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:

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...

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.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Astounding in the Lancet

The new issue of medical journal the Lancet Psychiatry includes a review by me:
"Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee is the story of the hugely influential science fiction magazine of the same name, told through the lives of the magazine's editor John W Campbell and three of his most influential writers: Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein, and L Ron Hubbard. It is also the story of science fiction transcending its humble origins in cheaply produced magazines with relatively few readers to conquer the mainstream. As the prologue tells us, 'For the last two decades, the most successful movie in any given year has nearly always featured elements of science fiction or fantasy…in what amounts to a universal language that can captivate or divert audiences worldwide…The same holds true for literature and television...'" (Simon Guerrier, "The Fiction Behind Science-Fiction", Lancet Psychiatry vol 6, issue 12, pe32, 1 December 2019, DOI:
You need to pay to read the whole thing but here's a short post about the same book from February.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Conan Doyle and London

Yesterday, I attended Conan Doyle and London, a one-day symposium organised by the Institute of English Studies and linked to the forthcoming deluxe reissue of Conan Doyle's books by Edinburgh University Press. It was a fascinating, scholarly day - but perfectly pitched to both academics and Sherlockians, as well as the itinerant hack (that was me).

We began with Douglas Kerr's "Man of Letters, Man About Town", which explored Doyle's life in London - the places he lived, the clubs he attended, the male-dominated culture of dinners and connections he was part of.
"Few men are ever absolutely natural when there are women in the room." Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures: An Autobiography, p. 265.
That clubbable culture was essential to his career: on 30 August 1889, at a dinner at the Langham Hotel, Doyle was commissioned by editor Joseph M Stoddart to write the second Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Sign of Four, to be published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. Oscar Wilde was at the same dinner, and soon afterward wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray for the same editor and publication (the implication being, I think, that he was commissioned at the same dinner).

Douglas' first slide was of the blue plaque on the wall of 12 Tennison Road, South Norwood - not far from where I live - and I didn't know that almost as soon as he moved there, Doyle wrote Beyond the City (1891) all about suburban life. As Douglas said, Doyle was writing about experience he'd not quite yet had himself.

I should also add that before we started, Douglas made a point of introducing himself to everyone as we arrived, making us all personally welcome. As neither an academic or a Sherlockian, I was feeling a bit of a fraud, a bit daunted by the knowledgeable company I had snuck myself among, so really appreciated that.

Next was Jonathan Cranfield's "Of Time and the City: Conan Doyle and London Print Culture." As a jobbing writer, this was right up my street. How fascinating to understand the kind of literary culture Doyle had grown up in - as a child he sat on Thackeray's knee, as Thackeray was a friend of Doyle's grandfather John. Jonathan also listed Doyle's early publications - one-off commissions in very different styles, each for very different publications. It really hit home: that's how writers begin, trying anything and anyone, slowly developing voice and the all-important relationships with editors and readers. I could well understand Doyle's description of Cornhill editor James Payn, who he met at yet another dinner (this time at the Ship in Greenwich) as a "warden at the gate."

Andrew Lang, editor of Longman's, had dealt with this early, green Doyle and remained a little dismissive of him even after Doyle hit it big.
"Now the native pewter of Sherlock Holmes is a sixpenny magazine with plenty of clever illustrations." Andrew Lang, "The Novels of Conan Doyle", Quarterly Review (July 1904), p. 160.
But Jonathan seemed to argue that Lang had a point. The Strand was the first magazine to have an art editor (WHJ Boot), with a picture on every "opening" - I think that means spread. That wasn't just Sidney Paget's extraordinary, vivid illustrations: the Holmes stories include maps, ciphers and fragments of documents. (In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie mentions Holmes just a paragraph before the first mention of her own detective, Hercule Poirot, indicating the legacy of Doyle; her book also has maps and fragments.)

I was also fascinated by the letters Doyle sent to the press about other writers, muttering at ungentlemanly behaviour of publicising their stories or making too much of the process. He refers in the two letters Jonathan showed us to "wire-pulling," and it only occurred to me afterwards that this might link to Doyle's interest in spiritualism - his strong belief in the truth of it in principle, and his horror at those who faked or exploited it. Was writing just as much of a mystical process to him?

Next came Andrew Glazzard's "'A great traffic was going on, as usual, in Whitehall': Public Places and Private Spaces in Sherlock Holmes' London". This was great, using maps to explore the settings of three spy stories: "The Naval Treaty", "The Second Stain" (a case which Watson tells us in "The Naval Treaty" that he cannot share) and "The Bruce Partingdon Plans". Each one is about the loss of compromising documents, and although foreign agents are keen to buy the missing papers, the fault often lies with incompetent civil servants. Andrew argued that this romanticisation of bureaucracy on which the fate of the nation then hangs would appeal to white-collar commuters reading the Strand.

He also linked the bureacractic incompetence of well-connected duffers (something that would never happen in government now, of course) to the "Hotel Cecil" cabinet, stuffed full of relatives of Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, the man from whom we have the phrase "Bob's your uncle."  He also linked the stories to other real events in the time they were written or published: the first Official Secrets Act (1889), which was a response to internal carelessness not external threat; the signing of the Entente Cordial in 1904; the coming together of train companies in 1907 which resulted in the first consolidated map of the London Underground network in 1908. Matching story to map shows the all-important journey is from one triangle of lines on the left to a triangle of lines on the right. In these stories, he suggested, we could see a changing relationship to Europe - particularly Germany - in the years preceding the war.

I was really taken by Andrew noting how much the role played in government by Mycroft Holmes changes between his first appearance in "The Greek Interpreter" and his return in "The Bruce Partingdon Plans". It struck me that Mycroft in the latter is an all-powerful special adviser of the sort we're more used to today, a kind of Dominic Cummings but competent. Surely, I thought, there's a story to be told in which Mycroft misses some small element in his great calculations to devastating effect, where things don't quite go as planned despite his reputation for cleverness...

We stopped for lunch, where I chatted to an American academic who specialises in the history of Spanish-speaking countries but is interested in Doyle the spiritualist. Then we were back for
"I have my eyes on a suite in Baker Street" by Catherine Cooke from Westminster Libraries (of which I'm devoted, card-carrying member). Catherine detailed the history of the real Baker Street and  the various efforts by Sherlockians to work out where 221B "really" must have been. That then expanded into exploring the bits of London Doyle knew himself, such as the Psychic Bookshop, Library and Museum he part-owned at 2 Victoria Street, telegram address "ECTOPLASM, SOWEST, LONDON". Catherine's paper was so packed with clever deductions and interesting titbits of history - the Marlyebone Road was the first ever bypass, designed to relieve pressure on Oxford Street - that I was too absorbed to scribble many notes.

Then it was "Conan Doyle and Medical London" by Roger Luckhurst - my friend, whose tweet had made my buy a ticket for the event in the first place. Roger's focus was the period 1890-91 when Doyle had consulting rooms on a site almost exactly where we were sitting in Senate House. Just as previous speakers used maps to elucidate Doyle's literary world, Roger used maps to show Doyle's universe as a doctor - where he was, where he aspired to be, what else was around him. The big money was just to the west in Harley Street, working as a specialist, but that was open only to the elite. Doyle, a relatively provincial general practitioner working in Southsea until 1890, then spent a train journey with Sir Malcolm Morris - a well-respected surgeon who'd also started as a lowly GP. As well as his practice, Morris was a writer, a member of the MCC and the Reform Club - and Roger showed the profound influence he had on Doyle's ambitions - the kind of man Doyle wanted to be. That train journey, too, was to see Robert Koch - yet another provincial doctor outside the establishment who'd made it big anyway (in Koch's case by his work on anthrax).

Roger's editing the Edinburgh edition of Doyle's Round the Red Lamp (1894), a collection of medical stories that sound gruesome and disturbing, and were not well-received at the time. Roger linked that response to the horror that met the trial of Oscar Wilde the following year. I dared to ask a question: a lot of the Sherlock Holmes stories are pretty dark and disturbing, and they're also relayed by a doctor - so what made these medical stories different? Roger suggested that Holmes solves or explains the events in his stories and Watson anyway won't share the worst or most disturbing cases. Both, then, frame the events in a reassuring way.

As the son of a consultant, I know doctors share horror stories with one another. There's a sense, I think, of Doyle sharing the kind of tales he swapped in the gentlemanly clubs he belonged to. At least, that's the sense I get without reading the stories - which I now very much mean to.

In the tea-break I spoke to a couple of young academics sat near me: both American, both here pursuing studies that overlapped with Doyle. One asked me how long I'd lived in London. When I said just over 20 years, he said that was how long he'd lived. Reader, I cried into my complimentary biscuit.

Finally, Christine Ferguson's "Cosmopolitan Spiritualism and Doyle's The Land of Mist" explored the 1926 novel seen as propaganda for Doyle's belief in the spirit world - in which even the great cynic Professor Challenger goes from calling it all "twaddle" to becoming a true believer. Christine described Challenger as a kind of blend of Brian Blessed and TH Huxley, with a quote from Huxley where he also described spiritualism as twaddle.

The general consensus in the room from those who've read and know the book is that The Land of Mist isn't very good. Christine thought Arnold Bennett's The Glimpse (1909) a better advertisement for the world of the spirits, one in vivid colour whereas Doyle's is all grey. That made me think of A Matter of Life and Death, where the after-life is in monochrome and to be appealed against. Christine also said she found Doyle's evidence, his arguments, unconvincing - and afterwards it struck me that if he'd really wanted to convince his readers of the truth of his beliefs, he'd have done better using another of his characters. Imagine Sherlock Holmes as a convert, the zeal with which he'd pronounce the evident, empirical truth...

To conclude, Douglas Kerr told us more about the forthcoming reissue of Doyle's books, beginning with the autobiography Memories and Adventures, which should be out sometime next year. There was natter and wine after, and then I reached St Pancras just as a fast, direct train back to Norwood Junction pulled in - Doyle's ghost evidently looking over me. Home in good time to say goodnight to the children, me and the Dr then caught up on the final episode of Dublin Murders, a properly disturbing case filled with the ghosts of the past.

Related wittering:

Friday, November 15, 2019

One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson

After Case Histories comes One Good Turn, which brings former soldier, cop and private detective Jackson Brodie out of retirement, ruining the happy ending of that previous, devastatingly sad book.

Jackson's at the Edinburgh Festival where his actress girlfriend is in a terrible play. Idling around without her during the day, Jackson is by chance witness to a moment's road rage but doesn't want to get involved. He then, by chance, discovers a dead body - but loses it again. Then a man tries to kill him, and when Jackson fights back he ends up on a charge. This does not help convince newly promoted Detective Sergeant Louise Monroe that he is a good guy. Which is tricky because Lousie and Jackson clearly fancy one another...

In fact, Jackson doesn't turn up until page 51 and the road rage incident is first conveyed from the perspective of two other people, including Martin Canning - an author of not very good detective stories, which allows Atkinson some fun. For example, there's the flashback to Martin taking a first writing class and the teacher's words that inspired him to make it his job:
"You're the only one in the class who can put one word in front of another and not make want to fucking puke, excuse my split infinitive. You should be a writer." (p. 38)
There's the strange competition and jockeying for position that goes on at panels of writers. Or there's the simple truth of what writing involves:
"For some reason people thought it was a glamorous profession but Martin couldn't find anything glamorous about sitting in a room on your own, day after day, trying not to go mad." (p. 122) 
There's a lot of this - the meandering thoughts of the characters in whose heads we're in, their memories and connections and musings. Concealed in some of this are vital clues to the plot, but it largely feels like Atkinson is just having fun. The result is that the story, for all it is about murder and corruption, and the disintegration of relationships, is much less cold and disturbing than Case Histories.

Yet there are moments when she twists the knife, as when a character I won't name here is encumbered by a dead body.
"The only thing he could see was her handbag. He rifled through it to make sure there was nothing to incriminate him, that she hadn't written down his name and hotel address. Nothing, just a cheap purse, some keys, a tissue and lipstick. A photograph in a plastic wallet. The photograph was of a baby, its sex indeterminate. [Name] refused to think about the significance of a photograph of a baby." (p. 494)
That's horrific, as is what then happens to the body.
"He had thrown a human being away like rubbish." (p. 496) 
That haunts the reader as it does the man I won't name.

Atkinson is brilliant at these distinct characters, and the book is full of telling detail. Another principal figure is Gloria Hatter, frustrated wife of a dodgy businessman. Gloria poses as a potential buyer to nose rounds the houses that her husband's company builds, and gives a perfectly withering assessment of the company - and him.
"Everything was built to the tightest specifications, as little garden as possible, the smallest bathroom - it was as if a very mean person had decided to build houses." (p. 254)
As before, the disparate elements are eventually woven together in a satisfying way. My only disquiet is what happens in Jackson's love life - he's told something towards the end of the novel about a third party, but not who that is or what exactly happened, a mystery that lingers. But I loved the final pages in which we return to a character from the beginning and learn something new and devastating and brilliant about someone we thought we knew.

I'm very much looking forward to the next Jackson Brodie novel, When Will There Be Good News?


I've added this sighting to my list of Doctor Who references in non-Doctor Who books:
"He had another cup of coffee as he walked, dispensed from a kiosk that used to be a blue police box, a Tardis. It was a strange world, Jackson thought. Yes, sirree." (p. 274)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine 545

Out tomorrow, the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine names the writers and directors of next year's TV series, and details the results of a Twitter poll on the greatest Dalek stories ever. And that's just the start of the splendid things.

At the back, I've reviewed Christopher Eccleston's autobiography, I Love the Bones of You: My Father and the Making of Me (which I read in September). There's also a nice review by Alex Romeo of The Target Storybook - apparently, in my story, first-person narrative is used "to great effect."

Monday, November 11, 2019

Galactic Yo-Yo 86

Episode 86 of the Galactic Yo-Yo podcast features an interview with me talking about writing Doctor Who books and audios, and confessing my love for 1985 story Timelash.

"Simon likes Timelash more than most people do," as Molly says in her introduction. It is true.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

The Farthest Shore, by Ursula le Guin

A few months after reading The Tombs of Atuan, I'm back in Earthsea for a third instalment. It's been "seventeen years, or eighteen, since the Ring of the King's Rune was returned to the Tower of the Kings in Havnor," at the end of that last book (p. 316). There's a brief reference to what the protagonist of that previous book is up to: having completed her training in magic, she's now, "the White Lady of Gont, Tenar of the Ring" (p. 309). But this is not her story.

A strange despair hangs over the islands, people losing their sense of magic and even of their own names. Ged, hero of the last two books, is now a distinguished old archmage who teams up with young prince Arren to venture out to the very edge of the world to confront an evil power hoovering up the sparkle of everyone else.

Told from Arren's perspective, this is a more conventional hero quest than the previous instalments, though for all Arren has a special sword there's little conventional bashing people. The one time he uses his sword to do someone a serious injury, it heals almost instantly - the weapon of no effect. Instead, he and Ged travel through a disconcerting wasteland, small communities sickening under the spell. Ged can help one old woman only by making her forget who she once was. Even dragons and Ged's heroes are caught in this fog - rendered unable to speak.

As before, a lot of the book is taken up with the ethics of magic. Arren is not magical but fascinated by the potential of spells, asking about the limits of what can be achieved. Fairly early on, he asks about the power to summon the dead back to life and Ged admits to having known "only one man" work such ancient, seldom-used power:
"He lived in Havnor. They accounted him a mere sorcerer, but in native power he was a great mage. He made money from his art, showing any who paid him whatever spirit they asked to see, dead wife or husband or child, filling his house with unquiet shadows of old centuries, the fair women of the days of the Kings. I saw him summon from the Dry Land my own old master who was Archmage in my youth, Nemmerle, for a trick to entertain the idle. And the great soul came at his call, like a dog to heel. I was angry, and challenged him. I was not Archmage then. I said, 'You compel the dead to come into your house. Will you come with me to theirs?' And I made him come, though he fought me with all his will, and changed his shape, and wept aloud in the darkness." (pp. 368-9)
This seemed an important moment in Ged's life and I flipped back through the previous two books to check it wasn't something described there, but it doesn't seem to be. Yet it is significant: the man in question turns out to be the villain of the piece, a wizard called Cob at least equal in power to Ged - if not more so.

Our first sight of Cob himself is a vision on a shore, as Ged explains:
"It was only a sending. A presentment or image of the man. It can speak and hear, but there's no power in it, save what our fear may lend it. Nor is it even true in seeming, unless the sender so wishes." (p. 446)
That made me think of Luke in The Last Jedi - though Ged tells us such visions cannot be sent across water. Like that film, victory seems possible not by force of will but the opposite, surrendering the spirit rather than clinging on. Cob is, in many ways, a mirror of Ged in the first book, too eager to dominate, to driven by his own fear. In facing him, Ged shows how far he has come - the farthest shore as much about the extent of his reach as it is the physical place where this occurs.

The result feels like a proper ending to a trilogy, though there's still a book to go in this collection...

Friday, November 01, 2019

Standing with Samira

Around the childcare, the Dr and I had turns this week to stand in solidarity with Samira Ahmed taking the BBC to tribunal over unequal pay. I've been Samira's producer on a number of projects, including four documentaries for BBC Radio 3, and follow the case with close interest.

Picture by Aaron Chown / PA Wire / PA Images - ref: 47995752

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Time Warrior, by Terrance Dicks

The death of maestro Terrance Dicks earlier this year prompted me to revisit this novelisation which I so loved as a kid.

The TV story The Time Warrior (1973-74) was the first adventure in Jon Pertwee's final year as the Third Doctor. It introduced new companion Sarah Jane Smith and the monstrous Sontarans - though the Doctor recognises the species so has met them before off-screen. (I wrote an audio story about the Doctor's first encounter with Sontarans.)

Dicks's novelisation was first published in June 1978, by which time the Sontarans had faced the Doctor three times on screen. Dicks had been script editor on the TV version of the story: he commissioned it from Robert Holmes, oversaw the development of the storyline and rewrites on the scripts, and presumably did at least a polish. According to him, it was originally to be novelised by Holmes who only produced the 10-page prologue of the book. This presents a space battle that would have been tricky to realise on screen, and surely owe something to the opening scenes of Star Wars (1977).

The protagonist in this space battle is Jingo Linx, Commander in the Sontaran Space Corps. That first name was in the TV script but never used on screen. We learn a little of the Sontarans: their home planet is Sontara (not Sontar, as in 2008 TV episodes) and they have a "Sontaran Anthem" (which does match 2008). But Holmes tells us little about their perennial enemies the Rutans - though by the time he wrote this prologue they'd been seen on screen, in TV story Horror of Fang Rock (1977) which he had commissioned as script editor from Dicks as writer. It's surprising there's no mention here of jellyfish or shape-changing, or the eerie green glow, that neither Dicks nor Holmes sought to join up those dots.

During the space battle, Linx manages a "fly-pass through the constellation of Sagittarius." As I now know from my GCSE astronomy, a constellation only looks like a group of stars as seen from Earth, and are usually not close to one another at all. Holmes is similarly rough on history: both TV and book versions have peasants peeling potatoes - famously from the New World - in England of the Middle Ages ("the thirteenth century" according to Sarah in 1975's The Sontaran Experiment).

After the prologue, Dicks follows the TV story pretty closely. Linx crashes on Earth and makes an uneasy alliance with local warlord Irongron. When Irongron can't supply suitable nerds to help Linx fix his spaceship, the Sontaran kidnaps them from the 20th century - which gets the attention of the Doctor. Holmes' dialogue is rich and witty, perfectly establishing the characters and their worldview. Dicks' prose is straight-forward, pithily getting on with the story.

Chapter four introduces Sir Edward, Lady Eleanor and their archer Hal earlier than the TV version. Hal and Sir Edward are back from the Crusades, the implication being that Irongron and his men have not and so are sort of draft-dodgers. Lady Eleanor is a stronger character here than on screen, taking a more active role in combatting the wicked Irongron - there's a little of Lady Macbeth when she orders Hal to kill him. That neatly links to the thread of Sarah as the independent, liberated woman out of her time in a man's world.

Sir Edward's page is given a name - Eric - and we see the moment he's captured by Irongron's men, rather than just being told about it. This is Dicks the novelist adding in big action moments he would have cut as script editor. It makes me wonder how much of the screen version was his anyway - he would give writers two or three drafts before taking over their scripts.

The TV version does not give us what now seems like a glaring omission - Sarah's first impression of the TARDIS interior. It's fleeting here, but present all the same on page 53. Dicks says Sarah doesn't have time to "fully take in the wonder of her surroundings", and is more concerned about correcting another issue: how she stows away in the TARDIS without the Doctor seeing her. The simple solution is to have her hide in "a kind of cupboard" - the "kind of" suggesting something a bit more sci-fi than MFI.

Another simple intervention is the explanation of context.
"This was an age in which explosives in any form were still unknown. Bangs and flashes and clouds of stinking smoke could have only one explanation. 'Devil's work,' screamed one of the soldiers." (p. 103)
But really, there's little embellishment of events as seen on TV - though at one point there's this incongruous image:
"High on the battlements Sarah was doing a celebratory dance." (p. 104)
I liked the joke that when the Doctor and Sarah disguise themselves in cassocks, his is too short and hers too long. Dicks also feels the need to provide a four-and-a-half line section explaining where those robes came from, with Sir Edward having given a "handsome donation" to two monks.

Reading the book again made me aware of something I was less aware of in the TV version: how much back and forth there is between the two castles. The Doctor bests Linx or Irongron, then returns to Sir Edward's castle, only to say he must go back to face Linx and Irongron - several times. In the book, the Doctor also pops back to the TARDIS for supplies before making his stink bombs, and in popping back again to the TARDIS for the silver "umbrella" that he uses in his final battle against Linx, we're told in the book that he changes his shirt and jacket. This all makes the pacing more leisurely, less urgent. On TV, getting the "umbrella" from the TARDIS is just about excusable but making several trips into the ship feels like cheating.

And something else: Linx mocks humanity's "primary and secondary reproductive cycle" and says the Sontaran method is more efficient. But there's no mention of clones, no suggestion that there are millions more of his kind out there, just like him. This is a chance encounter, Linx visiting Earth by mistake because he's so far from his own people.

So many Doctor Who monsters are conceived as potential rivals to the Daleks, ideal for merchandising and sequels. The irony of Linx, the first we see of a multitude of clones, is that he's the perfect one-off. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Shirley Jackson in Lancet Psychiatry

The new issue of medical journal Lancet Psychiatry features my essay, "There's someone in my head but it's not me," on Shirley Jackson's 1954 novel The Bird's Nest. You need to pay to read the full article but here's the opening paragraph:
"When we first meet Elizabeth Richmond in the opening pages of Shirley Jackson's 1954 novel The Bird's Nest, she is 23 and, to her colleagues at the local museum, 'not even interesting enough to distinguish with a nickname'. She has worked for 2 years answering letters from the public, a job that requires 'no very sparkling personality'. She ably, punctually completes the tasks assigned to her but does not seem the kind of protagonist whose ambitions will power a plot. Rather, Elizabeth is someone to whom things happen: and things quickly start to go wrong..." (Simon Guerrier, "There's someone in my head but it's not me," Lancet Psychiatry vol. 6, iss. 11 (1 November 2019), pp. 899-901 - DOI:
I read a bunch of Shirley Jackson's books last year, and posted some thoughts here:

Monday, October 28, 2019

Radio Free Skaro 712

Steven Schapansky of Doctor Who podcast Radio Free Skaro interviewed me for episode #712, "Stay on Target". I think that makes me Biggs.

We talk about my contribution to the newly published Doctor Who: The Target Storybook, and about maestro Terrance Dicks, who died in August and whose final contribution to Doctor Who in included in the book. As I say, both I and the Dr rather owe our careers to Terrance.

I think you can probably tell that I'd been at home alone for a few days, the Dr off on half-term excursions with the apes. The bit with me starts at 30:08.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Subtitled "The Octopus and the evolution of intelligent life," this is an absorbing mix of marine biology and philosophy, delving into the worldview of the octopus and our sense of what intelligence even is.
"Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closet we will come to meeting an intelligent alien." (p. 9)
I've waded through some of this stuff before - see my published work on the octopus. Godfrey-Smith also uses studies of other species to shed light on octopus intelligence and our assumptions. He discusses the findings of Baboon Metaphysics, which made me wonder how applicable quotations from Jane Austen would be to the octopus.

This all helps place the octopus in context but the most arresting bits of the book are when Godfrey-Smith is in the water with them, reporting directly, and in his logical analysis of how different their biology and therefore their worldview is to ours.
"Some features show a mixture of similarity and difference, convergence and divergence. We have hearts, and so do octopuses. But an octopus has three hearts, not one. Their hearts pump blood that is blue-green, using copper as the oxygen-carrying molecule instead of the iron which makes our blood red. Then, of course, there is the nervous system - large like ours, but built on a different design, with a different set of relationships between body and brain." (p. 74)
That nervous system extends into the limbs, effectively meaning that octopuses "see" with their arms to a limited extent, as well as with their eyes. Godfrey-Smith discusses (on p. 80) tactile vision substitution systems (TVSS), where a video camera attached to a blind person converts optical images into vibration or electrical stimulation the person can feel. When a dog walks past, the blind person doesn't feel a vibration so much as sense an object in motion, relative to themselves. Key to this is that the TVSS works in real time, so the person's own position and movement is part of the sensation: you move, and sense how that affects the relative position of objects around you.

We then return to the octopus:
"What could it be like to see with your skin? There could be no focusing of an image. Only general changes and washes of light could be detected. We don't yet know whether the skin's sensing is communicated to the brain, or whether then information remains local. Both possibilities stretch the imagination. If the skin's sensing is carried to the brain, then the animal's visual sensitivity would extend in all directions, beyond where the eyes can reach. If the skin's sensing does not reach the brain, then each arm might see for itself, and keep what it sees to itself." (p. 121)
Some of the science is a little hard-going, and (as always) I would prefer footnotes to endnotes, and numbers in the body text to indicate when to check a note. But it's an appealingly short book - 204 pages before the endnotes - stuffed with utterly boggling ideas. It's also an emotional story: the tentative contact with these creatures, the dangers all around them, their shockingly short lives. And then, just when we think we grasp how strange these things are, he undercuts some of what he's said and makes the point that they're not so very distant.
"The mind evolved in the sea. Water made it possible ... When animals did crawl onto dry land, they took the sea with them. All there basic activities of life occur in water-filled cells bounded by membranes, tiny containers whose insides are remnants of the sea. I said in chapter I that meeting an octopus is, in many ways, the closest we're likely to get to meeting an intelligent alien. Yet it's not really an alien; the Earth and its oceans made us both." (p. 200)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine 544

Doctor Who Magazine 544
It's 40 years - and six days - since the first issue of Doctor Who Weekly, which is now Doctor Who Magazine. Issue 544 celebrates this ridiculous milestone with all sorts of goodies, including - hooray! - and index of features and interviews that is really useful for a job I'm doing today.

Also in the issue is a short interview with me about my forthcoming Doctor Who audio story, The Home Guard.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans

Old Baggage, which I loved, is a prequel to this brilliant, comic novel about bad behaviour during the Second World War.

We begin a little after Old Baggage left off, with eccentric ex-Suffragette Mattie Simpkin living just off Hampstead Heath with the small boy, Noel Bostock, she's sort of not-quite adopted. But Mattie's memory and wits are fast escaping her, and when war breaks out Noel is sent to St Albans with other evacuees. There, he's taken on by Vera Sedge, who thinks he might help earn some money in the latest of her ill-fated scams. But nerdy, lonely, grieving Noel has ideas about how to improve their takings...

Evans conjures a dirty, drab and distinctly criminal Blitz, where even the wardens are on the take - I think the most distressing, haunting moment is a woman being led off to an asylum while her house is robbed by the men ostensibly helping her. Life is hard even before the bombs start falling, full of tragedy and meanness and indifference. But as we weave our way through Noel and Vee's adventures, and those of Vee's own mother and son, there's the promise of something to light up the dark - hope of connection, perhaps even a little joy.

That's the gift here: so much of what happens is miserable, so much of what's described is viscerally horrible. And yet the character, the humour, the compassion shine through and make every page a delight.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

This smart, thrilling, brilliant new novel is about the women who are part of the astronaut programme in an alternate 1950s. History diverges from ours on 2 November 1948 when Thomas E Dewey beats Harry S Truman in the US presidential election. By 3 March 1952, the US has put its third satellite into orbit. That morning, a meteorite crashes into Earth with devastating effect.  Washington DC is obliterated.

So, despite the devastation the space programme is well ahead. In our universe, the space race began years after this, on 30 August 1955, when lead engineer Sergei Korolev got the Soviet Academy of Sciences to agree a programme to beat the Americans into orbit. The result was Sputnik (4 October 1957), followed by the first person - Gagarin - sent into space, on 12 April 1961. A month later, President Kennedy announced plans to land people on the Moon by the end of the decade.

Part of the joy of The Calculating Stars is how much of "our" history is woven into the alternate timeline: our heroine, Dr Elma York meets Wernher von Braun, while among her fellow trainee astronauts listed on page 426 are "Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong".  Her husband reads science-fiction by Ray Bradbury, his visions of settlements on Mars apparently coloured by the events in this timeline.

Also great is the technical detail. We encouter this world through Elma's perspective as a former WASP, a qualified pilot and extremely competent mathematician. She works as a human computer, outperforming the nascent IBM machines - at one extremely tense moment in the story, her speed and accuracy with complex numbers are vital. Robinette Kowal's acknowledgements include real astronauts and other experts: she admits she doesn't understand the maths herself. As a nerd for the early days of space travel, there was lots I recognised - and lots that came as new.
"There is something about having your legs over your head that makes you need to pee. This makes it into none of the press releases, but every single astronaut talks about it." (p. 493)
But the book is also excellent on the social detail: the drama of this post-meteorite world is overshadowed by inherent sexism and racism, our Jewish heroine not immune to her own prejudice.  Elma also suffers from anxiety and there's lots on the shame and secrecy surrounding mental illness. Characters are well drawn, and Elma must learn to work alongside people she doesn't necessarily like, managing rivalries and her own privilege, for all she is discriminated against. Each chapter opens with a quote from a newspaper filling in more of the background detail of this world, and full of telling turns of phrase. It all makes for a rich and real version of history, a compelling world in which this adventure takes place.

It is an adventure, full of twists and turns. Robinette Kowal nicely manages the personal stakes with the technical and global. I zipped through the almost 500 pages and am keen for the next instalment.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

When Michelle Obama was supporting her husband's bid to be president of the USA, she used to tell her own story. Growing up in a "cramped apartment on the South Side of Chicago", as the blurb on her autobiography puts it, she could never have dreamed of where she'd end up. But her story and that of her husband, she argues, is proof that we can achieve anything with hard work and hope.

In that aspirational message, Becoming reminded me of Chris Hadfield's An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, a life story just as inspiring and daunting. Except that Obama is writing as her husband's successor attempts to expunge all trace of what was achieved in those years in office. Obama does not mince her words about Trump: her horror directed not just at him but at the part of America that embraced him. Other adversaries go unnamed or she reconciles with later. Her hostility to Trump is in notable contrast to the friendships made across the political divide, such as with the Bush family, or across national and social boundaries such as with the Queen.

She doesn't make a link but I did to the one other person to whom she gives no quarter. Taking us through the night that her husband had Osama Bin Laden killed, she details the delight and excitement she shared with others in the White House and beyond, the vindication she felt for the wounded soldiers and their families she'd encountered up to that point.
"I'm not sure anyone's death is a reason to celebrate. But what America got that night was a moment of release, a chance to feel its own resilience." (p. 364) 
For all Obama says she's "not sure" about celebrating his death, she has no doubts about the killing itself. Elsewhere, she is open about her uncertainties - whether Barack should stand in the first place, what being in office has done to their children's lives. I was struck by her frankness about fertility treatment, the grim practicalities of Clomid and IVF. There's the slips in her speeches, seized upon by her critics. There's the time when she can't face the grieving community after yet another shooting. And then there's this extraordinary, awful acknowledgement - guilt - that the rise of the right in America is in some ways directly personal.
"For more than six years now, Barack and I had lived with an awareness that we ourselves were a provocation ... Our presence in the White House had been celebrated by millions of Americans, but it also contributed to a reactionary sense of fear and resentment among others. The hatred was old and deep and as dangerous as ever." (p. 397)
Yet she remains optimistic, even to the end. Becoming challenges the reader to step up and make a difference, and offers fascinating insight into the practicalities of public office. We learn how she managed her image and needed lessons in smiling, how she decided what she and her children would wear on stage, how she created her own role as First Lady. There's the difficulty of having a date night when your husband is president, or the strange feeling of addressing a huge crowd from behind a shield of bullet-proof glass.

In fact, the security involved is the most telling detail of life in the White House. Obama is daunted by her first sight of the presidential motorcade. Obama explains how difficult all that fanfare is for doing simple things like looking at potential schools for her children, or letting them go for ice cream with friends. She tells us about the challenge of finding a way out of the White House one particular night, the usual door locked even to her. On another occasion, she shares details of a nightmare in which animals roam the grounds of the building and attack her daughters.

One detail stuck with me. The White House is so heavily defended, its walls and windows so secure, that she couldn't hear the Marine One helicopter when it landed right outside.
"I usually figured out that Barack had arrived home from a trip not by the sound of his helicopter but rather by the smell of its fuel, which somehow manage to permeate." (p. 398) 

Friday, September 27, 2019

Science of Storytelling review

The new issue of medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry includes my review of The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr. You need to pay to read the review but here's the opening grab:
"What links the 4000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh to the children's book Mr Nosey? According to Will Storr's The Science of Storytelling, they provide “the same tribal function” by showing a character shed a flawed worldview and antisocial habits, then be rewarded with connection and status..." Simon Guerrier, "Flaw Plans", The Lancet Psychiatry volume 6, issue 10, pe. 25, 1 October 2019
I posted a little more about the book here earlier in the year. There's also an index of my pieces for the Lancet

Sunday, September 22, 2019

I Love the Bones of You, by Christopher Eccleston

My review of Christopher Eccleston's autobiography will be published in Doctor Who Magazine #544 in just under four weeks' time. As last week's headlines made clear, it's a brave and honest account of his own and his father's struggles with mental illness, told with the intensity Eccleston brings to his acting roles.

I've, obviously, concentrated my review on what he says - and doesn't say - about his time in Doctor Who, but that's a small part of the story. As well as all the revelations about the inside of his head, it's fascinating to read his reasons for turning down roles other actors would beg for - Begbie in the film Trainspotting, Sylar in the TV series Heroes - or to learn what drama and actors inspired him. How strange to think of this iconclastic, bolshie star so bristling with terror when meeting his own heroes, whether actor,  footballer or pop star. He tells us that, having been wary of Doctor Who conventions in the past, he's now embracing fandom.
"It has headled something in me." (p. 167)
And why not - because he's just as much the obsessive, anxious fan as the rest of us.

For a flavour of the book, here's Eccleston's recent appearance at Rose City Comic Con, answering audience questions with honesty and love:

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine 543

Doctor Who Magazine #543 is out in shops now, and features my interview with TV and radio presenter Stephen Cranford about his friendship with the late producer John Nathan-Turner.

Nathan-Turner died in 2002, and Stephen inherited his photos, tapes and paperwork relating to Doctor Who, which he's kindly shared with the clever lot working on DVDs and Blu-rays. We've been able to publish many of the photos for the first time.

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