Saturday, October 25, 2008

Return of the Decemberists

Another Doctor Who box setSurprise package in the post this morning; a new set of Doctor Who paperbacks. It's five months since the last box set. This one features The Pirate Loop, Trevor's Wishing Well and Jim's Peacemaker squeezed in with Terrance's Revenge of the Judoon.

Only saw Jim on Thursday this week, to discuss things that have not yet been announced. I had two cappucine and a chocolate muffin. That was a good day, as it happens. Later, me and Codename Moose met with someone who might deign to employ us in the future on stuff that would be very exciting indeed. But more of that if/when it happens.

Today I am meant to be finishing off my tax return. Got a couple of introductions to write for something, and Leslie wants something for a fanzine. Have notes on an on-spec script to write up and send off, another script project to get moving, and then there is The Novel. And I'm expecting rewrites on three things to come in at any moment...

More importantly, I've been invited for tea and cake at four. So better get a move on.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The nuclear ‘pool

Having rattled through The Ghost, I’ve since rattled through The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter. I loved his The Time Ships (a sequel to The Time Machine by HG Wells), and this is a similarly thrilling adventure of freewheeling paradoxes.

1962. Laura Mann is 14 years-old and not happy at having to move to Liverpool when her Mum and Dad split up. Dad’s staying at his army base in High Wycombe, and Mum’s got a fancy man, the American soldier Mort who she knew during the war. But as Laura starts school, gets teased about her accent and looking a bit like their spiky headmistress, the world is facing a crisis. The Americans and Russians are at loggerheads in Cuba and threatening nuclear war. And in a murky cavern in Liverpool, Laura’s about to hear a band called the Beatles…

The lurid pink cover (which got a few odd looks on the train) and the teen-protagonist might put some adult readers off. But this is a compelling, complex and richly drawn adventure. It’s surprisingly violent and harrowing in places.

Baxter’s Liverpool is full of telling detail, from the names of contemporary shops and products to people’s assumptions about class and race and sexuality. He deftly describes and explains the world and worldview in a way that only becomes intrusive when a character from 2007 starts harping on about mobile phones and laptops.

I’ve sometimes found Baxter’s other books a bit cold and clever. Like a lot of sci-fi, his world-building is masterful but the characters are sometimes just background to the thrill of all the physics, convenient triggers for the plot. Here, though, he takes his time setting everything up before the plot kicks in.

To begin with, it’s a fish-out-of-water, North and South sort of thing with the girl from the Home Counties struggling to survive the dark and brutish scallys. It’s got the teen-angst feel of Tracy Beaker or the first episode of Byker Grove. Even at the end, the book hinges on Laura’s relationship with her parents, the new perspectives she has of them and of herself as an adult.

But an early reference to another Liverpool band, John Smith and the Common Man, is a fun nod to where the story’s going to go.
SUSAN: I-It's John Smith and the Common Men. They've gone from 19 to 2.
BARBARA: (Not understanding a bit of it.) Hmm. (She looks puzzled.)
IAN: (Laughing.) "John Smith" is the stage name of the honourable Aubrey Waites. He started his career as Chris Waites and the Carollers, didn't he, Susan?
SUSAN: You are surprising, Mr. Chesterton. I wouldn't expect you to know things like that.
IAN: I have an enquiring mind…(Motions to the loud radio.) and a very sensitive ear.

Anthony Coburn, Scene 4 of Doctor Who’s first episode.

As the plot gets going, it seems Baxter is doing what Steven Moffat said of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who: you create interesting characters and melt them. The vivid description of nuclear holocaust and its long-term effects reminded me of Threads. Importantly, the horror and complex plot stuff works because of our investment in and sympathy for a wide range of characters – real and invented.

It’s a quick, compelling read with constant revelations and twists. It’s similar in tone and in some plot gimmickry to my own The Time Travellers but also kept me guessing. But it does end a little abruptly – there’s the last revelation and a big bang and then that’s sort of it. Baxter ties up all the plot strands but I felt a bit short-changed. Perhaps an epilogue set a few years later might have helped. Having invested so much in these people, seen everything they have been and might have been through, it’s unsettling not to know how they ended up.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Iris and Iris

Big Finish have posted the blurb and cast for The Two Irises, written by me. It's out in April (or, as part of a boxset in February). And it may well be the silliest thing I've ever written - which is saying something.
A new adventure for eccentric adventurer, Iris Wildthyme and her companion, Panda in their time travelling London double-decker bus!

Panda wakes from a near death experience to find that Iris has sacrificed herself to save him. There’s a new Iris on the bus – and she is a he!

The new teetotal and decidedly male Iris sets course for the war-torn earth of the 22nd century, where “his” old enemies the Naxians are lying in wait…
The cast is Katy Manning (Iris Wildthyme), David Benson (Panda), Dan Hogarth (Iris Wildthyme), John Dorney (Roger the Naxian), Scott Handcock (Barry). I'm hoping to hear the dialogue edit later today.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The spectre of defeat

Awake at five this morning as the Dr thumped around getting ready for her cab to the airport. She and the mother-in-law are now be in Cairo, visiting the pyramids and stuff. I will be holding the fort, attending to the cat and doing my tax return. Oh joy.

I’ve not made it through to the third round of the British Short Screenplay Competition, but the script is going somewhere else now and my name’s in for a couple of things that might be nice if they happen. On we plod.

In the meantime, I’ve promised all the days I can spare to one freelance gig which is keeping me busy. After a whole summer of writing from home, it’s odd to be commuting again. If nothing else, I am wolfing down whole books.

The Ghost by Robert Harris was a birthday present from a fellow writer. We never learn the name of the protagonist who narrates the story, which is apt in that he’s a ghost writer, the anonymous shadow helping former Prime Minister Adam Lang finish his autobiography.

There’s already a full draft, compiled by a loyal staffer of Lang’s who has died in mysterious circumstances. Our man’s more used to ghosting the memoirs of old rock stars, freely admitting he knows nothing about politics. But with Lang’s former foreign secretary and the international crimes court accusing Lang of war crimes, our man better bone up quick.

It’s a great shocker, full of excitement and intrigue. I read it in just four sittings because – after a slowish start – I couldn’t put it down. It has lots to say on writing-for-hire and hack work and process. There’s some great stuff with the protagonist completely failing to spot the danger he’s in (you keep wanting to shout “behind you!”). And there are also some great little details, like the Prime Minister’s security heavy reading Harry Potter. It’s a lively, exciting and intelligent read and comes recommended.

But there’s something about it that really bugged me, a constant distraction from the thrilling plot. A lot of the reviews of the book have concentrated on how much Adam Lang and his wife owe to Tony and Cherie Blair. It might be them in silhouette on the cover. The characters have similar backgrounds and quirks.

I think this is the weakness of the book. However shrewd these observations of the real former Prime and Mrs Minister, they’re wrapped up in a potboiling thriller, a conspiracy that’s patently not real. The real intrudes on the story.
“Harris, at one time a leading supporter of new Labour, had unprecedented access to Blair during the 1997 election campaign and during his heady early days of government. But his support withered over the Iraq war and Blair’s relationship with George Bush.”

Brendan Bourne, “Harris points pen at a leader very like Blair”, The Sunday Times, 19 August 2007.

As a result of Harris’s insider knowledge, we’re constantly second guessing the real writer. If Lang’s having an affair in the book, does Harris knows something about the Blairs’ sex lives? How much of the book’s conspiracy is real?

And where does it stop? If Lang = Blair, does it follow that X is a reference to Robin Cook, or Y is based on Peter Hain… The whole thing becomes a salacious guessing game, like something out of Popbitch: who is Harris satirising now?

Lang would have worked better as his own man, evidently not Blair yet faced with the same world and choices. That way the sharp contrast makes us think through the issues rather than the gossip. As it is, the book is a personal attack on individuals. And the attack fails because whatever real criticisms Harris might have to make, they’re all mixed up in an unreal, blockbuster plot.

The same is true of To Play The King (the TV version as I’ve not read the book). House of Cards worked because, by not being about any specific, real politicians, it was about all of them. Once you’d seen these fictional people being all smiles as they stabbed at each other, it changed how you saw the real politicians going about their business. But when Michael Kitchen comes in doing an impression of Prince Charles, our attention is all on his performance, judging how well observed, sympathetic or insightful it might be. It’s about him, not the story.

As a result, I kept thinking as I read The Ghost of Andrew Cartmel’s Under the Eagle. The play covers similar ground to this – a British Prime Minister compromised by his relationship with the US, the difficulties of his marriage, the thorny issue of rendition… Both feature an outsider – a ghost writer, a comedian – staying a night with the PM as all hell breaks loose.

But Cartmel’s characters are original creations, so our focus is broader. And just because of that, the points made hit harder. People in The Ghost keep insisting that the whole war crimes thing “isn’t personal”. It’s a shame Harris himself didn’t feel the same.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The geeks shall inherit the earth

Ooh! Found an online video of Neal Stephenson discussing The Fork: Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture, which was part of the Science Fiction as a Literary Genre symposium I went to in May. (You might just spot the back of my head in the video.)

It's a fascinating - and funny - discussion of the way sf and geekery had inviegled itself into the rest of the world. I'd quote worthy chunks of it here but there isn't a transcript and I'm blogging this during my lunchbreak. So just watch the damn thing.

(I did mention it before in my review of Indiana Jones and the Nineteen-Fifties.)

The symposium, incidentally, was at the Royal College of Surgeons, downstairs from the cool museum of dead things in jars. I was a bit disappointed we didn't all lie down, drinking kylixes of wine with rude pictures at the bottom. These academics don't know their history.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Doctor Who in Crystal Palace

For my own amusement, chiefly, here's two Doctor Who magazine covers showing the Doctor's pretty friends larking about in my hood.

Carole Ann Ford in Crystal Palace on the cover of Doctor Who Magazine #221, 18 January 1995This one shows Doctor Who's granddaughter Susan, played by Carole Ann Ford. She's being a cave-woman in homage to the very first Doctor Who story, which featured cave men who've forgotten how to make fire. It's from a special photo shoot for the Radio Times special commemorating 10 whole years of Doctor Who, back in 1973. In the larger version of the picture, you can see Crystal Palace's monsters behind her.

Sophie Aldred in Crystal Palace on the cover of Doctor Who Magazine #162, July 1990And this one shows Sophie Aldred as Ace in a specially commissioned shot for DWM. Local magazine The Transmitter has just done a cover shoot of models taking tea with the monsters, which reminded me of this.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Win my book!

The latest podcast of impossible things features a competition to win copies of Doctor Who - How the Doctor Changed My Life. And also interviews with me and some of the authors.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Gotta be larger than life

As well as jamming lasagne and booze down my head-hole, Psychonomy leant me comics on Saturday. The collected edition of DC: The New Frontier comes in two volumes – a bit odd considering it's just a six-issue run. Both volumes together aren't nearly as thick as DC's famous Watchmen.

In other ways, it's very reminiscent of Watchmen. It plays on twee nostalgia for the golden age of comics – all beefcake heroes and gee-golly earnest dialogue. The wheeze here – as with Watchmen – is that, as well as super villains, our heroes get entangled in real historical events. That makes the familiar archetypes problematic. The civil rights movement and the Cold War muddy up simple gradations of “good” and “bad”. Our heroes are faced with – and commit - “necessary” evils, the moments of bloody violence all the more shocking for being side-by-side with the cheesy clich├ęs.

Like Watchmen, we reappraise the characters as we go, learning about them, seeing them change – getting the kind of development that's still pretty rare in the medium. Like Watchmen, the heroes must unite to stop the world being destroyed by a vast monster from hell, an End of Level Baddie that doesn't talk back and they have just have to Kill.

What this ostensibly has over Watchmen, though, is that it's not specially invented heroes here. It's Superman fighting in Korea, Batman being charged of UnAmerican Activities, Wonder Woman stitched up by Nixon. New Frontiers is a radical new origins story for the Justice League – that is, the gang of space heroes comprising Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and a whole bunch of their less-famous friends.

And that's where I found it difficult. There are a hell of a lot of less-famous friends crammed in here, and it's kind of assumed you know who they all are. One whole plotline revolves around a guy whose dad flew with Chuck Yeager but who keeps being cut out of the action. Only late on – when he gains super powers – did it occur to me that all the stalling would seem more clever had I recognised his name. He introduces himself early on as Hal Jordan – real name of Superman's less-famous friend, Green Lantern.

The comic is playing, probably cleverly, on the expectation of readers who already know Hal's name. But I didn't, so it kind of whooshed me by. Likewise, I assume the hero John Henry is some other DC character I'd just never heard of, or he’s related to one or somehow cleverly mirroring someone else... No, I didn't need anyone to explain.

This is something that Neil Gaiman's 1602 could have floundered on. The wheeze there is packing all Marvel’s famous characters into Elizabethan England – so the X-Men are hunted as witches, and so on. Gaiman wisely chose to focus on the more famous Marvel heroes. A gag of a spider not biting Peter Parker works because even relative comic-book dunces know the basic premise of Spider-Man.

New Frontiers works well at mixing the complex comic continuity with real and complex history. The bizarre clash of black and white heroism with murky politics gives the story real frisson. But often the clashes are just too bizarre. When the vicious thug Batman suddenly reveals that he didn't fall out with Superman, it works as a nice character thing. But when that about-turn also shows him teamed up with a mad-keen, cart-wheeling Boy Wonder, even Superman boggles:
Superman: “Bruce, you're such a cynic. Which begs the question, what's with the new look and the sidekick?”

Batman: “I set out to scare criminals, not children. As for the boy... Well, I guess we're just two lost souls who found each other.”

Darwyn Cooke, DC: The New Frontier, Volume II, chapter 11.

Okay, so he didn’t beat up on Superman, but we’ve seen him terrorising criminals and breaking a guy’s wrists. Having bedded the story in complex history, Robin feels a glibly, awkwardly shoehorned in.

I suspect my problem is that I'm less impressed by this squeezing in of so much continuity, though I can see it would reward more DC's faithful readers. New Frontiers is reminiscent of Watchmen, but it's not quite as smart and lacks the moments of meekness and humour that counterpoint all the muscular hero stuff. More than that, by creating its own superheroes and history, Watchmen need only refer to continuity when it suits the story.

New Frontiers is great in places and a very involving read. But its very selling point – that it uses DC’s own canon of heroes – is what makes it not quite work.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Clang!

I love a good name-drop, but I love a bad one better.
"Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose ... This has always struck me as one of the cleverest lines ever to turn up in a pop lyric. I first heard it one night in December 1968, when Lou Reed took me down to a club in Greenwich Village to hear a new singer called Kris Kristofferson. After we heard the set, we went back to Max's restaurant and I didn't actually meet Kristofferson until nearly three years later, when I came upon him crawling through the dog-flap at Janis Joplin's house, not long after her death, and just before her version of his song Me and Bobby McGee became a huge hit."

Germaine Greer, "Who needs monuments to freedom when you can listen to Me and Bobby McGee instead?", The Guardian, Monday October 6 2008.

It is, as you'll have guessed, the opening salvo for a piece discussing architecture.

Friday, October 03, 2008

We hold the line

Ah, bliss. A couple of nice days off really not doing very much. I'm almost all of the way through the extraordinary, compelling The Writer's Tale, a year-long interview with Doctor Who's re-animator, Russell T Davies.

It's packed with detail and insight about the process of writing: the crucial thinking stages, the desperate panic, the ruthless single mindedness (i.e. the collateral damage done to home life), the four-in-the-morning despair... We see when and how decisions were made, who suggested what bits and how the whole vast production team is constantly driven to Try And Make It Better. I am utterly in awe.

Benjamin Cook is an exceptional interviewer, continually challenging Russell on what he says, digging deep into the marrow of his brain. If brains had marrow in them. Their frame of reference is dizzying, taking in everything from Skins and Corrie to The Cherry Orchard and Six Characters In Search Of An Author (the new version of which, incidentally, discusses David Tennant as Doctor Who and Hamlet).

It's less an interview then, as a chance to eavesdrop a long-running conversation between two very smart people. They're such warm, good-humoured company it is a pleasure to nestle beside them. I have taken it with me to the shops and the pub, sneakily reading bits while no one is looking. Which isn't easy since it's a great heavy brick of 512 pages. And desperate as I am to get through it, I don't want it to ever end. Just 100 pages to go...

Meanwhile, work begins to whisper at me from the darkness. Off to discuss a documentary project this afternoon, then back at the freelance coal-face on Monday. And I've got 10 days to finish a thing as-yet-unannounced plus an outline for something else. Got a TV spec script thing to look over again, and a different script thing has nosed its way back into my thinking. And of course there is The Novel, which I promised myself I'd have a draft of by the end of the year.

Every fibre of my being shrieks, “Get on with it, man!” So I'm now going to watch a DVD.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Idling

Today's itinerary: this evening = pub.

I have handed in Slitheen and all is well with the world. Got up late (the drilling next door didn't start until eleven today, hooray!), watched The Last Sontaran on iPlayer (hooray!), think I might now go to the gym to stretch myself back into shape... And then I might pay a cheque in and do the washing up and perhaps even find myself a copy of Russell's big book of writing.

But there is nothing especially urgent needing doing. There's still plenty to be written and sorted out, and my tax return waves a tentacle from its dark corner. But nothing as especially urgent as it's been the last few months. So I am taking a whole day off to go out and enjoy the sunshine.

Oh. What happened to the summer?