Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Star Outside my Window, by Onjali Q Raúf

Ten year-old Aniyah is a star hunter, an astronomer, thrilled by the discovery of a new star in the night sky. But she thinks the star is her mum, whose heart has ascended, and is determined to ensure that the star hunters at the Royal Observatory Greenwich give it her mum's name. As she sets off with her friends from the foster home on an epic quest to Greenwich, we realise what Aniyah and her five year-old brother do not: their mum was murdered - by their dad.

I rattled through this exciting, emotional story full of high stakes. It would be wretched to quibble the practicalities of the journey Aniyah and her friends undertake - is there really a bus from Victoria coach station to Island Gardens, and could you get all that way without anyone checking you'd paid? - or the physics of the star that passes close to Earth. It's certainly never easy, and Aniyah and her friends show incredible daring along the way. The conclusion, in which Aniyah must face the awful truth that she's evaded so long, is beautifully done.

For all the awfulness, the book is peppered with kindly adults - the amazing foster mum Mrs Iwuchukwu who has tragedies in her own life, kindly superhero actress Audrey Something, and helpful astronomer Professor Grewal. The other foster children all have their histories, too - and in the case of all but one of them, that makes them keen to support Aniyah whatever it takes. That really got me: people inspired by their own experience of crisis to help someone else through theirs.

I also liked the resolution for the "villainous" character, Sophie - explaining her insecurities and returning the thing she takes from Aniyah without her ever quite apologising. It's a remarkable adventure but Raúf ensures that it feels credible to the end. The story wraps up the plot about the star satisfactorily but I find myself wondering what becomes of all these characters afterwards - always a good sign in a book.

Raúf explains in the end section the inspiration for the story - the murder of her own aunt Mumtahina, which also inspired her to set up Making Herstory - and is careful about warning readers in advance of the subject matter.
"The author of this story does not like to link the word 'Domestic' to the word 'Abuse'. This is because the word 'Domestic' implies that abuses happening inside the home should remain private, even when they constitute a crime, whilst also making many people too embarrassed to report abuses. However, as the prevailing term, she has used it throughout this book for clarity." (footnote to the dedication)
So this is a lively story about a very difficult subject told with flair, insight and sensitivity. 

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

This wasn't what I expected. As a classic of science-fiction, I thought it would be engineer-heroes conquering the frontier and debating the physics of travelators. But The Martian Chronicles (first published in 1950) is altogether stranger, more whimsical and - by the end - unsettling.

Each chapter is dated and the book covers events between January 1999 and October 2026, as humans attempt to settle on Mars. Some chapters are very short - some merely a couple of pages, one a few paragraphs. But others are long, self-sustained stories so that this feels like a classic "fix-up" novel comprising previously published short stories now loosely connected - as it turns out it is. At first, I thought the depictions of Martians in one story contradicted those in another. And it all seemed achingly okay.

Then I got to "Way Up in the Middle of the Air", first published in the magazine Other Worlds in July 1950 and set in June 2003. As colonisation of Mars hits its stride, in an unnamed part of the southern United States, the whole of the African-American populace decides to emigrate - to the horror of the white people they serve.
"His wife's small sob stopped him. She dabbed at her eyes. 'I kept telling her, "Lucinda," I said, "you stay on and I raise your pay and you get two nights off a week, if you want," but she just looked set! I never seen her so set, and I said, "Don't you love me, Lucinda?" and she said yes, but she had to go because that's the way it was, is all. She cleaned the house and dusted it and put luncheon on the table and then she went to the parlour door and - and stood there with two bundles, one by each foot, and shook my hand and said, "Good-bye, Mrs Teece." And she went out the door. And there was her luncheon on the table, and all of us too upset to even eat it. It's still there now, I know: last time I looked it was getting cold.'

Teece almost struck her. 'God damn it, Mrs Teece. You get the hell home. Standin' there makin' a sight of yourself!'" (p. 182)
There's so much to unpack there! The mix of emotions, that craving for love (and gratitude) by the masters for years of drudging service with only one night off. The threat of violence - not only to the servants but to Teece's wife, who calls her husband "Pa". The vision of life, 53 years in the future from the time the story was written, with no apparent progress in civil rights. I'm surprised to learn this chapter is left out of some later editions as it's the one that really hit me. It's an uncomfortable, troubling story, and I'm still puzzling out exactly why.

The second story that really resonated is "The Martian", set in September 2005 and originally published in Super Science Stories in 1949. An elderly couple have moved to Mars after the death of their young son on Earth - but now he comes back to them. When the family go into town on a shopping trip, the son becomes a young girl - the missing daughter of another grieving family. The elderly couple help steal "their" son back, but the son - really a Martian - can't help morphing into the desires of each member of the pursuing crowd. It's horrible, not least because it's clear the humans know that the Martian isn't really what it seems but are overcome with longing. Even at the end, with the Martian gone, the grieving father still waits on the doorstep - the implication being that he waits for the return of a yet another Martian as his son.

In the last third of the book, we start to re-meet characters from previous stories and pick up on threads and whole lives. These people gaze into The Martian night sky at the green (not, as we'd now think, blue) spec of Earth with mixed feelings. On page 224 we're told that many colonists are considering going "home" to Earth, where's there's an impending war.

That's undercut in the very next story, like the former set in November 2005, when one character comments,
"I don't trust those Earth people,' (p. 227).
They are no longer Earth people but Earth remains their home, in a contradiction that feels nuanced and convincing. There's then a terrible cataclysm, which we get from the perspective of an ordinary guy worried about the effect it will have on the tourist business in "The Off Season" - a delicious bit of sardonic irony.

I didn't like "The Silent Towns," about a man of no apparent great attraction longing for a woman - and then meeting one he doesn't like. It's a careful-what-you-wish-for tale and the bleak Martian setting made it reminiscent of The Twilight Zone in tone, but there's little more to it than a misogynist twist.

"There Will Come Soft Rains" is very much better, the story of an automated house going through its daily routine in caring for its long-departed human family. Much of it is simply listing small, domestic details, but each one adds to the sense of what has been lost.

And that's true of the book as a whole: whimsical stories that add up to something a whole, an epic of  failure and loss. I can see why The Martian Chronicles haunts what has followed in SF, why it's referenced in the Lady Astronaut novels and so on. Its influence is surely felt from the "New New York" (p. 265) that echoes in Russell T Davies' Doctor Who, to Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy which I now want to revisit after (blimey) at least 20 years.


Friday, December 27, 2019

DWM 2020 Yearbook

Doctor Who Magazine
2020 Yearbook
Doctor Who Magazine's 2020 Yearbook is now out, with exclusive access to the cast and crew of the new series plus Nick Setchfield's moving tribute to writer Terrance Dicks, speaking to Terrance's widow Elsa and former editor Brenda Gardner.

I've written two short pieces for the mag, too:

Who-Ray
The producers of the Doctor Who: The Collection Blu-ray box sets discuss the past, present and future of the successful range.

Terry Nation Army
An interview with the researchers behind a series of Dalek documentaries that built a dedicated following on YouTube in 2019.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

I'm Just Having Fun in the Lancet

The new issue of Lancet Psychiatry (January 2020) features my review of the Wellcome Collection's current exhibition, "Play Well".
In a 2013 interview with the Daily Mail, the then Education Minister, Liz Truss, said she wanted nurseries in England to be more like those in France, with structured activities for preschool children led by graduate-level staff. “I have seen too many chaotic settings,” she said, “where children are running around. There's no sense of purpose.” Some people criticised—and mocked—this idea of imposing objectives on toddlers, but, as the Wellcome's new exhibition demonstrates, play has long been a serious business...
You have to pay to read the full review. The exhibition is free and runs until 8 March 2020. Details here:

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine 546

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is out today, with plenty of exciting stuff about the forthcoming new series.

I've also researched the Cinderella pantomime that starred Peter Davison in Tunbridge Wells (1982-83) and Colin Baker in Southampton (1984-85), and the way it overlapped with the production of Doctor Who at the time - even down to dictating the locations used for filming. As well as lots of digging through archives, I spoke to both Jodie Brooke Wilson and Nicola Bryant, who each played the title role, and to Stephen Broome and Andy Ledger who were in the audience. I was also there, for the matinee performance on 5 January 1985, when I was the same age as my son is now.

There are exclusive new photographs - including one from the filming of Logopolis (1981) that is quite my favourite thing. Thanks to Stephen Cranford for providing some of the other archive material (from the collection he inherited from writer/director John Nathan-Turner) and to Daniel Blythe for a fact check. I'm also grateful to Ben Isted at the Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells and Holly Scott at the Mayflower Theatre (formerly the Gaumont) in Southampton.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Dracula for Doctors, by Fiona Subotsky

This fascinating new book on the medical context of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula is by Fiona Subotsky - a retired professor of psychiatry and the widow of Milton Subotsky, producer of the Amicus horror films. I've just submitted a review so shall not detail my thoughts on it here, but here's a note to self for something to look into:
"In 1871 [Henry Maudsley] admitted to Lawn House, his small private asylum, a woman called Louisa Lowe whose spiritualistic conversion had led her to 'Passive Writing' in order to communicate with a spirit. Her clergyman spouse was far from keen to have her released, and Maudsley seems to have colluded with this - partly on the grounds that she was threatening to divorce her husband. The latter, however, overplayed his hand and attempted to get hold of his wife's money through a Chancery suit. Maudsley, possibly to avoid the necessary legal review, had Mrs Lowe removed to a different asylum, from which she was very shortly released." (Dracula for Doctors, p. 154)
She then attempted to sue the Lunacy Commission and when that failed became active in the Lunacy Law Reform Association, in 1877 getting Maudsley and others involved in her case questioned by a Select Committee. Louisa then helped Mrs Georgina Weldon escape from an asylum and, in 1884, successfully sued the doctor who'd incarcerated her.

This, and accounts of Louisa's shocking treatment in the asylum itself, are apparently detailed in her book The Bastilles of England (1883).

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Dan Dare on Radio 4 Extra

Reign of the Robots, the Dan Dare story by Frank Hampson for Eagle comic that I adapted for audio, will be broadcast on Radio 4 Extra later this month.
Dashing test pilot, Dan Dare, Lieutenant Digby and the Eagle Corporation’s Professor Jocelyn Peabody finally return to Earth after battling The Mekon on Venus. Landing in a seemingly deserted central London, they establish that, with the date being 24 June 2045, they have lost ten years.

With limited resources, Dare, Digby and Peabody set about liberating the Earth from an army of ruthless robots. The task becomes more desperate than ever when they discover the alien force behind the invasion...


CAST:
Dan Dare …. Ed Stoppard
Digby …. Geoff McGivern
Professor Peabody …. Heida Reed
The Mekon …. Raad Rawi
George Bryan …. Dean Harris
On-board Computer …. Diane Webber
Sir Hubert .... Michael Cochrane
Eko .... Amy Humphreys

Original music: Imran Ahmad

Dramatised by Simon Guerrier from an original story by Frank Hampson.

Produced and directed by Andrew Mark Sewell.

First released as an audiobook by B7 Productions in 2017.