Sunday, September 15, 2019

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson

We begin with three distinct tragedies. First, in 1970, a three-year old disappears from her family home. Then, in 1994, a teenager with a summer job in the office of her solicitor dad is brutally murdered by a man who is never caught. Thirdly, in 1979, an exhausted teenage mum cracks under the strain and attacks her husband with an axe...

The startling thing about these three awful happenings, each one in itself enough to sustain a mystery novel, is how funny they are before things kick off. Atkinson, whose more recent Transcription I adored, has a gift for telling, comic detail which only makes us feel the awfulness more keenly. In the first few pages, she sets up a household of wayward young daughters and their academic dad.
"What he actually did in there [his office in the family home] was a mystery to all of them. Something so important, apparently, that his home life was trifling in comparison. Their mother said he was a great mathematician, at work on a piece of research that would one day make him famous, yet on the rare occasions when the study door was left open and they caught a glimpse of their father at work, all he seemed to be doing was sitting at his desk, scowling into empty space." (p. 20)
Brilliantly, Atkinson also makes sure we're paying attention from the off. On page 18, we're told in passing that these children's grandmother "succumbed to stomach cancer" a few years back. On page 24, we're told that the grandmother had also asked her son-in-law about stomach pains - him being a doctor, but unfortunately of maths.
"Cornered at a tea table covered with a Maltese lace cloth and loaded with macaroons, Devon scones and seed cake, Victor finally confirmed, 'Indigestion, I expect, Mrs Vane,' a misdiagnosis that she accepted with relief." (p. 24)
We're being ensnared in a greater mystery than what happened in each awful case. Since this is also the start of a novel, we assume they're all connected somehow - and more than simply by each taking place in Cambridge.

At last, on page 69 we're introduced to Jackson Brodie, ex-army and ex-police, now private investigator. Largely but not always from his point of view we explore these cases and the effect of such awfulness on other people since. Brodie has his own issues - his estranged wife taking their daughter away to the other side of the world, and something else he keeps buried deep.

As well as him, there are chapters told from the perspective of Amelia, the chronically repressed and now grown-up sister of the vanished three year-old, and Theo the ever-grieving father of the murdered teen. We see them from Brodie's perspective and him from theirs, adding depth and nuance to the untangling of secrets. Admittedly, that structure also causes some problems: we keep jumping back and forward in time as we catch up on someone's perspective. So there's a moment when Theo discovers an unlikely character has one of Brodie's business cards; a few pages later we're in Brodie's perspective and learn why that card was handed over.

If that felt a little awkward, it's the only criticism I can find. This is a wholly absorbing novel, demanding to be rattled through. It's funny and surprising and emotionally powerful, the revelations in the last act utterly devastating. And yet, for all their impact, Atkinson also weaves in a little hope and redemption, and some quite unexpected sex.

This is the first of a series of Jackson Brodie novels - the latest published earlier this year. But Case Histories ends with everything so perfectly resolved I'm intrigued to see how Atkinson plunges the poor man back into untangling other people's misery. I shall be back for One Good Turn.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Target Storybook cover and artwork

My masters at BBC Books tweeted that they have received a first copy of Doctor Who - The Target Storybook:

Artist Anthony Dry then provided his full, amazing artwork, definitive proof at last that Adric was the Doctor all along:

And then the account Doctor Who Comic Art tweeted the thrilling illustration by Mike Collins that accompanies my story in the book:

Doctor Who - The Target Storybook is on sale on 24 October.

15 thrilling new adventures, featuring writers and stars from the hit BBC series - namely Terrance Dicks, Matthew Sweet, Simon Guerrier, Colin Baker, Matthew Waterhouse, Jenny T Colgan, Jacqueline Rayner, Una McCormack, Steve Cole, Vinay Patel, George Mann, Susie Day, Mike Tucker, Joy Wilkinson and Beverly Sanford.

We’re all stories in the end…

In this exciting collection you’ll find all-new stories spinning off from some of your favourite Doctor Who moments across the history of the series. Learn what happened next, what went on before, and what occurred off-screen in an inventive selection of sequels, side-trips, foreshadowings and first-hand accounts – and look forward too, with a brand new adventure for the Thirteenth Doctor.

Each story expands in thrilling ways upon aspects of Doctor Who’s enduring legend. With contributions from show luminaries past and present – including Colin Baker, Matthew Waterhouse, Vinay Patel, Joy Wilkinson and Terrance Dicks – The Target Storybook is a once-in-a-lifetime tour around the wonders of the Whoniverse.

Imprint: BBC Books

Published: 24/10/2019

ISBN: 9781785944741

Length: 432  Pages

Dimensions: 240mm x 39mm x 162mm

Weight: 667g

RRP: £16.99

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, by Chris Packham

I've had a busy few weeks - as a guest at the Hastings Literary Festival, working through notes on various things and researching and writing various others - and so made slowish progress through this remarkable memoir by  Chris Packham.

As I knew from his 2017 documentary, Aspergers and Me, Chris is autistic and his heightened senses can often be overwhelming. His memoir is a series of vividly recalled and felt moments from his childhood: passion, terror, injustice, the tactile delight of sniffing, touching, tasting nature such as drinking frogspawn. Some of it is very funny, some is pretty harrowing - not least the jumps forward to 2003-4 where it all got too much and he tried to take his own life.

At one point, he richly describes his first efforts to blow out the contents of a bird's egg he's carefully filched. It doesn't work and the egg collapses.
"The crumpled shell was soft and stuck to his fingers, the exploded mess glued to his hand, which he gradually opened. He felt sick with the shock of it, he had the gummy taste of raw egg in his mouth and he now knew why he had been unable to force the contents out of the pinhole. Looking like a bubblegum bogey bathed in shiny spittle a fully developed sparrow embryo lay on its back - bulbous-bellied, big-headed and black-eyed, with a broad waxy bill and peg-like wings and legs, its toes pricked with minuscule claws. He turned it over. It was dead. If he hadn't stolen the egg it would have hatched by now, or at least by tomorrow." (pp. 201-2)
Given that a trait of autism can be a failure to see things from other people's perspective, Packham recounts several moments in the third-person pespective of people around him - a neighbour, a bully at school, his own sister - which raises questions of authenticity, of truthfulness. How much of these and his own recollections are invented, sensations and colour added not felt at the time? But the effect is to show that everyone else had their passions and fears, that this strange little boy is not so alone in his weirdness.

Packham grew up not far from where I did in Hampshire, if at least a decade before me. His prose is peppered with slang that transported me right back: gob, guffs and jaspers (wasps), kids who chucked up when sick and creased up rather than laughed.

But lots of the book struck a chord as the father of an autistic child who is obsessive about bits of nature - snails and sharks and sea creatures. I'm wowed by his parents' patience and continued encouragement as he boils up skulls or brings home a bird of prey. He mentions but I can well see how hard this could all for his sister, for ever being overlooked by being the easier one. The power of the book is that Packham isn't alone and so seeing the world from his point of view is a revelation.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Post Öykü 28

Issue 28 of Post Öykü, published in May but I only just found out, includes my short story "The Artficial Bees" as "Yapay Arılar", translated into Turkish by Selma Aksoy Türköz.
Randall bir ayağını yeşil liflerin üstüne indirdi. Organik madde, ağırlığının altında kaldı ama onu taşıyor gibi görünüyordu. Öbür ayağını da o garip otsu materyalin üstüne koymaya cesaret etti. Tam o anda Arşiv bir cevapla geri döndü.
“Bir çim,” dedi ona. “Operasyona devam et.” Randall çimin içinde ışığa doğru ilerledi ihtiyatla. Şüpheli bölgeye girerken sensörleri elektromanyetik dalgaların yüksek akımına uğradı. Karanlık endüstriyel arazideki yılların ardından ışık bir anlığına kör etti gözlerini. “Elli beş terahetrz,” dedi Arşiv. Randall gözlerindeki renkli noktaları yakıp söndürerek camın içindeki dünyayı hedef alıyordu...
Read the English version of "The Artifical Bees" on the Uncanny magazine website

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Agent of Chaos, by Norman Spinrad

A month ago, while I was busy preparing a talk on utopia and dystopia for the Hastings Writers Group, Francis Wheen tweeted about Agent of Chaos, a science-fiction novel from 1967 with a revolutionary hero called Boris Johnson. I couldn't resist.

The Solar System is in the thrall of the Hegemony, a fascist state where minor errors are met with instant death. In fact, the automated systems often kill people anyway, their fellow citizens assuming some secret crime has been detected. Johnson is in a terrorist organisation, the Democratic League, who are struggling to be taken seriously by blowing up the Hegemony's leaders.
"You know the official line on us - we're a joke, an amusement to be reported with the sports results, if at all." (p. 40)
They have only the most rudimentary grasp of what democracy even is - there is more than one seen when they fail to define what it actually is they're fighting for - but are still determined to shoot and blow up people in its name, even at the cost of their own lives.

They are thwarted - and also sometimes aided - by a third faction, the Brotherhood of Assassins, a peculiar organistion devoted to a doctrine of chaos that seems to be a mash-up of Marx and the laws of thermodynamics. The plot then takes an unexpected turn as a probe reaches a planet in orbit round another star and discovers some kind of intelligent life - far outside the Hegemony's reach.

Wheen is not the first to spot the connection to our current Prime Minister - the Guardian reported on Agent of Chaos in 2017. But, as both suggest, there's fun to be had at comparing the ambitions and shortcomings of the Johnson described here with the one in No. 10. The Hegemony is hardly the EU but the Johnsons possibly share something.
"Your own foolish pride in your supposed cleverness is what defeated you, Johnson ... A most peculiar psychology - a man who believes what he wants to believe." (p. 104)
Frankly, it's just weird seeing his name in the midst of pulp SF. The imagery conjured can be alarming, such as when discussing the relative failure of henchpersons.
"Fortunately, the crazy fanatics seem to be as incompetent as Johnson's boobs." (p. 57)
I'm not sure Spinrad means Johnson so be anything less than a hero. On page 124, Johnson is a babbling fool who can't articulate why he fights for demoracy. Then, oddly, the narrator speaks up for him.
"The Johnsons, he realised, were by and large the best type that the human race could produce under the conditions of the Hegemony - instinctive rebels, viscerally dogmatic in their unthinking opposition to the Order of the Hegemony, but uncommitted and curiously flexible when it came to final ends." (p. 130)
Yet when challenged, he goes rather to pieces - such as when asked about Democracy with a capital D.
"'It's not just a word,' Johnson insisted shrilly. 'It's... it's...'
'Well?' said Khustov. 'What is it then? Do you know? Can you tell me? Can you even tell yourself?'
'It's... it's Democracy... when the people have the government they want. When the majority rules...'
'But the people already have the government they want.' (p. 106) 
Indeed, Khustov argues that Johnson is just after power himself - he's a tyrant in waiting. We're offered little to suggest otherwise. His ingenious (over-complicated) schemes come to nothing, he's dependent on the sacrifice of others bailing him out, and the book ends with one enormous, chaotic mess left in the Solar System which Johnson conveniently leaves behind him while blasting off, unscathed, to new pastures.

Aside from Johnson, another leading character is called Jack Torrence - one letter different from the protagonist in The Shining, to add to the alarming visuals. Spinrad attempts to make his future Solar System multiethnic, but in terms that read uncomfortably now. There are also no women featured at all.

As for the sci-fi, this future all feels pretty standard, with the moving walkways beloved of a generation of sci-fi, the lanes running at different speeds. The mass surveillance that was once a horrifying idea is now a commonplace (if no less horrifying), the incongruous bit in the novel that wards (the human citizens) use paper identity cards and manually check against lists of known insurgents - with rare success.

It's also weird what the priorities are: Johnson can't argue a case for the cause he tries to kill for, which is surely central to him as the protagonist and central to the book. There's no great emotional depth to anyone in the story and there aren't any women, yet we get whole paragraphs devoted to the mechanics of a spaceship making a comet-like slingshot round the Sun or moving apparently faster than light without breaking the known laws of physics.

In short, it's an odd book, forgettable but for the chance of Johnson's name. Oh, and the cover - by an uncredited artist - does not represent anything that happens in the 156 pages. But that twisted, raging man at the centre... Does he look a little like Trump?

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine 542

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is out in shops tomorrow. I've written the preview of the Season 23 Blu-ray box set, comprising the 14 episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord (1986). It's Doctor Who's longest ever story, made at a time of great crisis in the show's history. But the new extras I've seen are full of mischief and fun.

For the preview, I spoke to Russell Minton (head of international production consultancy at BBC Studios, and the person in charge of these box sets), Chris Chapman (director of three new documentaries on the set) and Dr Matthew Sweet (interviewer). Matthew tells me that he begins the research for his in-depth interviews on these box sets by immersing himself in "Pixleyana" - a phrase I shall now adopt - and explains why he thinks Bonnie Langford long ago passed into "the realm of the symbolic".

Monday, August 19, 2019

I'm a Joke and So Are You, by Robin Ince

Subtitled "A comedians' take on what makes us human", this is an intelligent ramble through the psychology of stand-up, and by extension creativity in general. Robin undergoes brain scans, talks to scientists and fellow comedians, and opens up about his own life and experience.

There's plenty of science-of... stuff I found interesting: the notion of Wittgenstein's lion - "if a lion could speak, we could not understand him" - or how being good at Just a Minute appears in your brain. In one chapter, Robin explores an old canard I had heard before, that many successful comedians experienced some kind of trauma as children, such as the death of a parent. He speaks to those of whom that is true, and to other comedians who were adopted or suffered different kinds of trauma. With that in mind, he also explores the impact of traumatic moments in his own life - a car crash he was involved in as a small child that almost killed his mum, or the effect of changing school. Then, just as he seems to be on to something with all of this, he completely undercuts the hypothesis with examples of comedians whose work comes from a childhood of happiness and encouragement. If the conclusion, then, is that there's no simple answer, it prompted this listener to think about how and why I do what I do.

Chapters address the cliche of the "sad clown", the issue of causing offence, the anxieties of both performer and audience. The final chapter addresses death, specifically that of Robin's mother and how it impacted his work. It's agonisingly honest and upsetting, and with a start I realised I'd been a witness to some of what's described, as a panelist on the 2015 Christmas special of The Infinite Monkey Cage. At the time, I didn't know what was going on - Robin was clearly unwell at the recording and had to rush off immediately afterwards. With typical courtesy, and the same freelancer fear of letting other people down he describes here, he emailed me later to apologise. 

Having experienced my own share of trauma, I really get his need to keep busy through this period, to use work both to escape the awful reality and then to make some kind of sense of it. I admire the way he tells us so much so honestly and then won't go any further - only sharing so much. He talks about how his job, his mining real life for comedy, can strain relationships when something like this happens - his own acknowledgement and the fear from people round him that this is all raw material. This is difficult and profound, and Robin concludes - with an example of another comedian's response to his own terminally ill father - that means we end on a note of optimism. But it's not so neat or simple as that, and I remain thinking...