Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

I'm afraid that this odd but acclaimed novel about a grieving father (namely, Abraham Lincoln) left me a bit cold.

All sorts of things appealed: the lively cast of miscreant ghosts; the mixing up of different historical sources to convey particular moments, the contradictions of the witnesses included; the general weird and morbid tone.

The ghosts are great fun, from all classes and backgrounds, each with their own story to tell (which is what sustains them, and keeps them from moving on). They're a lively dead, and it's a pleasure to be in their company - but is that enough?

Cynically, I can see why this won awards, such as the covetted Man Booker. It's made up of snippets from different sources - apparently real first-hand sources describing Lincoln and fictional ghosts who meet his son (the first-hand sources now long dead, so also ghosts). Often, the snippets are no more than a sentence, so there are few words to a page. The effect is that one races through the book. Imagine the delight of the burdened judge of an award, faced with mountains of volumes to get through! That, and the strange conceit of Lincoln's dead son being in a throng of strange ghosts, and the insights afforded into Lincoln himself, and other novels would seem hard work and boring.

Even more cynically, this might be a novel to appeal to people who don't really like reading novels. Clever, strange, apparently about something important - and quick to get through. It doesn't leave us with torturous questions to mull over long after, as other serious and acclaimed books often do.

For all I raced through it, I didn't think the plot sustained 341 pages and 108 chapters. It's a novella, really - perhaps even a short story. What actually happens? Well, spoilers, but...

The boy dies; Lincoln grieves and goes at night to the cemetery to look upon the body; he lingers and then leaves, determined to fight on in the Civil War. Meanwhile, the cemetery's ghosts, in trying to aid the boy, come to their own kinds of peace. But as you read it, there's a lot of, "Lincoln entered the tomb... The ghosts tell amusing, rude anecdotes about their lives... Lincoln had just entered the tomb..." Get on with it, I thought.

I think my disappointment might stem from having just read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, set in roughly the same period and roughly the same geographical area. That rattles along at speed, with something profound to say about America and history, and without saying it directly. Instead, this is too much of what Patricia Highsmith referred to, in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, as a gimmick novel.

There's also my own status as a grieving father, which I'm sure shadows my response. But this novel takes us to Lincoln at a key moment in his life: the awful death of his favourite son, and the publication of the casuality lists showing the brutal cost of the Civil War. The fundamental problem is that to make the encounter with the ghosts shape or influence what Lincoln then does next would be utterly crass, but not to do so makes the whole thing a bit pointless.

I liked the idea, I liked the characters in it, but couldn't shake a sense of disappointment.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

I’ve had this extraordinary book on the stack of books by my bed for a while. It won the Clarke Award last year, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award. The cover tells us that Barack Obama thought it “terrific.”

It’s the tale of a slave girl, Cora, who runs away from an abysmally brutal life on a plantation, despite the threat of even more brutal reprisals should she be caught. Cora soon meets up with the “underground railroad” that helps get escaped slaves to the freedom of the north, but the conceit here is that the railroad is not just the name of a loose organisation of helpers. There really are trains, riding tracks hidden deep into American soil.

The judges of the Clarke Award seem to have considered this enough to make the book count as science-fiction, or at least an alternative history that could still be included in its remit. I’m grateful for that because that award first brought the book to my attention. But having read it, I’m not so sure. Whatever the case, it is a brilliant book, one that will linger long in my thoughts.

One particularly impressive achievement is the sheer number of characters, many of them met only fleetingly, who are nevertheless vivid and alive. Characters are often introduced with a telling insight, such as the vicious Ridgeway, the man employed to hunt Cora and the other escapees, whose whole worldview is conveyed in his judgment on other professions.
“If you weren’t a little dirty at the end of the day, you weren’t much of a man.”
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, p. 88.
Between the main sections of the book detailing Cora’s adventures, some supporting characters also have their lives and outlooks explored in single chapters – in some cases after we already know the terrible ways they met their deaths.

It’s established early that anyone can be suddenly beaten or killed, but often Cora must move on without knowing the fate of those close to her. Then, towards the end, we hear what befell some of those she had to abandon. We’ve covered so much ground and met so many other people yet this news hits us hard because the characters are so well drawn.

The scale and horror of the oppression, delivered in different forms in different states, is appalling. When she first escapes, the railroad gets Cora to South Carolina, which seems heavenly compared to all she’s known before. She considers settling there. But if she hasn’t noticed disquieting aspects, we have. There’s the strict segregation. There’s the icky nature of the job she’s required to do, as part of a living display in a museum. There’s the visit to the doctor, softly smiling as he mentions a method of permanent birth control.
“‘The choice is yours, of course,’ the doctor said. ‘As of this week, it is mandatory for some in the state. Coloured women who have already birthed more than two children, in the name of population control. Imbeciles and the otherwise mentally unfit, for obvious reasons. Habitual criminals. But that doesn’t apply to you, Bessie. Those are women who already have enough burdens. This is just a chance for you to take control over your own destiny.”
Ibid, p. 135.
They then ask her, whatever she decides for herself, to explain the process to the less intelligent girls in her dormitory.

That’s another thing the book does very well: exploring how this awful regime is maintained and enforced, the wider systems of oppression as well as individual brutal acts. As it moves from state to state, it becomes a book about America itself, the violence on which it was founded and what might be done.

There’s a debate towards the end among the liberated black people about how to take things further, to end the cycle of horrific abuse when faced with such vested interests. Catching up with the news as I finished the book, I could see a parallel with the recent March for Life against gun violence. And maybe that’s why The Underground Railroad is science-fiction: it’s set in history, but it’s about the future.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Bernice Summerfield - Braxiatel in Love

Later this year there will be a thrilling range of releases to mark two decades of Bernice Summerfield's audio adventures - including something by me. It's a delight to be back.

For those who might not know...

Benny, a passionate, waspish, brilliant space archaeologist, was created by Paul Cornell and made her debut in Doctor Who Magazine in September 1992, in a preview of Paul's original Doctor Who novel Love and War, published the following month. She accompanied the Doctor through most of the New Adventures books, largely overseen by editor Rebecca Levene. In 1997, the publishers' licence for Doctor Who was not renewed but the New Adventures, and Benny, continued without him, starting with Cornell's Oh No It Isn't!

On 25 and 26 June 1998, in the basement of Intergalactic Arts Studios, 31 Morecombe Street SE17, recording took place on an audio adaptation of Oh No It Isn't - not just the first Benny audio play but the first Big Finish production. Adapted by Jacqueline Rayner, directed by Nicholas Briggs and starring Lisa Bowerman as Benny, the cast included Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier from Doctor Who), Jo Castleton and Mark Gatiss.

A second adaptation, Beyond the Sun, was recorded in August - written by Matt Jones from his own novel and directed by Gary Russell, this time at Crosstown Studios in Fulham. Both Benny plays went on sale in September 1998, and more followed. The quality of them convinced the BBC to give Big Finish a licence to produce original Doctor Who plays, which began in 1999.

That same year, the New Adventures range of novels ended, and that might have been the end of Benny. But Big Finish stuck by her, and in 2000 began to produce original Benny plays - not adapations - and also their own range of Benny books.

You can skip the next bit because it's all about me...

I first wrote for Benny in Life During Wartime, a prose anthology edited by Cornell and published in 2003. In 2004, I edited the anthology A Life Worth Living and was commissioned for my first Benny play - The Lost Museum, released in 2005. In October 2005, Gary Russell appointed me script editor on the series, and in the summer of 2006, when he left Big Finish to be a script editor on TV Doctor Who, I became producer of Benny, overseeing the 12 plays and six books released between then and January 2008.

I also wrote Bernice Summerfield: The Inside Story - a history of Benny, and of Big Finish and the period that Doctor Who wasn't on TV - published in 2009. I wrote a story for 2010 anthology Present Danger, a single scene for the audio play Many Happy Returns from 2012, and continue to work with Lisa Bowerman regularly when she directs my other work for Big Finish. But it's been more than 10 years since I wrote a Benny play - until now.

Braxiatel in Love is directed by Scott Handcock and released in September as part of Bernice Summerfield: The Story So Far volume 1, alongside a new play about Bernice in her youth by range producer James Goss, and The Grel Invasion of Earth by Jacqueline Rayner. The blurb for my one goes like this:
"Irving Braxiatel likes to collect things, and when he gains a fiancee, Bernice Summerfield can't help but be suspicious. What are her mysterious employer's motives? It can't just be love, can it? Nothing on the Braxiatel Collection is ever that simple. Not even love."

Monday, March 19, 2018

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Slayer Stats

My new infographics book, Slayer Stats, marks 21 years of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer with all the graphics-based data a slavering demon can eat.

#BTVS - Slayer Stats
“Hilarious,” says Popsugar’s preview of Slayer Stats, blithely overlooking the many dogged months of diligent, cool-headed research. *wipes glasses on handkerchief*

Slayer Stats preview: Buffy Profile

Slayer Stats preview: The Web

Slayer Stats – The Complete Infographics Guide to All Things Buffy is written by me and Steve O’Brien, illustrated by Ilaria Vescovo and designed by Stuart Smith. It’s published by Insight Editions on 24 April. I’m not saying the fate of the world depends on you buying a copy, but probably best to get one just in case.

Oh, and Steve and I previously wrote the Doctor Who infographics book Whographica.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, by Patricia Highsmith

Last week, I ran a workshop for the Hastings Writers' Group on writing science fiction, my brief that this was a bunch of enthusiastic, hard-working writers - many of them professionally published - who had mostly never dabbled in sf. No pressure.

Seeking inspiration, I nosed through guides to writing in a bookshop and fell upon Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by best-selling author Patricia Highsmith, originally published in 1983. It's a great, breezy, enthusiastic and honest account of her process, from where she gets her ideas to dealing with publishers' notes on the manuscript. She's often specific, giving insights into her most famous novels, so it's a book for fans of thrilling fiction as well as for would-be writers.

Among the gems imparted is to base the events of your story on real "emotional experience", felt or observed first hand. Even small events that affect us should be recorded in notebooks to be exploited later. The reason for this is that suspense stories - and the kind of sci-fi nonsense I write - often involve events far outside the author's direct experience. But emotional responses are transferable. Highsmith's example is some teenagers larking about outside her window who made her feel uncomfortable - a feeling she then applied to more tangible, thrilling events for a novel.

While much of the advice is very useful, it's clear it comes from another age. For one thing, even though the book entirely consists of Highsmith's own perspective, she refers to the author - and reader - in the third person as "he" thoughout. The feeling is that she's a rare exception in an otherwise male domain.

For another, there's a lot on the mechanics of writing in the age before word processing computers. She counsels us not to make carbon copies when typing up our first and second drafts, and advises us to retype whole pages or sections only if the earlier draft is too covered in notes. Even though she says she reworks and revises as she retypes her work, the sense is that - because of the technology involved - there were many fewer revisions made in the old days. That's not to say it was better then, or now; just notably different.

Given the slow plod of manually typing a new draft, I found it particularly bruising when Highsmith talks about her novel, The Two Faces of January, being turned down by the publisher Harper & Row, with whom she'd enjoyed years of success. They were not turning down a first draft, but the revised second or third version - a proper, professional submission. Ouch. So how did Highsmith respond?
"I let time go by and wrote another book, which was accepted, and then returned to January and rewrote it, but without referring to the first manuscript, because I completely changed the plot, the age and character of the wife and the character of the young hero - everything except the layout of the Palace of Knossos; three-quarters of a page was all I used of the first manuscript. The charm of that musty old hotel in Athens [her real experience] and the fascination of the young man on meeting a stranger who resembled his father (and a stranger who was a crook) [her seed idea the novel had grown from], these still held me fascinated, and inspired me to write another two hundred and fifty or three hundred pages in order to use these characters. The second and present version of The Two Faces of January was also rejected out of hand by Harper & Row, and this time I thought they were wrong, though I shelved the book, mentally at least, and did not know what to do except write another book. These little setbacks, amounting sometimes to thousands of dollars' worth of time wasted, writers must learn to take like Spartans. A brief curse, perhaps, then tighten the belt a notch and on to something new - of course with enthusiasm, courage and optimism, because without these three elements, you cannot produce anything good."
Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, p. 113.
The cost of it, in time and money, is something that resonates all too strongly. By coincidence, last week a spec novel I've written was turned down by yet another publisher, but with notes that have helped me clarify my own thoughts about how it should be reworked - drastically, from the ground up, but retaining the basic plot and the seed ideas that first excited me when I thought of them. It's a gruelling prospect to have to start again, and I'd already decided to write something else first. Highsmith has quite inspired me to push on.

(It's some solace that Highsmith tells us The Two Faces of January was taken up by another publisher, Heinemann, and went on to win a prestigious award from the Crime Writers Association.)

In her final pages, Highsmith makes some general comments - on her discomfort with genre labels, on raising the quality of novels, on her works being adapted as films. But a few grumbles aside, she concludes with some words on the joy, and freedom, of being a writer. It's a book full of practical tips, but Highsmith's most important lesson is her attitude. 

Friday, March 09, 2018

Bath, Bristol, York

It's British Science Week and tomorrow I'll be talking at the Bath Taps into Science festival on the scientific secrets of Doctor Who - and it's free to come along. I'm on at 2 pm at The Edge, University of Bath.

On Wednesday 14 March, Dr Marek Kukula and I will be speaking at the Basingstoke Discovery Centre, again on the science of Doctor Who. The event starts at 7.30 pm and tickets are £5.

We're also due to speak at the York Festival of Ideas in June - more details of which nearer the time.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Dusty Answer, by Rosamond Lehmann

This is a novel of yearning. Judith Earle is an only child, a teenager living a lonely life in a nice house in the Thames Valley. She recalls with a thrill the times in her childhood when the next-door house was home to five cousins, who would sometimes involve her in their games. Looking back to those days with a pang, she longs for them to have noticed her, to have thought well of her, to come back to her again.

Then there is news: cousins Charlie and Mariella have married, young, and Charlie has gone off to the trenches. There, that beautiful boy is killed, leaving his young wife with a baby she can't quite deal with. The cousins return to the next-door house, and Judith still yearns for their attention. But they're older, sadder, broken - and beset by thoughts of sex. They speak of mistresses rathet than wives. Judith is observed swimming naked in the river, and each of the cousins seems to fall for her in turn over the next few years.

Judith has strong feelings, and is quick to fantasise events to come - at the mention of a cousin's name, she will be consumed by thoughts of how she'll teach or nurse or marry them. There's a sense this longing comes from being so lonely at home - her parents spend most of the book abroad. But there's also a great well of emotion inside her that yearns to be fully expressed.

Then Judith starts at Cambridge, and immediately falls for a fellow student, Jennifer. Their relationship is passionate and loving, and scandalised readers when the book was first published in 1927. But it's surprising, now, how little this three-year affair actually involves. Later, when Judith is carried away by one of the (male) cousins to a secluded spot on an island, we're left with little doubt as to the physical act that occurs - without it ever being spelled out. But between Jennifer and Judith, there's lots of mutual admiration, entertaining friends and gettiing a little tipsy... And that's all. Their kisses might be the kisses of affectionate, platonic friends.

Judith also makes time for a strange, sad girl called Mabel, who everyone else is rude about. On her first day at college, Judith worries that by just making polite conversation with Mabel, the girl will be a burden to her ever after. And though there's an element that Judith is too embarrassed, too cowardly, to break off from Mabel entirely, we also see her kindness and care when Mabel gets into a fix over her exams. Seeing Judith's kindness and compassion make it all the more galling when others are cruel or uncaring to her.

In the last year at university, Jennifer abruptly dumps Judith for another woman, and Lehmann keenly makes us feel the loss. Judith's beloved (if absent) father also dies, and Judith is left in fug of confused, desperate emotions. It's here she encounters the cousins again, swimming naked with Mariella and facing advances of different kinds from the men. One of the cousins treats her particularly badly - using her, then casting her off. We keenly feel the affect this has on Judith, and the risk to her reputation and future should her actions ever be spoken of. And yet she can't stop yearning for those people who have treated her so badly.

For all her misery, Judith is a smart and witty young woman, an accomplished ice-skater, swimmer and student. It is fun to be in her company. But there's a constant feeling, whatever her best efforts, that she's trapped by her class and gender and time. Required to join her widowed mother in Paris after completing her studies, it seems Judith's academic accompishments can only be a hindrance.
"'If you were a little more stupid,' said Mamma, 'you might make a success of a London season even at this late date. You've got the looks. You are stupid - stupid enough, I should think, to ruin all your own chances - but you're not stupid all through. You're like your father: he was a brilliant imbecile. I never intended to put you into the marriage-market - but I'll do so if you like. If you haven't decided to marry one of those young Fyfes... They're quite a good family, I suppose.'"
Rosamond Lehmann, Dusty Answer (1927), p. 259.
There is more loss to come, and the novel ends with Judith never more alone, and unsure of her future - but also at some kind of epiphany about these people who have so consumed her thoughts and desires for so long. She is still yearning, but not for them. There's just a chance she is free.