Saturday, October 16, 2021

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun reminded me chiefly of the Isaac Asimov story, Reason, which so beguiled me as a child. Klara is an AF - or "artificial friend" - an android companion who begins this novel gazing from the window of a trendy shop hoping that someone will buy her. She's an intelligent, observant machine, powered by the light of the Sun, but there's much of the human world she doesn't fully understand and readers must be active participants, filling in gaps in her knowledge or puzzling out what's really happening.

We understand that the small girl who smiles at Klara through the glass shop front and promises to come back and buy her may never return. We understand that a character with a serious illness may never recover. We understand that Klara goes to live with a traumatised, grieving family who don't always behave logically. But we also understand that Klara acts out of genuine concern to do right by these people. All our sympathies are with her, even more so than with the sick child at the heart of the story.

There are some disturbing ideas here: the genetically edited, "lifted" children and the social underclass then left behind; the idea of machine copies of the dead who can live on as comfort to their families; the haunting hints about the cruel treatment inflicted on AFs sold to other families; the understated cruelty of old AFs being left on the scrapheap to succumb to their "slow fade". But really this is an unconventional love story - nominally about two children whose lives are diverging, and actually about the devotion shown to them by their keen-to-please servant.

Then there's Klara's relationship with the Sun, her power source, who she assumes can power others, too - and is sentient and listening. I'm not sure how I feel about the ending of the book, which implies Klara might be right, that the Sun can intervene. It feels dissatisfying because, for once, there's no alternative to the meaning Klara applies here - there's no potential alternative reading that we can infer, other than lucky coincidence.

The coda, with a figure from Klara's past returning for one last conversation, is much better handled - poignant, sad, and with Klara still trying to make sense of human behaviour and her own complex feelings.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #570

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine has lots on the imminent new TV series with lots of exclusive access to cast and crew.

There's also bits from me. Deputy editor Peter Ware read my post here about Alvin Rakoff's new memoir and asked me to interview him about it. There's another Sufficient Data infographic, illustrated by Ben Morris and this time tracking the Sixth Doctor's efforts to pilot the TARDIS to particular destinations. And  I get a name-check in the nice review of the new Blu-ray release of The Evil of the Daleks.

ETA Alan Barnes' feature on the episode Blink also cites my 2017 interview with writer Steven Moffat.

Monday, October 04, 2021

Big Sky, by Kate Atkinson

I've been gadding about this week, braving the petrol crisis to venture to Cambridge and Liverpool, accompanied on the road by Jason Isaacs reading Big Sky - the fifth and, to date, final Jackson Brodie novel. Isaacs is perfect for this: he played Brodie in the TV series and - unlike readers of previous books in the series - knows how to pronounce words such as "Niamh". He's also good at making various characters distinct, which is important in a novel that depends on the interlinking relationships of a whole crowd of different, well drawn people.

In the years since Started Early, Took My Dog, time has moved on and yet little has changed for Jackson Brodie. He's still a private investigator, still haunted by the murder of his sister which compels his efforts to find and save other missing women. And yet his caseload is all sweating small stuff: following a married man and his girlfriend on dates; doing background research on some people; running round after his ex and their now-teenage son.

Lots of it involves people we've met before: that ex, Julia, is from the first book and she's been a constant presence. There's the return of Reggie Chase from book three, now working in the police but denying that's down to Jackson. We call back to events and people from previous adventures, because part of the thing is that Jackson lives in the past, but also trauma lasts for a lifetime. In addition, there's a more meta textual thing going on. Julia plays a pathologist in a TV series about a police detective, and at one point a cast member asking Jackson's advice for a scene. Then there's Jackson's continued reference to his own "little grey cells", linking him to Poirot (just as, a few sentences before introducing us to Poirot, Agatha Christie mentioned Sherlock Holmes). It's Jackson, and this whole endeavour, as part of a continuum, of death as entertainment.

To be honest, death takes quite a time to put in an appearance. Nothing much happens for a good few hours of the audiobook - we trail after Jackson and other characters going about their various lives, some of which intersect. But there are hints of something darker under the surface and as we pick over details, Jackson's instincts are shown to be absolutely, horribly right. There are a lot of women in danger...

I found the first half of the book mostly fun if a little too on the nose - anyone in favour of Brexit is crass and a bit (or a lot) racist, and there's lots of Jackson being grumpy about modern life. A running gag is that we get a character's train of thought and then someone else telling them to get a move on or to focus on matters at hand, as if the characters are sniping at their author's flights of fancy. As I said of the previous novel, this kind of thing can all feel a bit self-indulgent. But I think it's works better in this case, not least because this groundwork binds us to the various characters before the plot kicks into gear and things get  properly thrilling and tense.

What follows is often brutal - children in danger, some horrible deaths, and a seemingly endemic violence against women and girls. Atkinson has lots to say on the subject, but woven through the novel and from various perspectives so it never feels like a lecture. It is harrowing and compelling.

That makes it sound like an angry novel, and it is in places. Yet it's also often funny, and the over-riding emotion is melancholy - for lives lost and blighted, for the harm done by callousness and greed, for the long shadow it all casts over everything.

In that, and in its thrilling tension and it feeling like it had something to say, it chimed with No Time To Die, which I went to see on Saturday and really liked - but want to see again before committing my little grey cells.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Dalek Factor

Out on Blu-ray and DVD this week is the new animation recreating The Evil of the Daleks, a seven-episode Doctor Who story from 1967 of which only episode 2 still survives. The wealth of extras include making-of documentary The Dalek Factor produced by Steve Broster. It includes me rabbiting on a bit wild-eyed and excited to be talking to anyone outside my immediate family.

As the caption says, I wrote a book about The Evil of the Daleks for the Black Archive series, which is still available and rather good.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #569

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine includes two things by me.

First, the ingenious Gavin Rymill and Rhys Williams have reconstructed in CGI another studio floor plan from a missing episode of the series, this time the first part of The Macra Terror (1967). Rhys and I have written the accompanying words, trying to make sense of exactly how the story was realised with so little money, time and space.

Then, the latest instalment of Sufficient Data tackles the important subject of what, exactly, the Second Doctor keeps in his capacious pockets and when we first see each item. As always, the infographic is by Ben Morris but this time I shared the exhaustive research with Andrew Ledger, who undertook the extraordinary feat of rewatching every extant Troughton episode to be sure we hadn't missed anything.

Friday, September 10, 2021

I’m Just the Guy Who Says Action, by Alvin Rakoff

At the end of this fascinating, moving memoir, the TV and film director Alvin Rakoff recalls a final conversation with his dying wife, the actress Jacqueline Hill. She wanted him to tell her about the holidays they’d enjoyed, such as exploring Spain and Portugal in a dilapidated old car.

“The past, as I said, is a sunshine memory. I ranted on. Embellishing certain characters, exaggerating minor problems, emphasising funny moments, trying hard to remain focused on storytelling.” (p. 170)

The implication, surely, is that much of the rest of the book has been gilded. And yet the thing that strikes me is how packed it is with telling, honest detail. It’s largely about the production of a live TV drama, Requiem For A Heavyweight, in 1957, and Rakoff giving Sean Connery his first leading role (with a small role for Michael Caine, too). The play, he says, is now lost to the ether: a scratchy audio recording of most of it survives, as well as some photographs and the camera script full of Rakoff’s notes on how it should be staged and framed. YouTube also has the original, US version - directed by Ralph Nelson and with Jack Palance in the lead role.  

But the book is less an effort to recreate the lost production as to share a vivid sense of the thrill and terror of making it, what it cost Rakoff and his leading lady and then-girlfriend Hill emotionally, and - for all its success - the uncertain time that followed. How extraordinary the commissioning process seems today. Roughly every eight weeks, Rakoff would be summoned to see Michael Barry, “HDTel” or Head of Drama for the BBC’s sole TV station. Even the description of Barry’s office is striking:

“Curtains forever drawn. One dim bulb from a desk lamp, the only source of light. Presumably so he could more readily monitor the output from the nearby studios, relayed through the dark-wooded set in the corner. He himself wore his customary alpaca jacket over armband-hitched shirt sleeves. Complete, of course, with a tie.” (p. 151)

“He would give me a broadcast date. Nothing more. And as I would leave his office he always added, ‘A comedy would be good. A comedy would fit well into the schedule. See if you can find a comedy.’ Neither I nor any of his other subordinates managed to find many comedies. I would go away. Find a play. Buy it. Print it. Cast it. Involve a designer. Consult make-up, hair, wardrobe. Rehearse. Work out a camera script. … Then into the studios for broadcast. Live. Collapse with crew and cast for a few drinks after the show. The next day I would be back in Michael’s office and he would praise what I had done - usually - or tell me - a rarity - if he hadn’t liked it. … The meeting would again end with him telling me the date of my next commitment. And as I got to the door, the inevitable phrase came, ‘See if you can find a comedy.’ The routine was cyclical.” (p. 34)

Then, after Requiem, when Rakoff is too exhausted to commit immediately to the next production, Barry treats it as betrayal and pretty much casts him adrift - at least, for a time. Rakoff picks up with the noted film producer Michael Balcon, who seems to wield just as extraordinary power and hold just as powerful grudges.

There are plenty of insights into the mechanics of making TV at the time - the cameras, the politics, the personalities to be juggled, the impact of that work. For example, he notes how Look Back in Anger revolutionised British theatre when it was first staged by the Royal Court in 1956.

“A revolution, incidentally, started by television writers who were the first to show more interest in ‘the man on the Clapham bus’ than the ladies’ tea party at the vicarage.” (p. 111)

We follow the production of Requiem through casting and rehearsals, into Studio D at Lime Grove Studios, where there was so little space that one set had to be constructed around the moving actors as the play was broadcast live. Tension mounts as rehearsal after rehearsal fails to get this trick shot right, just one of a hundred stresses to contend with - the account of the live performance makes exhilarating reading. But it’s the details that make it so vivid: the etiquette of getting rounds in for the crew in the British Prince pub down the road, or of Connery bringing his then girlfriend to sit in on rehearsals, of Rakoff and Hill keeping emotionally distant while working together, of the crisis in their relationship.

It’s often very honest - about their sex life and about other people’s bad behaviour - and there’s an edge to some of the humour, Rakoff and Hill finding a couple of incidents comic that I felt more disturbing. But then perhaps that’s the gilding. When Rakoff is comforting his very ill wife with tales of that perfect 11-week holiday in 1960, she makes a typically insightful remark.

“Only poor people can afford [such] long holidays … Nobody wanted us back here.” (p. 170.)

See also:

Thursday, September 09, 2021

The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell

The winner of the 2020 Clarke Award for best science-fiction novel of the year is a sprawling epic, charting the lives of multiple generations in Kalingalinga, Zambia, from the arrival of British coloniser Percy M Clark on 8 May 1903.
"I set out for the drift five miles above the [Victoria] Falls, the port of entry into North-western Rhodesia. The Zambesi is at its deepest and narrowest here for hundreds of miles, so it's the handiest spot for 'drifting' a body across. At first it was called Sekute's Drift after a chief of the Leya. Then it was Clarke's Drift, after the first white settler, whom I soon met. No one knows when it became The Old Drift." (p. 4)
We follow the course of this settlement to some time in our own future, the world transformed by technology, the [HIV] Virus and [climate] Change.

For much of its 563 pages I was wondering how it qualified as science-fiction. There's an element of fantasy in the life of Sibilla (born 1939), the Italian girl-woman-grandmother who's entire body and face are covered in thick, fast-growing hair; Agnes (born 1943) plays tennis despite being blind; Matha (born 1948) weeps without stopping for decades, her eyelashes knitting together. Before that stage of her life, there's something delightful about the period in the mid-60s where Matha is an afronaut in the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, whose revolutionary aim is to beat the super-powers to the Moon.
"The ten-foot copper cylinder was propped on its end in the grass, listing peaceably, its bottom quarter singed black from pre-launch testing. The take-off had been disappointing from the point of view of spectacle - Cyclops I had only risen six feet before it crashed to the ground. The mukwa wood catapult he had been considering would not be powerful enough; the mulolo system, while ideal for training cadets to withstand weightlessness, would never swing far enough. Turbulent propulsion was the only way forward!" (p. 162)
It's an often very funny book, full of rascal characters dodging their way through life. In many cases they have little choice if they are to survive. Existence here is often brutal, with sudden, shocking moments of violence and loss and betrayal. Each chapter focuses on a different character's perspective, and we know from the family tree at the start that they - or their descendants - are to intertwine. There's a lot of mixture: of race and culture, of research and technology into people's everyday lives, of history seeping into present such as the effect that an old recording can have on succeeding generations.

In the last section of the book, we veer into more hard sf territory, with the populace encouraged to have "Beads" implanted in their hands, which give them access to the internet and an in-built torchlight, but also puts them at the mercy of their government and foreign pharmaceutical powers, and have racial / colonial undertones. Threads that have woven through much of the story come together: racism, technology, revolutionary politics, the ways we mark and amend our bodies with haircuts, tattoos, implants...

An earlier winner of the Clarke Award, Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones, annoyed me because its benign political future was, I felt, so lacking in detail - as if all that is required to create a utopia is well-meaning people in charge. The Old Drift offers a more complex, nuanced view full of unintended consequences and a sense of greater context - the lives of the people of Zambia affected by its history with Europe, present dealings with America and China, and an uncertain global future given dramatic changes in climate. The last pages, where a revolution kind of happens by accident, is exciting and scary and sci-fi, yet credible - I think because it embraces that chaos, the complexity of the mix, the uncertainty of outcome.

A brief coda then drops some bombshells. The voice who has spoken between each chapter is not what they seemed but - fittingly - something more complex and mixed-up. They tell us, abruptly, of the sudden death of one of the main characters, and of a son born into a new, uncertain world very different from all we've witnessed so far, we hope but not necessarily better. There's no sense of what his life might entail, just that life will, somehow, continue, all of this part of a far bigger picture, as we all slowly drift among the stars.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Small Change for Stuart, by Lissa Evans

Our holiday in north Wales has been enlivened by this brilliant book, written (and, on Audible, read) by Lissa Evans. Stuart is a small-for-his-age 10 year-old who moves house against his will, back to the town where his dad grew up - where there's an age-old family mystery waiting to be solved, if he's the right sort of boy to solve it.

The characters are great - the nosy triplets, the dad who only speaks in long words, the henchman identifiable from some distance by his dove - and the plot is full of twists and jokes and cliffhangers. Every so often we'd work out part of the puzzle just a step ahead of Stuart, making us active participants in the adventure. 

An age ago, the great Justin Richards advised me that in constructing a mystery plot, the reader should feel it's all twisty and zig-zag, so they have no idea where it is going; but at the end, when they look back on the route they have come, it should be a dead-straight line. I could see exactly what he meant when I read Dashiell Hammett, and here it is for kids. Exciting, funny, rich - and immensely satisfying.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #568

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is mainly concerned with the departures of current Doctor, Jodie Whitaker, and her head writer, Chris Chibnall. Plus there's lots of very interesting stuff from people who remember the now-missing adventures of the First Doctor.

But there's a couple of me bits, too: news that I am producing Doctor Who - the Lost Stories for Big Finish, and the latest Sufficient Data written by me with the infographic by Ben Morris. This one covers the wealth of animated versions of Doctor Who since 2001. I've just delivered the next one, which is even more spectacularly nerdy...

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson

The fourth Jackson Brodie novel is another melancholy tale exploring the long shadows cast by murder, grief and loss. There are several interlinking plots: the small child found locked in a flat with his murdered mum in 1975; a former policewoman who was involved in that case now trying to help another child; an elderly actress in the early stages of dementia; Jackson's own investigation on behalf of a client in New Zealand. 

As in previous books, these plots all turn out to be at least partly connected, or echo one another. In fact, there's quite a lot of doubling: Jackson is dogged by a fellow private investigator with a similar name, and his rescue of a poor, abused dog dovetails with Tracy Waterhouse intervening in the life of a child. As readers, I think we're encouraged to anticipate those connections - and there's a great moment where the gender of a character is revealed, meaning the connection we've made must be wrong.

That makes it sound like this is all densely plotted, but a lot of the book is made up of extended perambulations from one or other character's point of view, picking over their feelings, anxieties and the bits of the past that still haunt them. The result all feels rather loose - at times even a little self-indulgent. Jackson revisits events of previous books, haunted by the murder of his sister when he was very young and by the train crash in the last book, but also going over past relationships from those books - and catching up with at least one of the women in question. James Bond never looks up his exes, but Jackson's past is still a big part of his life.

Among the characters whose eyes we look through is a sexist, racist policeman, complete with his favoured choice of words. Tilly is anxious about unwittingly seeming to be racist. There's a point to this, and I'm sure the author means well yet it struck me that the perspectives that make up the story are all white. Padma (no surname) is a nice, helpful runner on the set of a TV show and John (no surname) is a nice man at the Nigerian embassy, but we only see them from Tilly's point of view, as something other. It's also true of her nice, dead-from-AIDS friend Douglas, the only gay character in the story.

And I'd have liked more from the perspective of the children in the story, not least because they're the real victims of the terrible things that occur. What do they make of the adults interceding on their behalf, the choices made, the results that follow? How do they make sense of what has befallen them? I found some of what happens really upsetting - brutalised, traumatised kids offered help that is at best unconventional. The book ends with the mysteries solved, the questions answered - but surely we know it's not as simple as that. So many grown-ups in the story are haunted by things in the past, why should these kids be any different?

Me on Jackson Brodie:

1. Case Histories

2. One Good Turn

3. When Will There Be Good News?

And on Kate Atkinson's Transcription

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo

Akira, in six volumes, by Katsuhiro Otomo
It's 30-odd years since I first read Akira, borrowing each instalment of the beautiful, full-colour run produced by Epic Comics that a schoolfriend's dad was collecting. The six-volume set now available is mostly in black and white (with a few colour pages at the start of each) which, though I know is more authentic, left me a little sad. Yet what a wondrous thing to return to.

The story is set in Neo-Tokyo in the year 2030, the city rebuilt after World War III. Young, rebellious Kaneda leads a pill-popping biker gang charging through the streets, until his impetuous friend Tetsuo has an accident - crashing his bike rather than colliding with a strange, ancient child who appears from nowhere. The child is Takashi, and he's just one of a number of strange not-quite kids with awesome psychic abilities. When Tetsuo starts to exhibit his own terrifying power, it seems he has a connection to the most powerful not-child of them all, a quiet little boy called Akira...

As well as Kaneda and members of his gang, we follow the stories of various rebels, soldiers, scientists and gurus. There are a lot of characters, and it's a mark of Otomo's skill that they're each so distinct. We can easily recognise characters we last saw more than a hundred pages previously. Oh yes, because this is quite the epic, spanning more than 2,000 pages. It starts big - with the devastation of the war - and then builds and builds and builds. 

What struck me reading it again after such a long interval is how much the startling visuals had imbedded in my head - the huge elevator system that descends to the cryogenic storage facility, the ruin of the Olympic stadium, the destruction of the city where skyscrapers rain down from above, and then the ruins emerging from the sea. I've seen the Akira movie several times - recently on Netflix, which prompted this reread. The film is visually amazing and yet it's the comic version that has lodged, for all I only read it once.

I wonder if that's as much to do with the way the images are conveyed as well as what they are. The storytelling is often very visual. Individual panels are full of speed lines and dynamism, but whole spreads can also pass with barely a word spoken, sometimes even no sound effects. What's more, it's all told in dialogue - there is no narration, as in many other comics. Yes, there are some long sequences where information is dumped on us, but on the whole it's concise and immediate. The effect is to no so much read it but soak it in through the eyeballs. 

Otomo's clean lines, with slightly cartoony characters in realistic settings, reminds me a lot of Tintin (the look of which was inspired by Japanese comics), and there's a similar mix of serious world politics as setting and daft antics from the lead characters. But this is much more adult - or at least adolescent - stuff. It even steps up in volume 4, with heads exploding, boobs and a willy on show, and a fair amount of swearing. Some of the violence still shocked this world-weary old reader, and the nudity is telling of the way the story is framed. For all Kei is a forthright and able leading character in her own right, we linger on a bathing scene just before she goes to what might be her death, an oddly inappropriate moment for titillation, yet when there's a provident moment to have sex with someone she's really into, there's only a coy kiss. By contrast, the exposed willies are blink-and-you'll-miss-them streaking by random street riff-raff - a willy is for waggling rather than anything else.

Teens reading now will be more struck by the absence of mobile phones and the clunkiness of technology: here, linking to a satellite in orbit takes an amount of time, and the satellite then needs a few moments to track someone's position on Earth. The psychic kids would be astounded by our satnav. But we can hardly blame Otomo for not predicting such things. What's stranger is the technology of his own time not putting in appearance - the street gang apparently have no interest in TV or music, their lives devoid of screens or headphones. I think that's because of the emphasis on them constantly moving

At the heart of the story are too strong emotions. First, there's the punky defiance of the street gang, battling authority as well as one another. Part of the story is the way that defiance is shaped and focused, to become a force of virtue - and it's quite a feat that we completely get why Kei ends up falling for Kaneda despite him being such a prick. (I don't think we ever learn the fate of the poor girl in volume one who Kaneda has got pregnant and then abandons...)

Second, Akira packs an emotional punch because we understand the strong bonds between the myriad characters. Kei is in love with someone else when she meets Kaneda. Tetsuo battles with Kaneda but craves his friendship. The psychic kids share a strange connection that might just save the world - or end it. When a number of minor characters appear in the closing pages, we understand their allegiances and prospects without having to be told. And then the remaining members of the bike gang mount what remains of their bikes and streak away into the night. I felt a pang at that. How strange, after all the years, to still feel such a connection.

Monday, August 09, 2021

Producing Doctor Who

Just touch these two stories together...
I'm the new producer of the Doctor Who: Lost Stories range - and Tom Baker's boss, which has been a delight. My masters at Big Finish have announced the two productions I'm currently working on - Doctor Who and the Ark and Daleks! - Genesis of Terror, both for release in March 2023. 

As I say in the official announcement:

This is something very special: Doctor Who archaeology brought thrillingly to life. The Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks are among the best-loved TV stories ever. We’ve uncovered first draft scripts by John Lucarotti and Terry Nation that are exciting, surprising and very different.” 

“Genesis is a very visual script packed with striking, stark images – Nation even makes the stage directions exciting. In Doctor Who and the Ark, the directions were more functional so Jonathan Morris has carefully adapted the script for audio. Though we’ve kept the original episode titles, such as “Puffball” and “Camelias” – I think Tom Baker enjoyed recording those! Oh, and wait till you hear that cliffhanger… 

More details to follow in due course, but you can pre-order Doctor Who and the Ark and Daleks! Genesis of Terror right this minute.

Friday, August 06, 2021

Directing Doctor Who

The latest special edition of Doctor Who Magazine is devoted to directing. It includes my interview with Rachel Talalay about directing 2017's Twice Upon a Time. Rachel has spoken at length about her work on Doctor Who  - such as to the Radio Free Skaro podcast, in her own instagram posts and now in her YouTube series  How I Directed This - but we found some new areas to explore.

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Tides of Time #47

The Trinity term issue of The Tides of Time, fanzine of the Oxford Doctor Who society features an interview with me conducted by editor James Ashworth, plus reviews of things I've written - Lesser Evils from last year and The Time Travellers from way back in 2005. There are plenty of other things in the whopping 104 pages, not all of them about me. But I am very magnanimous.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #567

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine contains, among its many treasures, another "Sufficient Data" infographic by me and illustrator Ben Morris. This one traces the connections between the members of the royal family encountered by various Doctors over the years. Thanks to Simon Belcher for looking over my working.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Influencing the Doctor #51 and #52

The latest episodes of the Influencing the Doctor podcast feature me being interrogated by host Ethan Gibson on my writing. We cover everything from how I got started and what my influences are, questions about The Time Travellers, Blake's 7 and Graceless, to the stuff I'm up to now - Scourge of the Cybermen, my forthcoming Sherlock Holmes novel The Great War and even some vague hints about what I've been doing this week...

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

False Value, by Ben Aaronovitch

What a delight to be back in the world of Rivers of London, two years after I read the novella October Man and little more than that since the last novel, Lies Sleeping. This new one starts with the dread prospect that our hero Peter Grant has left the police force and gone into IT - but inevitably things aren't quite what they seem.

The plot involves the threat posed by 3D printing when baddies can make their own guns, and the threat of drones. This is all about IT getting out of hand and taking us into uncharted waters. On top of that, it looks like Peter's new bosses are developing some kind of artificial intelligence...

As usual, what follows is a fast-paced, engaging thriller full of quick wit and telling detail. Peter is surrounded by an ever-growing coterie, as more and more people are brought in on the secret that there is magic in the world. It's a considerable skill to make so many characters distinct and memorable, and despite it being two years since I was last in this story, it's like picking up with good friends - as if no time has passed at all. 

Many of the previous books have been part of a larger story which reached something of a conclusion in the last one, so False Value feels refreshingly new and standalone - for all there are threads to be picked up down the line. And how satisfying to finally learn what happened to Nightingale and the other British wizards during the war. Yes, that's the very word right there. The book is exciting, smart and fun, perfectly executed to leave the reader sated.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #566

There is quite a lot of me in the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine:

FIRST BASE sees clever Gav Rymill recreate the studio sets of another missing episode, this time Episode 4 of The Tenth Planet (1966). Me and Rhys Williams write the accompanying text, detailing how the clever production team ensured that the departure of William Hartnell was not the death of Doctor Who...

BEAUTY AND HORROR is about the Radio 3 Afternoon Concert of TV music that included the first performance of cues from Richard Rodney Bennett's score for The Aztecs since 1964. I spoke to presented Matthew Sweet and percussionist Alasdair Malloy.

COMING SOON... includes a two-page feature on my forthcoming audiobook Scourge of the Cybermen, with producer David Richardson explaining how the range came about and me wittering on about what inspired my story.

SUFFICIENT DATA boasts another infographic by Ben Morris and written by me, this time on the theme of apples seen on mentioned in the whole history of Doctor Who. "That might be fun," I thought when I first suggested it. And then went slightly loopy researching it all...

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Scourge blurb

Doctor Who and the Scourge of the Cybermen, the six-hour audiobook written by me and read by Jon Culshaw, is out next month. Here's the blurb:

In the depths of the ocean on an alien world, there’s a city run by scientists. The Doctor is only too eager to help them find new ways to counter pollution and produce entirely clean energy - research that he says will benefit the whole galaxy. But others have recognised the value of the sea base, and their interest is not so benign…

Left to her own devices, Sarah Jane Smith conducts her own investigation. The lights on the base keep flickering, which back home on Earth was the first sign that her bathroom was leaking. Out here in the depths of the alien sea, it’s the first indication of a looming disaster.

Patiently, implacably, the Cybermen are determined to conquer the base and its resources. That includes all the men, women and children who live there.

As the Doctor once again battles his old enemies, Sarah rallies the trapped and terrified people. Then, to her horror, she realises that the Cybermen have used cold logic to predict exactly what the humans will do in order to survive...

This enhanced audiobook features specially composed music and sound effects. This adventure takes place between the TV stories Death to the Daleks and The Monster of Peladon.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes

"This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them. A war does not ignore half the people whose lives it touches. So why do we?" (p. 339)

I've taken my time over this excellent retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of the women involved, not least because it's at times a gruelling read, full of cruelty and loss.  There's a sequence in which Andromache begs for the life of her baby son, Astyanax, who the Greeks fear will grow up wishing vengeance for the death of his father Hector. Andromache ventures one means after another by which to avoid her baby being hurled from the walls of the city - she will bring him up with no knowledge of his history, or to hate his late father, or she will kill him herself - all to no avail. Or there's Iphigenia. Or Cassandra. Or the dignity of Penelope when, even after the war is over, her husband fails to come home.

There are so many women and perspectives we cover a great deal of ground, piecing together the war, its causes and aftermath, as the Greek survivors stagger home to their various fates. Haynes says some of this is based on surviving ancient texts, some her own invention, and having enjoyed it as a novel I'd now like to reread it as historiography, with extensive footnotes on sources. 

It's also interesting to read this relatively soon after Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls, which did something similar but largely from one female gaze. Here, we're in the heads of goddesses, royals and servants - in some cases royals who are then enslaved. It all adds to the richness of the story, and the overpowering sense of horror in what befalls these myriad people.

As Haynes says in her afterword, we tend to think of the Age of Heroes as referring to men, but the women are no less heroic. She makes a good argument against claims that heroes must fight, given that Achilles is no less a hero for spending most of the Trojan War in a sulk. It's got me thinking about the way stories are framed and told more widely. So often the domestic and the epic are treated as if they're opposites; Haynes ably demonstrates how they intertwine. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Vortex 148

Among the treats in the latest issue of Big Finish's free in-house magazine Vortex there is "Metal Strain", a feature on my forthcoming Doctor Who audiobook Scourge of the Cybermen - interviewing me, producer David Richardson and reader Jon Culshaw. I seem to have been quite enthused when I spoke to editor Kenny Smith:

"It was brilliant [ to write for the Cybermen]! I’ve written Daleks, Sontarans, Ogrons and even Vardans but was keen to do Cybermen because the TV episode Earthshock made such an impression on me as a kid. I watched The Invasion on DVD, as that was their last appearance before my story, and then listened to the audiobook of Ian Marter’s novelisation. I also re-read David Banks’s book Cybermen for a sense of the lore around them. But as I say, the main thing was that vivid description of them in [the prologue of] Doctor Who and the Cybermen. Knowing that Nick [Briggs] would be voicing them also helped, as I knew he’d make them authentic.”

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Boy in the Tower, by Polly Ho-Yen

My nine year-old son recommended this as an audiobook for a long drive, having been set it as a class reading book in both his school in south London last year and then his new school when we moved up north. He was amazed to discover that it's from 2015, so not written during - and about - lockdown, and I can see why. It also predates the Grenfell fire but feels like a comment on that, too.

It's told by schoolboy Ade, who does the shopping and chores for his agoraphobic mum, who just wants to sleep all day in their high-rise flat in south London. We follow Ade's struggles at school, his friends and enemies. It's all very well observed by Ho-Yen, a former teacher.

And then there's something else - a local building collapses, then another... and then more, sometimes with people inside. Bit by bit, the recognisable, identifiable world of school and shops is taken over by a crisis right out of John Wyndham. By midway, Ade is trapped in his high rise, which is itself under threat, and the rest of the book is taken up with his efforts to survive in the scary new normal that is now.

The prose style is straight forward but full of telling detail and strong emotion, with Ade having to navigate the traumatised but persevering grown-ups. There are some terrifying, vivid scenes such as when Ade ventures out beyond the safety of the block. I also liked the more subtle stuff: Ade sometimes doesn't quite understand what he has witnessed but we do - such as when, towards the end, we learn the cause of his mum's condition.

Really, what makes this so compelling is not the nightmare world conjured but the effort of people to look out for one another in the midst of awful crisis. The sort of book to linger in your thoughts and dreams long afterward, haunting a whole generation.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #565

Out today, Doctor Who Magazine issue 565 is largely devoted to the series broadcast in 1987 and imminently due out on Blu-ray. Since that was the 24th season of Doctor Who, "24" is the theme of this issue's infographic Sufficient Data, written by me and designed by clever Ben Morris.

Also in the issue, editor Marcus Hearn responds to our recent mention on Countdown, and I've interviewed Margaret Toley, who was secretary to the first four story editors of Doctor Who in the 1960s: David Whitaker, Dennis Spooner, Donald Tosh and Gerry Davis. There's also word on what we're doing next issue, resurrecting the sets of the First Doctor's last story, Episode 4 of The Tenth Planet...

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Design for Doctor Who, by Piers D Britton

This academic study of costume and production design in Doctor Who has been a stimulating read, full of connections and insights that are new to me. 

The author is professor and director of media and visual culture studies at the University of Redland in the US, and his 2003 book, Reading Between Designs: Visual Imagery and the Generation of Meaning in The Avengers, The Prisoner and Doctor Who, continues to be of great use in the stuff I write for the Doctor Who Figurine Collection, not least because Piers and co-author Simon Barker spoke to many designers who have since died, such as Daphne Dare who oversaw almost all the costumes for the first two years of the series. In turn, it's a bit of a thrill to see some of my own work cited in this new volume, almost like some kind of authority.

The book is in three parts. Part One is a breezy history of design in Doctor Who from 1963 to 2020, placing things in context of other TV and film, and trends in design more widely. In Part Two, he traces different ways in which we might judge and evaluate design - basically, how do we tell the good stuff? In Part Three he explores 13 particular instances of design in more depth.

As he says at the start, "In almost every episode Doctor Who [there have been 862 to date] relies heavily on both visual and sound design to create an immediate and powerfully evocative effect" (p. 15), so it's all the more impressive how much he packs in. He's on to something when he says in the introduction that Doctor Who often juxtaposes its relatable, regular characters with the strange places they visit - even when the TARDIS visits the present-day, there's something weirdly, eerily wrong going on. I think there's something else going on, too: the effort of each Doctor Who story to be visually distinct, juxtaposing itself against its immediate predecessor and all those that have gone before. Piers charts some of this, the ways in which, through design, the series converses with itself.

He's right that, all too often in fan criticism, "writing [and performance] has long been explicitly privileged over the visual", with elements of design getting "none of the nuanced evaluation typically lavished on writing and characterisation (p. 119). He uses the 1982 story Kinda as an example of a story highly praised despite serious shortcomings in design: an alien forest realised with pot plants in an overlit TV studio, and the laughable giant snake at the end. As he says, such fan criticism,

"turns Doctor Who's alleged visual crudeness into a mark of distinction: the discerning fan recognises such matters as design as a superficial consideration" (p. 120).

I think there's a corollary to that: Kill the Moon (2014) is an example of a story with very good, realistic design, but it's at odds with a rather whimsical, even silly, plot involving a giant egg. I find myself wondering if critics of the story would not have minded so much had the design been less credible. 

Given my own current interest in the set design of 1960s episodes, I'm particularly struck by what Piers can reveal here. He starts with the 1961 book written by the BBC's Head of Design, Richard Levin, which sounds enormously like my sort of thing:

"A glance at Television by Design reveals a very different BBC from the image which has been cultivated abroad and to an extent also domestically over the last fifty years - the Masterpiece Theatre myth of a BBC whose output is built around period pieces and especially 'bonnet dramas' ... the visual content of his book tells a different story: it overwhelmingly presents a BBC steeped in modernism." (pp. 21-2).

Levin's department, and therefore the futuristic bits of Doctor Who, were, "permeated with the design sensibilities of Constructivism, Neoplasticism and the International Style in architecture" (p. 25). Piers is good not only on such context and influence, but also the practical side of design, especially on the TARDIS interior. The original set, designed by Peter Brachacki in 1963, is the first of Piers' thirteen designs deserving of special attention:  

"Brachacki's TARDIS control room is a specifically telegenic set - which is to say, it is friendly to the relatively low-definition, monochrome screen image of the 1960s and also to the talk-heavy television fiction which was to remain standard until the later 1980s. In many ways, the nearest cognates to the original TARDIS set in BBC programming were the austere, light-filled spaces which Natasha Kroll's Studio Design Unit made for current affairs and talk shows in the years around 1960. In these often exquisitely simple sets, minimal decor and semi-abstract forms focused attention on the presenters and interlocutors ... The control console's hexagonal design, with its rising and falling central column, provided both visual interest and an anchor for dialogue, creating the basis for shots in which three or more people could be groups naturally with their facial expressions clearly visible on camera."(p. 148)

From this, Piers then details how developments in television technology - higher resolution cameras, colour, single-camera shooting - ironically served to reduce the effectiveness of this so achingly modern and telegenic set. It had never occurred to me before to consider the practical reasons why the TARDIS interior needed to change, beyond set pieces having worn a bit thin.

This is just one example. There are plenty more insights, such as the way Barry Newbery designed for stories set in Earth history, "replete with visual detail which intimately evokes the day-to-day life of is protagonists" (p. 23), in contrast to the brutalist, bare visions of the future that Ray Cusick tended to base on a smallish set of recurring geometric shapes.

There are some very minor errors: he includes the Quarks in a list of monsters introduced under producer Innes Lloyd (who had left the programme before The Dominators was commissioned); he includes Donna Noble in a list of characters he says are "working class". But these are quibbles, nit-picking, and I'm sure the result of efforts to pack in detail and cover so much ground.

Personally (and selfishly, as it would be useful for my own work), I'd have liked more direct quotation from the designers themselves. There are also things I don't agree with. Piers has firm opinions on what does and doesn't work: the iconic Time Lord collars are, he says, "ostentatious and campy" (p. 173); the Eighth Doctor's costume in the 1996 television movie, "ill-fitting and ugly"; the Twelfth Doctor's era has, "the tinniest arrangement of the Doctor Who theme" (p. 209). I am actually amazed by the pages devoted to his thesis that the Sixth Doctor's multicoloured outfit, 

"does not represent the worst of Doctor Who's creative stagnation in the mid-eighties. That distinction belongs to the costume worn by Baker's successor, Sylvester McCoy" (p. 182).

He's insightful about the thinking behind and effect of the 13th Doctor's costume - something I've written about in some depth - though he cites a criticism that it might represent a "feminine absorption with style" (p. 215). This (which isn't Piers' view, just one he's quoting) really doesn't hold water - as he shows, having just gone into detail about how much the male Doctors are defined by their outfits. On this, I'm very much with Sophia McDougall re. capes and weddings dresses.

But that's rather the point - I want to argue back and I think Piers is inviting response in what he himself calls, "a first sortie into an immense territory" (p. 221). It's a book to grapple with, interrogate and battle. It has got me thinking anew about a whole load of aspects of Doctor Who. I am sure it will find its way into things I write to come...

Friday, May 14, 2021

Kindred, by Octavia E Butler

"'There's worse things than being dead,' I had said." (p. 283)

Prompted by a recent discussion on the radio of Octavia Butler's Kindred, I reread this book that has haunted me for decades. It's about Dana, a 27 year-old black woman living just outside Los Angeles in 1976, who keeps finding herself back in the early nineteenth century, on a plantation near Baltimore owned by her ancestors. One direct ancestor, Rufus, is the no-good, controlling and unpredictable son of the owner, and Dana realises that he will someday force himself on a slave called Alice, and have a child from which Dana is descended. Until that happens, she must do more than merely survive in this appallingly hostile environment - for all his faults and cruelty, she must keep Rufus from harm.

The title, then, is a pun on Dana's dread for this relative with whom she is somehow bound. As with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, we're never told quite why she travels in time, nor how Rufus can summon her back from the future when his life is under threat. She can only return home, briefly, when her own life is in danger - which happens frequently enough. There's then what happens with her white husband Kevin while she's away, and whether she can transport things or even people with her that might help her survive. It's full of incident and shocking twists as Butler explores the territory: the practicalities against escaping; the state of medicine at the time; the way other black people of the time treat this trouser-wearing, educated black woman; the necessary pragmatism when you don't have any rights and live under constant threat of violence.

It's so brutal, and Dana and other characters under such unrelenting threat, that I stopped and started through it, sometimes only managing a few pages at a time - it's not exactly the right thing to go with lockdown-induced anxiety. Yet it's also a very timely read, exploring the legacy of slavery on us today. The 1976 "present" is no coincidence, where at one point Dana - back in her own time - is torn over celebrating the bicentennial. She refers to the "older people" of her own time who do double takes when they see her with her white husband. There's a sense, too, of how much easier life is for him - in the past and present - compared to what she endures.

I've read a fair number of time-travel stories, many of them addressing race to one degree or another, but this is direct and unflinching, and as much about the haunted now as it is then. Dana is left mutilated by her experience, physically scarred by the past as she lives in the present. We end with her revisiting the places where she was once trapped, looking for the house she once lived in, the grave of the man she was linked to, any trace of the slaves - the people - she knew. There are hauntingly few clues as to what became of them, which implies its own awful story. The implication is that she - and we - continue to live in their shadow.

A few years ago, I researched my own family history and learned that the Guerriers were among the first refugees, arriving in London in 1677, though the paucity of records means we can't be sure of the lineage until 1730. But other branches of my family include those descended from slaves and those descended from slavers. The database of Legacies of British Slavery holds a record for Mary Turner (née Trench), born 9 July 1815 and my great-great-great grandmother (or: her grandson was the father of my grandpa, who died in 2007). On 17 October 1836, Mary was granted £100 13s 8d as compensation for the emancipation of five slaves she owned in Clarendon, Jamaica. Her father received much more. That weighs heavily and I am keen to read Alex Renton's new book, Blood Legacy.

"'You probably needed to come for the same reason I did.' He shrugged. 'To try to understand. To touch the solid evidence that those people existed.'" (p.295)

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

On Countdown

Excitingly (and surreally), I was mentioned on today's edition of TV quiz show Countdown. Some 15 minutes in, host Nick Hewer asks Samira Ahmed - who is in Dictionary Corner this week - about being on the editorial review board of the official Doctor Who Magazine

You can watch the clip, but Samira replies:

"The magazine is for fans - and fans of all ages, including a lot of people who grew up watching the original run going back to the 60s. There haven't been that many new episodes over the last year or so, as you can imagine, so a lot of the magazine is doing features on the past. The idea is that you review it to make sure it's appropriate for BBC content and for its audience. What has been fascinating is that there's this whole archaeology of the old episodes. There are all these old episodes that were lost but the scripts survive or floor plans of TV Centre survive with where the cameras were. And there's been this whole thing of features by brilliant writers like Simon Guerrier where they have got together a panel of people who watched the original episode - once - when it was on TV, got them up to get their memories from when they were little children, and then worked out with the maps of the floor plan, surviving bits of scripts, and tele-snaps (which are photos people took off screen) what the plot was and what it looked like. It's like the archaeology of digging up old Anglo-Saxon hoards and reconstructing a ship, but you don't think of doing that with television. But the history of British TV is 70 years-old now or older and I just think it's been remarkable how much social history there is in reconstructing them that way. So it's been a real joy and the magazine has been such a comfort through lockdown for a lot of people. It's that escape into wild adventures in space and time."

As Samira says, I'm just one of an army of DWM archaeologists, many of them more distinguished and erudite. She's referring to the recent series of articles I've co-written with Rhys Williams, attempting to reconstruct the studio sets from a few of the 97 episodes of Doctor Who missing from the archive. The amazing CGI recreations of the are by Gavin Rymill, and so far we've covered:

And there is more to come...

Friday, April 30, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine 564

It's all rather in the shadow of horrifying revelations about Noel Clarke, but the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine features two things by me. First, I've interviewed the brilliant Millie McKenzie, who sculpts amazing clay figures of her favourite Doctor Who characters. Millie was really gracious in answering my questions and supplying us with loads of great images when we were a little pressed for time. I'm especially pleased with the title, "Tiny and Small and Made of Clay", which is a quotation from the Doctor in Aliens of London.

There's also another Insufficient Data, which I've written with Steve O'Brien and which Ben Morris has illustrated. This time, our focus is the number 8, and I got rather lost in a vortex of connections...

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Writing Doctor Who

The new Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition is out today, devoted to the topic of writing Doctor Who. It's full of thrillingly detailed analysis.

I've contributed two short profiles - first of original story editor David Whitaker (whose life I've researched in some depth), then of Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler who between them created the Cybermen. It's quite an exercise to distill the great range of their writing down to 800 words apiece!

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Stan Lee - How Marvel Changed the World, by Adrian Mackinder

"Somehow, Stan always managed to present himself as a modest egomaniac - an art in itself." (p. 168)

These words, from ex-Marvel writer John Tomlinson, come at the end of my friend Adrian Mackinder's fun, breezy and yet authoritative new biography of the great Stan Lee, writer and editor synonymous with Marvel superheroes in comics and more recently on screen.

It's an extraordinary story and there's a lot to pack in given Stan's long and busy life, but - like the best of the superhero movies - it never drags. Adrian's tone is friendly and direct, peppered with Stan-isms, addressing us as "True Believer" and concluding "Nuff Said", and there's a lot of direct quotation from Stan himself, even where his own accounts conflict.

We begin with the relatively humble early life of Stanley Martin Lieber, the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants in New York. A voracious reader, at 17 Stan got an entry-level job in the publishing company run by his cousin's husband Martin Goodman (Stan's uncle also worked there, and soon, too, would his own brother), which among its various titles had only recently begun publishing a superhero one, Marvel Comics. We're not sure exactly what lowly jobs he did, but within a year he'd published a first, text story in Captain America Comics (issue 3, cover date May 1941), and a year after that when Goodman fired star talents Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for skipping hours to work on other publishers' titles, Stan ended up as editor-in-chief, aged just 19. Yet, within months of that, he handed over responsibility to someone else and enlisted in the army.

Adrian's good on sifting the different accounts of how Kirby and Simon lost their jobs - their prior disagreements with Goodman over unpaid royalties, and the never-proven suspicion that Stan may have been involved in how they came to be fired. But it's the non-comics business that made my jaw drop: among the handful of writers Stan worked with in the USASC Army Pictorial Service during the war (Stan claimed there were "eight other men"), were director Frank Capra and artists Charles Addams - later to create The Addams Family - and Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss. Make a film out of that!

After the war, Stan returned to comics, doggedly working in the industry for more than a decade before hitting it big with the superheroes that made him famous. That success came when he was in his 40s, which I must admit is a comfort to this jaded old hack. Adrian's good at placing that success in the context of teenage baby boomers and the counterculture, so you understand why these costumed freaks caught on, and what made Marvel hold its own against or even outsell its competitors.

He's also good on the struggles to push Marvel beyond the printed page, the failed efforts to replicate the success of the Batman TV series of the 60s, Superman movie of the 70s and then Batman in the 80s. As all this was going on, Lee would go for dinner with his old schoolmate Bob Kane - a friendly rivalry between the creators of Batman and Spider-Man. The comics were making a lot of money, but the sense is one of frustration, creative spats, unfulfilled ambition. It's all very male-dominated and embittered, increasingly more so as the profits rise. Stan seems to have stayed largely out of it, or to have forced that steely grin.

I was never much of a Marvel Comics reader and much of the story is new to me, but I was surprised how much Stan and Marvel had a hand in things I did get into - the comic strip version of Star Wars, the TV series Dungeons and Dragons, even My Little Pony of which my daughter is now a devotee. There's a lot on the wider context of publishing and popular culture, even politics where it is relevant. Adrian nicely uses his own childhood experience of reading and collecting comics to explain the bursting bubble in the industry during the mid-90s - and in doing so made me understand why some of my older colleagues lost their jobs at that time. There's a warning here about saturating markets aimed solely at "collectors". It chimes, too, with the recent scandal in football, and the widening split between management and fans.

It all looks pretty gloomy at this point in the story but, like any superhero movie, there's then last-minute salvation with the success of some movies based on Marvel properties (Blade, X-men and Spider-Man) then leading to Marvel producing its own films - to extraordinary success in the last decade. I'm not sure I needed to know which ones Adrian does and doesn't like (he is wrong about Black Panther being "rather overrated"), but he's shrewd on what made the movies work when so many other superhero films didn't, what lessons might be learned from them, and also in not losing perspective.

"The truth is, only a handful of the MCU films are exceptional. Most of them are solid and a few are so-so. But none are objectively terrible." (p.163)

There's a final twist in the closing pages where Adrian addresses the scandals in Stan's closing years with those close to him accused of elder abuse and exploitation. Adrian then digs in to try and make more sense of the real Stanley Lieber rather than the "legend" Stan Lee. He cites a few examples where we get a sense of the man behind the showbiz mask - the "teeth" displayed in a contract negotiation, the sense he could sometimes be rude or have an off day. My clever old boss Ned Hartley is quoted, suggesting that "alienation" and "anxiety" evident in the comics "give a window into Stan's soul" (p. 167). 

All in all, it's an engrossing, insightful book, full of boggling detail and wise analysis. The feeling at the end, I think, is that for all Stan was in the limelight and for all he gave the world in terms of popular culture, he always held something back - and so remains a tantalising mystery.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Relentless Moon, by Mary Robinette Kowal

The third book in the Lady Astronaut series (after The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky) is another triumph, and having struggled to read anything for months, I'm very pleased to complete such a whopper of a novel - it's 687 pages to the end of the epilogue, not including the acknowledgements, notes on real history and bibliography.

The Lady Astronaut series is set in a world where a meteor smashes into the US in the 1950s, with a dramatic effect on the climate which only looks to get worse. This accelerates the space programme, with the active involvement of women. The first two books in the series are led by Dr Elma York, "the" Lady Astronaut as far as the press are concerned. This new book is focused on one of her colleagues, Nicole Wargin - an accomplished astronaut in her own right but also the wife of the governor of Kansas. He's struggling with the fact that a lot of people object to the expense of the space programme, and many want to deny the existence of the global crisis. An "Earth First" movement is flexing its muscles with ever more menace.

It's a thrilling read, full of incident and twists - the end of Part II in particular made me gasp. The nerdy technical stuff is also threaded with raw emotion: Nicole's anorexia is as much of a wrench for those around her as it is to her. There's grief, too, and the PTSD of those surviving the meteor in the first place, and lots on race and sex (both gender politics and nookie). Lots of this is conveyed in telling detail: an argument where we glean that racial epithets have been used without being told exactly what was said; the mouthfeel of apple sauce or cottage cheese when Nicole is under stress; the chilling etiquette in not asking people where they're from in this world, since it may well have been destroyed.

In her "About the History" notes at the end, Kowal says that in her "LAU", the meteor prevented Jonas Salk working on his polio vaccine which is why the disease is such an issue in the novel. 

"The headline about Chicago refusing to vaccinate children? That is real. The vaccination program did work though and brought the polio epidemic to a standstill. The last case of wild polio in the United States was in 1979 ... When I wrote this book, COVID didn't exist. As we go to press ... the choices that I've made to be religious in my social distancing and mask-wearing are directly influenced by the research I did about polio. My father says that he remembers movie theatres being shut down, how no one would get into a public swimming pool, and that 'everyone was afraid of getting it.' Everyone knew someone who had gotten polio." (p. 698)

As well as the disease itself, Kowal deals with denialism, and in Part III there's the horrible, practical issue of a funeral attended over video link. It's a coincidence that it all feels so timely, but it's a testament to Kowal's skill that this stiff feels so credible having now lived such experience.

Other elements of the plot may have been borrowed from fiction. The front cover of my copy includes an endorsement from Andy Weir, author of The Martian, and I think that book might be the inspiration for Nicole making use of stuff left over from previous expeditions. Earlier, the crew of Nicole's moonbase are compromised using the same method deployed by the Cybermen in 1967 Doctor Who story The Moonbase - and I know Kowal has admitted sneaking the Doctor into other books.

But the success of The Relentless Moon is all down to Kowal as expert pilot. For all the thrills and danger, as readers we're in safe hands: the setting and characters grounded in reality, each of the myriad mysteries tied up by the end, the technical stuff balanced with plenty of humour and insight. It's a hugely satisfying read. The epilogue, set two years after the main events, took me completely by surprise but in retrospect seems inevitable, the ground skilfully prepared - so what felt at first like a giant leap is really a small step. And that, I think, is what makes this book so appealing: it's all about small steps forward in dealing with crises. We can work our problems.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi chronicles his exploration of a "labyrinth" of halls full of statues-with-meaning, the place liable to epic floods and the occasional albatross. Only one other living human shares this space - aptly named The Other - but there are the remains of 13 bodies, suggesting a history of travellers through this peculiar realm. And then there's someone else among them - and the tantalising prospect that Piranesi's own detailed journal entries are not telling the full story...

Ironically enough, I was captivated by this strange, beguiling, beautiful tale of a man trapped in a fantasy domain. As with Clarke's brilliant Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the magical fancy is fused with the entirely mundane, so that even the most outlandish elements feel credible.

One particular joy is that we're sometimes ahead of our narrator, who can be slow to make sense of the evidence presented. When he scoffs at such ridiculousness as "Manchester" and "police stations", we know he's missed something important - and true. I think that then prompts us to read his findings extra carefully, sifting for additional clues. We become active participants in the tale.

It's difficult to say more without giving away some of the mystery - and if you've not read the novel, then stop now. 

I think it's brilliant that the ending is not about some lost eden, forever out of grasp. Instead, Piranesi - if he is still Piranesi - is helped by an amazing character to take charge of all that has happened, and then he helps others do the same. Among the literary and scholarly references, on page 165 there's mention of "Timey-Wimey: Steven Moffat [and] Blink", and there's the same satisfying intricacy and resolution. As with Blink, there's violence and loss, but what could so easily be (effective, moving) tragedy is in fact a joyous liberation. It's beautifully, deftly done - this whole puzzlebox of a book deceptively simple, and perfect.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Emperor's Feast, by Jonathan Clements

About once a month from 1991 until I left home, my grandfather would treat my family to dinner at the Golden House, a Chinese restaurant a short walk from his house, on the far side of town from where I grew up. He'd usually order the same things for us all - wonton soup followed by crispy duck and pancakes - and I vividly remember the first time I was allowed a glass of beer as well, or when Grandpa made known his approval of my then girlfriend by inviting her to one of these meals.

I now think there was something else going on. Grandpa was born in Shanghai in 1914, his father a bank manager at HSBC. In a memoir he wrote for us, Grandpa remembered his parents entertaining guests there or in Hong Kong with "marrow bones wrapped in white napkins" (which he thought over-rated), and the time, "A party of officers from the 'Hawkins', then China flagship, called for tea one day with their pet honey-bear. It raised a tantrum at not being given enough cakes and swept about a dozen pots to destruction." I think taking his grandchildren for dinner recaptured some of that mayhem.

My friend Jonathan Clements begins his new book with his own childhood memories of a Chinese restaurant where his dad worked as a drummer in a band, and where impressionable young Clemmo "ate all the time." From this, he tells the history of China through its food, the impeccable research peppered with his own experience of living and working in China. It's fascinating, funny and full of great detail. The very idea is intoxicating: a nation marches on its stomach, as Napoleon didn't quite say.

A lot of the book is about authenticity - or the lack of it - in the staples we recognise: "Peking" duck really derives from Nanjing; Zuo Zongtang (1812-85),"is unlikely ever to have tasted anything like" (p. 167) the dish later named after him and known to us as "General Tso's Chicken"; "Sichuan Alligator" (p. 200) is just the most egregious example of dishes erroneously claiming links to Sichuan. In this quest for fidelity, there's plenty on the origin of names and problems of translations. For example, trying to order a Big Mac from the McDonalds at Yangyang International Plaza, Jonathan had to describe it sufficiently for his server to give him the Chinese name: "Immense Tyrant Without Compare (ju wu ba)" (p. 195).

"There was me thinking that writing a book about Chinese food would be an excuse for endless 'research' banquets. Instead, I found myself pursuing the strangest possible cul-de-sacs on menus all over the world, not least in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I felt obliged to order the Haggis Spring Rolls on the menu at Bertie's Restaurant. Much like the cheeseburger spring rolls of Detroit, they seem to me like a pointless gilding of the lily, a clickbaity tricking out of a local food purely for Instagram shares and talking points. That's the only explanation I can think of. I love haggis, and I certainly don't mind cheeseburgers, but by what perverse contrariness would you want to wrap them in pastry and deep-fry them?" Jonathan Clements, The Emperor's Feast (2021), p. 201.

Authenticity is at the heart of his compelling final chapter, charting a series of health scares and scandals involving milk powder and milk, and then food standards more generally. This leads into discussion of the supposed origins of COVID, in the "wet markets" of Wuhan, and a culture that silences whistle-blowers and complaints. That, and some thoughts on how COVID might change Chinese dining culture - and the shared plates of food - is fascinating, full of expert insight that I've not seen addressed elsewhere.

Ironically, COVID has meant Jonathan hasn't been able to dine out while writing, and his book ends with memories of his final meal in Soho just before lockdown and dreams of the Chinese restaurant from his childhood. Like him, I am haunted by thoughts of meals anywhere other than home. A particular joy of this book is that it's like dining out in his company. I'll have wonton soup to start.