Tuesday, July 30, 2019


I've finally caught up with the amazing HBO/Sky mini-series Chernobyl, a gruelling experience because the horror is so perfectly executed. No wonder it's up for all of the awards.

Everything about it - the writing, the realisation - is absolutely right. But I especially like The Chernobyl Podcast that accompanies each episode, in which writer Craig Mazin explains to host Peter Segal how much of what we're watching comes from primary sources or dramatic licence. It's full of insight into the real history, including more about the real people involved. But it's also fascinating to hear how judgments were made in the story-telling: what events and relationships to omit (such as Legasov's family) and how much of the stomach-churning detail to actually show.

I'd dearly love more of this: episode-by-episode interviews with the director Johan Renck, produce Sanne Wohlenberg or costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux on how you make this history, this whole world, so convincing. And I'd love it done for other drama based in real history: Russell T Davies on A Very English Scandal; Sally Wainwright on Gentleman Jack.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans

This glorious, funny, wise and sad novel had me utterly enthralled. It's the tale of two former Suffragettes in the late 1920s, the past catching up on them as - among other things - they attend the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst and finally get to vote. There's so much misery and injustice, and the Fascists are gaining ground, but these women are determined to fight.

It's a rare thing indeed to have a story about older women, neither of them perfect, both of them so real. They are fallible and fail, but we are with them devotedly as they struggle on. In the superb opening scene, 50-something ex-militant Mattie Simpkin has her handbag stolen, grabs a miniature of whisky and hurls it with perfect aim at the thief.
"The slope was in her favour; the missile maintained its height, kept its trajectory, and she was able to feel a split second of wondering pride in an unlost skill before a red-headed girl ran, laughing, from behind the booth, dodged round the thief and received the bottle full in the mouth." (p. 7) 
Real history is deftly threaded through this comic stuff. Mattie gives lectures on the history of the Suffragette movement, which helps (a little cheatingly) to explain the context. But some of the most striking moments are those things Mattie can't allow herself to say, such as why, years ago, she turned down her great friend Arthur Pomeroy when he proposed: 
"For she would never have wanted him to know, for her, a husband would have required not only steadfast kindliness but actual brilliance, or a rare magnetism; her brothers had spoiled her for more ordinary men. And neither did she choose to share the reason that underpinned it all - a kind of horror at the idea of standing still, of choosing a single existence, as if life were a sprint across quicksand and stasis meant a slow extinction. Long ago, as a child in a pinched and stifled century, she had seen her own mother gradually disappear." (p. 85.) 
The last section of the book is especially moving. Without spoiling the details, one woman has behaved badly and is abandoned and forlorn. Her efforts to make some kind of amends, to reach out again and say sorry, are all rebuffed or - worse - simply ignored. And then someone we've barely glimpsed in the story makes an offer of astonishing generosity that quite took my breath away. An act of kindness can change everything.

What follows is no less emotional, as a woman is left to care for two characters in turn, one of them well beyond the end of this book (as the blurb for Crooked Heart makes plain.) So much of it is conveyed so deftly, so concisely. When the boy Noel repeats something he's been told a few pages earlier - that a castle is also a rook - we recognise his intelligence, and more importantly his potential. When we're told no one came to visit him at the Barnet Hosptial for Incurables, it tells us all we need to know about his father's wretched family, and we need no further persuasion about the course of action that's been set.

Quite often, it's almost a pity when a book ends with an ad for the next book in the series. Here, it's a relief. Old Baggage is fantastic.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine 541

"Four Doctors... Forty-three episodes... One groundbreaking director". The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine boasts hidden treasures from the archive of director Chistopher Barry. I interviewed fellow director Michael E Briant and writer Marc Platt about their memories of working with him.

Monday, July 22, 2019

11 Explorations into Life on Earth, by Helen Scales

This beautifully packaged anthology summarises 11 Christmas lectures from the Royal Institution covering aspects of natural history. The lectures are:

  • "The Childhood of Animals" by Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell (1911)
  • "The Haunts of Life" by John Arthur Thompson (1920)
  • "Concerning the Habits of Insects" by Francis Balfour-Browne (1924)
  • "Rare Animals and the Disappearance of Wild Life" by Sir Julian Huxley (1937)
  • "How Animals Move" by Sir James Gray (1951)
  • "Animal Behaviour" by Desmond Morris (1964)
  • "The Language of Animals" by Sir David Attenborough (1973)
  • "Growing Up in the Universe" by Richard Dawkins (1991)
  • "The History in Our Bones" by Simon Conway Morris (1996)
  • "To the End of the Earth: Surviving Antarctic Extremes" by Lloyd Peck (2004)
  • "The 300-million-year War" by Sue Hartley (2009)

Scales recounts the lectures, provides updates on some of the science and speaks to some of those who gave or attended the lectures. There are also a few photos and other archive documents.

The Christmas lectures are aimed at a lay audience including children, and there's lots on how children were involved in helping with the demonstrations or responded with excitement and awe. Last year I read Eric Laithwaite's book version of his 1966-67 lectures, The Engineer in Wonderland, and some of the physics was a bit heavy going. Scales is good at making the science here engaging and digestable, for all it covers a great deal of ground.

(In March, Doctor Who Magazine #536 included my feature on how Laithwaite's lectures were inspired by his meeting with Doctor Who story editor Gerry Davis about potentially becoming the series' first scienctific advisor.)

The lectures are fascinating historically: we see how long scientists have been warning about damage to the environment. They're also peppered with extraordinary detail about the natural world. For example, we're told Balfour-Browne was so devoted to water beetles that there's now an international water beetle conservation trust in his name. But when he shares his interest with the child audience, it's like something out of a horror film. First, he had recovered specimens hibernating in mud:
"When the beetles woke up in March, he watched the females drill holes in water plants to lay their eggs, which in time hatched into voracious larvae. The larvae grab prey in their formidable jaws, inject them with digestive enzymes and suck the juices out through tubes in their / mouths, leaving just their prey's empty, crumpled skin. He [Balfour-Browne] gave a graphic description of the greater silver beetle, a species with specialized jaws that act as a can opener to break into the shells of pond snails. And great diving bettle larvae are cannibals, he says, that 'have no respect for one another and four placed in a large tub were quickly reduced to one'." (pp. 48-9, the quotation from Balfour-Browne's own 1925 book of his lectures)
He also explains that wasps and bees can happily cohabit because they don't compete for food, the bees being herbivores and the wasps... well.
"Instead of pollen and honey, female wasps stock their nests with spiders, caterpillars and flies. The mothers sting and paralyse the prey to keep them alive and fresh, while making sure they can't walk off or fly away." (p. 42)
I had a ghoulish vision of vegetarian families turning a blind eye and affecting not to hear the endless screaming from next door.

The final entry in the book was of particular interest having just read Semiosis with its intelligent, communicative bamboo. Lecturer Sue Hartley details various different ways that plants fend off animal predators, and also communicate with one another to warn of impending danger.
"As well as talking to each other, plants also talk to animals. Wasps smell the plants' warning signals and fly in to investigate."
She demonstrates with a model of a caterpillar that threatens a particular plant - but inside the model there is,
"a handful of sticky goo and giant, model grubs. Inside the caterpillar, the wasp laid hundreds of eggs by piercing through its skin with a sharp egg-laying needle (called an ovipositor). The eggs then hatched and started eating". (p. 184)
Climate change threatens the balance in this long war between plants and animals. Hartley gives the example of aphids, who reproduce asexually - and a pregnant mother has a clone daughter inside her, who is already pregnant with her own clone child, "a system known as telescopic generations" (p. 186). Warmer conditions mean aphids reproduce even more quickly, so the predators that currently keep populations under control will no longer keep up.
"These aphids, she warns, are among the most dangerous pests, causing £100 million of damage to cereal crops every year ... If all [an individual aphid's] offspring survived, Hartley explains, there would be a layer of aphids covering the Earth 150 km deep, reaching half the way to the International Space Station." (p. 186)
 This is all the stuff of nightmares, and perfect for me as I continue to write stories with monsters.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Welt am Draht in the Lancet Psychiatry

The 1 August issue of medical journal the Lancet Psychiatry includes "Cryin', talkin', sleepin', walkin living dolls" - my review of Welt am Draht (World on a Wire), the 1973 sci-fi TV series directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and recently reissued on Blu-ray.
“I've been observing Stiller for some time very closely”, says pipe-smoking psychologist Dr Franz Hahn (Wolfgang Schenck) in the second episode of Welt am Draht (World on a Wire), first broadcast on West German television in 1973. “He's suffering from a case of acute paranoia. He's an extreme example of psychological degeneration. He is in so many words…not responsible for his actions.” Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) sits across from him, and doubts anything in the room is even real. The cigarette his boss is smoking or the chair in which he sits is, says Stiller, an idea of an idea of an idea...

Friday, July 19, 2019

Cinema Limbo on King Kong (1976)

A huge, confused ape wrestles with King Kong. Reader, that ape is me...

The Cinema Limbo podcast re-evaluates old films, and host Jeremy Phillips asked me to discuss the 1976 remake of King Kong. You can listen to our extended rambling here:


Thursday, July 18, 2019

Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi

In the chaos of war-torn Iraq, even claiming the body of dead loved one is difficult. Hadi, a junk dealer, collects scraps of different corpses and stiches them together into a single body in the hope - he claims - that it might have a proper and dignified burial. But the patchwork figure is then inhabited by the soul of another dead person, and animated by the longing of a mother for her long-vanished son. The creature awakes... and immediately seeks revenge on all those it has been murdered by.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is a shocking, often queasy read, Jonathan Wright's translation of Ahmed Saadawi's original Arabic full of visceral detail. It's not just the monstrous creature - the police routinely beat and torture suspects, gangs molest citizens, there is sectarian violence. And yet this is a black comedy, with an eye for the foibles of ordinary people.

One example is the dilemma faced by Mahmoud al-Sawadi, a young journalist, who once wrote a piece about a criminal called Mantis.
"The Mantis's brother had led a small gang that terrorized the locals until he was arrested and detained. The news of his arrest was greeted with great joy by many, including Mahmoud, who then wrote a newspaper article about the need to enforce the law against this criminal. He philosophized a little in the article, saying there were three types of justice - legal justice, divine justice and street justice - and that however long it takes, criminals must face one of them." (pp. 165-6)
This article earns Mahmoud esteem and praise, until the Mantis's brother is set free - another example of corrupt, incompetent policing in the novel. When a rival gang then kill the brother, it seems Mahmoud's philosophy is right - but Mantis has taken exception and Mahmoud must flee the town. Years later, Mahmoud considers returning home but is assured that he's still remembered.
"Don't come. Don't show your face. Stay where you are, for God's sake, unless you want the three forms of justice applied to you. Now the Mantis often talks about them, even on the radio. He's stolen your idea." (p. 169) 
The novel stitches together the strange and the mundane to create a whole of its own. I found it a little slow to get going, with too many characters I couldn't keep track of. But that's then its power: we get to know these people and their interweaving stories.

There's magic - in the old woman whose longing brings a patchwork corpse back to life, and the astrologers whose accurate predictions don't help them save themselves. There's the suggestion that this is all real, carefully researched and documented by the writer from primary sources. And at the end the different characters all reach some kind of closure, our last sight a principal figure curled up with a stray cat and apparently free of the anger that drove so much of the story. If it starts as a story about the ravages of war, the injustice and desire for revenge, it concludes with a sense of peace.

Incidentally, none of the three books I've read this week won the Clarke Award last night, which went to Tade Thompson's Rosewater, which looked great. I was at the ceremony and, as well as seeing lots of old friends, got to meet Aliya Whiteley, whose work I've admired for so long. Afterwards, we were escorted to the Ice Bar, which was cool.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Semiosis, by Sue Burke

Semiosis is, like Aliya Whiteley's The Loosening Skin, one of six contenders for the 2019 Clarke Award, to be announced this Wednesday. I'd hate to have to make the call between the two books (let alone the others) because Semiosis is excellent.

It charts the early history of an Earth colony on alien world over five generations and 107 years. Chapters are mostly told from the perspective of one colonist and then we jump a generation and learn, in passing, how that person died.

The first human settlers name the planet "Pax", and each chapter opens with a quote from their constitution, an effort to set out how they will go forward as Pacifists. Characters, too, discuss their efforts to meet the standards set by the original settlers:
"Only intelligent creatures also create civilization. Civilization creates the idea of peace as well as war, and makes both possible. I am a Pacifist. I have chosen the idea that I intend to make real." (p. 248).
For all the ideals, it's rarely very easy. There are accidents, sickness and worse. Some of it is pretty hard going - I'm especially susceptible to stuff about the death of a baby, and there's a battle towards the end that is as horrifying as it is compelling, characters ruthlessly despatched. One section is about the hunt for a serial killer. And yet on the whole this is, I think, a fantasy of integration, of making a success of weaving humanity into the strange fabric of another world that teems with strange and hostile life.

That life includes Stevland, a sentient plant who even narrates some of the story, runs for political office and converses with duplicituous orange trees. Stevland is ambitious and powerful, modifying the fruit it grows and the humans consume so they'll better serve its purpose. Unsurprisingly, some of the humans find this sinister and want to limit Stevland's reach - but the colony is also dependent on that very food.

The humans are also not the only non-native species: there's evidence of creatures the humans name Glassmakers. Again, we're not quite sure what to make of them or their intentions until very late in the story - and individuals don't all agree. The humans, too, are well drawn and distinct, conflicting personalities. A big part of the power of the book is how much we feel the loss of even people we've only met briefly.

I must admit I got to the end of the first, 33-page chapter feeling I'd seen this kind of new-colony stuff before, but Semiosis is something special. The title means signs - the production of meaning others are meant to understand. It's a treatise on how we communicate with others. Unlike so much of colony-in-space fiction, it's not about conquest or the triumph of will and science. The constant thread through the generations is negotiation, of speaking to your enemies to compromise and find peace. It's not always possible - there are terrible mistakes, and there is terrible malice. But the aspiration holds, and leaves the reader with hope.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Floating in Space repeat

This Saturday morning, Radio 4 Extra are repeating Floating in Space - a compendium of space-related programming presented by Samira Ahmed and featuring some chatter from me about the early days of spaceflight. The producer was Luke Doran.

On Tuesday, I was in the audience at Broadcasting House for the recording of James Burke: Our Man on the Moon, to be broadcast on Radio 4 on 20 July. It's full of great clips - many of them new to me - and Burke presented with characteristic insight, intelligence and wit. It's superb.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Black Archive: The Dalek Invasion of Earth, by Jonathan Morris

My friend Jonny's book on 1964 Doctor Who story The Dalek Invasion of Earth is excellent - and not only because its reference to my own book in the same Black Archive series says nice things. 

Jonny's focus is the development of the story - from initial idea, through first and final draft of the script, the changes made when it went before the TV cameras and then its adaptations on the big screen and in print. Thrillingly, he's managed to get hold of Terry Nation's first draft scripts - or copies held in private hands, since the originals are no longer held in the BBC's own archives - and a first draft of the script for the movie. The former is especially interesting, as comparison with the camera scripts (used when the story went in front of the cameras) reveals the extent of work contributed by story editor David Whitaker. The most astonishing insight - to me - is that writers were likely to only produce a single draft which Whitaker would then rewrite himself. No rewrites! It's another world!

It would be a shame to spoil any more of the gems here. It's a compelling, engaging original piece of research. Especially pleasingly, I'd hoped it might provide some context for a thing I'm writing about one of the characters in the story; it has loads.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Man on the Moon - the psychology of Apollo 11

My essay "Man on the Moon", about the psychology involved in landing the first people on the lunar surface 50 years ago this month, is published in the new issue of medical journal the Lancet Psychiatry.

You need to subscribe to read the whole thing, but here's the opening paragraph:
"In May 1960, Brooks Air Force Base in Texas (USA) hosted a symposium on psychophysiological aspects of space flight. The meeting aimed to present what was known about human behavioural capabilities in space and to recommend directions for further research. It was still relatively early days in the Space Race. The first human ventured into space the following April, and the first American human a month after that. Only then did the American president announce his ambitious plan to land people on the Moon and get them home safely by the end of the decade. But the delegates at the symposium looked boldly forward to the long-term conquest of space, even considering voyages lasting several thousand years..." ("Man on the Moon", Simon Guerrier, The Lancet Psychiatry, Vol. 6, No. 7, pp. 570–572. Published: July 2019.)
(I've another essay, "So What If It's All Green Cheese? The Moon on Screen", in the exhibition catalogue accompanying "The Moon" at Royal Museums Greenwich.)