Thursday, October 17, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine 544

Doctor Who Magazine 544
It's 40 years - and six days - since the first issue of Doctor Who Weekly, which is now Doctor Who Magazine. Issue 544 celebrates this ridiculous milestone with all sorts of goodies, including - hooray! - and index of features and interviews that is really useful for a job I'm doing today.

Also in the issue is a short interview with me about my forthcoming Doctor Who audio story, The Home Guard.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans

Old Baggage, which I loved, is a prequel to this brilliant, comic novel about bad behaviour during the Second World War.

We begin a little after Old Baggage left off, with eccentric ex-Suffragette Mattie Simpkin living just off Hampstead Heath with the small boy, Noel Bostock, she's sort of not-quite adopted. But Mattie's memory and wits are fast escaping her, and when war breaks out Noel is sent to St Albans with other evacuees. There, he's taken on by Vera Sedge, who thinks he might help earn some money in the latest of her ill-fated scams. But nerdy, lonely, grieving Noel has ideas about how to improve their takings...

Evans conjures a dirty, drab and distinctly criminal Blitz, where even the wardens are on the take - I think the most distressing, haunting moment is a woman being led off to an asylum while her house is robbed by the men ostensibly helping her. Life is hard even before the bombs start falling, full of tragedy and meanness and indifference. But as we weave our way through Noel and Vee's adventures, and those of Vee's own mother and son, there's the promise of something to light up the dark - hope of connection, perhaps even a little joy.

That's the gift here: so much of what happens is miserable, so much of what's described is viscerally horrible. And yet the character, the humour, the compassion shine through and make every page a delight.


Friday, October 11, 2019

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

This smart, thrilling, brilliant new novel is about the women who are part of the astronaut programme in an alternate 1950s. History diverges from ours on 2 November 1948 when Thomas E Dewey beats Harry S Truman in the US presidential election. By 3 March 1952, the US has put its third satellite into orbit. That morning, a meteorite crashes into Earth with devastating effect.  Washington DC is obliterated.

So, despite the devastation the space programme is well ahead. In our universe, the space race began years after this, on 30 August 1955, when lead engineer Sergei Korolev got the Soviet Academy of Sciences to agree a programme to beat the Americans into orbit. The result was Sputnik (4 October 1957), followed by the first person - Gagarin - sent into space, on 12 April 1961. A month later, President Kennedy announced plans to land people on the Moon by the end of the decade.

Part of the joy of The Calculating Stars is how much of "our" history is woven into the alternate timeline: our heroine, Dr Elma York meets Wernher von Braun, while among her fellow trainee astronauts listed on page 426 are "Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong".  Her husband reads science-fiction by Ray Bradbury, his visions of settlements on Mars apparently coloured by the events in this timeline.

Also great is the technical detail. We encouter this world through Elma's perspective as a former WASP, a qualified pilot and extremely competent mathematician. She works as a human computer, outperforming the nascent IBM machines - at one extremely tense moment in the story, her speed and accuracy with complex numbers are vital. Robinette Kowal's acknowledgements include real astronauts and other experts: she admits she doesn't understand the maths herself. As a nerd for the early days of space travel, there was lots I recognised - and lots that came as new.
"There is something about having your legs over your head that makes you need to pee. This makes it into none of the press releases, but every single astronaut talks about it." (p. 493)
But the book is also excellent on the social detail: the drama of this post-meteorite world is overshadowed by inherent sexism and racism, our Jewish heroine not immune to her own prejudice.  Elma also suffers from anxiety and there's lots on the shame and secrecy surrounding mental illness. Characters are well drawn, and Elma must learn to work alongside people she doesn't necessarily like, managing rivalries and her own privilege, for all she is discriminated against. Each chapter opens with a quote from a newspaper filling in more of the background detail of this world, and full of telling turns of phrase. It all makes for a rich and real version of history, a compelling world in which this adventure takes place.

It is an adventure, full of twists and turns. Robinette Kowal nicely manages the personal stakes with the technical and global. I zipped through the almost 500 pages and am keen for the next instalment.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

When Michelle Obama was supporting her husband's bid to be president of the USA, she used to tell her own story. Growing up in a "cramped apartment on the South Side of Chicago", as the blurb on her autobiography puts it, she could never have dreamed of where she'd end up. But her story and that of her husband, she argues, is proof that we can achieve anything with hard work and hope.

In that aspirational message, Becoming reminded me of Chris Hadfield's An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, a life story just as inspiring and daunting. Except that Obama is writing as her husband's successor attempts to expunge all trace of what was achieved in those years in office. Obama does not mince her words about Trump: her horror directed not just at him but at the part of America that embraced him. Other adversaries go unnamed or she reconciles with later. Her hostility to Trump is in notable contrast to the friendships made across the political divide, such as with the Bush family, or across national and social boundaries such as with the Queen.

She doesn't make a link but I did to the one other person to whom she gives no quarter. Taking us through the night that her husband had Osama Bin Laden killed, she details the delight and excitement she shared with others in the White House and beyond, the vindication she felt for the wounded soldiers and their families she'd encountered up to that point.
"I'm not sure anyone's death is a reason to celebrate. But what America got that night was a moment of release, a chance to feel its own resilience." (p. 364) 
For all Obama says she's "not sure" about celebrating his death, she has no doubts about the killing itself. Elsewhere, she is open about her uncertainties - whether Barack should stand in the first place, what being in office has done to their children's lives. I was struck by her frankness about fertility treatment, the grim practicalities of Clomid and IVF. There's the slips in her speeches, seized upon by her critics. There's the time when she can't face the grieving community after yet another shooting. And then there's this extraordinary, awful acknowledgement - guilt - that the rise of the right in America is in some ways directly personal.
"For more than six years now, Barack and I had lived with an awareness that we ourselves were a provocation ... Our presence in the White House had been celebrated by millions of Americans, but it also contributed to a reactionary sense of fear and resentment among others. The hatred was old and deep and as dangerous as ever." (p. 397)
Yet she remains optimistic, even to the end. Becoming challenges the reader to step up and make a difference, and offers fascinating insight into the practicalities of public office. We learn how she managed her image and needed lessons in smiling, how she decided what she and her children would wear on stage, how she created her own role as First Lady. There's the difficulty of having a date night when your husband is president, or the strange feeling of addressing a huge crowd from behind a shield of bullet-proof glass.

In fact, the security involved is the most telling detail of life in the White House. Obama is daunted by her first sight of the presidential motorcade. Obama explains how difficult all that fanfare is for doing simple things like looking at potential schools for her children, or letting them go for ice cream with friends. She tells us about the challenge of finding a way out of the White House one particular night, the usual door locked even to her. On another occasion, she shares details of a nightmare in which animals roam the grounds of the building and attack her daughters.

One detail stuck with me. The White House is so heavily defended, its walls and windows so secure, that she couldn't hear the Marine One helicopter when it landed right outside.
"I usually figured out that Barack had arrived home from a trip not by the sound of his helicopter but rather by the smell of its fuel, which somehow manage to permeate." (p. 398) 

Friday, September 27, 2019

Science of Storytelling review

The new issue of medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry includes my review of The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr. You need to pay to read the review but here's the opening grab:
"What links the 4000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh to the children's book Mr Nosey? According to Will Storr's The Science of Storytelling, they provide “the same tribal function” by showing a character shed a flawed worldview and antisocial habits, then be rewarded with connection and status..." Simon Guerrier, "Flaw Plans", The Lancet Psychiatry volume 6, issue 10, pe. 25, 1 October 2019
I posted a little more about the book here earlier in the year. There's also an index of my pieces for the Lancet

Sunday, September 22, 2019

I Love the Bones of You, by Christopher Eccleston

My review of Christopher Eccleston's autobiography will be published in Doctor Who Magazine #544 in just under four weeks' time. As last week's headlines made clear, it's a brave and honest account of his own and his father's struggles with mental illness, told with the intensity Eccleston brings to his acting roles.

I've, obviously, concentrated my review on what he says - and doesn't say - about his time in Doctor Who, but that's a small part of the story. As well as all the revelations about the inside of his head, it's fascinating to read his reasons for turning down roles other actors would beg for - Begbie in the film Trainspotting, Sylar in the TV series Heroes - or to learn what drama and actors inspired him. How strange to think of this iconclastic, bolshie star so bristling with terror when meeting his own heroes, whether actor,  footballer or pop star. He tells us that, having been wary of Doctor Who conventions in the past, he's now embracing fandom.
"It has headled something in me." (p. 167)
And why not - because he's just as much the obsessive, anxious fan as the rest of us.

For a flavour of the book, here's Eccleston's recent appearance at Rose City Comic Con, answering audience questions with honesty and love:

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine 543

Doctor Who Magazine #543 is out in shops now, and features my interview with TV and radio presenter Stephen Cranford about his friendship with the late producer John Nathan-Turner.

Nathan-Turner died in 2002, and Stephen inherited his photos, tapes and paperwork relating to Doctor Who, which he's kindly shared with the clever lot working on DVDs and Blu-rays. We've been able to publish many of the photos for the first time.