Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Engineer in Wonderland, by ER Laithwaite

This was research for something I'm working on at the moment. It's the book version of the Royal Institution Christmas lectures delivered in December 1966 and January 1967 by Eric Laithwaite, professor of heavy electrical engineering at Imperial College. 

These were the 137th Christmas lectures in the series for a "juvenile auditory", or children aged between 10 and 17, begun by Michael Faraday in 1825. Until recently, it was thought Laithwaite's were the first to be televised, in a tradition that continues today, but Rupert Cole reveals that Royal Institution Christmas lectures were broadcast, in some form, in 1936 and 1949

Laithwaite gave each lecture between 3 and 4 pm, and the broadcasts were between 5 and 6 pm the same day. I like to imagine some poor runner racing with the fresh, unique 2-inch videotapes from the Royal Institution in Albermarle Street to TV Centre in under an hour, but suspect it wasn't quite like that...

My version of the book, sourced from Abebooks where I spend too much money, does not look as splendid as the stock image of the dust jacket above. It's a battered, jacketless copy once owned by the University of Bradford library, loaned out 35 times between October 1969 and March 1998.

There's the foxy smell of school textbook, as the compounds in the paper have broken down over the last 50 years. Passages are underlined or marked by the various students who've been here before me. I especially like the old-school but trying-to-be-chic-and-futuristic university logo in the inside front cover, and the pouch still containing the punched paper card for old-skool computers:

The book itself is broadly a transcript of the lectures - complete with brackets telling us what was happening in the room as Laithwaite spoke. His lectures were repeated in the summer of 1967 - "on BBC Channel-1", as the Royal Institution informed its members - and then the tapes were wiped, so this, with its photographs of the lectures being given and close-ups of the various models and machines, is the nearest we can get to reliving them.

Laithwaite is quite the showman, his lectures full of demonstrations of things apparently breaking physical laws - objects levitating, darts shooting through tubes, that sort of thing. The sixth and final lecture starts with one hell of a promise: demonstrations of experiments never previously performed, with Laithwaite not knowing the results in advance. If I struggled with some of the technical explanations (yes, aimed at kids aged 10 to 17, shut up), I wholly got the excitement of this live theatre.

(The above image was also used on the cover of the programme of the lectures. Note the threepenny bit in the lower right, to give scale.)

Laithwaite was best known for his work on linear motors and levitation systems - think the fast-moving tray that cuts the head off a dummy in Q's workshop in The Spy Who Loved Me (using a system Laithwaite helped to develop). His lectures basically explore the science of these things, but are more about imbuing the audience with less a sense of wonder, more a sense that they can play with this weird, cool stuff, too.

The book goes further - most chapters are followed by notes explaining how schools might build the models demonstrated. I'm only slightly completely bloody horrified by the instructions in the first lecture for a wire that gets so hot it can be used to cut plastic - "but be careful not to burn your fingers" - and models that plug directly into the mains.

In fact, there's something thrillingly reckless here. Lecture two begins with Laithwaite trying out ideas suggested by children in the audience of lecture one, two days earlier. Besides the hasty rewriting, restructuring and basic accomodation of this, there's then the result:
"The experiment was tried ... but ... the volunteer suddenly let go the thick ring as it was burning his fingers."
ER Laithwaite, The Engineer in Wonderland, p. 31.
That's burning a child, almost live on air. On page 125, he describes timing the moment to switch off a linear track at just the right moment so that a rotor riding along it didn't fly off into the audience. There's a fascinating preface to chapter six in which Laithwaite details the preparations and testing for the never-before-tried experiment, with safety as a paramount issue.
"Alan Sleath [BBC producer] offered to put the whole experiment in a cage, with lecturer and assistants inside. This would certainly have added to the spectacle if not to the comfort of those performing the experiment."
Ibid., p. 143.
As a sometime producer for the BBC on a freelance basis making documentaries for radio, I find all of this extraordinary and thrilling, a risk assessment form expanding in my head as I read eagerly on. No wonder these lectures made such an impact and established the series on TV. Laithwaite was invited to give Christmas lectures again in 1974 - but that's another story.

More than anything, these lectures are about practical experimentation, using your own evidence to challenge the things we take for granted. It's an intoxicating challenge, and I'd like to know how influential it was on getting children into STEM subjects and engineering in particular.

But there are moments where Laithwaite is more philosophical. He claims that a hundred years ago (that is, 50 years before his lectures) the all-important factors in machine design were efficiency in power. At the time of his lectures, he argued the key factors were cost and the amount of power gained from a given weight. But what of the future? Laithwaite's prediction is fascinating, forged in the shadow of the "white heat" of technological revolution, famously spoken of by Harold Wilson  in 1963. Here's what Laithwaite predicted:
"Your homes are becoming more and more littered with gadgets, both electrical and mechanical. A family possessing a car, bicycles, a washing machine, a refridgerator, a vacuum cleaner, an electric razor, a hair dryer, a television set and transistor radios is not regarded as anything out of the ordinary. Washing-up machines, waste disposal units, automatic food mixers, electric carving knives and the like are regarded as somewhat more luxurious, but the average number of gadgets per home is increasing each year. When they all work, they are fine things to have, but we soon learn to rely on them to such an extent that when they fail we are terribly upset, and as the number of gadgets increases, so does our annoyance with them and the liklihood of a repair man of one sort or another coming in almost ever day! - unless the reliability is increased - and we will be prepared to pay a bigger and bigger price for reliability. If your car or the train in which you are travelling breaks down only once a year, it is once too often, and if you were asked, as a regular traveller, to pay £50 a year more for your fares or petrol with a guarantee that your transport would never break down, I think most people would be prepared to pay it even now."
Ibid., p. 74.
Yes, a 21st century built by engineers on the basis of reliability. I finished the book on a train to London Bridge, late after the one I'd meant to catch had been cancelled. That £50 fee - as much as a week's Oystercard - is a tantalising utopia.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Doctor Who and the Day of the Doctor, by Steven Moffat

A long time ago when I was not so broken and old, I made a point of finishing every book begun, enjoyable, insightful or not. These days, amid the noise of work and childcare, I'll try and give a book 100 pages and then dump it if it's not delivering.

Oh dear, did Simon not get on with the new novelisation of 2013 Doctor Who episode The Day of the Doctor, written by his friend Steven Moffat? And to the extent of then writing an angry post about it, to be read by whole single figures of people? Or is this merely an attention-grabbing prelude?

I got to page 136 of Ann Radcliffe's 1794 gothic novel The Mysteries of Udulpho -

Hah, thought so. 

- and things were just starting to occur. After pages and pages of picturesque travel through Gascony, our heroine Emily is orphaned and forced to live with a ghastly aunt, surrounded by her aunt's ghastly friends. They engineer malicious gossip about a nice young man Emily has taken a shine to, and her prospects do not look good...

But the plot and I were making such slow progress, the prospect of another 596 pages was hardly a thrill. And then the five new novelisations of TV Doctor Who stories arrived. I selected Steven Moffat's one at random to read on a trip into town. 

And blimey. It's frenetic. I tore through it in very few sittings - which feels all the more remarkable because the book is packed.

Steven retells the events of the TV episode from the point of view of the Doctor, which is immediately tricky because it all happens out of chronological order, and to several incarnations of the Doctor at once. So we start with chapter 8, then chapter 11 and then chapter 1. Between each chapter, a narrator comments on the reliability of the sources - apparently in real time as we're reading. 
"(By the way, these pages should be appearing in italics . If not, just give three light taps on any verb, and the page will reboot. And if you don't like any aspects of my prose style, give the book a good shake. That should help you work of your irritation.)"
Steven Moffat, Doctor Who - The Day of the Doctor (2018), p. 3.
It's all very clever, or infuriating or fun, depending on your tastes. Steven packs his book with metatextual jokes - references to Doctor Who books that haven't been written yet, teasing us to look for a chapter that's gone missing, and the idea that the narrator can see us as we're reading. One page is apprently written in our own handwriting.

While the narrative largely follows the events - and dialogue - of the TV episode, Steven has added all sorts of stuff. Each incarnation of the Doctor gets a heroic moment and to go for tea. There are appearances by River Song (in the bath with the Tenth Doctor), the Brigadier and Sarah Jane Smith, and even the Dr Who movies starring Peter Cushing - including what the Doctor thinks of them.
"He loves them. He loaned Peter Cushing a waistcoat for the second one, they were great friends. Though, we only realised that when Cushing started showing up in movies made long after his death."
Ibid., p. 144.
Again, your delight or dismay at this sort of thing may vary, but I found the Brigadier and Sarah bits quite moving - not least because the much-loved actors who played them died in 2011 and so couldn't be part of the TV version. The TV version did achieve a coup of a cameo, and the appearance by an engimatic curator of the National Gallery still provides goosebumps in print (though sadly doesn't confirm my own evidence-based theory that the National Gallery is, in fact, a TARDIS).

But really that's all distraction from the crux of the story, in which the Doctor faces, again and again, the worst moment in his long life - when he must destroy his own people to save the universe as a whole. This, its effect on him, and the intervention by his friend Clara, is what makes this particular adventure so sad and yet joyous, so effective and even profound.

Steven goes beyond the TV version, which rests on the Doctor restating the promise implicit in his name, that he endeavours never to be cruel or cowardly. The book turns out to be a more fundamental exploration of that promise, and of exactly who the Doctor thinks they are.

It ends on a battlefield in the future, with the Doctor in conversation with two women from her past, quoting words from a TV episode that, long ago, promised the adventures would never end. So this novelisation of old Doctor Who - in more ways than one - is ultimately a witty / optimistic / clever-clever look to the future.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Isle of Dogs

In January, I took the Lord of Chaos to see the Pixar film Coco at the cinema. It held him transfixed, but I'd already given my heart to a trailer before it started. As always, there had been the cloyingly awful previews of films aimed at children and their poor parents - and then an astonished gasp from those sitting round me in the darkness. And from me as well.

'What the bloody hell was that'? people asked. 'Can we go see that?' I pleaded to my son.

Finally, this morning, we got to see Isle of Dogs, and I sat in stupefied wonder. It looks and sounds and feels amazing - a tale of a small and wounded boy doggedly searching for his lost dog, in a desolate and often cruel landscape. It had just the right mix of tension and jokes to keep his Lordship entertained, too - he enthused to his mum about it later.

I was getting a strong Kurosawa vibe already when the brilliant soundtrack (mostly by Alexandre Desplat) then included Hayasaka's "Kanbei & Katsushiro - Kikuchiyo's Mambo" from The Seven Samurai.

It could do with better, more prominent roles for female characters, and I'd have cut at least one of the couples pairing up at the end - it's all a bit male and straight and, looking at the cast, white. But it's an astounding film, even more so to see it on the big screen with that sound. It's been a long time since I've left a cinema so elated.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Bernice Summerfield - in Time

The Time Ladies and Big Finish have announced a thrillingly thrilling short story competition for the Bernice Summerfield range.

The winning story will be published in Bernice Summerfield: in Time, a new anthology edited by Xanna Eve Chown and to be published in December - part of the glut of fun stuff to mark 20 years of Big Finish producing Benny's adventures. The anthology will include a short story by me (which I haven't started writing yet), related to my forthcoming audio play, Braxiatel in Love.

A long time ago, I was in charge of judging Benny short story competitions, and a Doctor Who one, too. Here's some general feedback from the 2006-7 Doctor Who short story competition that might be of use to anyone entering this new contest. Good luck!

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Seven films watched on two planes

Bladerunner 2049
This is not a film designed to be watched on a small, square screen on a plane, the naked bits pixellated and the swearing dubbed. But it still looks amazing, a credible, bleak future of light and texture and history. There's considerable effort to continue on from the original film without matching it slavishly, but sadly this new instalment lacks the quirky humour.

It's treatment of women is also a problem. True, the "pleasure model" Replicants in the first film were all women, and I think this one's trying to make a point about the way women are packaged and sold - while also showing us lots of bare boobs (if I read my pixellated screen right). Given we know that Ryan Reynolds' K is a Replicant, perhaps it would have worked better for him, in his darkest hour, to see a sexy advert not for a Replicant that reminds him of someone else, but for one that looks just like him.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
This film about rape and murder and suicide and domestic violence and racism and torture was, helpfully, edited for content, so what seems to have been an almost constant barrage of swearing was dubbed out. For the first ten minutes or so, I thought I was going to have to turn the thing off it was so ridiculous, and then it became hypnotic.

It's a gripping film, that starts with a really tough premise and then keeps coming at you from left field. Part of the thrill of it is in having two lead characters who seem completely unchained, liable to do just about anything.

A final scene seems a bit tacked on - we watch a car drive away past the titular billboards and the film could have ended there, but we then cut to the interior of the car for some last exposition. I'm also really uncomfortable about the sort-of redemption of the racist cop who admits to having tortured a black suspect - an act that is almost a joke among the white people of the community. Yes, he suffers in the course of events, and endeavours to be a better cop, but there's no sense that either he or the community really face up to what he's done.

Baby Driver
This typically stylish caper from Edgar Wright is great fun, though obviously overshadowed by Kevin Spacey's later fall from grace. I really liked the final sequence where Baby must face the consequences of his actions, but also felt love interest Debora was too accepting of all he had done. Grosse Point Blank had Debbie recoil in horror from her prospective boyfriend's criminal life. Not enough of a price is paid here, I thought.

Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Guy Ritchie's daft take on the Arthurian legend has baby Arthur brought up in a brothel in London, where he grows into a right geezer with a common touch before learning he's the king. The title would be more accurately Arthur: Ledge. The film's one redeeming feature is that the London shown is clearly the one built and then abandoned by the Romans, the cheeky cockneys having taken charge of the former temples and circus. Just that panning shot made it worth it.

Goodbye, Christopher Robin
Since I'd read Christoper Robin's own memoir, The Enchanted Place, I knew that the opening premise of this film wasn't right - the boy who played with Winnie the Pooh didn't grow up to die in the Second World War. Yes, the film reveals later on that he survived, but that opening meant I watched this wondering what else had been moulded for dramatic effect. Would Olive, the nanny, really have spoken her mind to the boy's parents? Have the writers been fair to Daphne, the boy's mum?

Even so, that didn't distract too much from the moving story, of a shell-shocked AA Milne and EH Shephard struggling to return to their light-comic lives from before the war. A son and a move to the country both fail to quiet Milne's demons, at least at first. Then a bond builds between father and son that Milne works into his Winnie the Pooh stories - which were hugely successful by any measure, except the one that really mattered. Christopher Robin's enchanted childhood became a nightmare adolescence.

It's a compelling, horrifying story, that the books we so adored caused such misery for the boy in them. I find myself reviewing how much I put my own children in the limelight, on social media or in anything related to my work.

The Dark Tower
This is a humourless action movie about a troubled teenager who is really the special psychic who can either save or destroy the whole universe. The gunslinger he teams up with is played by Idris Elba, who adds a touch of class and is the best thing about the film - but it's a shame he couldn't be smarter or funnier. As the two journey through different realms together, they fight various bad guys and monsters, while the main villain does horrible things to anyone close to them. It's downright nasty: the bad guy killing the boy's mum is oddly unaffecting beyond the immediate shock. I kept hoping it would do something more interesting.

Spider-Man: Homecoming
I'd seen this fun adventure before, and again was struck by its wit, its heart, the villain we can totally sympathise with and the brilliant moment where Spider-Man inadvertently turns up at his front door. A lot of superhero films are about exceedingly strong and well-equipped people beating up villains who often seem less well-off in powers and technology. This new version of Spider-Man works precisely because he's a little guy - young and green and apparently out on his own. 

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Artemis, by Andy Weir

I really enjoyed this rollicking thriller by the author of The Martian. Like that, it's full of practical problem-solving in space, this time on the lunar colony Artemis sometime after the year 2072 (ie more than a hundred years after the last Apollo landing).

It takes 10 pages before we learn that our gutsy narrator is female. Jasmine "Jazz" Bashira is a porter (ie courier) with a line in illegal smuggling, to the despair of her respectable father - a welder and practising Muslim. She's lived on the Moon since she was six, and since her teens lived a rough existence just about surviving on her own wits. She's canny, adept, brave and wise-cracking, and an engaging character.

Other characters are also well drawn, and towards the end Jazz has to get a bunch of them to work together who we know are going to clash. That works really well. I also liked the minor character inspired by the real-life gruff Londoner who played the first Doctor Who:
"That evening, I hit my favorite watering hole: Hartnell's Pub [...] I loved the place. Partically because Billy was a pleasant bartender, but mainly because it was the closest bar to my coffin."
Andy Weir, Artmeis, p. 32. 
The proof copy I read says film rights to Artmeis have been sold to 20th Century Fox, so I wonder who will play Billy - perhaps he might be CGI.

Initially it looks like the book will involve a simple heist, but things soon become much more complex - and that lets us explore the lunar colony from inside and out, examining the infrastructure and politics and various power blocs involved. Just as in The Martian, existing in space is fraught with difficulty and danger. But whereas that was effectively Robinson Crusoe on Mars, with one smart astronaut battling the elements - and odds - to stay alive, this is a busier story with villains up to no good.

I have two criticisms. First, although Jazz is an engaging lead, she's also a very blokey one. This is a male-dominated environment and her life is defined by men: the dad she's estranged from; the rich guy she works for; the sort-of cop trying to deport her; the bloke on Earth she gets to send contraband; the various men she has or might have sex with. There are only a small number of women characters - the woman in charge of Artemis, the teenage daughter of her employer, and a scientist working for the bad guys - and it's a shame Jazz doesn't have any female friends of her own age.

I can see that isolates her, makes her situation harder. But it doesn't help that at one point she disguises herself as a prostitute, or that a supposedly symapthetic male character keeps referring to Jazz's breasts. That cuts against what's otherwise a compelling female lead, in a book that deals in issues other writers might have ignored, such as the practicalities of religion or disability while living on the Moon.

I also thought the ending was a bit easy - especially when so much of the book is about things being more tricky than they first appear, and simple jobs having unexpected and dire consequences. Given the scale of the crisis, affecting the whole of the colony, it seems a little unlikely that no one is killed or permanently injured. That comes down to some extraordinary luck on Jazz's part, and perhaps the ending might have been stronger if the cost of saving the colony and ensuring its future was that - as frequently threatened - she got sent back to Earth.