussher's that the Earth was created in 4004 BC. (Aldiss and Wingrove admit that "the Scot, James Hutton, had declared in 1785, thrillingly, that the geological record revealed 'no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end'.")

Aldiss and Wingrove call Erasmus Darwin "as a part-time science-fiction writer", though I think they rather overplay the case for his,
"prophesysing with remarkable accuracy many features of modern life - gigantic skyscraper cities, piper water, the age of the automobile, overpopulation, and fleets of nuclear submarines".
Ibid., p. 37.
But perhaps Darwin has a part to play in sci-fi. The authors nominate Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as the first work of science-fiction, a book that Shelley herself claimed to be the result of a nightmare in 1816, following,
"late night conversations with Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori, Byron's Doctor. Their talk was of vampires and the supernatural. Polidori supplied the company with some suitable reading material; Byron and Shelley also discussed Darwin, his thought and experiments. At Byron's suggestion, the four of them set about writing a ghost story apiece."
Ibid., p. 53.
I find this all fascinating and have been meaning to write it all up for months. Note to self to investigate Darwin further. I also see you can visit Erasmus Darwin's House in Staffordshire.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Old reviews: Johannes Cabal - the Necromancer

Here's a book review of Johannes Cabal - the Necromancer by Jonathan L Howard, which I wrote for Vector in the summer of 2009 and never got round to posting here:

Johannes Cabal has made a deal with the devil. He's already sold his soul; the deal is to win it back. Cabal has one year to claim 100 other souls, and Satan's even going to throw in the means with which to claim them. Soon Cabal is in charge of a travelling carnival, with something to tempt every punter.

But Cabal has obstacles in his way: rival villains and wizards, concerned local residents and his own vampiric brother. And he can only use his dark powers sparingly; they're linked to a ball of black blood down in Hell that shrinks every time he performs a spell.

There's all the makings of a rich and lively adventure here, but sadly it never quite works. The ball of black blood, for example, is forgotten as soon as it's introduced. Rather than curbing Cabal's efforts, he seems to do just what he likes.

Nor the year's deadline feel much of a ticking clock. Cabal sets up his carnival, claims his first victims and makes excuses for a few more. The middle chapters are unconnected episodes: Cabal getting caught in a hell dimension, or the carnival as seen by a small boy. Then, without much sense of time passing, or how the carnival and its staff have developed, we skip to the end and a race for the last two victims. There's no sense of time passing, of the seasons changing, of the strain Cabal is under. In fact, while he may get a bit cross when inconvenienced, there's little sense that events really affect him.

Cabal's brother, Horst, acts as his conscience. The vampire struggling to go without blood is not a hugely original idea. There's no new spin on the character here. Horst chides Cabal and helps save a few worthy souls, but is powerless to sway his brother. The later stages of the book would have worked better had Horst had more influence, or suggested Cabal is more conflicted than he lets on.

As it is, we don't feel any great pressure on Cabal. And to be honest, until the last couple of pages we're given little reason to root for him, either. He's pompous, arched and sarcastic without ever quite straying into wit. That in itself is a major problem for what's meant to be a darkly comic novel. It simply isn't all that funny, dramatic or original.

The denouement hangs on whether Cabal will claim the souls of two poor, innocent women to meet his deadline. But with almost no indication of his having any scruples, this hardly works as a crisis of character.

And yet the last two pages reveal why Cabal sold his soul in the first place, and why to reclaim it again he's gone to such effort and given up so much. There's the first hint of a much more complex, conflicted and interesting character there. One who may well support a continuing series.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Spent a long weekend in Thessaloniki (also known as Salonica) in northern Greece with the Dr and my parents. Traipsed through a fair few museums and old churches and ate a lot of nice food.

I managed the first 200 pages of Mark Mazower's Salonica, which is brilliantly rich and well researched but a bit heavy for holiday reading. He charts the complex, multi-ethnic history of the city under Ottoman rule, comparing the different customs, manners and superstitions:
"Holy water helped Christians, Bulgarians were fond of salt; others used the heads of small, salted fish mixed in water, while everyone believed in the power of spitting in the face of a pretty child."
Mark Mazower, Salonica - City of Ghosts, p. 85.
He also speaks of the power of pentagrams to Muslims, "for keeping babies in good health", and on the next page,
"Against the fear of infertility, ill health, envy or bad luck, the barriers between faiths quickly crumbled."
Ibid., p. 86.
The Dr's chief interest was the classical history. The Archaeological Museum has a new digitisation project, Macedonia: From Fragment to Pixels, and we had fun spotting Gods in an interactive wordsearch and making information pop up on maps. We were also wowed by the Myrtis exhibition, where different scientific methods help bring back to life a small girl who died in the 5th century BC.

Sadly, a lot of the main museum was closed while we were there, but what we did mooch round was beautifully displayed and interpreted. The Dr especially liked seeing a Roman-period dining table recreated 'live' from a contemporary illustration and using real artefacts.

The Museum of Byzantine Culture was free and quick to look round, with some nicely displayed bits of fresco. We tried several attempts to get into the open-air Roman forum, but always managed to find it closed so took pictures from the edges.

Roman forum in Thessaloniki
On our second full day, the Dr expertly guided us out by bus to the bus station (always well out of town in Greek cities), and thence onto a bus to Vergina and the tumulus tomb where Alexander the Great buried his dad, Phillip II. It took a bit of wandering through the drizzle to find, and then it didn't look much - a bit of grassy hillock.

Tumulus of Phillip II in Verghina
Tumulus of Phillip II
But inside was something else entirely: the most amazing museum of all the spectacular riches discovered in the tombs, right next to the tomb doorways in situ. The low-light only enhanced the splendor of the gold, but it was the simple, practical and perfectly preserved cups and pots that impressed - it was hard to believe they were 250 let alone 2,500 years old.

The haul included organic relics - so rare in archaeology of this age. There was a purple cloth with gold thread design, carvings in wood and ivory.

The tomb doorway showed a rare example of ancient Greek fresco painting, showing a hunting scene. On the tops of the doors were still vivid, bright highlights of orange and blue - again, a small detail that makes this ancient, strange civilisation so tangible.

If there was one slight off note, it was the insistence of some of the labels to explain that the finds showed that this ancient civilisation was characteristially Greek - a political claim as much to do with Macedonia's recent history as the past. The god-king buried here in such finery would have sat uncomfortably with the hellenic Spartans and Athenians - who so famously managed without monarchy. It was telling, not showing, forcing an opinion rather than letting us interpret the facts.

But otherwise, it was an extraordinary place and we dawdled round at the end, not really wanting to leave. (It was also all a bit The Daemons - an iconic image of Alexander even showed him with horns.)

The next day we tried Pella, Phillip's capital city and the birthplace of Alexander. This time, our bus efforts were less successful. First we ended up in Giannitsa because our bus driver forgot to drop us off in the right place, despite the Dr asking him specifically beforehand and his nodding as she pointed at the word 'Pella' on our ticket. In Giannitsa he only shook his head - we should have called out to stop the bus when we wanted to get off, what with our psychic knowledge of Macedonia having not visited before, and ignoring the fact that (as we discovered on the bus back again) that he'd not taken the Pella road in the first place.

And we'd been watching very carefully, too - because all along the route there were impressive tumulus tombs in the otherwise flat plains of farmland, all of them cool and alluring, and none of them labelled in big letters so you could identify them from the road.

The bus back deposited us in the pouring rain at a lowly bus stop with a big sign declaring 'Pella' and a map of where things might be.

Map of PellaThis solitary map was some way out of town, so we schlepped up through the lashing rain away from it and wandered round and round the town, stopping to take photos of our sodden holiday at the ankles of a big statue of Alexander.

Enjoying our holiday in Pella
At last, we discovered the new Archaeological Museums of Pella on the outskirts. A large sign outside explained the vast sum spent by the EU on the impressive new building - so new its website is still under construction, though the place has been open since 2009. It seemed a lot of money for a place that had made it so hard to get to, and the small, narrow car park didn't exactly suggest it sees much traffic from cars and coaches. There were more staff than visitors, who followed us round like wardens, telling us we were allowed to take photos without a flash, and then telling us off if we did so.

Again, the actual artefacts were very impressive - some huge and well-preserved mosaics with lots of willy on show, all sorts of domestic and funerary bits and pieces that gave a glimpse of real people's lives. Photographs showed us just how far the archaeological site extended - the outline of a vast city still there because, after it was destroyed in an earthquake, the locals rebuilt their town further along the hill.

Again, the labels insisted that the dialects in the writing and the artistic styles linked these objects entirely and unquestionably to hellenic traditions, so that (the implication was ladled on) 2,500 years later Macedonia can't be anything other than Greek. I think you could probably make the same case for anywhere else Alexander conquered - Egypt, Iran or India.

There was no shop to buy books or postcards, and we could not visit any part of the huge archaeological site - which the old museum had been right in the heart of. It all felt a bit cold and unwelcoming for such a new and expensive place. We tramped back to the bus stop and sulked until a bus came.

Though it sometimes lacked in presentation, don't get me wrong: the sites and artefacts are amazing and it was mostly a great joy to plod about looking at stuff. The churches were all very welcoming, and often contained beautiful frescos. I felt a bit awkward being welcomed inside to look round during the middle of a service. Even when things were quiet, you feel a bit intrusive stood there gawping while devout local people slink to kiss the icons.

There were fun bits of Mediterranea, too, the little differences that remind you you're abroad. D gleefully ignored the no smoking signs in restaurants (one old chap in one restuarant at least made an effort to hide his fag below the edge of the table). The crossword and puzzle books on sale at all the kiosks had bikinied lovelies on their covers - what with that correlation between glamour* and wordsearches.

(* - that is, soft porn but with clothes on.)

The Greek alphabet also kept me childishly amused:

& Toot! - and with a cone of meat. And this logo for telecommunications was everywhere:

But the chief highlight was seeing the Dr relax, grinning round the museums and churches, not thinking about all the stressy house-buying stuff and, er, throwing herself into some shameless cat-adultery...

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Units of licenced merchandise

Those fine fellows at BBC Worldwide / 2|entertain have put a whole load of Doctor Who clips up on YouTube, including a snippet of a documentary what me and the brother done made.

Meglos is out on DVD this month with this documentary and another one by us on it. And we've got stuff on The Mutants and The Ark, too, which are released in coming weeks.

Also, Big Finish now have a cover and trailer up for The Perpetual Bond,out next month - a new adventure for the First Doctor and starring Peter Purves and Tom Allen. I've also got a short story on the second volume of Short Trips: 'Letting Go' features the Eighth Doctor and is read by India Fisher.

My Primeval book is now out in paperback, too.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Books finished, December 2010

Books finished, December 2010I enthused about volume one of Running Through Corridors by my chums Robert Shearman and Toby Hadoke the other day.

One thing I didn’t mention is that, like a lot of small-press publications it’s got a fair few typos. That’s less a criticism as an acknowledgment that my own work has been blessed with some extremely accomplished editors. Developments in publishing in recent decades mean that books are produced by an every smaller team of people. That has a whole load of benefits to the industry, but it also means they are checked by ever fewer eyes. Good subs are therefore worth more than ever.

Good sub questions like ‘Who is this aimed at?’ kept bothering me as I read through my next two books. Richard P Feynman's Six Easy Pieces is not quite what it says on the cover. The word “easy” suggests it might be entry-level stuff, physics for the plebs. But even with all my recent reading and study, a lot of it went over my head. It's certainly not as layman-friendly as Feynman's Fun to Imagine series at the BBC Archive, which was what prompted me to pick up the book.

It’s taken from a longer collection of lectures on physics, which Feynman delivered back in the early 1960s. And the thing that sticks in my mind is that these lectures weren’t exactly a roaring success:
"Through the distant veil of memory, many students and faculty attending the lectures have said that having two years of physics with Feynman was the experience of a lifetime. But that's not how it seemed at the time. Many of the students dreaded the class, and as the course wore on, attendance by the registered students started dropping alarmingly. But at the same time, more and more faculty and graduate students started attending. The room stayed full, and Feynman may never have known he was losing some of his intended audience. But even in Feynman's view his pedagogical endeavor did not succeed. He wrote in the 1963 preface to the Lectures: 'I don't think I did very well by the students' ... Even when he thought he was explaining things lucidly to freshman or sophomores, it was not really they who were able to benefit most from what he was doing. It was his peers - scientists, physicists, and professors - who would be the main beneficiaries..."
David L Goodstein and Gerry Neugbauer, 'Special Preface (from Lectures on Physics) in Richard P Feynman, Six Easy Pieces, pp. xx-xxi.
Despite failing his intended audience, Goodstein and Neugauer speak of Feynman's "magnificent achievement" and continue in the very next sentence that,
"Feynman was more than a great teacher..."
He might have been all very clever, but this jobbing freelancer muttered at that last statement.

JP McEvoy’s A Brief History of the Universe (in the same series as Jonathan Clement's book on the Vikings) is a more pleb-friendly volume, taking us through the discoveries and developments in science since ancient times.

The history of discovery is a good way for explaining science to lay people as it makes it about people and drama. Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man does the same thing very effectively.

And yet McEvoy’s book is very oddly ordered. He’ll use technical terms such as the ecliptic several times before explaining what they mean, and discusses both Kepler and Newton’s three laws in some depth before listing what they are. A good few times, a late explanation had me flipping back a few pages to read a whole section again.

At first I thought this was down to the author not knowing quite what level of knowledge to assume from the reader. But there’s also a lot of odd repetition through the book. On page 228, McEvoy tells us that,
"Hubble changed our view of the universe more than any astronomer since Galileo",
and a page later makes the same point:
"[Hubble] changed man's view of the universe as much as Copernicus and Galileo".
The Whirlpool Galaxy is another example: it’s first mentioned on page 150:
"Rosse was the first to see the spiral structure of what was later known as the Whirlpool Galaxy."
A paragraph later:
"[Messier's Catalogue of Nubulae and Star Clusters] was useful to Rosse who listed several of the nebulae on Messier's list, including M51, also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy."
Two pages later, there's a mention of the,
"famous Whirlpool Galaxy (classified by Messier as M51), one of the most conspicuous, and best known spiral galaxies in the sky. M51 was of one Charles Messier's original discoveries in 1773 and was sketched by Lord Rosse in 1845."
It's not merely the three mentions in as many pages that's so clumsy, but that the detail is in the last one: we could have just had that to begin with. (A later reference on page 237 wisely reminds us of Messier and his classification system when referring to the M51.)

This sort of thing shouldn’t matter but it's distracting. It's also indicative of a tendency to jump back and forth through the subject which can make it difficult to follow. That’s a shame because the subject is thrilling and McEvoy’s prose style usually simple and vivid.

And then on to made-up science. Brian W Aldiss and David Wingrove’s Trillion Year Spree, is a comprehensive history of science fiction published in the mid 1980s (and a follow-up to an earlier volume). The authors argue that sf is a sub-genre of the gothic and began with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. They trace the highs and lows of the form through the next nearly two centuries, mostly focusing on US and UK work.

As a leading figure in sf himself, Aldiss is able to provide plenty of insights and gossip. Opinions of authors are often as much about what they were like in person as analyses of their work. There are a few fun jokes and bits of wordplay – one author is described as “more syndicated than sinning” – and quite a lot of bad ones.

There's an odd habit of paragraphs that only last one sentence.

But there’s not a great deal of depth, I felt. Rather the authors provide an annotated reading list of the “good stuff”. It’s telling, then, that Doctor Who gets one mention in passing while Star Trek's television series gets 6 entries and its four movies separately. A modern history of sf – especially one with such a British focus – wouldn’t do that now. And last year, Aldiss made his Doctor Who writing debut with a short story for the Brilliant Book. There’s a small schoolboy part of me that still can’t quite believe how much things have transformed.

There are other signs of the period in which this was written – such as that Iain Banks will be writing an explicitly sf novel next – but my main impression on reading titbits of the many authors’ lives is how little had changed. As Aldiss and Wingrove say themselves,
"It's evident, then as now, that the authors most eager to write for the quick buck are the ones most easily exploited by publishers."
Brian W Aldiss and David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree, p. 168.
And, so perfectly put, the “rules of labour” in writing splendid hokum remain entirely unchanged:
"Write fast, do the unexpected, deliver on time, collect the cheque."
Ibid., p. 468.
For the record, that’s 48 books finished in 12 months, which is not too shabby (December - 4; November - 4; October - 4; September - 7; August - 0; July - 4; June - 4; May - 5; April - 4; March - 5; February - 3; January - 4). Not going to do these monthly things any more - they're too much of a bother. But have some more blogging 'bout books to come. Oh, aren't you fortunate?

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Books finished, November 2010

Books finished, November 2010Catching up on the books of 2010. Goldfinger deserves a post of it's own sometime - and I certainly made loads of notes. But blimey, it's an odd book, with a interminably dull golf match that stretches over chapters being followed by an equally dull drive to Switzerland. So many of the iconic moments from the film - such as the girl killed by being painted gold - are reported rather than seen, and even for a Bond book there's a lot of casual racism.

Some of that is the time in which it was written - Fleming also need to explain to the reader what karate is, and the term "'hit' - mobese for murder" (p. 186). But that will only go so far. Bond's thoughts on a girl who's not interested in him, and on where gayness might come from, are quite a surprise:
"Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterson was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and 'sex equality'. As a direct result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits - barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them."

Ian Fleming, Goldfinger, p. 189.

Of course, later Bond will convert the lesbian Pussy Galore so that she throws off a life of crime and ladies to help Bond stop the villains and get into his bed. We learn that Pussy is only a lesbian because she was abused by her uncle, and that all this time she's been waiting for a real man.

That this man turns out to be Bond is not merely reactionary fantasy but also a massive cheat in the plot. Pussy has only met Bond once - and briefly - before she switches sides. That's during a meeting between Goldfinger and America's fiercest hoodlums, where Bond is being Goldfinger's secretary. He doesn't say anything, let alone do anything to attract her attention. The 'real man' she falls for is the quiet one doing shorthand in a room full of toughs. Really not good enough, 007.

GCSE Astronomy - A Guide for Pupils and Teachers (1999) relates to an older version of the syllabus than the one I'm doing, but outlines the main topics and homework projects which is all very useful.

The Cosmos - A Beginnner's Guide is also me swotting up for class. Accompanying the TV series, it's an enthusiastic trawl through some of the big ideas and newer theories, with a particular pleasure in big machinery and diagrams.

Her Fearful Symmetry
is sort of The Graveyard Book as told by Richard Curtis. The male hero is an embarrassed, slightly rubbish Hugh Grant type who falls under the spell of an American girl. He lives alone in a large flat in an expensive part of London without having to work, and is doing a PhD without apparently having to see a supervisor or, you know, actually do a lot of work or anything.

In fact, most of the characters idle along, going to museums and strange bits of London not in their lunch hours and stolen moments of the day but because they're filling time. There's none of the urgency, the effort, to earn enough for the costly capital city, and little of the noise and richness and mixture.

Highgate is just a stone's throw from Archway but is apparently an oasis of old-skool Englishness where no one is Black or gay. Everyone speaks English apart from two eccentric linguists - we get some wry stuff about the differences between American English and the local vernacular, but that's about it.

The volunteers running the cemetery are all sweet and understanding old dears - there's none of the petty jealousies, intrigues and empire-building that bother any place of work, especially one run by enthusiasts. As a result, it's an idyll of London which never quite rings true.

At one point, the book seems to notice this:
"Julia began to play a game that entailed travelling on the tube and randomly popping out at stations with interesting names: Tooting Broadway, Ruislip Gardens, Pudding Mill Lane. Usually the above-ground reality disappointed her. The names on the tube map evoked a Mother Goose cityscape, cosy and diminutive. The actual places tended to be grim: takeaway chicken shops, off-licences and Ladbrokes crowded out whimsy."

Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry, p. 255.

But this may all be intentional, as the veil of unreality about the world matches the strange and sad and beautiful ghost story. It reminded me chiefly of the death of Simon Callow's character in Four Weddings - with the same awkwardness of feelings amongst a group of decent but unfulfilled people, the same peculiar peccadilloes and the knowledge that there can't be a happy ending, only one that's bittersweet.

It's an odd book, and haunting, but not quite as brilliant as The Time Traveller's Wife.