Friday, December 19, 2014

The Couch on which John Hunter Died

The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London is a fascinating place full of dead things in jars. The surgeon John Hunter (1728-93) collected specimens of lizards and other animals, using them to teach the next generation of doctors.
"While most of his contemporaries taught only human anatomy, Hunter's lectures stressed the relationship between structure and function in all kinds of living creatures. Hunter believed that surgeons should understand how the body adapted to and compensated for damage due to injury, disease or environmental changes. He encouraged students such as Edward Jenner and Astley Cooper to carry out experimental research and to apply the knowledge gained to the treatment of patients."
- Hunterian Museum website
It wasn't just medicine that benefited from Hunter's collection. In 1824, Gideon Mantell tried to match a fossilised fragment of jawbone he'd discovered to a comparable modern-day creature. He visited the Hunterian Museum, where assistant-curator Samuel Stutchbury saw a resemblance - in shape if not size - to a specimen of iguana. The following year, Mantell announced to the Royal Geological Society the discovery of Iguanadon - "iguana-tooth". Along with the fossilised remains of two other creatures, Iguanadon would later be used to define a new kind of animal: the dinosaur.

I visit the Hunterian Museum a fair bit, most recently to look up what it has to say on regeneration - the way some animals are able to regrow lost limbs. (I should also declare an interest: my dad volunteers there and gives a good talk every other Friday on the history of syphilis.)

The collection, though, is not just of animals: there are also plenty of human bodies - whole ones as well as partial bits of interest. If this can leave visitors feeling a bit squeamish, the ethos is very clear: by better understanding the body and how it can go wrong, we can better mend injury and cure disease. That said, deciding what specimens count as "better understanding the body" can be open to debate, such as the museum continuing to display the body of Charles Byrne, the "Irish Giant", against his clearly stated views.

I don't have a problem with Byrne's skeleton being displayed, but I was struck by something else I saw this week. By the reception of the Hunter Wing of St George's Hospital in Tooting there's a display devoted to Hunter. The hospital has just done very well in the results of the Research Excellence Framework for 2014 and links its current research to the precedent set by Hunter - who worked at St George's, but back when it was based at Hyde Park Corner (the hospital moved in stages between 1976 and 1980).

I can see why it might not be appropriate to show medical specimens as people go to their medical appointments in the hospital - it would be too blunt a reminder of our inevitable fate. But is the couch on which Hunter died a more tasteful relic for display? It doesn't seem to do much for the better understanding the body. I find myself more bothered by that the bones of Charles Byrne.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Doctor Who Magazine Yearbook 2015

Out now is the Doctor Who Magazine Yearbook 2015, a sumptuous celebration of all this year's Doctor Who. It includes some things I done wrote:

An interview with Albert DePetrillo, senior editorial director at BBC Books who oversees the Doctor Who titles.

A feature on fans who have been inspired by Doctor Who to make the most extraordinary things. I spoke to: Billy Hanshaw who posted a video on YouTube earlier this year that led to him designing the show's opening titles; Ailsa Stern who is the brains (and nimble fingers) behind Dr Puppet; Mette Hedin who creates the most amazing monster costumes for wearing to conventions; and Steven Ricks who hand-tailors exquisitely precise recreations of the various Doctors' clothes.

A piece on all the awards Doctor Who has won in 2014.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Doctors Who and all their friends

I am in love with this magnificent effort by the amazing Red Scharlach:
As Red explains:
I set myself a few ground rules: canon Doctors only (so no Shalka Doctor or Peter Cushing, sorry); not all recurring characters are companions (so no Jackie Tyler or Kate Stewart); and companions must have appeared more than once but not necessarily in the same medium (e.g. Sara Kingdom has been in Big Finish and Grace has been in a comic). But then I broke those rules on occasion (e.g. to include Cinder, the War Doctor’s only companion), so the end result is all a bit wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey fuzzy-brainy won’t-fit-in-the-box-neatly. Rather like Doctor Who itself, in fact.
Anyway, the design is now on sale in my Redbubble shop as a poster or art print (i.e. on heavier paper) and there’s still a little bit of time to order one before Christmas
But look: Oliver, and Amy/Abby and Zara, and even Decky Flamboon...

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Box of Delights and dreams of Christmas

I've written another piece for the Lancet Psychiatry, this time on The Box of Delights and other stories about dreams.

Having loved the TV adaptation from (whisper it) 30 years ago, writing the feature gave me an excuse to compare it to the original book and marvel at Alan Seymour's adaptation - full of small improvements that never intrude themselves on the source.

The cast are all excellent, too, but special mention must go to Bill Wallis, whose performance as Rat is brilliantly disgusting. What a brilliant actor he was.

I'm also thrilled to learn the top fact that as well as the casting of former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton as the wizard Cole Hawlings, working as an assistant floor manager on the production was Paul Carney - grandson of William Hartnell. Thanks to Guy Lambert for sharing that!




Sunday, December 07, 2014

Oliver Cromwell's Fundamentalist Queen

The Fundamentalist Queen, a Radio 3 documentary I've produced, is broadcast tonight at 6.45 pm, and will thereafter be available on the Radio 3 website. Official blurb as follows:
Samira Ahmed explores the extraordinary rise and fall of the Lady Protectress Elizabeth, wife of Oliver Cromwell - a commoner who became "queen" in the 1650s.

Elizabeth lived through an extraordinary time - for women as well as men - as the country was divided by a decade of civil war in the 1640s. In the new regime that followed the execution of Charles I, Elizabeth found herself a consort like no other, an ordinary housewife elevated to Lady Protectress.

But the Protectorate, and its efforts to forge a new kind of state power based on strictly Puritan grounds, lasted only a few years. In 1660, the monarchy was restored, Oliver's allies were executed as traitors and his own dead body was dug up and hanged in chains. The widowed Elizabeth, scorned and taunted, was forced to beg Charles II for mercy.

So why is so little known about her? Helped by leading Cromwell scholars and tantalising historical documents - including a satirical cookbook - Samira goes on the trail of the fundamentalist queen, from the church where she married and her kitchen as the young wife of an MP in Ely, to the extravagant gifts that came to her Puritan court and the secrets that may lie within her anonymous grave. With Louise Jameson as the voice of Elizabeth Cromwell.

Presenter Samira Ahmed. Producers Simon and Thomas Guerrier. A Whistledown Production for BBC Radio 3.
Samira has written her own blog about the documentary, wrote a piece about Elizabeth Cromwell for the BBC's online magazine, and discussed her on the Robert Elms show on Wednesday (1 hour 9 minutes in; and she's followed by an interview with my chum Dick Fiddy from the BFI and the amazing Paddy Kingsland of the Radiophonic Workshop). The documentary is also one of BBC History Magazine's picks of the week's TV and radio.

Samira makes the point, too, that the documentary came about because I researched the life of Oliver Cromwell for a Doctor Who audio - The Settling. Grateful thanks to Gary Russell, the director-producer who commissioned me, on the condition that I'd do the reading. (Researching the prospect of the documentary also led me to look round Ely, which in turn led to the setting of another Doctor Who story - Home Truths.)

It's been a joy to make the documentary, and that's all down to the generosity of the people with whom we made it. Thanks to Samira for her faith in me and brother Tom, and to David Prest and everyone at Whistledown for so patiently shepherding us through the process. Thanks to John Goldsmith, formerly of the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, Traci Bosdet and Tracey Harding at Oliver Cromwell's House in Ely, and Diane Corbin at St Giles Cripplegate, and to Jane and John Trevor for letting us look round their home. Thanks to our experts: Professor Laura Gowing at King's College London, Professor Peter Gaunt of the University of Chester and the Cromwell Association, and Dr Patrick Little of the History of Parliament. Thanks to David J Darlington for assistance with bringing the 17th century vividly to life (just as he did with The Settling). And thanks to Louise Jameson for bringing Elizabeth to life.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Briefly, we had a daughter

Early this morning, our eight day-old daughter died, peacefully and calmly, with me and the Dr holding on to her. What follows is mostly for friends in real life, as I've been struggling to manage updates.

The past few months have been exciting, terrifying and surreal, a strange dream from which we've now woken.

Having been shown rather definitively in 2010 that we couldn't have biological kids of our own, we'd moved on, created an identity as a barren couple, and adopted our beloved Lord of Chaos. So the pregnancy came as a complete surprise this spring. We assumed, given our history, that it simply wouldn't work and it was another complete surprise when the hospital rang to ask what we were playing at - as we'd crossed the first important milestones but hadn't booked any appointments or tests.

We were still dubious, and avoided saying anything online, preferring to tell people in person. (Then forgetting who we had and hadn't told, and making a bit of a meal of it. Sorry.)

But as we went to our appointments, all look just fine, and we allowed ourselves to believe it. The Lord of Chaos was relieved to be getting a sister because - he said - he wouldn't have to share so many toys. We bought things for baby and things were bequeathed. I took on loads of freelance jobs so I could afford some time off round the birth. We even worked out how we'd refer to our second child online: as "Minotaur". We looked forward to her arrival.

Then, last week, the Dr was rushed to hospital as - it turned out - her waters had broken eight weeks' early. Friends and grandparents moved at short notice to come to our assistance, looking after the Lord of Chaos and running errands while I dashed to the Dr's side. But the tests showed things were okay with Minotaur. She would just be arriving early - they hoped in 2-3 weeks.

Minotaur had other ideas about that and with very little notice arrived one morning last week. She was swooped on by doctors but everything looking fine. I watched Minotaur being carefully placed in an incubator - like all premature babies - and grinned at her funny monkey face as she blinked dolefully back at me. Much later, exhausted and relieved, I went home to Champagne with my delighted Dad, and began letting people know.

But 12 hours after being born, Minotaur took a sudden turn for the worse. We were told straight away that the prospects were not good. The Dr and Minotaur were rushed by ambulance, all lights blazing, to a specialist unit across town, but we were put under no illusion that things were very grave.

We expected her to die, but Minotaur held on tenaciously over the weekend. There were even small signs of improvement. We let ourselves hope that she would pull through.

But on Tuesday the results of a series of tests proved that Minotaur's condition was every bit as severe as first suggested. There would be no happy ending. And yet, even in that terrible moment there was still some joy: they released Minotaur from her incubator so we could at long last hold her.

I'm grateful to have held her, to have spent time with her away from the tubes and machines, and that at least some family were able to see her, too - and note her eyes and hair being her mother's, and her long skinny feet from me.

Last night, just the three of us had a room to ourselves and we spent the long hours talking, reading stories, clinging on. Minotaur gazed at us dolefully and held the Dr's finger, and knew that we were there. We poured out our hearts to her, and loved her. I think she knew that, too - and that's why she hung on so long. This morning she died.

We are in pieces. But we are grateful to have held her and for so many small moments with her. Friends and family have been incredible - even though there was so little that anyone could do. We're very grateful, too, to the staff at both Croydon University Hospital and St George's Hospital, who so diligently cared for us and our poor Minotaur, making her short life painless, peaceful and something we can cherish.

We will retire now to heal, and try to get back to some kind of normality. A few people I've already been in touch with asked how they could help. At the moment, we need to work this through ourselves. But as our world was tumbling, the charities First Touch and Ronald McDonald House were there to embrace us. You could help them help others like us - and maybe even spare some of that pain - by making a donation.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Three magazines

In shops this week are three magazines what I did some writing for.

'Oliver Cromwell's forgotten queen' says the top of BBC History Magazine. Elizabeth Cromwell (1598-1665) was arguably the most powerful woman in the country in the 1650s, but today we know almost nothing about her.

The three-page article investigates her life, as a foretaste of the documentary brother Tom and I have made with Samira Ahmed to be broadcast on Radio 3 on 7 December. (More of which to come.)

'The space traveller's guide to the Doctor's universe' boasts Doctor Who Magazine's latest The Essential Doctor Who - Alien Worlds. As well as a great feature by Dr Marek Kukula on the scientific basis (or, er, not) of the Doctor's visits to other worlds, I've written entries on the following planets: Demon's Run, Ember, New Earth, Terra Alpha, Thoros Beta, Titan III and Traken. I've also written about the unnamed planets seen in The Stolen Earth, The End of Time part 2 and Death of the Doctor.

In fact, it was fascinating to watch The Twin Dilemma the same week as the broadcast of Deep Breath. Both introduce a brash, grumpy Doctor who the companion isn't sure about - and neither are we. But the script of The Twin Dilemma gives the new Doctor no moments to shine, or be heroic, or woo us. The end of Deep Breath is a plea to give the new guy a chance. The end of The Twin Dilemma is - on the page at least - almost 'Don't like it? Tough.' (And, weirdly, the two worlds we visit in The Twin Dilemma - Titan III and Jaconda - look almost identical.)

Lastly you can read my review of The Imitation Game - the new Alan Turing biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch - for the Lancet Psychiatry. I've previously blogged about my family connection to the code-breakers at Bletchley Park and I've wrote some Blake's 7 plays that might be of interest: The Dust Run and The Trial star Cumberbatch as a space pilot; The Turing Test is about Avon trying to pass as a human being.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Doctor Who and the space owls

The super new issue of Doctor Who Adventures boasts previews of forthcoming episodes Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline, reveals all about the Special Weapons Dalek and boasts a new comic strip by me.

"The Court of Birds" sees the Doctor and Clara in the sky of the planet Hoopoe. I'm especially exciting to write for the new incarnation of the Doctor, and thrilled as always by John Ross's extraordinary artwork. The colours are by Alan Craddock and the fine Moray Laing and Craig Donaghy let me get away with such silliness. Doctor Who Adventures #356 is in all proper shops until 21 October or available on the Doctor Who Adventures website.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Modern Man - Best Comedy Short at Isle of Man!

As director Seb Solberg reports, Modern Man (a short film I wrote) won Best Comedy Short at the Isle of Man Film Festival this weekend. Hurrah and indeed hoodoo!


Mark Kermode and Modern Man director Seb Solberg


Here's me on the writing of Modern Man from last year (including the original cut of the film for you to watch), and another post from Seb on making Modern Man. And here's the full - and amazing - cast and crew.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The sleeper must awaken: inside the mind of Dune

I've written an essay on Dune for the new issue of the Lancet Psychiatry, which you can read in full online.

Further reading:

  • Brian Herbert, Dreamer of Dune – The Biography of Frank Herbert (Tor: New York, 2003)
  • Frank Herbert, Dune (Orion: London, 2007 (1965)
  • Frank Herbert, The Dragon in the Sea (Nel Books: London, 1969 (1955))
  • David Lynch (dir.), Dune (Universal Studios Blu-ray: 2010 (1984))
  • Ed Naha, The Making of Dune (Target: London, 1984)
  • Timothy O'Reilly, Frank Herbert (Frederick Ungar: New York, 1983) - full text online
  • Chris Rodley (ed.), Lynch on Lynch (Faber and Faber: London, 1997)
  • The David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace - www.davidlynchfoundation.org/

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mary Queen of Scot's skull watch?

I'm having a lovely time working on Horrible Histories magazine at the moment, writing poo jokes and investigating stupid deaths. Today, I've been on the trail of an unusual gift apparently given by Mary, Queen of Scots, to her maid, Mary Seaton.

Search the web and you'll find plenty of sites referencing Mary Queen of Scot's skull watch. They seem to link back to a post on This Write Life from October 2012, but I'm struck by the three images of the watch in that post, reproduced below:




The first image is clearly not the same watch as the other two.

A bit more searching, and the second image appears to be cropped version of one from the Victoria and Albert Museum - an engraving from 1820-35 by Charles John Smith.

The third image, of the same watch in a distinctive holder with a hole in the top, seems to match one in the collection of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. There are three images of this particular skull watch on the Bridgeman images site. But the description for each of these says it is not the watch given by Mary Queen of Scots to her maid; it's an 18th century copy made by "Moysant, Blois".

The This Write Life site - and plenty of others that repeat the same information with the same pictures - claims the skull watch to be the work of "Moyant A. Blois (1570-90)". Surely Moyant A. Blois must be related to Moysant, Blois - but is this clockmaker from the sixteenth or eighteenth centuries? Does the original skull watch still exist? In fact, did Mary Queen of Scots really give such a gift, or is it the invention of a later century?

I shall continue to search… But here's a description from an 1894 book that says it wasn't a "watch" as we understand it anyway, but more of a table decoration:
A MEMENTO-MORI WATCH.

The curious relic, of which we herewith give an engraving, was presented by Mary, Queen of Scots, to her Maid of Honour, Mary Seaton, of the house of Wintoun, one of the four celebrated Maries, who were Maids of Honour to her Majesty.
"Yestreen the Queen had four Maries,
The night she'll hae but three;
There was Marie Seaton, and Marie Beaton,
And Marie Carmichael and me."
[Illustration [++] Memento-Mori Watch.] [SG: I assume this is a version of the Charles John Smith engraving.]

The watch is of silver, in the form of a skull. On the forehead of the skull is the figure of Death, with his scythe and sand-glass; he stands between a palace on the one hand, and a cottage on the other, with his toes applied equally to the door of each, and around this is the legend from Horace "_Pallida mors æquo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas Regumque turres_." On the opposite, or posterior part of the skull, is a representation of Time, devouring all things. He also has a scythe, and near him is the serpent with its tail in its mouth, being an emblem of eternity; this is surrounded by another legend from Horace, "_Tempus edax rerum tuque invidiosa vetustas_." The upper part of the skull is divided into two compartments: on one is represented our first parents in the garden of Eden, attended by some of the animals, with the motto, "_Peccando perditionem miseriam æternam posteris meruere_." The opposite compartment is filled with the subject of the salvation of lost man by the crucifixion of our Saviour, who is represented as suffering between the two thieves, whilst the Mary's are in adoration below; the motto to this is "_Sic justitiæ satisfecit, mortem superavit salutem comparavit_." Running below these compartments on both sides, there is an open work of about an inch in width, to permit the sound to come more freely out when the watch strikes. This is formed of emblems belonging to the crucifixion, scourges of various kinds, swords, the flagon and cup of the Eucharist, the cross, pincers, lantern used in the garden, spears of different kinds, and one with the sponge on its point, thongs, ladder, the coat without seam, and the dice that were thrown for it, the hammer and nails, and the crown of thorns. Under all these is the motto, "_Scala cæli ad gloriam via_."

The watch is opened by reversing the skull, and placing the upper part of it in the hollow of the hand, and then lifting the under jaw which rises on a hinge. Inside, on the plate, which thus may be called the lid, is a representation of the Holy Family in the stable, with the infant Jesus laid in the manger, and angels ministering to him; in the upper part an angel is seen descending with a scroll on which is written, "_Gloria excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonæ volu----_" In the distance are the shepherds with their flocks, and one of the men is in the act of performing on a cornemuse. The works of the watch occupy the position of the brains in the skull itself, the dial plate being on a flat where the roof of the mouth and the parts behind it under the base of the brain, are to be found in the real subject. The dial plate is of silver, and it is fixed within a golden circle richly carved in a scroll pattern. The hours are marked in large Roman letters, and within them is the figure of Saturn devouring his children, with this relative legend round the outer rim of the flat, "_Sicut meis sic et omnibus idem_."

Lifting up the body of the works on the hinges by which they are attached, they are found to be wonderfully entire. There is no date, but the maker's name, with the place of manufacture, "Moyse, Blois," are distinctly engraven. Blois was the place where it is believed watches were first made, and this suggests the probability of the opinion that the watch was expressly ordered by Queen Mary at Blois, when she went there with her husband, the Dauphin, previous to his death. The watch appears to have been originally constructed with catgut, instead of the chain which it now has, which must have been a more modern addition. It is now in perfect order, and performs wonderfully well, though it requires to be wound up within twenty-six hours to keep it going with tolerable accuracy. A large silver bell, of very musical sound, fills the entire hollow of the skull, and receives the works within it when the watch is shut; a small hammer set in motion by a separate escapement, strikes the hours on it.

This very curious relic must have been intended to occupy a stationary place on a _prie-dieu_, or small altar in a private oratory, for its weight is much too great to have admitted of its having been carried in any way attached to the person.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Ten years since Sir Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart

Big Finish are celebrating 15 years of making Doctor Who stories on CD, and asked me to write something about the UNIT spin-off series from 2005, which they're flogging for £1 each today.

I wrote the pilot episode, The Coup, given away with Doctor Who Magazine in December 2004. It was the first of the 40+ audios I've written, so has a lot to answer for... You can listen to The Coup for free, plus here's me on what I hoped might happen next...

Friday, August 01, 2014

Nine Worlds and Worldcon

Next week I'll be at the mahoosive science-fiction convention, Nine Worlds. The week after I'll be at the even more humungous Loncon. On the off-chance you care, here's where I'll be and when…

Nine Worlds

(My schedule on the Nine Worlds site.)

Time Travel (Books)
Friday 8 August 11.45 - 13.00
This is a message from your future self: go to this panel!
Panel: Paul Cornell, Lauren Beukes, Kate Griffin, Fabio Fernandes, Simon Guerrier

(The Dr will be delivering Monsterclass: Archaeological world building at 3.15.)

Writing for Transmedia: ideas that cross formats and boundaries (Books/Creative Writing)
Friday 8 August 18.45 - 20.00
Because a story can also be an app, computer game, vlog, fanvid, web series, docu-drama, interactive ebook, diary comic, inter-sensory experience or any other format currently existing or yet to exist not listed here. Kind of against the spirit of the thing, if you ask us. Guess you’ll just have to go to it in person.
Panel: Barry Nugent, Anna Caltabiano, Simon Guerrier, Adam Christopher

Anytime, Anywhere (Doctor Who)
Sunday 10 August 10.00-11.15
The Doctor can travel anywhere in time and space, and the pure historical story was a regular occurrence in the early days of the show, but has been seen only once since 1966. Would a pure historical work in today’s Doctor Who? Is there any time or place the Doctor should go that he hasn’t yet? Which historical figures does he really need to get around to meeting?
Panel: Simon Guerrier, Adam Christopher, Joanne Harris, Anna Jackson

A Handy Guide to the Wilderness Years and Beyond (Doctor Who)
Sunday 10 August 13.30 - 14.45
Doctor Who isn’t just a telly show, it’s also books, audios, comics, webcasts, and computer games. In the nineties, these non-telly sources were the only place you could get (official) new Doctor Who stories. For telly fans looking to step into the worlds of book and audio, where do you even start? Our panel talks about the highs and lows of non-telly Who, and where you can find the good stuff.
Panel: David Bailey, Sarah Groenewegen, Rebecca Levene, Simon Guerrier, David McIntee

Representation of Gender Roles (Doctor Who)
Sunday 10 August 15.15 - 16.30
From rejection of the fifties ‘feminine mystique’ to Sarah Jane’s explicit rejection of seventies patriarchy. Ace and Rose are working class heroes. Madame Vastra and Jenny are a married interspecies couple who fight crime, and aliens, in Victorian London. How successfully does the show challenge prevailing gender norms? Where does it succeed best? Where could it do better?
Panel: Simon Guerrier, Angela Blackwell, Una McCormack, Amy

Loncon


(My schedule on the Loncon site)

Children's something or other
Thursday 14 August 14:30
I've been asked to talk to a children's workshop about what I do. Lucky them.

Doctor Who: Fandom for the Whole Family
Thursday 14 August 16:30 - 18:00, Capital Suite 10 (ExCeL)
Doctor Who is an international cult hit phenomenon that began when the First Doctor landed the TARDIS on British soil in the 1960s and captured the hearts and minds of a generation. The Doctor's companions, from Susan to Adric, from Zoe to Amy, have often been teenagers or children, a surrogate 'family' that brings the family together as our Doctors regenerate into our children’s Doctors—generation after generation. What is it about Doctor Who that attracts younger fans? Why do they identify with a thousand year old Time Lord? What was the Doctor like when he was a teenager? Panelists discuss the ageless and timeless appeal of Doctor Who, especially among younger fans and their families.
Panel: Jody Lynn Nye, SJ Groenewegen, VE Schwab, Kathryn Sullivan, Simon Guerrier

Awards and Their Narratives
Sunday 17 August 10:00 - 11:00, Capital Suite 10 (ExCeL) 
As one of Saturday's panels discussed, many factors come into play when judges or voters decide which books to recognise with awards. But what happens afterwards, over the years, as the list of winners grows? As an award develops a "canon", patterns will emerge, different maps of what we should be valuing in science fiction and fantasy. This panel will discuss the maps drawn by different genre awards -- from the Hugos to the Clarkes, from Tiptree to Translation, from Aurealis to BSFA -- and the ways in which readers make use of them.
Panel: Tom Hunter, Simon Guerrier, Stan Nicholls, Dr Tansy Rayner Roberts, Tanya Brown

Kaffeeklatsch (no, I'm not sure either)
Sunday 17 August 18:00 - 19:00, London Suite 4 (ExCeL)
Simon Guerrier, Greer Gilman

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Interview with Michael Pickwoad in Doctor Who Magazine

Doctor Who Magazine #476 is available in shops now. As well as interviews with Steven Moffat's preview of the forthcoming new series - and details of who is writing which episodes - there's an interview with production designer Michael Pickwoad by me. He explained how to build whole worlds...

I had a very nice day in March visiting the BBC's Roath Lock studios to speak to Michael, who could not have been nicer. As well as him explaining to me - who can barely draw or make things or tie a shoelace - what it is he does, we discussed his work on Withnail and I, the Children's Film Foundation films of the 1970s and his dad helping Doctor Who battle The War Machines.

And before I left he quite extraordinarily handed me - well, you'll have to read the interview to find out.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Irregularity

Earlier this week, the nice people at Jurassic London announced the contents of forthcoming anthology Irregularity - which I'm thrilled to have an story in. Here's what they said:

Irregularity is about the tension between order and chaos in the 17th and 18th centuries. Men and women from all walks of life dedicated themselves to questioning, investigating, classifying and ordering the natural world. They promoted scientific thought, skepticism and intellectual rigour in the face of superstition, intolerance and abuses of power. These brave thinkers dedicated themselves and their lives to the idea that the world followed rules that human endeavour could uncover... but what if they were wrong?

Irregularity is about the attempts to impose man's order on nature's chaos, the efforts both successful and unsuccessful to better know the world.

Fom John Harrison to Ada Lovelace, Isaac Newton to Émilie du Châtelet, these stories showcase the Age of Reason in a very different light.

This anthology is published to coincide with two exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum taking place in 2014: a major exhibition on the story of the quest for longitude at sea and a steampunk show at the Royal Observatory. The Museum is also our partner for the publication of Irregularity, including access to their archives for materials, imagery and inspiration.

CONTENTS:
"Fairchild's Folly" by Tiffani Angus
"A Game Proposition" by Rose Biggin
"Footprint" by Archie Black
"A Woman Out of Time" by Kim Curran
"The Heart of Aris Kindt" by Richard de Nooy
"An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought" by Simon Guerrier
"Irregularity" by Nick Harkaway
"Circulation" by Roger Luckhurst
"The Voyage of the Basset" by Claire North
"The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle" by Adam Roberts
"Animalia Paradoxa" by Henrietta Rose-Innes
"The Last Escapement" by James Smythe
"The Darkness" by M. Suddain
"The Spiders of Stockholm" by E. J. Swift
Afterword by Sophie Waring and Richard Dunn, Head of Science and Technology at Royal Museums Greenwich

Illustrations by Gary Northfield and the National Maritime Museum

Cover by Howard Hardiman

Edited by Jared Shurin

THE LIMITED EDITION
Irregularity will also be available as a limited, hand-numbered, hardcover edition. The "Meridian Edition" is a quarter-bound volume in the traditional 17th century duodecimo size, on 120 gsm paper and complete with decorative ribbon, coloured endpapers and head and tail bands.

The Meridian Edition is available exclusively through the National Maritime Museum.

DETAILS
Published 24 July 2014

Hardcover (100 numbered copies): £29.99 (coming soon)
ISBN: 978-0-9928172-2-0

Paperback: £12.99
ISBN: 978-0-9928172-1-3

Kindle: Coming soon
Kobo: Coming soon
Spacewitch: Coming soon
ISBN: 978-0-9928172-3-7

Find it on Goodreads

EXTRAS
Join us at the launch - "Dark and Stormy Late" - at the National Maritime Museum on 24 July.

"Calling irregular authors!" - background on the project and an introduction to the 2014 exhibitions from the National Maritime Museum.

"Longitude Punk'd" - a selection of objects to inspire the upcoming exhibition, selected from the Museum's archives.

The Board of Longitude archive - now available online through Cambridge University Library, the National Maritime Museum and the Board of Longitude project.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Doctor Who fights ALL the monsters in Croydon


Some foolishness I wrote - Face of Boe Book, in which lots of Doctor Who monsters invade Croydon. Design by my clever friend Lee Midwinter.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Monday, June 02, 2014

Modern Man wins at Kinofilm 2014!

Hurrah! Modern Man - a short film I wrote - has won Best Three-Minute Wonder at the Kinofilm International Short Film Festival in Manchester. You can read the full list of winners on the Kinofilm website.

The film has also been playing recently in cities even more exotic than Manchester. Director Seb Solberg blogged about his recent trip to see Modern Man playing in Paris.

You can watch Modern Man below, and I wrote a thing about making it.


Modern Man from Sebastian Solberg on Vimeo.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Paul Spragg (1975-2014)

My friend Paul Spragg died on 8 May. His brother Nick and best friend Tom have written beautifully about what a lovely, funny, hard-working and magnificent fellow he was. It's not only desperately sad, it's just ridiculous that Paul is gone.

There's a justgiving page set up to donate money to the British Heart Foundation in Paul's name.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Sci-Fi London winners

The nice people at Sci-Fi London have announced the winners of this year's 48 hour challenges to make films and tell stories.

For each competition, entrants had 48 hours to entirely create an original work based on stuff we gave them on the morning of Saturday 12 April: the title, a line of dialogue, a prop or action, and an optional science theme or idea (created by readers of New Scientist).

As you may remember, two years ago, Brother Tom, I and a gang of handsome desperadoes threw our all into the 48-hour film challenge. Read of our adventures making Revealing Diary.

This year, I was one of the three judges on the "flash fiction" short story competition, helping Charles Christian and Robert Grant whittle the entries down to one winner and two runners up:
  1. "Silent Storm" by Erin Johnson (PDF)
  2. "The Journey" by Bisha K Ali 
  3. "Tomorrow At Noon" by Glen Mehn
Congratulations to Erin, Bisha and Glen, and well done to everyone who took part. You can also watch the winning storytelling film and short films here:

"Shift" by Gareth Topping:



The March by Mission Media / Black Ant



The two runners-up in the film-making contest were Back Issue by the Creepy Guys:



And Life External by Bokeh:

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Top Trumps: Space

Unleashed on the world tomorrow is a new book I've written - Top Trumps: Space, published by Puffin. Follow the link for example pages and more information.

The wheeze is that you get a pack of Top Trumps cards all about planets, spacecraft and other cosmic stuff and a book of extra facts and activities as a bonus.

It was a joy to work on: the nice editor sent me the images of the cards, and then I had full freedom to fill the book with my favourite bits of space oddness, gleaned from the GCSE in astronomy I studied at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich all those years ago.

It's especially thrilling because me and my younger brother were keen Top Trumps combatants (often mixing up packs, so we'd have majestic battles between dinosaurs and racing cars - which you can make work by comparing "Second category down" and so on).

Here's the book's blurb:
Play and discover with Top Trumps Activity Books!

This awesome fact-filled Top Trumps activity book is packed with amazing info on the wonders of space. Why is Mars called the 'red planet'? What are Saturn's rings made of? And which heavenly body is the biggest? Find out all about our solar system's planets and stars...and find out which is the most awe-inspiring of them all!

With cool activities plus 20 free Top Trumps cards to create your own fun tournament!

Read more cool Top Trumps titles! Top Trumps: Baby Animals, Top Trumps: Deadliest Predators, Creatures of the Deep and Top Trumps: Dinosaurs are also available from Puffin.

Published by Puffin, 1 May 2014. 32pp, ISBN-10: 0141352361, ISBN-13: 978-0141352367.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Feast or famine

Waaah! I have been a bit busy lately, scribbling lots of things all at once (and editing and producing and interviewing and advising and judging). So this poor blog has been even more neglected than usual.

Out in shops now is Doctor Who and the War To End All Wars, the last of the Companion Chronicles to be recorded. As I enthuse on the interview stuck on the end of the CD, I've loved writing the Companion Chronicles, and thanks to David Richardson, Jacqueline Rayner, Lisa Bowerman and all the amazing actors and sound people who've made me sound vaguely adequate.

This one is based on conversations I had with Matthew Sweet while he was making his Radio 3 programme on Alex Comfort - and discovered that Comfort had been interviewed by Doctor Who's script editor Gerry Davis about being a scientific adviser to the show. Matthew recommended Comfort's Authority and Delinquency as a good book of ideas to base a Doctor Who story on, so I did.

Next month, my Blake's 7 play President is out - and of the six Blake's 7s I've written for Big Finish it's the one I'm proudest of. By an odd coincidence to do with scheduling, both this and the Doctor Who one are all about politics - but they were written more than a year apart.

I've a book out next week which I shall try to blog about on 1 May. But now I must go and add a second coat of paint to a ceiling.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers

Another delightful murder mystery starring Lord Peter Wimsey. Like Clouds of Witness, the story is about getting someone off a charge of murder rather than (or as well as) looking for a killer among suspects. That makes it immediately warmer and more benign than most other detective adventures. Plus our detective has fallen in love...

Strong Poison begins at what seems to be the end of the adventure, with the summing up of evidence in a trial for murder. Harriet Vane, writer of popular murder mysteries (just like Sayers herself), is suspected of killing her no-good rapscallion boyfriend - like something out of one of her own books.

Wimsey is not involved in the case, he's just a fascinated observer. When the jury can't decide whether Vane is innocent or guilty, he steps in to prove her innocence.

Published in 1930, the book feels racingly modern, the plot tied up in all kinds of things of its time: seances, socialism and speakeasies, with motivations all bound up in "what will people think". It's only a post-war perspective that makes an early clue so striking: when Urquhart speaks of euthanasia as kindness, he's expressing what was then a widely held view.
"It always seemed to me a cruel thing that one may not put these poor old people out of the way, as one would a favoured animal."
Dorothy L Sayers, Strong Poison, p. 126.
I loved the idea of the "cattery" (first described pp. 54-5), an office of smart, professional spinsters who help Wimsey foil criminal schemes. It's like the Baker Street irregulars in Sherlock Holmes, but without the sense of exploitation (as I discussed in reviewing The House of Silk). I especially like the plot zigzagging off as one of these women takes central stage and has a mini-adventure. Leaving London for the countryside is a much bigger deal - there is communication by post and telegraph, but she's basically out on her own. There's some nice character stuff about the pricking of her conscience over whether to dupe a nurse if it will help solve the mystery.

But there's also something strange about the book being contemporary. Written and set in 1930, there's a moment when it jumps to the future:
"Wimsey was accustomed to say, when he was an old man, and more talkative than usual, that the recollection of that Christmas at Duke's Denver had haunted him in nightmares, every night regularly, for the following twenty years."
Ibid., p. 141.
It's perhaps stranger still coming so soon after Wimsey has joked to a socialist about what the future might hold:
"People will point me out, as I creep, bald and yellow and supported by discreet corsetry, into the nightclubs of my great-grandchildren, and they'll say, 'Look, darling! that's the wicked Lord Peter, celebrated for never having spoken a reasonable word for the last ninety-six years. He was the only aristocrat who escape the guillotine in the revolution of 1960. We keep him as a pet for the children.' And I shall wag my head and display my up-to-date dentures and say, 'Ah, ha! They don't have the fun we used to have in my young days, the poor, well-regulated creatures."
Ibid., p. 99-100.
Far odder, though, is Wimsey's interest in the suspect. He seems to have fallen for Vane at first sight, and there's no indication what makes him so sure she didn't do it. On the few occasions they meet while he struggles to save her, I got little sense of her character, or of a spark between them - she merely seems baffled at Wimsey being so head over heels.

Vane is, understandably, wary of Wimsey. Besides, whether or not she's a killer, the case has brought out all sorts of lurid detail about her past. There's also the delicate matter of obligation: if Wimsey can save her, does she then owe him a date - or is that horribly unseemly? As a result, it's hard to believe in his infatuation or that there's any hope for the two of them. It just feels rather odd.

Far better played is the romance between Wimsey's sister and an honest copper who dare not speak of how he feels about a woman so far above his station. Wimsey is an unlikely Cupid, having it out with them both to get their act together, but it's a warm, funny sub-plot that lifts the whole story above the brutal, nasty murder.

Friday, March 21, 2014

SALE! All nine hours of Graceless for £25!

Those splendid fellows at Big Finish are having a sale this weekend: buy all nine hours of my sci-fi series Graceless for just £25. AMAZING.

Graceless is about two time-travelling minxes and the larks they get up to. It stars Ciara Janson, Laura Doddington and Fraser James, and the stellar guest cast includes David Warner, Derek Griffiths and Geraldine James. There are jokes, there are explosions, there is quite a lot of very gratuitous nudity.

But on audio. Sorry.


Monday, March 03, 2014

The Making of Dune by Ed Naha

"Please enjoy this book and, most important, enjoy the movie. I have no doubt that there will be more."
Dino De Laurentiis, "Introduction" to Ed Naha, The Making of Dune (1984), p. 2.
I reread and wittered on about Dune last year and, as a result, have been commissioned to write something looking at the book and the film - hurrah. As part of that, I read Ed Naha's The Making of Dune (the film) and am a bit surprised by how little it's been of use.

As a kid, I treasured this book: a holy text of instructions on how to make something so epic and strange. In the first paragraph of his introduction, De Laurentiis (whose daughter, Raffaella, produced the movie), dismisses the standard making-of:
"It has usually been a nice book, telling the world how much everyone who made the movie liked every moment, how the relatively few little problems that arose were quickly solved. Too often, such books are only fairy tales.
Making a movie, an inexpensive movie or one on the scale of Dune, is always an exercise in the impossible. There are no small problems: personal difficulties, technical foul-ups, financial over-runs, the weather, the food - all become major concerns."
Ibid., p. 1.
Yet, unsurprisingly for an officially sanctioned tome, The Making of Dune is largely taken up with how the cast and crew triumphed over the challenges to produce an ambitious, grown-up, effective motion picture that deserves to be a success. As so often in these things, everyone's very complimentary about each other and they praise the food.

That said, there's plenty of interesting stuff on the colossal production:  all the mechanics involved in a pre-digital age, the problems of getting kit through customs, or the cast afflicted by sickness. Some decisions are telling:
"The women's [stillsuits] looked rather unfeminine ... so we redesigned the suits to have larger breasts. That's also why most of the Fremen women characters have long hair. It softens their looks in the suits. It works quite well."
Ibid., p. 72.
But there's almost nothing on the script. When David Lynch - who directed the film based on his own script - is asked why previous scripts had not worked, he answers:

"I don't know ... There's no logical reason why they failed. Maybe they were scared about the script. Maybe they were scared about the money. Maybe they were scared about so many major roles."
Ibid., p. 16.
But there's nothing on how he adapted the book: what he thought was essential and what could be stripped back, what needed improving or changing, or even what he felt the book says. "Tell the fans they're making the real DUNE" says an endorsement from Frank Herbert on the back of the book - but the book doesn't address the adaptation.

Why, for example, do we lose Paul and Chani having a child - one killed in the battle at the end? Was it for time or tone, or what? Nor does Paul end up engaged to a princess with Chani accepting her fate as a concubine. The end of the film is taken from one of the later books in the series... There's no discussion of those choices.

In the chapter devoted to him, Lynch talks about reworking the script as they film it, but there's little on what those reworkings might be. Later, there are two brief mentions of changes, and one is a picture caption:
"At right: No longer in the film, this photograph is of the original version of Paul's Water of Life scene. In the final version of Dune, this scene occurs in the desert."
Ibid., p. 186.
The other is right at the end of the book, as the film is in post-production:
"En route to a final cut, only one major story change has been made; the subplot involving Paul's killing of Jamis and his subsequent involvement with Jamis' mate Harah and her children has been completely excised.
'That has caused me some worry,' admits Raffaella. 'That whole sequence was very important in the book. It's a turning point for Paul. We had to eliminate it because it got very involved.If we kept Paul's fight with Jamis in the movie, then we had to deal with Jamis' wife and Jamis' children. It stopped the whole film.'"
Ibid., pp. 289-90.
She refers to the scenes as "boring". Lynch concurs, explaining how he tried to keep the "feeling" of the missing material if not the scenes themselves.

I don't feel I'm being swindled: the front cover promises "The filming of Frank Herbert's bestselling science-fiction masterpiece" (my italics). But Naha is, according to Wikipedia, a "science fiction and mystery writer and producer", so it's especially odd that he ignores the writing. The book rather implies that in making a film, a script is a minor consideration, not at the root of the production. Ignoring that root means there's little depth to this account. That seems wrong for such a complex subject as Dune, and means the making of is little help to me in understanding the film.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan

“Agatha Christie remained inwardly detached from archaeology. She relished the archaeological life in remote country and made good use of its experiences in her own work. She has a sound knowledge of the subject, yet remained outside it, a happily amused onlooker.”
Jacquetta Hawkes, 1983 foreword to Agatha Christie, Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946), p. 15.
Come, Tell Me How You Live is a lively, funny and sharply observed memoir of Agatha Christie's time in Syria in the mid 1930s, assisting her husband Max Mallowan, the archaeologist. Wikipedia says that Christie mixes up the chronology of the real excavations, and there's surprisingly little about what they found and learned from their months of work. This is not a field report but a memoir of happier times, written in the midst of the war.

Christie has an eye for incongruity and oddness, the eccentricities of her friends and colleagues of just as much interest as those of the locals. We get a good sense of her fond, teasing relationship with her husband, and she herself comes across as great fun. She is self-effacing about her size, her anxieties and fussing, but it makes us like her all the more.

Some of the misadventures struck a chord with this anxious writer as I've accompanied the Dr in pursuit of ancient treasures (mostly involving long trips on transport I don't fit on to fields of indiscriminate rocks exactly like the ones seen the previous day).  But mostly it struck a chord because it's a warmer, more joyous read than Christie's murder mysteries.

Even so, there's are moments of darkness. Christie is good on sketching in the horror of the death of a workman, or the threat of sectarian violence. Poirot and Miss Marple are adherents of the death penalty in cases of murder, but when faced with the grisly realities, Christie is squeamish.
“Once when we were digging near Mosul, our old foreman came to Max in great excitement. 'You must take your Khartún to Mosul tomorrow. There is a great event. There is to be a hanging – a woman! Your Khartún will enjoy it very much! She must on no account miss it!' My indifference, and, indeed, repugnance, to this treat stupefied him. 'But it is a woman,' he insisted. 'Very seldom do we have the hanging of a woman. It is a Kurdish woman who has poisoned three husbands! Surely – surely the Khartún would not like to miss that!' My firm refusal to attend lowered me in his eyes a good deal. He left us sadly, to enjoy the hanging by himself.”
Ibid., pp. 144-5.
 But it's a shame there's not more on the archaeology because, when she does address it, Christie is good at making the past vibrant:
“All the Bible and New Testament stories take on a particular reality and interest out here. They are couched in the language and ideology which we daily hear all around us, and I am often struck by the way the emphasis sometimes shifts from what one has commonly accepted. As a small instance, it came to me quite suddenly that in the story of Jezebel, it is the painting of her face and the tiring of her hair that emphasizes in puritanical Protestant surroundings what exactly a 'Jezebel' stands for. But out here it is not the painting and tiring – for all virtuous women paint their faces (or tattoo them), and apply henna to their hair – it is the fact that Jezebel looked out of the window – a definitely immodest action!
... The Good Samaritan story has a reality here which it cannot have in an atmosphere of crowded streets, police, ambulances, hospitals, and public assistance. If a man fell by the wayside on the broad desert track from Hasetshe to Der-ez-Zor, the story could easily happen today, and it illustrates the enormous virtue compassion has in the eyes of all desert folk.”
Ibid., pp. 166-7.
That observation then leads Christie's group to ask themselves if they would stop to help someone out in the desert. Christie laughs when one man states baldly that he wouldn't - but that he would stop to help a horse. It's not a joke - he means it - but Christie's response is telling. She delights in his blunt honesty, the insight into the dark workings of his mind. Little wonder: it's like dialogue from one of her books.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

"Foreigners nearly always wish to simplify the Middle East, Agnes. They cannot tolerate to feel ignorant long enough to understand it."
When all her family die in the 1918 flu pandemic, middle-aged American schoolteacher Agnes Shanklin finds herself suddenly free. Without her overbearing mother to tell her otherwise, she goes shopping for the latest styles and has her hair cut. She also books passage to Cairo, where she just so happens to stumble into Lawrence of Arabia, Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell as they struggle to carve up the Middle East...

Dreamers of the Day is an odd but engrossing book. It's partly a late romance adventure, with the dowdy, timid heroine learning to take what she wants - and then paying the price. But it's also a history lesson, or several strung together.

Its first section covers the flu pandemic, the way it cut down the apparently fit and healthy in their prime, and the effects it had on society. The middle and longest section explores Egypt, Gaza and Jerusalem and has plenty to say on their history and peoples, as well as on the diplomats sowing "black seeds" for the future in the aftermath of World War One and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. The last, short section sees Agnes return home and takes us up to her death and beyond - as it turns out she's narrating this from a special kind of afterlife on the banks of the Nile, in the company of Napoleon and St Francis.

That last section isn't any less odd for having been signposted: Agnes tells us several times throughout the novel that she is long dead and that what she saw will help us understand our world today. It's true, the schoolteacher is concise and lucid in pulling together the threads that explain the sorry mess in the Middle East now.

Agnes is so horrified by the English toffs dictating the fate of these nations (it reminds her too much of being forced to eat oatmeal as a child - whether it was good for her is not the point). So perhaps it's ironic that she often lectures us on the history of the region. But it's hard to object because it's so deftly done. It's a beautifully told story - full of wryly observed character and humour, and joy in the adventure. I just felt that the final conceit rather trivialises what has gone before.

Other reviewers don't share my dissatisfaction with the end. Niall Harrison, for example, says:
"The effect of [Agnes being dead], which I take to be deliberate, is to break the immersion associated with historical fiction. Agnes's times are not for us to live in—they are for us to watch."
Perhaps that's my objection: as a narrative device, it stops us losing ourselves in the story and the rich, tangible world that's created. That's a shame because the book otherwise feels very credible: the characters - both real and invented - feel like flesh and blood. That's quite a feat, to paint Churchill and Lawrence not as myths but as men.

The book is peppered with sharp observations, too. I especially liked Agnes guiltily justifying a trip to a medium after all her family died.
"And remember, please, all the other invisible forces that had so recently become a part of our lives in these days. Madame Curie's radiation, and Signore Marconi's radio, and Dr Freud's unconscious. Even before I died, it seemed possible that there might be some scientific basis for communication with the unseen soul. There might be a sort of telephone of the spirit, or maybe radio waves, which were there to be heard if only one were tuned to the right frequency."
Mary Doria Russell, Dreamers of the Day, pp. 70-1.
I was intrigued by mention of Lady Churchill, Winston's mother:
"Jennie Churchill was, according to Winston, one-quarter Iroquois".
Ibid., p. 155.
But that turns out to be a myth. There's a nice bit of history when one woman suspects Karl of being homosexual because he wears a "bracelet watch". Agnes snaps back a reply:
"They're called wristwatches... All the soldiers wore them in the war."
Ibid., p. 199.
Karl, the unreliable spy who Agnes falls for, is a fascinating character. Russell tells us in her acknowledgements that,
"As often as possible, I let historical figures write their own dialogue".
Ibid., p. 375.
But Karl is not a historical figure, and his job here is to question the statements by Lawrence, Churchill et al. According to Niall Harrison, this creates a game of "knowingness", where we question and interrogate what these people say. I think it's simpler than that: Karl makes us more suspicious of what Agnes takes on face value. Plus, his status as a Jewish German (not a German Jew, as he says himself) makes us less trusting of the claims made by westerners about nations, religions and race in the Middle East.

The book rather concludes that, despite the best efforts of the peacemakers, there will always be war. Napoleon and Churchill both seem to relish the prospect. For a book so preoccupied with faith, it ends feeling rather hopeless.

And yet earlier, when Agnes visits Jerusalem and is furious by the lies told by those guiding the tourists around, Lawrence comes to her rescue. He explains that no, the current city, is not the one in which Jesus lived:
"When they started excavations at the northeast wall of the Temple, archaeologists had to dig through something like a hundred and twenty-five feet of debris before they got to the level of Herod's city. My field was Hittite, but I think this Jerusalem is probably the eighth ... The city of David sat on an even earlier settlement. Then there's Solomon's Jerusalem, which last about four hundred years. Nehemiah's - three hundred for that one, I believe. Herod's Jerusalem was magnificent, by all accounts. That's what everyone expects to see when they come here, but Titus destroyed it. Later on, a small Roman city was built on the ruins. Since then, Muslims and Christians traded this place repeatedly, and burned it down occasionally. And yet... the pilgrims come."
Ibid., p. 281.
Agnes protests that it's a nineteen-hundred-year-old scam (and is most upset by the thought that her late sister devoted so much of her short life to it). But Lawrence counters with a surprising argument:
"'Jerusalem has always been important strategically. It's been one war after another for millennia. But if you can convince enough people that this place is sacred ...?'
He let me consider this until I could admit I'd understood his point: 'Then maybe the next army won't destroy it.'
The corners of his long mouth turned up, but the real smile was in those tired eyes, already lined at thirty-two. 'The present city has survived six hundred years,' he said. 'That's the longest stretch on record.'"
Ibid., pp. 282-3.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

I really didn't like The Shining Girls at first. It's a thriller about a psychopath in Chicago who hunts down a series of women who, he tells us, "shine". The killings are described in graphic detail, with much of the story told from the killer's perspective - that is, Harper's brutal view of women and what he does to them. It's not that I'm particularly squeamish, but I don't like nasty things happening for the sake of it.

But I persevered through the first 20 pages, chiefly on the strength of how much I'd loved Beukes's Zoo City, and was soon swept up in an extraordinary piece of work. For one thing, Harper travels in time between the 1930s and 1990s, which makes the chances of his being caught all the more remote. More than that, it allows vivid glimpses of history: how these people lived as much as how they died.

Beukes' acknowledgements at the end spell out how much research into all kinds of areas has been necessary to make this world so rich and real - as she says herself,
"everything from illegal abortion groups to real-life radium dancing girls, the evolution of forensics, '30s restaurant reviews and the history of '80s toys."
Lauren Beukes, "Acknowledgements", The Shining Girls, p. 387.
What really makes the book special, though, is that the person on Harper's trail is also one of his victims - a girl who he thinks he killed. Kirby is funny, furious and liable to plunge headlong into trouble. She also feels very real, which makes it easier to accept the convenient, unexplained time travel stuff.

Kirby's story - her efforts to overcome to the trauma of what happened to her, to own it, to make something of the life she nearly didn't have - makes the horror more that titillation. We understand its long-lasting impact, and fear her facing it again. One sequence midway through the book skips ahead, showing Kirby in danger before we know how she's got there, and really builds the tension.

The last 50 pages or so are spectacularly exciting - I was rather glad the Dr had a night out in the pub last night so I could indulge in racing to the end.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Graceless on the wireless again

Graceless - the science-fiction series I created and wrote - is back on BBC Radio 4 Extra this week.

The first episode was broadcast last night and you can listen to it for free on iPlayer for the next seven days. Episode 2 is on tonight at 6pm and available to catch-up afterwards.

The series stars Ciara Janson, Laura Doddington and Fraser James, with guest stars David Warner, Derek Griffiths, Patricia Brake, Susan Brown, Michael Cochrane and Joanna Van Gyseghem.




Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Cleaning update!

News from our masters at Big Finish:
A big thank you to everyone who has bought Big Finish's debut short film Cleaning Up, starring Mark Gatiss and Louise Jameson. All profits from the sale go into a fund to make a feature film version of Cleaning Up – a Big Finish movie. We asked Guerrier brothers Simon and Thomas how the film project is progressing. Read on...

'Brilliantly!' says Simon. 'I'm currently hard at work on the script, reworking and revising our initial treatment. It's all go!'

Thomas adds: 'We've spoken to a number of production companies and individuals who might help take the film forward – and being able to show them there's already an audience buying the short has really helped.'

'It's looking very positive,' says Simon, 'though there still a long way ahead of us. So thanks to everyone who's supported us, bought the short and spread the word about what we're trying to do. We'll keep you all posted!'

Cleaning Up is still available to buy in two versions:

'Rookie' Standard Edition for £1.99:
HD version of film

'Hitman' Special Edition for £4.99:
HD version of film, 'first cut' with commentary, behind the scenes film, trailer, image gallery, soundtrack, PDF scripts, posters and wallpaper.

All profits go to developing the Cleaning Up feature film.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Salvation through science


While researching some daftness for Horrible Histories Magazine, I read up on Franciscan monk and philosopher Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294). That led me to James Blish's 1964 novel about Bacon's life, Doctor Mirabilis  - which was hard to resist at 64p on Abebooks.

Blish conjures a muddy, murky thirteenth century, full of injustice and cruelty. In the first chapter, young Roger is robbed of his inheritance and in the next he is set upon by robbers. There are plenty of dangers, too, in the politics of the age: the shadow cast by Magna Carta on Henry III, his negotiations with Simon de Montfort, and the power of the Catholic Church in England - waxing and waning through a series of popes.

Power is precarious - Roger and those around him fall in and out of favour, and at one point Roger's life seems ruined when a particular mentor dies. Blish is good at showing how even those in authority are constantly under threat. That's sometimes economics, such as this aside on castles:
"a work of Norman design cannot simply be maintained, it must be constantly under construction, otherwise it falls down almost at once."
James Blish,  Doctor Mirabilis, p. 166.
Along the way, there are plenty of fun historical references. For example, hearing of some "vanished" money, Roger sees that story-tellers are already embroidering the legend of a dead man:
"It's said this was more of Robin of Sherwood's doings; the harpers will not let that poor highwayman rest at his crossroads."
Ibid., p. 64.
Still, the historical setting is quite hard work to begin with. That's largely down to Blish's decision, discussed in his foreword, over how to depict the languages of the time:
"As for the English, I have followed two rules. (1) Where the characters are speaking Middle English, I have used a synthetic speech which roughly preserves Middle English syntax, one of its central glories, but makes little attempt to follow its metrics or its vocabulary (and certainly not its spelling, which was catch-as-catch-can). (2) Where they are speaking French or Latin, which is most of the time, I have used modern English, except to indicate whether the familiar or the polite form of 'you' is being employed, a system which cause no trouble."
Ibid., p. 16.
I'm not sure what suddenly made the going seem easier: that Roger starts to converse more in modern English or I just got used to the archaic bits. Worse, though, is Blish's decision to quote at length from the primary sources.
"The reader may wonder why I have resorted here and there to direct quotations in Latin ... The reason is that these exceptions, these ideas and opinions written down seven centuries ago, might otherwise have been suspected of being a twentieth-century author's interpolations."
Ibid., p. 15.
It's all very laudable to cite the sources faithfully, but it excluded me from what was being said. Ironically, in the novel one character notes the limits of Latin for sharing knowledge:
"That precisely is why Latin is only spuriously a universal language, friar Bacon. It is never spoken to women any more. Women are confined to the vernacular, whatever that may be. On this account alone, Latin is dying."
Ibid., p. 199.
Bacon - always a bit behind when it comes to women - fails to understand the point. I think Blish may miss it, too, as surely his readers are also confined to the vernacular.

The Latin is especially taxing in Chapters V and X, where Roger must defend his theories against rivals. For pages they bicker in bits of quoted Latin before Roger wins,  but without footnotes or translation, I couldn't follow the argument. That's fundamental, because the book is all about the importance of the argument reasoned from evidence, regardless of who "wins".

Blish says he based his account of Roger on Stewart C Easton's Roger Bacon and his Search for a Universal Science (Columbia, 1952), which he describes as,
"a guide to everything about Roger which pretends to be factual, even encyclopedia articles and the scrappiest of pamphlets."
Ibid., p. 318.
He also addresses the legend surrounding Bacon - which, he says, Easton ignores.
"Roger Bacon ... was a scientist in the primary sense of that word - he thought like one, and indeed defined this kind of thinking as we now understand it. It is of no importance that the long list of 'inventions' attributed to him by the legend - spectacles, the telescope, the diving bell, and half a hundred others - cannot be supported; this part of the legend, which is quite recent, evolves out of the notion that Roger could be made to seem more wonderful if he could be shown to be a thirteenth-century Edison or Luther Burbank, holding a flask up to the light and crying, 'Eureka!' This is precisely what he was not. Though he performed thousands of experiments, most of which he describes in detail, hardly any of them were original, and so far as we know he never invented a single gadget; his experiments were tests of principles, and as such were almost maddeningly repetitious, as significant experiments remain to this day - a fact always glossed over by popularizations of scientific method, in which the experiments, miraculously, always work the first time, and the importance of negative results is never even mentioned. There is, alas, nothing dramatic about patience, but it was Roger, not Sir Francis [Bacon] who erected it into a principle: 'Neither the voice of authority, nor the weight of reason and argument are as significant as experiment, for thence comes quiet to the mind.' (De erroribus medicorum.)"
Ibid., p. 315.
The old system that Roger was part of as a Franciscan monk and which he broke away from was neatly explained by James Burke in his 1985 series The Day the Universe Changed. He discussed how monks copied ancient texts - copying even the errors in typography rather than challenging the handed-down word. The works of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers, and the study of nature itself, were either proofs of a Christian order of being or strictly forbidden as heresy.
"The whole monastic experience was a bit like jumping into bed and pulling the blankets over your head. It was a mystic experience - unreal. And it all still, hundreds of years after the fall of Rome, looked back to an age of greatness that was gone for ever. Everything these people knew - and this is extraordinary for us to grasp in our world - everything they knew was old".
James Burke, "In the Light of Reason", The Day the Universe Changed, 20 October 1985.
A key moment in Blish's book is when Roger decides not to write an introduction or commentary on a pre-existing text, but a whole new book based on his own experiments. Later, he develops a theory of what is so often wrong with inherited knowledge:
"Since the days of revelation, in fact, the same four corrupting errors had been made over and over again: submission to faulty and unworthy authority; submission to what it was customary to believe; submission to the prejudices of the mob; and worst of all, concealment of ignorance by a false show of unheld knowledge, for no better reason than pride."
Blish, p. 246.
Doctor Mirabilis is, then, a novel about the struggle to make sound scientific progress. Amid the grumbles, there are complaints that seem familiar today. There's the battle over knowledge being used as a commodity to be bought and traded. One Italian laments the shortage of ancient texts available to buy because they're being bought up for private collections. He blames this on the Romans.
"Our imperial ancestors invented few new vices, but private art collecting seems to have been their own authentic discovery. It would hardly have been possible to the Greeks ... Why, it was the old Romans who wrote into law the principle that the man who owned a painting, for example, was the man who owned the board it was painted on, not the artist; and the same with manuscripts. Private collecting really began with that, because it made it possible for a man to become wealthy without having done any of the work involved, simply by saving the board until the painting on it became valuable."
Ibid., p. 196.
But while we might recognise much of Roger's struggles to produce good work under difficult circumstances, his is a very different world to ours. His adventures are bound in the struggles to find appropriate patrons and mentors, or with the difficulties of developing his ideas when he doesn't have enough parchment. So much of his work depends on permissions from people who can't understand his work, or the Catch-22 of needing his work copied but knowing the copyists will pirate it.

Four pages before the end, there's a revealing line about what the aged and exhausted Roger thinks his life's work has been about:
"the final statement of the case for salvation through science".
Ibid. p. 308.
Despite his revolution in thought, he's still a product of the theocracy of his time. In fact, the book often uses the fact that we're ahead of Roger in our scientific understanding.

For example, on page 86 Roger is in London staying in a foul-smelling room that makes him sick over the bedclothes. The candles burn with slightly blue flames - which he attributes to a demon, and wonders how a demon can appear without escaping from Hell. Having plugged the window with his dirty bedclothes so as to be rid of the smell, he goes off to court. When he comes back, he enters the sealed room with a lit torch - and there's an explosion. We understand what's happened: there's gas, in a contained environment. But Bacon struggles to make the cognitive leap as he thinks about repeating what happened:
"Perhaps, if he sealed the room... and thrust a torch in it after... Clearly there was some connection, but Roger could not grasp it."
Ibid., p. 92.
The court then tries to use the "earthquake" to suggest God is unhappy with what King Henry's up to. The embryonic science is quickly lost to the politics and the threat of revolt.

But this juxtaposition - the familiarity of the science, the strangeness of the world - is what makes the book work so well. Part of what makes Roger's efforts so compelling is the constant threat of torture or incarceration, and how much depends on the whims of those in power - and how long they remain there. But it's also more personal than that: Roger must wrestle with his own conscience, and with an inner voice that sometimes suggests he is a man possessed.

That Roger's is a true story means we don't expect it to end happily, but also makes what he did achieve all the more amazing. Blish says in his note at the end of the book that it,
"would be hard to find any branch of modern science which was not influenced by Roger's theoretical scheme",
but that its slow-working nature meant much it didn't fit the needs of a novel. He then cites some examples of things he couldn't include, such as that,
"the whole tissue of the space-time continuum of general relativity is a direct descendant of Roger's assumption, in De multiplicatione specierum and elsewhere, that the universe has a metrical frame, and that mathematics thus is in some important sense real, and not just a useful exercise."
A footnote explains this extraordinary claim at greater length:
"I have quoted part of Roger's reasoning on this point in Chapter XII, but there is really no way short of another book to convey the flamboyancy of this logical jump, which spans seven centuries without the faintest sign of effort. The most astonishing thing about it, perhaps, is its casualness; what Roger begins to talk about is the continuum of action, an Aristotle commonplace in his own time, but within a few sentences he has invented - purely for the sake of argument - the luminiferous ether which so embroiled the physics of the nineteenth century, and only a moment later throws the notion out in favour of the Einsteinean metrical frame, having in the process completely skipped over Galilean relativity and the inertial frames of Newton. Nothing in the tone of the discussion entitles the reader to imagine that Roger was here aware that he was making a revolution - or in fact creating a series of them; the whole performance is even-handed and sober, just one more logical outcome of the way he customarily thought. It was that way of thinking, not any specific theory, that he invented; the theory of theories as tools."
Ibid., p. 316.
One last point: Doctor Mirabilis is all set in the 13th century. There are no robots or spaceships, aliens or technology, and it's all based on historical sources. And yet on the back cover, just above the price, the book is marked "Science Fiction".

That seems odd - especially given that the back cover also quotes praise from the Sunday Telegraph for this "historical novel". So why the label of sci-fi?

The back cover also says that Doctor Mirabilis is part of a "thematic trilogy", with two books that seem more explicitly sci-fi (A Case of Conscience is about a priest visiting an alien world) or fantasy (in Black Easter, in which black magic summons Satan into the world. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction provides more information:
"After Such Knowledge poses a question once expressed by Blish as: 'Is the desire for secular knowledge, let alone the acquisition and use of it, a misuse of the mind, and perhaps even actively evil?' This is one of the fundamental themes of sf, and is painstakingly explored in Doctor Mirabilis, an historical novel which treats the life of the thirteenth-century scientist and theologian Roger Bacon. It deals with the archetypal sf theme of Conceptual Breakthrough from one intellectual model of the Universe to another, more sophisticated model."
Peter Nicholls, "Blish, James", The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 15 January 2014.
I think that's stretching definitions a bit far: surely a conceptual breakthrough is not exclusive to science-fiction. I don't think Doctor Mirabilis does count as sci-fi. I can see why its publishers thought it would appeal to fans of Blish's other, more sf books and fans of science-fiction more generally, but I suspect that a publisher wouldn't do that now. I can think of too many people who'd be intrigued by this novel but would never venture into dark corner of a bookshop where the fat books about robots are found.

Don't popular science and the history of scientific ideas have a much broader appeal today than they did in the 80s (when this edition was published)? And isn't that a sign of our own recent revolution of thought?