Thursday, December 27, 2007

Pop and loot

Hello again. I've had a lovely few days off, gorging on food and pals and telly. Dr Who + Kylie + Bernard Cribbens = WIN. I think I might have popped at least once, and the Dr wept as if it were the end of Return of the Jedi. How splendid to see that Cribbens will be back later in 2008.

Did very well in terms of loot; lots of books and socks. My laser screwdriver (thanks to Codename and Mrs Moose) however, doesn't seem to work right. No matter how much I try, I can't get it to make all the Dr's clothes fall off.

Being taken to see Spamalot now as part of my festive haul. The Dr's on a deadline so hogging the computer, but I've just had time to check my emails and have word from Simon K that The Pirate Loop is at #166 in's bestseller list. Cor blimey. I have taken a picture because no one will believe me.


P.S. It's in all good bookshops now, and has healing properties.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

First review of Pirate Loop

Stuart Ian Burns seems to be the first person I don't actually know to have read Doctor Who and the Pirate Loop, which he's reviewed for Behind the Sofa. My "bizarre fantasty" suffers from "an over-familiarity of ideas", while "the characters too, with the exception of a well interpreted Doctor and Martha, are all fairly irritating". Ho hum.

He's critical of the characterisation, and says "the author takes great pleasure in reproducing" the badger pirates' West Country accents. Which is odd, because the book specifically says that they don't have accents like that.

"Despite all of that it’s not an unenjoyable read and sometimes quite ingenious," he concludes, which I guess is good. He's pleased with my structuring and foreshadowing, and my Martha is made of win. But hell, I'm gonna quote the last bit of his review, because it seems whatever my failings, so am I:
"But you know what in the end makes this worth reading? A single paragraph of introspection in which our hero ruminates on what would need to be done were he really to lose his companion. It’s perhaps the most powerful bits of writing about the lonely god since the bottom end of The Family of Blood."

Stuart Ian Burns, Yeah, well, you know I once saw Mika live in Denmark...", Behind the Sofa, 21 December 2007.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Fuat Deniz RIP

Just heard that Fuat Deniz was murdered last week.

I last saw Fuat just over two years ago, when I was over in Sweden. I can see him vividly now, laughing, teasing his brother-in-law, passing me a beer. There he is, around him his wife and young daughter and family...

He'd talked to me and the Dr about his research into the Assyrian genocide in the Ottoman Empire during World War One. (It's this that forms the backdrop of the forthcoming Neil Gaiman movie, The Road to En-Dor.) As Fuat said, the Turkish authorities still won't acknowledge the genocide even happened. Nor has it been officially recognised as happening by any other country.

Fuat's research was not only into the fates of Christian minorities in Turkey, but also their experiences as exiles and refugess elsewhere. He was a passionate, clever man with flashes of sudden humour. His murder seems to have been for political motives, and his murderer remains at large.

As his brother-in-law says:

"This is of course a major tragedy for the family, the Assyrian community and for everyone who believes in democracy and freedom of speech.

Tomorrow (19th December) at 18:00 (GMT+1) there will be demonstrations in eight Swedish cities in response to this tragedy. If you are near or can get to Orebro, Stockholm, Norrkoping, Linkoping, Uppsala, Lund, Jonkoping or Gothenburg, then please make your way there and show your support for the cause."

Details here (in Swedish).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Knowledge or certainty?

It was reading Prime Witness that finally prompted me to make an effort with the Ascent of Man. It’s the third of BBC 2’s decades-old, prestigious, full-colour documentaries, following on from Civilisation (a history of western art) and America. And it endeavours to be something quite unlikely: a history of science without all the boring bits.

This is not an easy proposition. Civilisation and America had both involved pointing the camera at pretty objects and landmarks. The Ascent of Man DVD has a single special feature, in which then-Controller of BBC 2 David Attenborough explains that these were easy ways for the Beeb to flog colour telly. You just had to get some respectable presenter to put the glossy shots in order.

Yet science is less about pretty objects and more about ideas and theory. It is not, as Attenborough admitted, ideally suited to moving pictures as distributed by cathode ray. To solve this knotty conundrum, they commissioned the polymath Jacob Bronowski.

His answer was to cover not just what we think of “science” – laboratory experiments in biology, chemistry and physics – but the broader development of thought, art and articulation. As he says late on in the series, “science” is just another word for “knowledge”. This, then, is the history of how we’ve sussed stuff out.

His examples span art and science, poetry and performance and music. There’s stuff about the way churches were built – physically and politically. And he’s good at adding in funny stories and anecdotes about great scientists he has himself known. At one point he says that “all science is analogy” (– which I wished I’d heard when I wrote The Pirate Loop).

To begin, he asks a deceptively simple question: what makes mankind different from other animals. Bronowski’s contention, in the pre-credit tease of episode one, is that while we have discovered the remains of other species, only humanity leaves behind it the remains of things it has made. We do not merely best fit the circumstances of the world around us, we adapt and shape the landscape, use tools to bend it to our will.

The current reckoning is that about 250,000 years ago, the development of skull and brain in Homo erectus enabled the kind of abstract thought needed to shape and use stone tools. The scion of erectus who most embraced the fashionable new Stone Age were a new species, Homo sapiens – that’s us.

As Bronowski argues, for the great majority of our existence as a species, we’ve been wandering about willy-nilly, foraging after undomesticated animals. Bronowski himself visited the Bakhtiari in Iran, to show how the hand-to-mouth existence following and living off the herd means that there’s little space for innovation or thought outside the box.

Some 10,000 years ago or so, people began to put down roots. Bronowski visits the ruin of Jericho to show how the development of common wheat, fresh-running water and such modern technology as walls completely changed human perspective of what could be done with any day. Rather than disputing the Old Testament, as we might expect from a champion of science, he uses the accounts given in the handed-down stories to add credence to his archaeological proof. The harvest, he argues, meant busy times working in the fields and fighting off those who would steal the resulting bounty, but it also left man free to think and talk and try stuff.

It takes two whole episodes to reach this point, establishing the conditions for history and science as we come to know them. A mere 4,000 or so years after man settles down (i.e. 6,000-ish years ago), he invents two things that will again change life quite utterly – bronze and writing.

It’s the breadth of Bronowski’s knowledge and insight that makes this such a compelling series. He links up all kinds of different ideas in ways that are often surprising. For example, we watch a katana being forged in the traditional method, the metal slow-fired and folded, then fired and folded again. Bronowski shows how this method makes a sword that’s both durable and sharp; as if (his analogy) mixing the desired properties of rubber and of glass. This, he explains, was the both cognitive and alchemical leap that – prior to iron and a bit of carbon making steel – mixed tin and copper as bronze and so got mankind out of the stone age.

It’s no coincidence that this is also the dawn of recorded history – and I’ve heard before the idea that Bishop Ussher’s calculation gives not the date the world was made, but a good approximation of when humans first began to record it. 23 October, 4004 BCE is a rough guess of when pre-history gave way to people keeping records and diaries. The written word enables man to pass on his learning to subsequent generations, so they need not waste time puzzling it out for themselves. In so doing it creates the potential for scientists to climb on to each other’s shoulders.

Once man is mixing alloys and writing, the series comes into its own. Each of the subsequent episodes explores a particular scientific construction – Newton’s mathematics, for example, or heredity and evolution. As part of Attenborough’s brief to provide colourful, arresting images, Bronowski travels the whole world, weaving together all kinds of cultures and stories into his over-all thesis. The images are indelible: a baby being born; a small child taking its first steps; nomadic peoples living the same existence that was humanity’s lot 10,000 years ago.

The music and poetry of the periods in discussion are mixed with wild-eyed modern stuff by Pink Floyd and Dudley Simpson. (I tried to describe Deadly Dudley to the Dr – as an Australian Sir Didymus off of Labyrinth.) Droo fans will also enjoy Brian Hodgson’s trippy sound effects. Surely that’s not the noise that molecules make but some kind of Cyberman gun. The state-of-the-art computer graphics would have been better realised by Kevin Davies and sheets of acetate.

As the series goes on, it becomes evident that Bronowski has an ethical agenda, a morality of science. One episode deals with how the church secretly acknowledged but publicly suppressed Galileo’s observed proofs of Copernicus. The theme returns again and again: Mendel’s studies of heredity being burned by his monastic order, the Nazis burning whole demographic groups.

It’s the best argument I’ve heard to counter the old line that Nazism and the holocaust is what happens when you give free reign to scientists and atheists.
"[It] was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”

Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, p. 374.

In the broadcast (rather than book) version, he speaks of “despotic belief”, and does so as he steps into the ponds at Auschwitz where members of his own family were butchered. It’s utterly compelling television, more so as the summation of that episode’s whole thesis, that we can never know anything entirely.

That episode, “11. Knowledge or certainty”, is particularly brilliant in explaining the limits of our perception and so of our knowledge. It begins with a blind women feeling the face of an elderly fellow, and telling us what she thinks of him. We then see an artist’s various scribbly impressions of the same man, broad brushstrokes exploring his features.

Bronowski uses this model to explain the limits of our eye sight – “visible” light is only a tiny section of the range of wavelengths. So we run through images of the same man through radio waves, infra red, visible light, ultra violet and x-ray, each filter offering new information and perspective. The last shows us what our eye-sight did not – that’s he’s missing most of his teeth. Yet we still don’t know who or what this elderly man really is.

Bronowski explores gaps in knowledge, and how scientists fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s so they’d be able to keep on asking questions. He speaks of the necessary integrity of science, of people striving for truth that dares confront ideology. The principle of uncertainty established by those fleeing German scientists does not mean that we know nothing, but that we know to build in allowances. The analogy Bronowksi uses is from engineering; a threshold of tolerance.

Scientific thought and discovery thrives where there is tolerance of new ideas and a respect for that integrity. It is not science but dogma when awkward questions are persona non grata. It made me think of Agent Zigzag, and the bureaucracy of the Nazi secret service, where no one could admit to the failings in the system so nothing could be done to fix them.

The episode finishes not, as in the book, with Bronowski putting his hands into the water where the ash of thousands of dead people lie. Rather we return to the old man we’d seen at the beginning. We have seen him through all the wavelengths of light and by touch and extrapolation. But we start to know him, to gain insight into who he might be, when the picture fades to one taken much earlier. When a younger version of him stares forlornly, wan and undernourished, in the striped uniform of the same concentration camp.

It is the sudden spark of cognition, of understanding, that makes it so moving. That episode - not just that scene - is one of the most intelligent and powerful things I've ever seen on telly.

The final episode, filmed mostly in Bronowski’s Californian home, ties up the many disparate threads into a thesis about our future. He talks of teaching in schools and the dangers of ignoring scientific discovery – of downplaying evolution, of not facing uncomfortable truths. Bronowski himself speaks of the end of Western civilisation 50 years from when he’s speaking – or, of the curriculum babies born now will be studying at A-level. The Ascent of Man might continue elsewhere, he says, but the Western – or, more accurately, the English-speaking – claim on it will be a footnote in another culture’s history. By not facing history and not exploring the present, we write ourselves out of the future.

I wonder what he’d make of now. And would a series like this be possible today? Matthew Collings’ recent update of Civilisation only ran for four episodes, which the Dr says is indicative of modern telly’s impatience. I think it may also be that a lot of what he’s addressing and showing onscreen is more readily available to us; a sizeable number of those watching Civilisation back in 1969 would not have seen much of the stuff on it before.

I think there’s a market for a new history of science, one that does not ignore the controversies where evidence meets belief. One that perhaps takes its cue from Bill Bryson’s tolerant and plain English Brief History of Everything (which I see’s been re-released in a lavish and illustrated version, proving again that these difficult theories and ideas can be visualised).

One that asks the simple questions behind all science of tolerance and integrity… Why is it like that? Oh really? It’s an interesting idea, but can you prove it?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Wakey wakey

The Big Finish website has been updated with the final cover for my final Benny play, The Wake.

Bernice Summerfield - The Wake

It may well be my favourite of all Ade Salmon's lovely work, and I'm a little bittersweet that I'm not his boss for any more. The play itself is now out next month, and is fast being completed by top noise monkey Matthew Cochrane, who springs hot from his work on exciting new Big Finish classic serial Phantom of the Opera.

Yes, that's right, I said "Big Finish classic serial"; how exciting is that? And it's available to purchase by DOWNLOAD! By jove, we live in interesting times.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

All friends betrayed

To the NFT last night for their annual Missing Believed Wiped night, a hotch potch collection of roughly snipped snippets of dodgy old telly, none of them known to exist just 12 months ago. It’s only a very recent idea that telly should be kept and if not cherished at least out on DVD. For decades it was as ephemeral as live theatre, repeats fleeting and rare.

I’ve been to these kinds of evenings before, and love my Lost in Time DVD. The tantalising glimpses of missing episodes of Doctor Who – scenes cut by foreign censors, frames captured on super-8, trailers and alternate takes – are probably far more exciting than the complete programmes ever were.

There was, sadly, no Droo in the haul this year, so last night was more about rather common TV. There were comedy sketches from pre-Python Pythons and pre-The Two Ronnies two Ronnies. There was some terrifically bad acting from Cliff Richard as a cat burglar in a 1968 drama, A Matter of Diamonds. We gaped at Lonny Donegan ‘dancing’ on a 1970 episode of It’s Lulu, in the manner of an electrocuted eel. Yes, I was taking tips. The same episode featured two enthralling live performances from Aretha Franklin.

Rupert the Bear took a trip in a flying hat, an episode introduced by its director, Mary Turner (late of directing the Thunderbirds). It was one of a whole bag of episodes she’d had gathering dust in her greenhouse. We sat in rapt silence watching nth generation video (from regular 8 filming) of the BBC’s coverage of the moon landings. The footage of Neil Armstrong strolling about was a grainy blur and we’ve all seen it in better quality. What thrilled us was the BBC’s simulations of rockets, the captions that used the same typefaces as in Doctor Who, the voice of Patrick Moore in the gaps between the astronauts and mission control…

Not entirely unrelatedly, there was then the whole pilot episode from 1956 of Douglas Fairbanks Junior presenting Bulldog Drummond. London’s most famous daring-do fascist was played by Robert Beatty (he of Tenth Planet and 2001).

The Other Man on the cover of TV Times
Yet the highlight was the extant 81 minutes of ITV’s 1964 drama, The Other Man. Where else could you see Michael Caine, John Thaw and John Noakes – yes, him from Blue Peter! – all in the same scene? We got the first 45 minutes and then a skip to the end.

It’s a striking Hitler Wins story by Giles Cooper, directed with great verve by Gordon Flemyng (him of the two Dalek movies and Quatermass’s dad). It’s surprising how much it strives to overcome the limits of telly of the time. There’s a huge cast, plenty of quick scenes across a whole range of locations, and a hell of a lot of stuff filmed on location. Yes, the same paltry backdrop of mountains is meant to show both India and Bavaria, but it’s the range of ambition of the script as well as the direction that convinces us of huge scale. This is bold and clever writing, enthralling and full of moral complexity.

George Grant (Caine) is a British officer at the end of the Second World War. That is, in 1941, after Churchill has been assassinated. The British slowly come to terms with the Nazis, and we follow the uncomfortable compromises as the two armies and societies link up. Grant is not keen to join the Germans, yet his constant attention to the good of the regiment means making some tough and nasty choices…

There’s an early conflict about whether its appropriate to toast the führer at the same time as toasting the king. The script artfully underplays the real dilemma for the Nazis in the scene, that the British soldier who’ll be making the toast is Jewish.

Grant and his brother officers fail – or decline – to notice the singling out their Jewish colleagues, who are all sent off to ‘promotion’ in Dover. Dennis Chinnery is brilliant as David Lewin, meekly following orders to his doom. Suddenly a whole section of the regiment has gone, we think never to be seen again. And then Grant’s coming back from a jolly honeymoon in Paris and dares to look out of the window… Lewin is one of the beaten, wraith-like creatures working on the line.

It’s moments like this that leave us waiting for the worm to turn. Caine’s charm and screen presence mean we’re constantly surprised and appalled by Grant’s compliance in the new regime.

There’s a sizeable chunk missing from the middle of the piece, which seems to include Grant having to denounce and execute his best man (Thaw). As a result, he’s increasingly estranged from his own countrymen and his wife (Sian Phillips), who succumbs to booze. (The fantastic cast also includes Carol Cleveland, Kenneth Colley, George Layton, Vladek Sheybal and Brian Cant – although he’s in a bit that’s still missing.)

Yet no matter how much Grant gives his Nazi masters, it is never quite enough. In the last section, when he’s about to meet Hitler in reward for all his hard graft, Grant is interrogated by a Gestapo officer (a terrifying depiction of banal evil from David Graham) who seem to need him to incriminate anybody else. The Jews have been dealt with, so they’re now looking for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, the Irish… Anyone will do.

With yet another of his friends betrayed, Grant finally starts to crack. He numbly lets himself be led to the officers-only brothel, and confesses his doubts and regrets to a whore who’s got a microphone. Grant’s subsequent suicide attempt is interrupted by enemy attack, his confession lost when he orders bombing of his own base camp.

The mangled hand protruding from the wreckage could have been the end. Grant then takes the only option left to him, the same one as his wife’s first (Jewish) husband, who shot himself rather than be sent to Dover.

But The Other Man then has Grant wake up in hospital a whole year later, alive thanks to brilliant Nazi advances in medicine. They’re keen to reconcile him with his wife and send the couple back to England as exemplars of the new regime. But Mrs Grant does not recognise her husband, and it emerges he’s really not the man he was.

Six men have died to provide Grant with his replacement limbs and eye, the Ukrainian prisoners he can see from his hospital window racially pure while remaining inferior. All along, Grant has stayed just inside the ever closing circle of Nazi privilege, and doing so by sacrificing those around him. Even at the end he is unmoved when the doctor tells him that, his wife having rejected him, it will be more convenient if he’s widowed.

The assimilation has come in small steps, each betrayal and revelation more appalling than the last. But the script also dares suggest there’s little else that Grant can do – anyone else who cracks jokes, expresses doubt, even takes part in acts of petty disobedience is swiftly, harshly dealt with.

This is not, then, the story of a man left with no way of fighting back, as it would have been had it ended on his death. Rather, like 1984, we watch the regime batter the individual to monstrous conformity.

As with Philip K Dick's Hugo award-winning Hitler Wins novel, The Man in the High Castle, the final section flashes to some new reality where things have played out differently again. The Other Man ends with Caine in ‘our’ world (we only see it briefly but it seems to be ours). He’s still a hero, still called upon to lecture and inspire the next generation of soldiers. The real horror of The Other Man is not how divorced from our world Grant becomes, but how close we still could come.
“In its inexorable action, its unempathic exactitude of human observation, and its fearsome demonstration of how men are changed by what they choose to do, this is far more than a superior piece of Grand Guignol. And although the specific evil it attacks is as dead as St George’s dragon it asks questions about the value of professional duty and personal ambition which are still too close for comfort.”

The Times, 12 September 1964 (quoted from BFI screening notes).

Friday, December 14, 2007

Dane law and order

The third law of thermodynamics can crudely be put as follows:
Things fuck up. The more one tries to unfuck them, the more they get fucked up.
This principle has been demonstrated in art as well as science. In all kinds of worthy books and stories, Fortune’s fools are dashed against the rocks of outrageous circumstance. In these epic tragedies, it’s as if the whole of creation has contrived to label them with a sign saying “kick me”.

Sometimes this misery just seems to come from nowhere – the short story “The Cold Equations” sees a pretty girl killed by unforgiving mathematics, while the old poem Beowulf has a monster mash a kingdom for no reason.

By authorial conceit, we often learn of some tragic flaw on the part of a character which then caused the sky to fall. That’s true, for example, of the film version of Beowulf, and also of another Danish epic, the novel Kongens Fald.

Johannes V Jensen (1873-1950) has been called “Denmark’s Kipling” and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1944. In 1999, Kongens Fald (1900-01) was independently named best Danish novel of the 20th century by two separate Danish newspapers. Though, er, until Jonathan Clements made me a present of a 1995 translation by Alan Bower, I had never heard of him.

It’s divided into three sections. Mikkel Thøgersen starts out in 1497, a not very studious student, dropping out of college to grow himself a beard. He ambles round the town, joins a rowdy bunch for beers but is not with them when they later take apart a carriage and reassemble it on a roof.

Mikkel’s not really sure what to do with his life, but he does want it to involve pretty Jewish girl Susanna Speyer A few other townsfolk have noticed she’s pretty, and there’s often rude graffiti daubed outside her house. Mikkel is neither so presumptuous or so bold as to approach her, so he bides his time…

When an old acquaintance forces himself Susanna, Mikkel swears revenge – and forces himself on the bloke’s meek fiancée. Well, it’s only fair…

There’s some rather anti-Semitic stuff about Jewish gold and curses, yet the injustices meted out to Susanna and her father provoke sympathy in the reader. It is rather brutish Christian hypocrisy that sets the tone of the proceedings. Jensen was apparently “a reckless polemicist and his often dubious racial theories have damaged his reputation” (says Wikipedia), but his treatment of these Jewish characters is complex and equivocal.

The second section picks up some 23 years later, when the spawn of these rapacious acts get it on together. Susanna’s son Axel never new his mum but has been bequeathed some Jewish treasure. Unfortunately, his own sexual exploits lose him his inheritance and get him in further hot water when Mikkel catches him up.

In the meantime, King Christian has also been busy. We’re witness to the “Stockholm Bloodbath”, in which the king trumped up charges against nobles who’d betrayed him, and then had everyone wait indoors while these nobles lost their heads. The viciousness of this act, the brute force and lack of mercy, are deftly juxtaposed with Axel and Mikkel’s base treatment of the ladies.

It’s the never-ending, unforgiving war, where whole families are struck down, that’s so reminiscent of Beowulf. Likewise, there’s an uneasy mix of old pagan gods beneath the surface of Christian virtue.

The “tragic flaw” of these people is then greed, their appetites for sex and power and gold. For all its vividly imagined digressions and haunting magical asides (Mikkel’s bastard daughter is made pregnant by Axel’s ghost), the book seems mostly about the terrible effect of our actions in grim reality, that we reap only what we sow. It’s bound, then, in what mark individuals can make on history, and what damage we unthinkingly do.

Part three sees an elderly Mikkel now assistant to the king, who has fallen on hard times and is living as a prisoner. Christian is depicted, says Wikipedia, with “characteristically Danish hesitancy and failures to act”. Mikkel, too, is a rather aimless wanderer, weeping when he kills a man but otherwise refusing to take responsibility for his actions and mistakes. His refusal to reconcile with one estranged family member in the final chapters is especially galling, the more when we’ve been witness to the great trek and effort the other party had gone to just to find him.

Mikkel’s story interweaves with the real historical events; sometimes affected by them, sometimes having an affect. In some ways, that’s rather like Vorenus and Pullo in the BBC/HBO Rome – the ordinary lives caught up in history giving insight into what those events mean. But the way Mikkel’s life shambles along, people being struck down by war and disease and poor luck all around him, also ties in with a later discussion about the discoveries of Copernicus.

King Christian has a crisis of faith at the thought that Earth revolves round the Sun – is he too not at the centre of things but the one doing all the orbiting. There’s a sense that all the people and the hard graft of their lives are caught up in the gravity well of things they barely comprehend. And if even the king is at the mercy of the elements, what hope for everyone else?
“The last little cluster of peasants defended themselves frantically, screaming madly. They cried through clenched teeth, but the sword was upon them. Iron and lead ripped through their lambskin coats and into their trembling bodies, while maces crushed their hands, cut through their fur hoods, and smashed their heads. No mercy was shown, and they were wiped out to the last man.

If King Christian had killed all the noblemen in Stockholm instead of only a score, then there wouldn’t have been so many to give vent to their irascibility later. The story of the [Stockholm] bloodbath has passed down through the centuries, but Johan Ranzau pulverized two thousand men at Aalbog and few have bemoaned the event. There the peasants were crushed so thoroughly that not even the story of the misdeed could be handed down. After that conflict an oppressive stillness fell over Jutland.

Not many came home to Graabølle. Niels Thørgersen fell at Aalbog. His eldest son had already died at Svenstrup. Mikkel sought out his brother’s body outside Aalbog and covered his face with earth. Neils had fallen as an honorable man, his back crushed by a cannon ball.”

Johannes V Jensen (trans. Alan Bower), The Fall of the King, pp. 218-9.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Space-pirate badger #1

In the run-up to The Pirate Loop being available in all good bookshops, I shall be posting some space-pirate badgers.

First off, here's my rubbish sketch for a possible book cover, from 18 March 2007. The terrible handwriting says, "Savage, eye-patched badger in neckerchief + battered space suit. Focal gold loop through ear." And also, "THE PIRATE LOOP by SIMON".

Space-pirate badger #1

Excitingly, this was then made a real cover by the cleverness incarnate that is Lee. I shall be posting that sometime soon...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"U" for "misms"

Inspired by the devil's dictionary, here are 10 defintions of business buzzwords. Readers are invited to do better.

Noun. Style - do not use. Change can be for the better or worse. For change for the better, use "improvement". Otherwise use "meddling".

Noun. Cheaper, inferior services forced upon the end user (q.v.).

Noun. Redundancy.

end user
Noun. The final, helplessly dependent sap to be considered in any question. If they are considered at all.

Adjective. Any technological system or business model that actively avoids hearing what the punters say.

Verb. Have sex with. E.g. "We're going to outsource the department's computers."

Noun. A new logo. Especially when it costs more than someone's salary.

Noun. Revelation late into a meeting that no one in attendance has the authority to decide anything.

Verb. See outsource.

Noun. Couldn't be given away free.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Lies, damn lies and religion

Special agent Fox Mulder had a poster hanging up in his office at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It showed a classic “proof” of alien visitation, something like a blurry hubcap seeming huge above some treetops. Or perhaps it wasn’t a UFO, and was just a blurry hubcab.

The poster could be glimpsed in several episodes of The X Files, and it bore the legend, “I WANT TO BELIEVE”. Part of the drive of the show was Mulder trying to prove his weird shit to sceptical partner, Dana Scully. Long-suffering Scully would try to stop him wasting his life traipsing after any old nonsense… Her job was to insist on evidence and to make the X Files not look silly.

I was thinking of this as I finished The God Delusion. It’s odd, but prior to reading it for myself (and I’ve delayed ‘cos I knew it would need thinking about) I’ve sat through lots of earnest discussion of Dawkins and his book, with learned folk on both sides of the religious fence getting rather cross. It’s a little surprising – and disappointing – to discover that Dawkins himself addresses all the criticisms I have heard.

It’s a rather rambling series of thought experiments that not entirely systematically undermine belief. Dawkins addresses the continuity errors in the holy books, and the less savoury aspects contained within them, too. He discusses morality as distinct from religious doctrine. He has things to say about religious epiphanies and the voices religious folk hear in their heads. He explores the solace religion is meant to offer. And again and again he comes back to the harm that belief can do.

Throughout, there is a strict adherence to the idea of “truth”, where propositions are backed up by evidence. No, he admits, you can’t entirely disprove God’s existence, no more than you can disprove that Zeus and Hera are the true gods. He not only uses the idea of other religions against one another, but proposes alternative theories that are more probable and verifiable.

The idea is to start at first principles: how can we know anything for sure? More importantly, what makes the religious beliefs we happen to hold more right than those of any other religion? As he says, the debate between different faiths is essentially, “My book is bigger than your book”.

I agree with some critics that there’s a petulant tone to a lot of Dawkins’s arguments, so that he comes across as a nerdy, frustrated teenager. Yet he’s also clearly aware of how he’s perceived, and does his best to address this, too.

There are jokey asides from his wife and clever friends (including those in the clergy). Yet these insights into his home life, and into his sense of loss at the death of his chum Douglas Adams, can feel a bit forced, like he’s trying to convince us of a cosy world of bright ideas. They feel like the similarly twee and embarrassing stuff about Al Gore’s home life and upbringing that tries to make more fluffy and personable the arguments of An Inconvenient Truth.

Actually, I think it’s just that Dawkins is not, in his writing, as warm, engaging or as witty a correspondent as Douglas Adams, who was his best advocate. Adams could make Dawkins’ ideas about the practicalities of genetics sound cool and exciting and funny.

You can tell who Dawkins likes because they are “regarded” or “respected” or “venerable”. At times he shows considerable patience with those who’ve misrepresented his arguments to score petty points against him, or those with, as he says, “Christian charity” delight in thoughts of him burning in hell. And yet there’s a considerable anger behind this book, and he’s not afraid to call many of the arguments put against him “idiotic”. This is especially true of those who take pride in believing something despite the evidence to the contrary.

I can sympathise with that pride – for all it’s manifestly foolish. At school, as a Catholic, it was easy to uphold my faith while my schoolmates asked difficult questions. It became an exercise in sheer bloody-mindedness; I refused to yield any ground. Only when I changed schools and people stopped ribbing me about what I was meant to believe did I start to examine it for myself. And the holes and inconsistencies were not the ones my schoolmates raised.

What bothered me was the idea of Heaven as a private members club, where you only get in if you sign up to the right religion. Does that mean good people who aren’t Catholic are due to burn? And surely if you’re behaving yourself because of the rewards in eternity, you’re not behaving because it’s the right thing to do.

I wish I’d read then Dawkins's argument of how distinct morality is from religion. He shows that the cornerstones of morality are shared across many peoples and cultures, and that these absolutes of sparing pain, of trying to do right by other people where we can, are warped by the religious dimension. Children think differently about those they are condemning or saving when the experiment involves their religion.

That’s another key argument, that Children do not have a religion, only religious parents. I’d argue even the church knows that – that the sacrament of confirmation is acknowledgement that we have to decide for themselves. (And despite what I thought at the time, at 14 I was too young to make that commitment). There’s some appalling stories of children being poached by religions – taken from their parents after some farcical baptism.

Yes, these examples might be atypical, but it’s the point they make that’s important. Like contracts in law, I’d argue a baptism doesn’t count if the person subject to it doesn’t understand and honour the commitment.

To my surprise, Dawkins is himself sympathetic to the anguish of losing faith. In my own experience, there’s a notable difference between those who have loved and lost religion, and those who never embraced it at all. I still feel strange fury that I was hoodwinked for so long, and torn about those friends who cannot yet make the leap of lack-of-faith.

Dawkins was barely ever a believer, but his book seems prompted less by those who have disagreed with him as by those he has inspired. Later chapters dwell on correspondence received from those who’ve been ostracised for reading his books, who have lost friends and family as well as their beliefs.

His detractors would have us believe that Dawkins is warring against all those who believe, but the truth is much more complex. He has friends in the clergy – some very senior – and his own wife has written books on astrology. Yet we can clearly hear his impatience with the many pitiful arguments and accusations put against atheism. As a professional scientist, he’s used to probing and scrutinising theories and ideas in ways that we laypersons might consider harsh. But no more so than when an editors despairs, “No, Simon, you can’t do that…” As I must remember as I heave my poor ego from the floor, the editor doesn’t mean to cause pain.

An editor’s job is to look at the text from different angles, seeking out weakness and error. And, in this process, what’s written becomes stronger. Dawkins applies no harsher scrutiny to the Old Testament that might be expected from a GCSE student of English, and the thing falls apart in his hands…

“But we don’t think it’s literally true!” is the response from some. “But the stories have moral and cultural value!” So Dawkins looks at those arguments next. Something else that hit me when I was 18 was how self-fulfilling religion can be. So much of the ritual involved in mass and prayer is perpetuating the meme. It’s important that we repeatedly avow our beliefs, as if the repetition is what makes them so. Reading Dawkins’s own thoughts on the recursive loop, I thought of the appeal of repetition to children. “Again! Again!” squeal the Telly-Tubbies, and for the same hookish reasons does the church.

Where Dawkins is more militant than me was in his anger at the damage religion can do. I’d have argued that on the whole God is no worse than believing in Father Christmas or the tooth fairy. It would be nice to believe that you could really be a Jedi, but look at the misery the Jedi Council bring about by demanding blind obedience from Anakin Skywalker.

Dawkins amasses a strong argument about how beliefs can break up families, imposing all kind of neurosis, even provoking violence and war. He favours evidence as opposed to absolute decrees of “good” and “evil”, where if you dare to ask questions you must be part of the problem. And obviously that means Iraq.
“Our Western politicians avoid mentioning the R word (religion), and instead characterize their battle as a war against ‘terror’, as though terror were a kind of spirit or force, with a will and mind of its own. Or they characterize terrorists as motivated by pure ‘evil’. But they are not motivated by evil. However misguided we may think them, they are motivated, like the Christian murderers of abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own rights, are rational. They perceive their acts to be good, not because of some warped personal idiosyncrasy, and not because they have been possessed by Satan, but because they have been brought up, from cradle to grave, to have total and unquestioning faith.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 304.

As he says, the religions of northern Ireland were conveniently forgotten when referring to the sides as “loyalist” and “nationalist” rather than “protestant” and “Catholic”.

More than that, he’s good at dispelling the smug assumption that religious bigotry is a problem of foreigners – that it is Muslims and the American Christian right. He’s not just talking about the privilege accorded to Thought for the Day or the House of Lords (nobody listens to them anyway!). His scrutiny of the Government’s new academies is particularly damning; tens of millions of pounds from the taxpayer going to schools that deliberately seek to undermine scientific methodology.
“It apparently didn’t occur to Mr Blair that, if the OFSTED inspectors give a rave report to a school whose head of science teaches that the entire universe began after the domestication of the dog, there just might be something a teeny weeny bit wrong with the standards of the inspectorate.”

Ibid, p. 335.

Some have argued that he’s as evangelical about science as any kind of fundamentalist, but that is seriously – even wilfully – missing the point. His detractors, like the very powerful and the very stupid, seek to change the facts to suit their beliefs. Dawkins will revise his assessments, hone his theories, on the basis of evidence. He’s proud of being proved wrong, of being made to revise his opinions.

He does not simply argue that religion is bunk. His is just another book, so what gives it authority over the Bible or Koran? What makes the arguments of The God Delusion so damning is the open challenge to prove otherwise.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Clay town hick men

Back in September, I sat at the back of a talk by Jane Portal, curator of the British Museum’s First Emperor exhibition, where she explained some of the diplomatic, academic and managerial complexities involved in putting the whole thing together.

“Ooh,” I thought, in the manner of a wide-eyed orang-utan. Chinese history isn’t something I know a great deal about, but what’s NOT to like about a whole buried army? And this morning, I finally went for a look-see.

The exhibition is in the old reading room of the British Museum (the reading now being done in swanky style at Kings Cross). This makes for an atmospheric, eerie setting. The low light that protects the ancient relics also greys the pale blue of the reading room’s high dome. There’s something not just churchy about the effect, it’s especially Catholic. Incense, says this former thurifer, would have gone down well.

There was some confusion as we arrived, with a gallery assistant patiently explaining that there was no reason to queue on the stairs. He’d have fared better were the queuers not all engrossed in their audio guide, and it was the guide’s long introduction that seemed the cause of the bottleneck. (The Dr and I braved the thing guideless, and I think did better ‘cos we could nip in between the huddled bunches of other visitors.)

There’s plenty of fab and fascinating things to see; fancy bronze weapons and food bowls, and the establishment of the now familiar Chinese coins, which are round with a square hole in the middle. Many of these objects are new discoveries – indeed, the army itself was only discovered in the mid 1970s.

The terracotta fellas were made to guard China’s first emperor, and part of his mountain-sized tomb. He’d started out as the 13 year-old King of Qin, but his highly trained army with their mass-produced bronze weapons had beaten the neighbouring dominions. This newly swelled nation was still called Qin (pronounced “chin”, hence “China”), but he was now an emperor.

There’s been some debate about the politics of the show, of which I admit I’m only loosely aware. M’colleague Jonathan Clements was kind enough some months ago to tell me about legal texts found in 1975 in the grave of Judge Xi, which, “make it abundantly clear how awful life was under the first emperor”.

The exhibtion didn't mention this - at least as far as I could tell. Apart from gleeful accounts of the conquest of the other dominions, our impressions of the first emperor are gleaned from just two clues. First, following his conquests, he commissioned a big wall with which to keep out baddies. (Not the Great Wall, which came later.) The exhibition briefly mentions that during the building of this wall many conscripts died.

Second, we’re told about his fear of death and determination to outwit eternity. But the tone of this explanation is, I felt, as if the whole enterprise was more an exercise in kingly grandeur than psychotic paranoia.

As the Dr pointed out, the tens of thousands killed in the construction are far more than (we believe) died building the pyramids. It made me think of something I’ve been reading recently, about Hitler and Stalin being no more evil as people than other tyrants in human history. What made their actions worse than Genghis Khan or Caligula (some readers will guess what I have been reading) was having access to modern, industrial processes.

It’s ironic that the army got looted as soon as the emperor had snuffed it. The terracotta fellas now look a bit awkward, their hands grasping long-pinched bronze weapons. There’s something a little sad about the ancient, shattered, carefully reconstructed people – my Western prejudice made me think of Ozymandias.

Arguably what’s been left is the people not the things. The terracotta soldiers seem to be individuals – each with their own fine moustaches and top knots. I’d be interested to know how representative they are of the ordinary people of the day; are their faces those of real, grand faluting officers, or of the craftsmen and their mates. Are these the middle classes commemorated here, or even peasants who happened to be hanging around? I like the possibility that it’s these every day folk left behind to posterity, not the image of the king.

The great king himself ultimately retains his secrets. The penultimate panels explain that Chinese archaeologists won’t excavate the emperor’s tomb for fear of disturbing what’s inside. That’s a very different attitude to the daring, live-television, moustache-twirling archaeology of over here. I can hear the ghost of Sir Mortimer Wheeler muttering, “Pshaaw!” as he rolls his sleeves up… No, I don’t know who is right.

It also means that however modern the discoveries – the terracotta musicians trying to woo flamingos to dance were discovered in 2001 – this isn’t presented as a modern dialogue with ancient history. Rather, the reverence of the setting and care not to ask difficult questions puts up a kind of barrier. Just as we can’t get too close to the terracotta fellas for fear of setting off the alarms, we are not allowed to get too close to this timeless, magic antiquity.

Perhaps that’s most evident in the final part of the exhibition, where there’s a replica of a statue as they think he might originally have been painted. It’s a bright and garish display, even in the muted light, the archer’s armour laquered in something that could almost be plastic. Suddenly the soldiers look comic and tacky.

Tucked away right at the end, I’m not sure you’re actively encouraged to think, “all that stuff you’ve just seen would have looked as garish as this…”. It would have been more effective, surely, to have seen this man of colour in the lead-up to the main display, so that we viewed the figures in real context.

Rather, we’re left to think of these extraordinary objects as muted, uncoloured icons. They are cut off from us in time. And while they remain so untouchably other, they cannot be anything so bothersome as the awful vanity of a tyrant with uncomfortably modern ideas…

Friday, December 07, 2007

Wet bits

Adam Grose has announced my inclusion in his forthcoming FLOOD comic, which features one-page strips and drabbles to raise money for flood charities.

My one-pager is called "The Coral Invasion of London", features some fine quality sci-fi motifs, and is illustrated by a fantastically talented fellow called Tony Suleri.

The FLOOD comic is not available to download or buy just yet - I'll holler again when it is.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Am I not a man and brother?

What with being a perfumed ponce, this week I’ve seen two plays. By coincidence, both feature strong performances from their all-Black casts, and have Things To Say. Both, I’d argue, address less Black/white divisions as discord within the Black community. Conflicts arise in defining and retaining an identity in the face of those who've sold out themselves and their brothers.

I can already see some readers of this blog rolling their eyes at such earnest, issues-based drama. But as with the best writing, the issues are only one part of the stories.

Statement of Regret has a smart and funny script, all set in a flash PR agency that’s maybe past its peak. Their thing is campaigning for the Black community, and they claim plenty of credit for the new Minister for Race. Now they need a new initiative, and Kwaku has an idea. They’ll campaign that only those of West Indian descent should benefit from any financial compensation for slavery…

The sparring of Kwaku’s two sons – one legitimate, one not – is a good analogy by which to discuss the wrongs of history and how they affect the present, and what anyone can do to make amends. It also raises difficult questions about what we fight for and at what point the fighting can be over.

Writer Kwame Kwei-Armah (yes, him from Casualty) is good at putting lots of points of view at once, without us ever feeling which one he’s behind himself. For the former Ian Roberts, there’s also some fun poked at those who give themselves more African names. The play self-critiques and questions as much as it points fingers.

The response from the rest of the audience was just as enthralling as the play; people gasped at the claims and the names-calling, whooped and applauded the jokes. It helped underline the potency of the subjects being stirred. In fact, it’s astonishing how much ground is covered: violence towards women, homophobia, education… As well as the broader themes of fidelity between friends, between lovers, between families.

This packing-in of conflicts meant that at half-time we were caught up in the story without any idea where it might lead. I was also impressed how, even at the end, it won’t offer easy answers but leaves us hanging on a question.

It also scored points for a trilby of Droo people: Rassilon, Martha’s papa and Major Blake from new UNIT. With this kind of witty, twisty and engaging script, I wonder what a Kwame Doctor Who would be like... Time for a whole other demographic of readers to roll their eyes.

The Brothers Size is a smaller play, with just three actors and no props or scenery beyond a chalk circle and red sprinkles. Oshoosi is recently out of prison, haunted by his experiences there. And while his brother Ogun tries to get him a job and to straighten him out, Oshoosi’s old cell-mate Elegba has other ideas about how they enjoy their freedom...

Again, it’s lively, funny and surprising, with songs and jokes suddenly cutting to sustained and moving pathos. There's deft leaping between scenes, and the way the actors speak the stage directions also works well to give the thing pace and energy. That it’s all held so compelling together by just the three actors is quite a feat of conjuring. D. called it a real “actors’ play” because it all hangs on the performance.

Heh. I’d also say its strength is in how it strips everything down to the words of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s deceptively simple-seeming script. But I am a wee bit biased on that score. Both plays are recommended.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


My conquest of all media continues. I've got my name in Radio Times for the first time ever. Yes, okay it's in an advert for Doctor Who books (on page 55 of the one with Dr Who and Kylie on the cover), but IT STILL COUNTS.

And the reason my book is first among the other Decemberists, Jim and Trevor? Clearly because I am best.

Also today, I have written a column for the Glasgow Herald. The "think tank" seeks to provoke response, so go comment on why I am wrong. (In what I say in the column, rather than just generally).

ETA: In addition to the comments on that page, the Herald also published separate responses.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Whack my bonobo

(Technically, this is “My mates’ scribbling #3” as I’ve known Penny Morgan for about as long as I can remember. But the title for this post is from Chris Morris and so is made of win.)

A fire at a laboratory near Southampton is not all it seems. The young woman apparently killed in the blaze turns out to have been murdered. The police soon realise she was not so much the target, as was the work she’d been doing. The lab is studying the intelligence of a bonobo ape called Caro, in the process attracting all kinds of enemies. There are the differently militant animal rights groups, there are those with vested interests. And there are those who have profound and heartfelt objections to any muddying of the line between humans and base animals…

As the investigation continues, it soon becomes clear that the case against the killer depends on the testimony of a single witness. But that witness is Caro.

This is, simply, a brilliant premise for a thriller, and Prime Witness plays out a riveting, twisty mystery. Along the way, there’s plenty of detail about criminal and legal procedure, about the mechanics of political careers versus lobbying, about studies of language and psychology, about what it’s like living with arthritis (as the police inspector does), and about how business dovetails with scientific research. You’re left with the impression that the author has read-up on every possible angle, that she’s ready for all possible objections to the radical thesis that apes are owed greater legal and social status because they think and feel like we do.
“‘The general consensus amongst most psychologists – and here I’m going to oversimplify drastically – is that bonobos like Caro are at a similar level, cognitively, to a four or five year old, ahead in some areas, lagging in others. Like children, they advance their knowledge as they grow, and those growing up in such an environment as Caro’s, flower. Conversely, those brought up in impoverished environments like those used in medical experiments, wither – as do deprived children. At the most privileged end of the scale lies “enculturation” with exposure to a human culture, producing what Steven Wise, an American animal rights lawyer, called “summer minds”.’”

Penny Morgan, Prime Witness, p. 352.

Penny’s good at weaving this scholarly knowledge unintrusively into the story, so that the specifics of this “small” and local murder investigation quickly escalate into something much larger and more profound. The cast swells as the plot reaches across the globe, too, and these are complex people with complex interactions, all with their own traits, perspectives and motivations.

It’s this that keeps us guessing about where the plot wwill turn next. There are several good red herrings, tangents based on what people are thinking at any given moment. Paul (the policeman) has a recurring thing for the doctor who injects him for tetanus; his daughter at one point late on in the book seems to be the next target of the killer. These wandering thoughts makes them seem more real; their lives a series of potential opportunities and decisions.

That said, characters sometimes use words or images that are too technical for who they are. That's especially true of an early scene from the perspective of Caro, where she seems to be fully conversant in psychological vocabulary. It’s my job at the moment to pick holes in first-time writers’ work, and to anticipate the kinds of criticism general readers might have. I’m also aware that Prime Witness has had to battle to see print.

With that in mind, were I the editor, I’d want more attention paid to whose perspective we’re in at any given moment, perhaps withholding detail and clarification because the character is more ignorant than the author. A good editor would also pick up on the inconsistent use of dashes and ellipses, and red-pen those bits with too many adverbs. Without wanting to give too much away, it might have made for a better revelation later had we not learnt straight away that Caro witnessed the murder. And I’m afraid one major character reminded me too much of The da Vinci Code.

But these are petty quibbles with a well-told and clever thriller that always kept me turning pages and even made me think. The end is genuinely moving, which proves how well the different characters and issues have been drawn. Those last few pages are brilliantly frustrating in not giving easy closure – and the characters left standing could easily, indeed should, return in further books.

Yes, if I were the editor and this had come to me, I’d be commissioning the next one.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Right Stuff

Went to see In The Shadow of the Moon on Friday afternoon. It’s a Channel 4 documentary enjoying a small run in cinemas, telling the story of the Apollo moon landings in the words of the astronauts who took part. As well as their septuagenarian talking heads, it’s packed full of eye-popping footage of things exploding, things falling out of space, of things that are science-fiction and yet real. Worth the £6 entry just to see this stuff on the big screen.

I’m told the pay-off for this footage is that it’s not quite as critical of NASA as the book Moondust, which did much the same thing. I’ve not read Moondust but mean too soon because it counts as research for something I’m caught up in at the moment.

I have, though, seen From the Earth to the Moon (or “Moon porn” as it is in our house), so found I knew a lot of the stuff the astronauts discussed in more detail than they discussed it. Not all the moon men are alive today, and not all of those still alive wanted to take part. Neil Armstrong is a notable absence.

And yet this gave more room to those we wouldn’t normally hear from. Yes, there’s the other guys teasing Buzz Lightyear Aldrin because he’s so fascinating about the mathematics of docking when they all wanna woo girls. And that footage of him pausing as he comes down the ladder? That’s him, he says, being the first man to have a pee on the moon.

My favourite, though, was Mike Collins, who remained in lunar orbit while Neil and Buzz went skipping in the charcoal-like moondust. Funny, engaging and nicely self-effacing, he deservedly gets a lion's share of the screen time. It made me think of Jonathan Frakes in Futuruma: "Front row at last!"

It's full of great stuff, too. Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, talks about his guilt for missing "his" war - his contemporaries having been caught up in Viet Nam while he was training to be a space man. Then there's what the astronauts make of the conspiracy theories that it was all faked, and that they actually just went as far as a Hollywood backlot.

That said, as well as not presenting anything too unsavoury (Apollos 7 and 13 are quickly glossed over), it also doesn't even dare to suggest why the moon missions came to an end, or what the chances are of there being anyone else up there one day. I can see an argument that these aren't the things you'd ask the astronauts themselves - and this is their story, not anyone else's. But I think people less clued-up on the subject may be left with nagging questions...

This is, then, a perfect entry level programme for anyone even remotely interested in the subject. Or in modern history. Or people. Or in anything really. Go see.

Friday, November 30, 2007


Fellow December novelists Trevor Baxendale, Jim Swallow and I will be signing our Doctor Who books at Forbidden Planet in London on Saturday 12 January.

We'll then be in Manchester on Thursday, 17 Janaury, for a Doctor Who quiz and reading thing at the Borders bookshop.

The Gallifrey convention website has updated details of the guests who'll be in LA from 15-17 February next year. Excitingly, I've moved up to mid-position, having been right down at the bottom last time.

It's going to be a seventh-Doctor-tastic weekend, with Sylvester McCoy there plus his friends Ace, Benny and Grace, the script editor, the bloke who did the music and some people who wrote books. The Dr is coming with me (yes, her first Droo convention, lucky thing) and said she should probably do some homework.

So, we have done Remembrance of the Daleks and the Curse of Fenric, and we've got Ghostlight and Survival next. Will report back on what she thinks.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Matter arising

"Oh yes, you're a Banks groupie," said my former tutor when we bumped into each other last night - the first time I've seen him since I graduated in spaceships. We, and a few other people, were at Imperial College to hear Farah Mendlesohn interview Iain Banks.

There was a lot of rambling and hand-waving and mugging at the audience, and lots of laughs as well. Farah had re-read his complete works and came at him with some very clever questions. Why, for example, is there so much masturbation in his black-and-white covered "mainstream" books? Simple, he said. He was just trying to do stuff other writers didn't.

Farah suggested that there was a lot of bodily detail in his books: we know what different characters are like in bed, what torture feels like, even how Frank in The Wasp Factory gets splashback when sat on the toilet. Banks argued that this stuff is part of everyone's lives, but is politely excised from most writing. He talked about the importance of "truth" in writing, but I think this vivid lubricity of detail matters in his work because it pulls us in close to the characters. It's part of what makes his writing so intimate, like he's writing this just for you.

This maybe also squares with Farah's observation that he's more reticent about the sex in his sci-fi; the people in space are more unknowable other than the everymen of his mainstream. Maybe.

It was also of great excitement to hear that he's not yet finished with the Culture - his joyous, utopian mish-mash who return in the forthcoming Matter. A colleague who's normally much above this sort of thing actually, genuinely squeeed when I told him this; he'd believed Look to Windward was a final word on the subject, and that The Algebraist was the first of a new series. Banks explained he'd maybe return to that universe if he could come up with a good enough plot, but that the Culture is where his heart is. Writing other stuff is more about professional pride - that he can write something else - rather than being Cultured out. Hooray!

Iain Banks admits my geniusAfterwards, Banks was happy to sign people's long clutch of books and to acknowledge my own merry genius. I plan to write up a sequel to that paper which will examine the three Culture books published since I wrote it, as well as what clues might be garnered from Walking on Glass and The Bridge, in which the Culture perhaps sort of maybe make cameos.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Contract killing

The sacking of the voice of the Underground made front-pages last night, and was even picked up on telly’s Ten O’clock News. London Underground apparently didn’t see the funny side of Emma Clarke criticising the work she herself had done for them.

We giggled at the spoof announcements (which London Underground were keen to point out they didn’t have a problem with), and the Dr suggested that Clarke had not done herself any harm with all the publicity. But you don’t exactly see someone mocking their patrons and then think, “Must give her a job.”

(Clarke herself says she’s been misquoted.)

It’s worth saying it again: the Internet is not a private conversation between a few intimate friends. It is a publication – like a book or magazine, but one where Google Alerts* makes it dead easy to see when your minions are kvetching about you.

(* Other search and destroy agents are available, as agitate the increasingly desperate ads.)

At the risk of doocing myself, there was much entertainment yesterday in my current employ at this:
“I like free magazines because they're hilariously desperate, and the classier they purport to be, the more desperate they are. Nespresso magazine is the most acute example I've ever seen. It's as hateful as Tatler, but with an overbearing and whorish emphasis on coffee pods bunged in for good measure … In total, there were 281 visible coffee pods – 281 tiny bullet-shaped reminders of the bizarre, anxious banality of marketing. On one hand, it's a pointless free mag. On the other, it's the by-product of an entire industry peopled exclusively by desperate, snivelling lunatics.”

Charlie Brooker, “Nespresso isn't just coffee ... it's an aspirational lifestyle marketing exercise by desperate lunatics”, The Guardian, 26 November 2007.

I’ve worked in contract publishing of one flavour or another for seven-ish years, as one of these desperate, snivelling lunatics. I’d like to think there’s more to mine efforts than just the payment of squalid shillings. And so I have been thinking…

Done well, this kind of lifestyle stuff can work very well – my old boss Toby set out a manifesto of why its better than a lot of other ways of flogging product. Customer magazines are less expensive, less wasteful than other kinds of selling because you’re talking to people already nominally interested in what you’re trying to sell. They’re much more effective than being constantly begging for wholly new customers. And the good vibes and loyalty generated can have dead impressive results.

There are those, of course, who think that any kind of marketing is inherently evil. I think it’s more a matter of what you’re selling, and who to, and how.

It’s also difficult to define the difference between customer magazines and other magazines. Magazines and newspapers all have their own character and set of values which we dress up in, to varying degrees when we read them. Think of Jim Hacker explaining who reads which newspapers in Yes, Prime Minister:
Hacker: Don't tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: the Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; the Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; the Times is read by people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; the Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; and the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read the Sun?

Bernard: Sun readers don't care who runs the country, as long as she's got big tits.

Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, Yes, Prime Minister – A Conflict of Interest, broadcast 31 December 1987.

There’s then the question of customer magazines being solely a means to sell more product. But newspapers are filled with small-ads and inserts flogging us ever more tat. In large part, it’s the revenue from this that finances them, while the price we pay at the newsstand goes to person selling it. So these things become customer magazines for “shopping in general” rather than shopping for particular, licensed products.

News companies also branch out into books and satellite telly which are not always so subtly plugged. There’s even a column in Private Eye devoted to spotting these.

A phrase that’s often used in selling customer magazines to clients is how much they “add value”. This isn’t the same as the economic returns they offer (customer magazines should obviously bring more money in than they cost to produce). Yes, added value tends to be used to mean customer loyalty and stuff like that. But it’s also about added value to the customer. If the magazine is good, it’s a bonus to them. But there’s something more…

Something like Doctor Who Magazine isn’t generally thought of as a customer publication, but its insights, top facts and jokes make us feel better about being Doctor Who fans (this is called “adding value”). It was so successful at this that it even managed to run for 16 years when there wasn’t any new Doctor Who.

A major part of its appeal in those dark times (especially under the editorship of my pal Gary Gillat) was the lifestyle it promoted. It wasn’t just a magazine for people who liked a TV show. Especially evident when compared to other one-show and genre mags, DWM was for smart, articulate and well-read folk, it’s tone generally good-humoured and a bit self-mocking. Before I got into fandom more properly, it really felt as if it had been written just for me. Or rather, for the dashing, articulate, unclumsy persona to which I haltingly aspired.

I also felt the same about the thrilling and clever New Doctor Who Adventures. The handful of Star Trek and Star Wars novels that I tried at the same time all felt knocked-off and derivative, just after me for cash. A mate of mine had a similar, if opposite epiphany, when he realised that the sole benefit of being a subscriber to his favourite football team was to be bludgeoned every week with yet more weighty offers of naff merchandise.

The Doctor Who books were far better than they ever needed to be; and they sustained themselves because the people buying them were part of a loose community with the people producing them. It wasn’t just that several readers wanted to – and succeeded in – writing them. The books encouraged debate about what worked and what didn’t, and how Doctor Who could be made even better.

I wouldn’t be the first to argue that the new show – its depth and range and success – are the result of that period in the ghetto, when rather than flogging whatever old tat they could get away with, authors and editors worked to prove the critics wrong, and to produce something of quality.

So, and I think I’m agreeing with Charlie Brooker, customer publishing can be brilliant when it doesn’t just treat the readers as “marks”, who need to be cajoled or bullied or fooled into forking out for more product. Like any kind of writing, in whatever form, you try knock to knock out just any old rubbish, but to make it the best that you can. Confound expectation, make people think, squeeze in one extra joke…

This is still the dashing, articulate, unclumsy persona to which I haltingly aspire.

ETA: Amidst these thoughts, I received news of a toiletastic venture. Wonder what the accompanying customer magazine would be called. “Poos of the World” maybe. Or “The Poo Paper”. Or even “Toiletreats”. I wonder who I pitch to…

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Chequed out

Space-archaeologists and historians of the future may be excited by the following. Everyone else can just talk amongst themselves.

This week, two of my employers have been in touch asking for my bank details. They're entirely unrelated to one another, but both organisations now no longer pay their leagues of extraordinary freelancers by such last century-ness as cheques.

I wonder if this is one of those sea changes in the way we live our lives that we don't really notice at the time. Like stopping changing nappies.

Friday, November 23, 2007

My mates’ scribbling #2

One way not to write is to spend lots of time deciding on names for your characters. Is he a George? Is he an Alan? Does that fit on the shoulders of a bloke who's just invented the warp drive and is, really, a Mim?

Some scribbling buddies pick place-names from maps or borrow surnames from the cast and crew in programme guides. Or you find that their aliens are anagrams of where they've worked. In Dr Who and the Pirate Loop, anyone who isn't Doctor Who or Martha is named after friends-of-mine's kids. (And their parents don't love them if they don't buy them copies.) And in Dr Who and the Time Travellers, it was all about killing my friends.

Because of the wibbly wobbly, timey wimey paradox going on in that book, one pal managed to get himself killed more times than any other. Colonel Scott Andrews is shot, he's strangled, I think he falls down some stairs and there's also a bit where half of him is embedded in a wall.

The real Scott Andrews is, as it happens, one of my scribbling pals. His latest book - and first novel - is School's Out, the third in Abaddon's Afterblight Chronicles, in which a mystery disease wipes out everyone who doesn't have O negative blood. Lee Keegan is just 15 when his mum is one of those to suffer the cull. Alone in a world descending into chaos, Lee heads for his public school. It's a place of weird rules and traditions, and institutionalised bullying - but it can't be any worse than anywhere else. Can it?

As you'd expect, this is a pulpy, violent shocker, a series of increasingly grotesque and bloody incidents. Chapter Ten features a glimpse of my corpse.
"'Still, couldn't they have just, y'know, knocked on the door and said, "hi, we're the neighbours, we baked you a cake?" I mean, there was no reason to come in guns blazing, no reason at all.'

'Look where it got them.'

'Look where it got Guerrier, Belcher, Griffiths and Zayn.'

I had no answer to that.

'I don't want to die like that,' he said eventually.

'If it's a choice of being shot or being bled and eaten, then I'll take a bullet every time, thanks. After all, been there, done that.'

'Yeah, yeah, stop boasting,' he teased, sarcastically. 'By my reckoning you've been shot, stabbed, strangled, hanged and savaged by a mad dog since you came back to school, three of those in the last twenty-four hours.'

'I also shat myself.'

'All right. You win. You are both vastly harder and more pathetic than any of us.'"

Scott Andrews, School's Out, p. 157.

The prose style is straightforward and things are kept moving quickly, which makes for an exciting read. While the pulp format doesn't exactly encourage any great depth, I was impressed by how often Scott muddied the moral waters. The insane tyrant who doles out macabre punishment is given an opportunity to put his case - and, as Lee himself admits, it's almost convincing.

There are also some fun tangents as Lee compares the events he's caught up in to those suffered by the school's other old boys. One particular drastic action is inspired by a former pupil who died in the First World War. This kind of thing helps make this more than just trashy, guilty pleasure.

Perhaps there are a few too many references to films and TV, and the "witty" quips as characters face death and dismemberment aren't as smart or funny as the characters might think. But then my own teens were all risible jokes and endless quotations from Blackadder. Lee is even accused of behaving like he's the hero in an action movie, rather than a spotty adolescent with a rubbish haircut. So it's all part of the point.

Lee narrates the story and we watch him changed by the events he's caught up in. He becomes a killer and learns some nasty truths about what it is to be a leader. The grim tone of the book then comes from him. Even early on, he shows (or recalls) little remorse for the loss of his friends. Scraps of detail show us that he's a snob and a hypocrit - a public-school boy who rants about posh kids. For most of the book he has to hold down fierce anger, and he's quick to judge other people. Yet it's not lost on him that his own mistakes have cost a lot of people their lives.

Lee is, in short, a bit of a dick. And that's what sets him apart from similar, self-reliant and righteous heroes of shocker fiction, such as Richard Hannay or Bill Masen. He also reminded me of Harry Potter's angry tantrums in The Order of the Phoenix - an element of the book kept thankfully to a minimum in the film.

As a result, I didn't ever really warm to him and was unmoved by the horrible things that befell him. Perhaps it would have helped to have had more from the perspective of the school's young matron - a character who's fate we really care for. But that's not to fault the book. It's a well-told, well-structured, inventive and absorbing example of its kind. The problem is that this genre of gritty misery is not entirely to my taste.

So if I'm picking any holes at all it's because I'd have wanted to do things differently. And that is no doubt why Abaddon employed Scott and turned down the five things I sent them. Pah.

Oh, and what a cop-out. The wuss only got to kill me once.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

SJ and company

Pottered round to Nimbos's last night for the final episode of Sarah-Jane. Won't spoil it for those watching on sorry old terrestrial. But wheee!

A few chums have dared speak the heresy that Sarah-Jane's adventures are more fab than those of Doctor Who. It's certainly been one of the best yes-really-for-kids shows I can think of. The skillful, unsettling inclusion of things like Alzheimer's that can't be cured or the ethics of killing children harks back to the issues-based kids' dramas I used to like. It's exciting, and afterwards it makes you think...

Some years ago, when I was vainly pitching ideas to CBBC (one of which was called "Life on Mars"), it was explained that the reason Grange Hill and Byker Grove rather lost their teeth was 'cos people realised older kids were watching EastEnders and Casualty anyway. The impression I got was that all kids TV should from thence be vapid and fluffy. And golly, it really isn't. It's a bit fab: telly for grown-ups for kids.

That's not to say that the series has Things To Say. It's just got more complexity and depth than it needs. There's also character development and back-stories that matter, so the more you watch the more the series rewards you. These things never get in the way of the monsters and jokes and quite spectacular cliffhangers, so the effect is that it's a far better, richer, cleverer, more involving series than we've really any right to expect.

The only grating thing (for me, anyway), is the bookending stuff where Sarah looks up at the night sky and tells us it's soooo amazing. It's the same kind of bludgeoning as from Dr Suresh in Heroes. Both shows aren't quite sure when to treat us as if we have brains and when to spell out the themes in words of one syllable.

Another highlight, and as much a part of the experience of watching it on Nimbos's Sky Plus box, is the continuity filling from CBBC's Ed Petrie and Oucho the cactus. They shred the pictures kids send in, they try to find Swan Cake for Queen Victoria, they asked Sarah-Jane her age... I wish Ed and Oucho could plug the gaps between all of TV. Like that night Tom Baker did BBC One in the style of Little Britain.

Oh. And of course [spoiler] could have [spoiler] any day - just like Daleks twatting the Trods.

The Dr is also much taken by Young Dracula, in which Dracula's pre-16 (and so pre-vampire) kids go to school with the son of Van Helsing. With its slayers and schoolwork it owes a pretty blatant debt to Buffy, but the mix of outright slapstick and smarter jokes means it works really well. She's also got a thing for the camp, vamping fellas.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Cloud Atlas

The last few days I have been a Simon Head-in-Air. If I remember rightly, this means I’m due to fall into a canal and drown. And the reason for this is Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide. (For those who’ve not been keeping up, here’s what I thought of the novel Cloud Atlas.)

As you’d expect, it explains how to identify the main kinds of clouds. And reading it is like an epiphany – I find I’m looking up on the way to work, or while waiting for buses and trains. As Pretor-Pinney says, it’s a hobby you can take part in anywhere, and for as long or as little as you wish.

The nebulous nature of clouds means several share characteristics or even bits of the same name – alto, cirro, cumulo, nimbo, strato. I got even more list over which combinations merge into which other combinations, and then there’s the huge number of sub-species, features and effects. It’s no wonder the book comes complete with a cloudspotter’s diploma. (There are also copious plugs for the Cloud Appreciation Society, which the author founded.)

Mixed in with the scientific explanations and Latin etymology are a wealth of top facts. For example, I now know where the phrases “cloud nine” and “cloud cuckooland” come from. Yet, as well as the top facts, there’s far too many terrible jokes and asides which can get a little grating. Part of me wonders how much that stuff just pads it out, and how much the author or his editors feared scaring punters off with too much technicalia. The clutter of tangents and silly bits makes it harder to remember the clues to diagnosis. Of course, this is a book to carry with you and refer back to, but I’m a bit annoyed I don’t remember more as I went along.

The penultimate chapter is perhaps the most interesting, as it covers man-made clouds. First there’s the militaro-cloud technologies, as worked on by sci-fi writer Kurt Vonnegut’s brother Bernard. In the movie of the book I imagine him played by Andre Morrell (or his modern equivalent, which would be Ian McKellen). Anyway, back in the 1940s and 50s, Bernard K (not Bernard Kay. See, these asides are annoying!) studied how clouds formed, and that led to seeing if they could be influenced or controlled.

Soon the US Naval Weapons Center took over the funding of this research. According to Pretor-Pinney, this was because it was believed that the Russians were also investigating the same area – though he gives no evidence for this belief. I can’t help feeling it’s a good excuse to do stuff you want to do anyway. Can’t get permission to build atomic bombs, rocket to the moon or stock your museum with other people’s statues? Hell, just say, “But if we don’t, some foreigners will…”.

So what was the result of the militaro-clouds?
“Operational cloud seeding commenced on 20 May 1967 and continued for six years over parts of Laos, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and Cambodia, at an estimated annual cost of around $3.6 million a year. It is impossible to say whether it was really successful in increasing rainfall, since no systematic assessment of precipitation was made after the initial test phase, which itself could not be considered to be statistically rigorous.”

Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloudspotter’s Guide, p. 264.

Still, once the story got out that clouds were being developed as weapons, there was a bit of a rumpus. Some laws were passed to technically stamp out any further such projects. But, amazingly enough, the US has wriggled around its own legislation and Pretor-Pinney lists some unsettling developments.

More unsettling, though, is the second part of the same chapter, which addresses the clouds produced by plans. Condensation trails (or “contrails” if you wanna get with the lingo) have been the hot topic of debate for cloudies recently. There’d been some discussion anyway about how they influenced weather systems – affecting other clouds’ formation. And then, when US airplanes were grounded after 11 September 2001, eagle-eyed observers noticed that this pause seemed to have an affect on ground temperatures. Since then, it’s been shown that contrails “reduced ground temperatures during the day and raised them at night” (p. 274) – by as much a whole degree centigrade.

(Yes, that’s quite a lot.)

Pretor-Pinney is good at covering the different possible outcomes of this – it could add to global warming, it could lower temperatures – and also of the problems in trying to tackle it. Getting planes to fly lower would stop contrails forming, but would make them use up more fuel. So whichever way, the environment is shagged.

A little ironically, the final chapter sees Pretor-Pinney jetting off to the other side of the planet to see a cloud formation that’s also been seen over the English Channel. The “Morning Glory” is a miles-long tube of cloud that can clearly be seen cutting across the north of Australia in a wowing satellite image. Turns out that the place Pretor-Pinney goes to see it is Burketown, one of the dusty, ramshackle stop-offs on my brother’s trek across the outback.

Yes, he tells me, everyone talked about the “Morning Glory”. No, he admits, he wasn’t there at the right time to see it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ripper tearer slasher

You know what? I wouldn’t object to Angelina Jolie giving me the horn.

Last night, Codename Moose fulfilled his blood-oath and took me and the Dr to see Beowulf at the IMAX. He’d tried to get tickets over the weekend but it had all been fully booked. Last night was crowded, too – mostly with bright-eyed, slightly balding fellows around the age of 30. Many wore suits and had clearly come straight from proper jobs. But the general sense was that here was a film was aimed at those who never quite grew out of He-Man and Transformers. A film with fighting and monsters and perhaps a small hint of bare girl-flesh.

Which it is. Hooray!

There were a few women taggers on, looking mostly long-suffering as we waited to go in. The Dr admitted her bias against this rough and tumble Old English stuff, so thunderously barbaric compared to her helleno-classics. But I dared suggest that Beowulf might be a little less heavy handed than that other recent CGI-fest, Frank Miller’s 300.

Who would win out of the Geats and Spartans? Well, I don’t know, but whichever one lost would probably do it really well.

As in the Old English poem, a big scary monster called Grendel starts attacking a mead hall and eating the people inside. Then, from across the sea, comes Beowulf, young and bold and so impossibly cool he’ll fight Grendel with his bare hands…

It’s an impressive-looking movie, all the more so in IMAX 3D. The swooshy “camera” moves are all a bit reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings – and obviously it’s easy to see other influences, which Tolkien nabbed from the original poem. But this is all on a much smaller scale than the War of the Ring. Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary’s script sets events almost exclusively in the same township – with Beowulf never going home. I’d argue this actually makes the world depicted bigger, because travelling any distance is so much more arduous and so man is more at the mercy of the elements. There’s no chance of a last-minute, wizard-led cavalry coming to the rescue.

The 3D is very exciting: blood drools down on us, monsters leap out at us, bare and toned bottoms look real. There’s a bit of a warm-up before the film to get you used to the 3D stuff. Examples of fish and dinosaurs and a trailer for The Polar Express help make you feel a bit less silly about the huge, 1980s-style glasses.

In general, the action sequences are much more involved than in the poem. Beowulf’s win against Grendel makes use of the eaves and a chain and a door, where in the poem he just keeps his grip. But these embellishments are needed to help tell the story visually, rather than via a narrator. They also give more dramatic pace than “they fought and Beowulf won”.

Only yesterday, Gaiman himself noted reviews being impressed by the faithfulness of the adaptation to the source material. The script sticks closely to the events as given in the poem, but also interweave the random fragments of plot into one cohesive story. They also give motivations to each of the characters, so there’s a bit more depth and sense underpinning all the fighting.

One example of this is explaining who Grendel is and why he’s attacking the mead hall. He’s a rather more sympathetic character than the monster in the poem, though he does come across a bit like a nuisance neighbour always complaining when your TV’s on too loud.

The language Grendel himself uses when speaking to his mum again suggests a closeness to the Old English original, and at one point they even squeeze in a bard singing Beowulf’s story just as it has been handed done since. It occurs to me that despite what’s been changed, we can still believe that the poem we know followed from these events – the storytellers and friends in Beowulf’s own lifetime are already embellishing their accounts.

The film also very deftly incorporates the tensions between pagan and Christian ideology over which critics have so come to blows. Anthony Hopkins’s Danish king won’t put his faith in the Roman god, but his young wife and other courtiers are seen wearing crucifixes. Without ever being intrusive, this becomes more telling in the last section of the film, where the older Beowulf and his demons seem like a relic from a previous age.

Gaiman’s post yesterday suggests the film has got the thumbs up from the one-true-God squad. But this is in response to the CAP thinking it “the most heinous culprit for stealing childhood from children ever made”. The gore is wet and vivid, and I can see that anyone expecting another Polar Express might be a little surprised. But, um, it’s a tale from the Dark Ages about a man who fights monsters… you betray your own ignorance by assuming this stuff’s just for kids. And Homer and fairy tales are full of sex and violence too. The Bowdlerised versions lose a great deal of sense of meaning.

Even then, for a film that’s essentially about three very gruesome fights, the sex and violence aren’t gratuitous. At the IMAX, Angelina Jolie stands 40-foot tall, in nothing but gold paint that’s falling off her. As she sashays about and makes gimps of us all, look carefully (as I did) and you just about get a hint of a nipple. She’s about as real a naked women as a Barbie. The ever more contrived efforts to keep Boewulf’s willy out of shot reminded me of an old Hale and Pace sketch (or, for younger readers, the opening of Austin Powers 2).

But this hardly detracts from a thrilling adventure, full of wit and detail. The Dr admitted her previous fears were unwarranted, and she quite liked Beowulf’s six-pack. Definitely recommend the IMAX version and the 3D specs (not just for the six-pack). And, as we tramped blinking down the long staircase after it was all over, Codename Moose and I spotted a poster… Transformers in 40-foot 3D!