Saturday, July 20, 2024

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin

Various people recommended this captivating novel in which I’ve been completely immersed. That’s fitting, because it’s all about the solace of losing ourselves in something greater than ourselves — computer games chiefly but also fiction, imagination and friendship.

Sadie Green meets Sam Masur (later Mazur) in hospital when they’re both children. They’re each going through some horrible, serious stuff at the time but bond while playing computer games. But Sadie has also not been entirely honest with Sam. Despite a falling out, they reconnect during college and collaborate on a game of their own… 

We follow them for two decades through the highs and lows of their lives, the loves and losses and games.

It’s beautifully written and wryly observed, noting changes to games and the surrounding culture over the period. It’s also full of nuance: we can see Sadie’s tutor is a manipulative predator; she learns to see that, too, but remains his friend. For all he’s a monster, he’s a person, too.

At the heart of the novel is Sam and Sadie’s sparky relationship. At best, they are funny and supportive; at worst, they are jealous or brood on perceived slights. There are several recurring jokes, such as one — based on an old computer game — that Sadie has died of dysentery , which is part of their childhood banter and then gets dropped to blinding effect again on page 440.

In fact, it is constantly smart and witty, the wit all from the perspective of particular characters so also revealing about them and their understanding of the world. For example, there’s Sam in a particular crisis wishing he could reprogram his brain in the way he might fix a game.

“Unfortunately, the human brain is every bit as closed a system as a Mac.” (p. 228)

There’s lots of telling details, too, on the games these characters play — real and imaginary — and on their respective, mixed heritage: Sam’s Korean grandparents run a pizza place in K-Town, a district Sadie has never heard of when she first meets him, though she lives in a nearby part of LA. Later, they make a game out of separate but intersecting worlds.

The novel isn’t quite in chronological order, which allows it to tease the reader with key revelations to come. We jump ahead to interviews with Sam and Sadie looking back on their life and work. Or there’s the moment on page 190 when, in a scene set in the pizza place run by Sam’s grandparents, there’s the briefest mention of a poster on the wall: a 1980s advert showing a woman drinking a Korean beer. Twelve pages later, we learn the significance of this photograph - a gut punch of a revelation.

For a book about something as apparently unserious as playing games — a viewpoint it addresses several times — it is richly profound. More than once, we see the way games help people in real-life crisis. Sometimes, games have other impacts on real life, which I won’t spoil here. But it’s all utterly compelling; I read the last 100 pages on a plane yesterday, my heart in my mouth.

On that point, I can understand why the blurb and publicity don’t make a thing about this all being about games. That might put off readers who aren’t into games (I’m not, especially) — but can still be enthralled by the story being told.

One last idle thought. In her notes and acknowledgements at the end, author Gabrielle Zevin says that in referencing life-life computer games throughout the novel,

“I chose the games that made the most sense for the story, even when the dates were slightly wrong.” (p. 481)

That may illuminate an early reference that caught my eye. We’re told that Sam’s possessions in 1995 include, 

“an aging desktop computer with a Doctor Who sticker on one side and a Dungeons and Dragons sticker on the other” (p. 67)

I wonder when Sam, aged 21 at this point, got into Doctor Who — a year before the TV movie kindled a new fandom and brought many lapsed fans back from the fray. I assume he was watching late-night on PBS. Did he find other like-minded fans, in real life or online, in the way he played Dungeons and Dragons with others? And when did his interest wane, as Doctor Who never gets mentioned again.

Thursday, July 18, 2024

Doctor Who Magazine #606

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is out today and boasts lots of exclusive, behind-the-scenes stuff about the recent TV series.

I've written an article featured on the cover, "What If...?" exploring the near misses and never-were of the Fourth Doctor's era. It dovetails with the piece I wrote for the 50 Years of the Fourth Doctor special published in May, and was in part prompted by the panel about alternative history I was on at the Gallifrey convention earlier this year, which led to be revisiting the classic If It Had Happened Otherwise...

The new DWM also has news of something I've been involved in: six boxes of papers belonging to the late David Whitaker - first story editor of and prolific writer for Doctor Who - have been donated by his niece Melanie to the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York. The Borthwick Institute website boasts more details and a catalogue of the David Whitaker archive. I've also written a piece on the papers in this collection relating to Doctor Who for DWM's Print the Legend special, currently in shops.

The Borthwick Institute is a very good fit for these papers because it already holds similar collections, including an archive relating to David's great friend producer Ernest Maxin. I visited the archive while researching my biography of David, as Maxin had kept two of his unproduced screenplays (see Maxin, box 14). I'm grateful to Gary Brannan at the institute for all his help.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Doctor Who: Ruby Red, by Georgia Cook

Responding to an alien distress call, the Doctor and Ruby arrive in Estonia a few days before the Battle of the Ice on 5 April 1242

"'Big one,' the Doctor nodded. 'Well, small in scale, but big in everything else. The final bust-up between the invading Duchy of Estonia and the republic of Novgorod. Marks the end of the Northern Crusades in this region, and cements Prince Alexander Nevsky as a national hero.'

'I've never heard of it,' said Ruby.

'Your planet's had too many wars for anyone to know them all,' said the Doctor sadly. 'Still, here we are.'" (p. 30)

The distress signal has been sent by Ranavere, a 16 year-old girl from an alien culture of warriors, who has been sent to the battle as part of a coming-of-age ritual. Ranavere doesn't to fight - but it soon turns she may not have a choice. There are other aliens on the ice, some of them more of Ranavere's warmongering people and then there's something more monstrous as well...

I really enjoyed this fast-moving, lively adventure by first-time novelist Georgia Cook (who I know a bit). It deftly captures the pace and verve of the recent TV series. In fact, it's packed with set-piece moments that would be great to be able to see. This is a book that would really suit illustration - which should come as no surprise given that the author is also a designer and artist

Ruby and the Doctor are captured well, and Ranavere is a character we can relate to; she and her family are well drawn. Like Ruby, I'd never heard of this moment in history but it makes for a rich, arresting backdrop. It's all great fun, not least towards the end when, after all the ice and cold, the Doctor emerges from the TARDIS with a pile of big, fluffy towels for the surviving burly warriors. Their resistance to such comfort quickly melts, in a moment that's perfectly daft, funny and true to character.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Doctor Who: The Time-Travelling Almanac

The official Doctor Who website has announced my new book, The Time-Travelling Almanac, to be published on 3 October. It is illustrated by Emma Price.

Blurb as follows:

Experience a year from the Doctor's perspective with an exciting new release from BBC Books.

“The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour and the entire planet is hurtling round the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, and I can feel it.”

– The Doctor

Doctor Who: The Time-Travelling Almanac is your essential companion to a Time Lord’s ‘Year’. You’ll learn how to feel the turn of the Earth under your feet (hurtling round the sun at 67,000 miles an hour), the times each day that Sea Devil attacks are most likely (depending on the tides), how to avoid disturbing dangerous faeries (distances measured in yards), and why, despite all the invasions and Goblins, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. 

Releasing later this year, The Time-Travelling Almanac is a must-have guide with useful tips and information provided by the Doctor and friends – and occasionally his enemies.

Doctor Who: The Time-Travelling Almanac is out in hardback on October 3rd 2024. You can pre-order here.

Monday, July 08, 2024

Wrights and Chestertons in Kensington

I was in London for a bit on Saturday to attend the live recording of the final Eggpod, where I caught up with several good friends. Having allowed a bit of extra time for the usual snafu of trains, I had half an hour to retread a couple of streets relating to David Whitaker and the early days of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who is generally seen as the creation of BBC head of drama Sydney Newman and his head of serials, Donald Wilson. As detailed in the production diary, having agreed a format for the new series in May 1963, on 4 June Wilson sent Newman an outline for the first four-part serial, The Giants, written by staff writer CE Webber. The Doctor's companions in this were school pupil Sue and her teachers Lola [McGovern] and Cliff.

Newman objected to this storyline and another staff writer was brought in to write the first story. In Coburn's first draft script (reworking CE Webber's original), Lola became Miss McGovern and Cliff became CE Chesterton, with Sue now "Susan Forman" and established as the Doctor's granddaughter. 

In Coburn's next draft, Miss McGovern became Miss Canning and Susan became Susanne Forman, though it was also revealed that she was in fact an alien princess called Findooclare. Story editor David Whitaker wasn't sure about this last element, as he explained in an undated note to producer Verity Lambert. But he added that Coburn "agrees to the change of any names we wish." 

By the time the episode was recorded in September, the characters were established as Susan Foreman (granddaughter of the Doctor but her origins left a mystery), Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton. 

A detailed analysis of these different drafts was published in Doctor Who Magazine in 2013, written by my friend Graham Kibble-White (who I sat with at Eggpod on Saturday). This included an interview with the son of the late Anthony Coburn, in which Stef Coburn claimed that his (Catholic) father had based the character of the Doctor on his "cultural hero St Paul" and had named one school teacher after another of his heroes, the flamboyant writer GK Chesterton. The feature went on to speculate that GK Chesterton's The Ballad of Saint Barbara (1922) was an influence on the name of Ian's colleague.

I'm not so sure about this, not least because the characters in Doctor Who aren't really anything like St Barbara, GK Chesterton or St Paul. In researching my book on David Whitaker, I walked the streets of Kensington where he'd lived for much of his life, and spotted an alternative. I contend that this fits with Whitaker's note to Lambert, which implies that they - not Coburn - changed the characters' names.

On 8 June 1963, Whitaker married actress June Barry, who lived with her mum in Cheniston Gardens, W8 - the doorway in the extreme right of this picture I took on Saturday. 

Cheniston Gardens, London W8, looking towards Wrights Lane

But what’s that straight ahead?

Street sign for Wrights Lane, W8, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Turn left up Wrights Lane and you’re heading north, just a hundred yards or so to Kensington High Street. That's in the direction David lived at the time (with his parents, on nearby De Vere Gardens), and also in the direction of Peel Street, home to David’s brother Robert and his wife Barbara…

In making the shortish walk to Peel Street, you cross Kensington High Street and on to Hornton Street, home to this well-established estate agent. 

Chestertons estate agent, Hornton Street, W8

In 1963, it was based at 116 Kensington High Street, so would have been even more prominent. David Whitaker and his bride may well have used Chestertons, their local estate agent, to find a place of their own to live - after their wedding, they moved to Russell Gardens Mews and lived there until 1970.

Keep going up Hornton Street and you get to a road running parallel to Peel Street; there's a plaque at no. 32 Sheffield Terrace marking the fact that GK Chesterton was born there on 29 May 1874. So Chesterton in Doctor Who may well have been named after the writer, but through this local connection.

All of this is a stone's throw from St Mary Abbots Church

View of flower stall outside St Mary Abbots Church, Kensington

This is where David and June married, James Beck and Trevor Bannister among their ushers, Alethea Charlton their bridesmaid - as seen in the film clip included in our Looking for David documentary on the Doctor Who Season 2 collection. Charlton, of course, played Hur the cavewoman in Coburn's opening serial for Doctor Who.

Robert Whitaker, David Whitaker, June Barry, Alethea Charlton, Trevor Bannister and James Beck at St Mary Abbots Church, 8 June 1963

I'd not been inside the church before Saturday (it was closed when I was last there as Covid restrictions still applied), which also isn't featured in the wedding film. It is pretty fancy. Information displayed there says Richard Attenborough was once one of the parishioners.

Interior of St Mary Abbots Church, Kensington

That church is opposite a department store with the same name that Doctor Who producer John Nathan Turner later used to describe hyper obsessive fans. Hello.

Writer Simon Guerrier outside the department store Barkers in Kensington

Thursday, July 04, 2024

Whotopia #43

Cover of issue 43 of fanzine Whotopia showing William Russell as Ian Chesterton
Issue 43
The new issue of free online Doctor Who fanzine Whotopia* is now available, and includes a tribute to the late actor William Russell plus "Exciting Adventures" - an interview with me by Reecy Pontiff.

* Not to be confused with the book Whotopia for which I did some of the writing.
First page of interview feature with Simon Guerrier in Doctor Who fanzine Whotopia

Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Swan Song, by Edmund Crispin

"There could be no doubt, thought Adam, that the death of Edwin Shorthouse was not much regretted by Peacock or anyone else connected with the production. Adam said as much to Fen.

'I know,' said Fen. 'It seems positively indelicate to be trying to discover his murderer.'" (p. 113)

After the events of The Moving Toyshop - or, chronologically, after the events of Holy Disorders since we're told on page 20 of this book that "the business about a toyshop" was "before the war" - the fourth Gervase Fen is another fast-moving, breezily witty adventure. This time, the mystery centres round a new performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, the first since the war and with a disquiet about staging work so beloved of the Nazis. We meet the various operatic characters involved in the opera. Then, just as in The Case of the Gilded Fly (where it was the company in a theatre), one of the most odious of this cast ends up dead.

This time, the death looks like suicide but Fen is not so sure, and the attempted rape of one woman, the attempted murder of another and the sudden death of a man are all tangled up in the case. I think it's all a lot better structured than previous instalments, not least in that Fen takes his time to puzzle out what's gone on rather than sussing it early and then declining to share his deductions. 

There's some confounded cheating - on page 189, Fen causes quite a stir (for the characters and this reader) when he announces that one person killed both the dead men. That person doesn't immediately deny it and we're led to believe they are guilty, only for Fen to then unravel what really happened and how this person is in fact innocent.

There's also something uncomfortable in the treatment of young Judith Haynes, the victim of the attempted rape, both in the immediate aftermath of that and what happens later. I don't think it's very well handled, and it also doesn't sit well in what's otherwise a light, comic novel centred on an ingenious double-puzzle.

The adventure and comedy otherwise work very well. Wilkes the old rogue from The Moving Toyshop making a welcome return to further confound Fen's deductions just for the fun of it. And I loved the unnamed burglar who turns up at an opportune moment to help the sleuth break into a smart house.

"'Doesn't look to me,' said the little man disapprovingly, 'as if there's anything worth pinchin' 'ere. What we want is socialism, so as everyone'll 'ave somethink worth pinchin'." (p. 182)

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Is that you, Maureen?, by Jeremy Swan

This is a sharp, funny memoir by someone behind a glut of much loved children's TV, including Jackanory, Rentaghost and Round the Twist. It's available for pre-order and published on 29 July but I got to read it early so as to compile the index.

Swan's life and career makes for an extraordinary, enjoyable read. How fantastic to learn that the producer of Galloping Galaxies also worked on The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Working on this has been a pleasure; but the fact I worked on it excludes me from offering a review.

So, instead, an observation as a stable mate. I particularly enjoyed the way that, by chance, this new book overlaps with others already published by Ten Acre Films. Swan worked closely with Biddy Baxter and got sacked from his one day on early Doctor Who. He took the BBC's directing course and remained good friends with Andrew Morgan, who directed two of Sylvester McCoy's adventures in time. And he worked with several people who feature in my book on David Whitaker, such as producer Chloe Gibson.

Friday, June 21, 2024

The Life and Times of a Doctor Who Dummy, by Robin Squire

New David Whitaker related information!

This short memoir by Robin Squire was recommended to me by Doctor Who assistant location manager Alex Moore, who I quizzed for Doctor Who Magazine last year. I knew Squire's name as, in 1981 story Logopolis, he plays the technician at Jodrell Bank* too busy listening to music to notice a TARDIS materialise behind him. He's also credited for small roles in The Daemons (1971) and Full Circle (1980).

Before these credited roles, Squire spent some four months as a trainee script editor in the Doctor Who production office - and kept a diary. His book recounts the period 1965-69, beginning with his backpacking trip across France where he saw the Beatles play a gig in Nice on 30 June 1965. As he says, Beatles histories can tell us the set list played that night but he can add extra detail, such us what the warm-up acts were and how the audience responded (p. 36).

Based on this gig and then a chance encounter with the former manager of a band, Squire wrote a novel about a band, Square One, published on 5 August 1968. At the time of publication, his wife had just given birth and Squire went for a pint with a neighbour whose wife was on the same labour ward. That neighbour was Terrance Dicks, who a few months later told Squire about a short-term trainee job going in his office at the BBC.

So, from the end of June to early November 1969, Squire was based at a desk in room 505 on the second floor of Union House, Shepherds Bush Green - and the home for nearly 27 years of the Doctor Who production office. Arriving for his first day at the “surprisingly late hour of 10 am”, Squire was met on the main door by a “uniformed commissionaire” (p. 71) and instructed to, “Take the lift to second floor. Third door on the left.” 

There he found a, “small and dusty-seeming office,” with Dicks “behind a desk to the right, beside the window looking out over the Green ...  To my right was an open door leading through to the producer’s office.” Peter Bryant shared that office with production secretary Sandra Brenholtz, whose job involved “all the correspondence” as well as “typing out scripts and production schedules and the Lord only knew what else on an electric typewriter” (p. 72). The producer’s desk was bigger than his secretary's and behind it was a “huge white plastic chart on which was written in black marker pen the forthcoming programmes, with studios times and dates, director, writer and so on” (pp. 72-3). Squire turned up for his first day in a suit; Dicks, in jeans and open-necked shirt, told him not to do that again.

Dicks then walked Squire round the corner to Lime Grove Studios - though Doctor Who was no longer made there (the last Doctor Who made there was the first episode of The Space Pirates, recorded in February). There they bumped into Patrick Troughton - even though, as Squire says, he'd recorded his last scenes as the Doctor a week or so previously. They also saw the TARDIS set, presumably in storage. Squire says it looked “tatty and worn ... Terrance said that on a black and white monitor the well-worn aspect didn’t show, but when transmission changed to colour early next year, it would.”

Soon enough, Squire attended filming on Spearhead from Space, the first Doctor Who to be made in colour. He was initially there as a spare body but got roped into playing an Auton and later worked as the unit driver, for which he had to take the BBC's own driving test. There's lots of detail here - dates he was and wasn't on location, the name of the hotel where the principal cast and crew were based and the names of its landlords, what was involved in shooting on location and what it felt like to be in that costume. We're told what he got up to on his day's off and what music was playing on the radio, which he still associates with that period. 

This all helps conjure a richer, fuller picture of what went on than we get from the production paperwork in the BBC's written archive. Yes, I have alerted David Brunt about this for when he gets to the relative volume of his production diary.

On one occasion, script editor Derrick Sherwin showed Squire a script for something other than Doctor Who - probably Project Air One, on which he was working with Peter Bryant at the same time. 

“But apart from that, and despite apparently being a trainee script editor, I received no training in script editing, but sat at a desk at the side of Terrance’s office where I was given the work of answering letters from fans and followers of the programme.” (p. 75)

That meant he was there as writers came into the office to discuss their scripts for the 1970 series of Doctor Who. Squire recalls meeting Robert Holmes, going to the home of Malcolm Hulke and even devising the storyline given to Don Houghton to write up as Inferno. That leaves one other writer from that year; he mentions David Whitaker in passing on page 81.

“I never met him,” Squire told me yesterday but “there was still talk about David Whitaker.” This was because, as Squire told me unprompted, of David's mission to Moscow in July 1969 on behalf of the Writers' Guild to protest the treatment of Solzhenitsyn, and the storm that followed. As described in my book, David, his wife and colleagues were subjected to poison-pen letters and phonecalls. In 2017, I asked both Terrance Dicks and Derrick Sherwin about this and whether such letters have been received at Union House. Neither of them could remember - but then they'd not been the ones to deal with correspondence.

“At the time I was at the Doctor Who office,” Squire told me, unbidden, “angry messages were continuing to come in along the lines of 'David Whitaker, traitor', for not having spoken up.”

For more details about and to order your own copy of The Life and Times of a Doctor Who Dummy, see Robin Squire's website.

* Yes, Jodrell Bank, as confirmed in Spyfall (2020).

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Doctor Who Magazine #605

The new issue of the official Doctor Who Magazine is out today. Having hogged loads of the last issue, this time I've contributed one small-ish thing, a Who Crew interview with Sam Dinley, assistant to composer Murray Gold.

(There was something else, too, but it's being held over...)

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Follow Your Curiosity podcast #241

I'm interviewed by Nancy Norbeck on the latest episode of the Follow Your Curiosity podcast, which you can find on YouTube and all these podcasty places.

Nancy says:

The Evolving Landscape of AI in the Arts 
My guest this week is Simon Guerrier, a writer and producer who has written numerous books related to Doctor Who, produced five documentaries for BBC radio, and more than 70 audio plays for Big Finish Productions, as well as comics and short stories. He also chairs the Books Committee for the Writers' Guild of Great Britain. Simon talks with me about how he got his start in writing and producing—including just what a producer does—the value of negotiating arrangements that work in everyone’s best interest, the impact of new tools like ChatGPT on creative careers and the creative process, his new book about television pioneer David Whitaker, and more. 

Sunday, June 16, 2024

A Bit of Difference, by Sefi Atta

 Deola Bello works for a company in London that audits charities and NGOs around the world. She arranges one assignment so that she'll be back in Nigeria in time for the fifth anniversary of the death of her father. But facing her extended family means a whole load of questions - about what she's doing with her life, what she wants and where she belongs...

Yesterday, I interviewed author Sefi Atta about this 2013 novel for an online event hosted by Macfest. Sefi is a prolific author - of novels, short stories and plays (for both radio and the stage) - but chose this novel as the focus of our discussion.

She told me that she'd consciously endeavoured to avoid the cliches and stereotypes she'd observed at the time of writing, as expressed in the novel by Deola in a conversation with a writer friend.

"African novels are too exotic for her. Reading them, she often feels they are meant for Western readers, who are more likely to be impressed." (p. 190)

These readers seem to be drawn to tales of catastrophe, as the writer friend responds:

"The more death the better. It is like literary genocide. Kill off all your African characters and you're home and dry. They certainly don't want to hear from the likes of me, writing about trivialities like love." (p. 191).

Deola counters that,

"Love is not trivial. ... Love is epic." (p. 192)

For all we might hear, repeatedly, of the danger of "armed robbers" while Deola is in Nigeria, that threat never materialises. In fact, the only armed conflict here is the protests in London to the ongoing Gulf War (the novel set in 2003). There's corruption in Nigeria but that dovetails with the way Deola is treated, belittled and overlooked by her employers in London, who express disappointment that her report based on first-hand experience is not what they wanted to hear.

Instead, the focus here is on the personal: Deola's friendships, her family, a man she meets in Nigeria and what happens between them. In the course of all this, she's wrestling with her sense of self - her identity and future. For all the backdrop of Gulf War (in London) and poverty, AIDS crisis and corruption (in Nigeria), it's a warm, funny novel full of sharp observations because it's all told from Deola's perspective; her character, concerns and passions set the tone.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Yellowface, by RF Kuang

Bestselling author Athena Liu asks her friend June Hayward to look over a manuscript she has written using an old, manual typewriter - the only version of Liu's new novel. When Liu suddenly dies, Hayward must decide what to do with a book that no one else knows even exists. The draft isn't good enough in its current state, Hayward decides, so begins to revise it. Soon she has claimed the work as her own and things begin to snowball...

This fast-moving satire of the issues of racial diversity in publishing and on social media kept me entertained as I drove to and from a work thing this week. It reminded me a bit of Patricia Highsmith, though here the narrator not so much unreliable as unobservant, failing to pick up on things that made me gasp or cringe, often because she's too eager to defend her actions and motives. She details her own anxiety, triggered by hostile behaviour experienced in person or online, but often misses the impact of her actions, such as in complaining about a junior member of publishing staff or harshly critiquing the work of a high school student.

Our narrator isn't the only character to behave badly; it's a world of self-interested, prickly people with fixed smiles (in that sense, the other thing it reminded me of was the recent Doctor Who episode, Dot and Bubble). I've seen a few reviews claim Yellowface is too on-the-nose or that June Hayward's character lacks depth - and then miss some elements that are not spelled out. Hayward's relationship with Liu is complex; Liu is herself a complex and sometimes disquieting figure. It's continually, compellingly not straightforward.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

The Moving Toyshop, by Edmund Crispin (again)

"'Let's go left,' Cadogan suggested. 'After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.'" (p. 87)

It's more than a decade since I first read The Moving Toyshop and, having really enjoyed it then, I'm surprised how little stuck in the memory. One thing was the basic wheeze: Richard Cadogan stumbling drunk into a toyshop to find a dead body, only to return with the police to find the body and the whole toyshop gone. To solve the mystery, he calls on his friend, the eccentric Oxford don Gervase Fen. 

Then there's the thrilling final sequence on a merry-go-round, borrowed by Alfred Hitchcock for Strangers on a Train. But sadly, between these two brilliant bookends, there's a lot of running around and literary gags that - though enjoyable - lack the mad and visual heft to linger.

Reading it after the two preceding novels (The Case of the Gilded Fly and Holy Disorders), it's also notable that this third instalment isn't set during the war as they are. We're not actually told when events take place - though the next novel, Swan Song, will reveal that The Moving Toyshop took place before the war and so precedes those two earlier novels. 

"'Well, I'm going to the police,' said Cadogan. 'If there's anything I hate, it's the sort of book in which characters don't got to the police when they've no earthly reason for not doing so.'

'You've got an earthly reason for not doing so immediately.'

'What's that?'

'The pubs are open,' said Fen, as one who after a long night sees dawn on the hills. 'Let's go and have a drink before we do anything rash.'" (p. 50)

At one point, while incarcerated and with Cadogan unconscious, Fen amuses himself coming up with titles for further accounts of his adventures:

"'Fen steps in,' said Fen. 'The Return of Fen. A Don Dares Death (A Gervase Fen Story) ... Murder Stalks the University ... The Blood on the Mortarboard. Fen Strikes Back ... My dear fellow, are you all right? I was making up titles for Crispin.'" (p. 81)

Not even halfway through a third book and it's poking fun at the idea of this as a series; Fen established enough to be mocked just as much as anyone else in the literary world. 

Friday, June 07, 2024

Doctor Who Magazine: Print the Legend

I've just received my contributor copy of the new Doctor Who Magazine special, Print the Legend, which tells the complete story of every Doctor Who novelisation - from Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks by David Whitaker (1964) to The Church on Ruby Road by Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson (2024). Excitingly, each copy comes with a free Doctor Who audiobook on CD - I got Carnival of Monsters with mine. Result!

My two bits are:

pp. 18-21 Script to Manuscript: David Whitaker

The influences on Whitaker that helps to ensure the Doctor Who novelisations began at such a high standard, with some stuff I've picked up from my research into Garry Halliday as well as a previously unpublished photograph of Whitaker with Vincent Price.

pp. 22-23 The Final Chapter

Details of the Doctor Who related paperwork loaned to me by Whitaker's niece Melanie, including - reproduced in full - the surviving first page of his unfinished novelisation of The Enemy of the World, with permission of Whitaker's estate.

See also my biography, David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

Making Sense of Suburbia through Popular Culture, by Rupa Huq

I read this on holiday as research for something I'm working on at the moment. Dr Rupa Huq, MP for Ealing Central and Acton, explores depictions of suburbs in novels, music, films and TV and then devotes a chapter each to woman in suburbia and mapping Asian London in pop culture.

“The suburbs are in many ways ordinary,” she tells us on page 13: “according to estimates some 80 per cent of Britons live in them.” (The figure comes from Paul Barker's 2009 book The Freedoms of Suburbia.) That makes them almost universal, and entirely relatable when we see them on screen.

Huq delineates two kinds of suburbia, I think. First there's that idea of crushing, bland ordinariness, a place to be escaped. 
“Of recent UK offerings, The Sarah Jane Adventures, a spin-off from the long-running BBC science fiction series Doctor Who, was based in Ealing. Part of the show’s attraction was that such storylines of time travel and aliens could be unleashed in such an unlikely setting as a straight-laced, upstanding and ostensibly boring location.” (p. 130)

That Sarah Jane Smith hails from boring old Ealing (or, in The Hand of Fear, South Croydon) is juxtaposed against her adventures in all of time and space. It's a joke: after all her wild adventures, she ends up somewhere so ordinary.

Ealing is so ordinary and relatable that it could be anywhere - and indeed the Ealing scenes in The Five Doctors were actually filmed in Uxbridge, the Ealing scenes in The Sarah Jane Adventures were recorded in Penarth.

In the very first episode of Doctor Who, the mundane details of ordinary life - a policeman, a junkyard, a comprehensive school - create a credible, relatable frame for the sci-fi wonders that follow. Basically, the first half of the episode feels real so we buy the more outlandish stuff that follows. But again it's following that basic idea: we must leave the ordinary suburbs to go somewhere exciting.

And that's where the second kind of suburbia comes in. Huq quotes playwright Alan Ayckbourn on suburbia: 

“It’s not what it seems, on the surface one thing but beneath the surface another thing. In the suburbs there is a very strict code, rules … eventually they drive you completely barmy.” Think of England: Dunroamin’ (BBC Two, 5 Nov 1991, dir. Ann Leslie)

The suburbs are a place on anxiety, the “suburban neurosis” outlined in the Lancet in 1938 by Stephen Taylor, senior resident medical officer at the Royal Free Hospital (and, er, my dad's godfather). Huq also charts similar ideas in Betty Friedan's influential The Feminine Mystique (1963). I can see these same ideas being explored in sitcoms of the 1970s, that sense of the suburb as a place of strangeness and secrets and danger.

In fact, I think The Sarah Jane Adventures and quite a lot of Doctor Who makes more use of this second kind of suburbia, where more is going on that meets the eye. With aliens and time travel and daft jokes aplenty, the whole point is that Ealing - or anywhere else - isn't boring. Which might be of some comfort to the local MP.

Anyway. More of this to come in the thing I'm working on...

Monday, June 03, 2024

A Short History of the World, by HG Wells

I've somehow got two editions of this little book, originally published as part of the Thinker's Library by CA Watts & Co in 1929. One is the slightly revised third impression of 1934, the other is a fifth edition from 1941 that the (mostly) surviving dust jacket says is "Revised and brought Up to Date ... with a new chapter reviewing the opening phases of the Second World War". The latter belonged to my maternal grandmother, who wrote her name in pencil on the first page.

Earlier this year, I described the effect of time travel in Wells's The Time Machine (1895):

"It’s as if the traveller is perched on a bicycle in front of a cinema screen, working a lever to speed up the film being shown until it passes in a blur."

There, the film starts in the (then) present day and whizzes far into the future. The effect is much the same in A Short History of the World but we start from an estimated 1.6 billion years ago and whizz forward to the present. The intention, Wells says in the Preface, is that it should be read "straightforwardly almost as a novel" (p. iii).

That means we rattle through events and ideas quickly, most chapters just a few pages long. Wells admits that he has little access to histories of China and elsewhere, so there's an acknowledged western bias. Even so, its odd that some 50 pages - about one-sixth of the whole book - are devoted to the history of Rome, not least given the author's claim that,

"the whole Roman Empire in four centuries produced nothing to set beside the bold and noble intellectual activities of the comparatively little city of Athens during its one century of greatness" (p. 134).

The point, of course, is that Wells is using history to illuminate the (then) present, and Rome provides the template for the British Empire and the clash of the great powers. 

"The Roman Empire was a growth; an unplanned novel growth; the Roman people found themselves engaged almost unawares in a vast administrative experiment ... In a sense the experiment failed. In a sense the experiment remains unfinished, and Europe and America to-day are still working out the riddles of world-wide statecraft first confronted by the Roman people." (p. 119)

In that mode, his chapter on Jesus as a historical rather than religious figure reads like a description of a Fabian social reformer. That's also true of his description of other prophets and thinkers, though he adds the caveat that a modern reader of their ideas may also find,

"much prejudice and much that will remind him of that evil stuff, the propaganda literature of the present time." (p. 82)

For all he covers a lot of ground concisely, Wells is careful not to draw too simple parallels or to make his history overly simplistic.

"It is well for the student of history to bear in mind the very great changes not only in political and moral matters that went on throughout this period of Roman domination. There is much too strong a tendency in people's minds to think of the Roman rule as something finished and stable, firm, rounded, noble and decisive. Macauley's Lays of Ancient Rome, SPQR, the elder Cato, the Scipios, Julius Caesar, Diocletian, Constantine the Great, triumphs, orations, gladiatorial combats and Christian martyrs are all mixed up together in a picture of something high and cruel and dignified. The items of that picture have to be disentangled. They are collected at different points from a process of change profounder than that which separates the London of William the Conqueror from the London of to-day." (pp. 119-20).

That disentangling includes his acknowledgement that only a small minority in Rome enjoyed the benefits and freedoms of the empire. He devotes considerable time to the myriad roles played by slaves in agriculture, mining, metallurgy, construction, road-making and on galleys, as well as working as guards and gladiators. What's more,

"The conquests of the later Republic were among the highly civilised cities of Greece, North Africa, and Asia Minor; and they brought in many highly educated captives. The tutor of a young Roman of good family was usually a slave. A rich man would have a Greek slave as librarian, and slave secretaries and learned men. He would keep his poet as he would keep a performing dog. In this atmosphere of slavery the traditions of modern literary scholarship and criticism, meticulous, timid and quarrelsome, were evolved." (p. 133)

That's surely a popular novelist having a dig at the pretensions of poets and critics of his own age. The novelist is also there in the sizeable imaginative leap of trying to get inside the heads of early humans to describe how they thought and felt about the world around them (Chapter XII, Primitive Thought) - an attempt later repeated by William Golding in The Inheritors and by the first Doctor Who story. Less credible is the novelist's odd conspiracy theory that, after Alexander conquered Egypt in 332 BCE, 

"the Phoenicians of the western Mediterranean suddenly disappear from history - and as immediately the Jews of Alexandria and the other trading cities created by Alexander appear."(p. 94)

This, I suspect, is drawn from whatever racial theories Wells was reading. As I rather expected, there's quite a lot here on the geographical movements and cultural impact of particular ethnic groups such as the Aryans, detailing skin colour and other racial characteristics. The terminology used is similarly racist and  of their time, and I already knew Wells was an enthusiastic eugenicist. But I think that makes it all the more notable when he endeavours to avoid prejudice. For example, there's his response to the wealth of evidence of early humans found in France and Spain:

"The greater part of Africa and Asia has never even been traversed yet by a trained observer interested in these matters and free to explore, and we must be very careful therefore not to conclude that the early true men were distinctly inhabitants of Western Europe or that they first appeared in that region." (p. 32)

Or, there's his caveat on outlining what he calls the "main racial divisions" of the neolithic world: 

"We have to remember that human races can all interbreed freely and that they separate, mingle and reunite as clouds do. Human races do not branch out like trees with branches that never come together again. It is a thing we need to bear constantly in mind, this remingling of races at any opportunity. We shall be saved from many cruel delusions and prejudices if we do so. People will use such a word as race in the loosest manner, and base the most preposterous generalisations upon it. They will speak of a 'British' race or of a 'European' race. But nearly all the European nations are confused mixtures of brownish, dark-white, white, and Mongolian elements." (p. 45)

I was also struck by his defence of the latter:

"We hear too much in history of the campaigns and massacres of the Mongols, and not enough of their curiosity and desire for learning" (p. 202).

This all feels very pertinent given the context of the time in which Wells was writing. The chronology at the end of the 1934 edition ends with "Hitler becomes dictator of Germany [and] World Economic Conference in London" (p. 313), but Wells - for all he astutely identifies problems in the Treaty of Versailles leading to future conflict, warns of war, 

"in twenty or thirty years' time if no political unification anticipates and prevents it" (p. 300).

Hitler is not mentioned in the main body of the text; he and Stalin were both added to the 1938 edition. My 1941 edition includes Chamberlain, Churchill and Roosevelt, as well as references to Disraeli and Kipling. In updating the book to cover events of less than a decade, he reaches further back into the past.

It's also interesting what revisions Wells didn't make to the 1941 edition: for example he doesn't add the discovery of Pluto to his description of the Solar System in chapter one. I find myself picking over what he might have added to a later edition, if he'd lived a little beyond 1946. The atomic bomb - a term Wells coined - would be key. His chapter on industrialisation would need something on automation and loom cards, now recognised as so crucial to the development of computers. 

Oh, and his reference to the "fascinatingly enigmatical" Piltdown Man (p. 27) would get quietly cut.

In fact, I'd love to see a new version of this enterprise: a concise, breezy history of the whole world (not just the western bits), making sense of now based on what's gone before and pointing the way to the future...

See also:

Sunday, June 02, 2024

Athens

Two children looking through window at Acropolis, Athens, at night
View from our hotel
Back from a nice week in hot, sunny Athens. As the Dr said, it's been fascinating to see what the kids made of the place and how different it is when seen through their eyes. They were wowed by the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. A morning on a nice beach or somewhere shady to run around was as big a win as the culture. Trying a new fizzy drink - Loux Sour Cherry - or the delighted response from waiters when, unbidden, they said "thank you" in Greek, was all part of the adventure.

Highlights of the trip for me were the things that engaged them. That includes staff at Manchester Airport spotting my son's sunflower lanyard and quietly, conscientiously making things a little easier for us all. Aegean Airlines were incredibly accommodating with families, such as ensuring that children on the flights got fed first and providing colouring books and card games. 

Really, there was only one sour note to the trip. The Acropolis was very crowded and the narrow path up to it a bit of an ordeal, with many other tourists not behaving well - shoving past my daughter, standing on my feet so often I had to wash blood from my sandals, and ignoring ropes and signs closing off various bits of the site. It may just be that our pre-booked, mid-morning slot coincided with all the coach trips.

Other sites - the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Hadrian's library, the Greek Agora and its Roman counterpart - were bustling but less of a scrum. In contrast, we ducked into the Museum of Modern Greek Culture to escape from the sun and had the place pretty much to ourselves. It was a revelation, the various themed exhibits holding the children's attention for two hours.

I was wowed by the Acropolis Museum, where me and Lady Vader completed a treasure hunt of different representations of Athena and then had various games and activities. For the latter, we found a quiet corner on the second floor, where there's the awe-inspiring recreation of the Parthenon frieze and other ornamentation made up from original stonework and casts of the purloined pieces. 

Child playing card game at Acropolis Museum, Athens, view of Acropolis behind her
As we sat there, passing tourists kept voicing the same thought: once you see this incredible display, with the windows looking out on the Acropolis itself, it's hard to fathom how the British Museum can possibly object to sending its own bits of the Parthenon home.

(The Lord of Chaos was much taken by the Lego version of the Acropolis on display on the floor below, where a pith-helmeted Lord Elgin can be seen nicking some of the sculptures - boo, hiss). 

For all we explored the ancient past, we were also tracing more recent history - the corner of Syntagma Square where, in 2000, I first met the Dr's aunt and uncle (then residents of Athens, now sadly deceased), the bit of Monastiraki where in 2007 we whiled away an afternoon with my parents in a bar overlooking the Agora. I first went to Athens on a fancy school trip in 1989, when I was the same age as my son is now. Our trip to the Museum of Modern Greek Culture made me especially sensitive, I think, to that idea of interwoven, personal history.

At the same time, the coach-loads of tourists from America, Australia, Japan and wherever else make a different case. The Acropolis Museum focuses on the Greek history and the birthplace of democracy but there's little on why so many modern states trace a line back to this city, and how the ideas originated in Athens have been adapted. Uncivilised by Subhadra Das points out that ancient Athenians wouldn't recognise our modern political systems as "democratic"; I'd have liked to have seen more of the present in reading the past.

Silly man posing at sign saying House of Simon
House of Simon
But the future was also on my mind. As we wandered the Agora looking for the House of Simon, in the shelter of the gnarled olive trees stood individual staff members on duty. Several had fire extinguishers with them. At the end of May, it was a knackering 30℃ and the full heat of the summer is still to come. 

A history at once personal, universal and so very fragile.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Doctor Who Magazine #604

Out today, the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine includes "Babies on Board", my set report from Space Babies, having spent the day with the team at Bad Wolf Studios on 23 March 2023.

That's followed by "Baby Love", in which I talk to the team about realising the episode's diminutive guest stars. There will be more from me about Space Babies later in the year...

And then, in "Music's Gonna Flood Back In!" - a line cut from towards the end of the final version of The Devil's Chord, fact fans - I interview Sam Dinley, music assistant to Doctor Who composer Murray Gold.


Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Doctor Who Production Diary - 1. The Hartnell Years, by David Brunt

"The number of nude photos needed for the Guardroom set has increased from three to six." (p. 647)

This massive, detailed day-by-day history of the making of Doctor Who is a great nerdy joy. The first volume covers the period from Monday, 2 November 1936 (the start of the BBC's regular Television service) to Friday, 4 November 1966 (the day before Patrick Troughton made his full debut as the Second Doctor, having been glimpsed in the closing moments of the episode broadcast the previous week). 

In effect, it's a much expanded version of the 164-page production diary featured in Doctor Who: The Handbook - The First Doctor (1994) by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker. Indeed, Walker is the editor of this new volume, which is published by Howe's company, Telos. David Brunt looked again at the production files held at the BBC's Written Archives Centre used in that earlier version, and also looked more widely - there's an exhaustive list at the end of this volume of the files consulted for individual writers, actors and other personnel, as well as BBC departments.

I should probably declare an interest in that David's research at WAC overlapped my own for the biography of David Whitaker. We liaised a bit, compared notes and shared ideas, and I read a fairly early draft version of this book containing much less detail. There's plenty in the published volume that is new to me. In some instances, we looked at the same evidence and came to different conclusions. 

For example, the book says that David Whitaker "has most likely been appointed as Doctor Who's story editor" by the time of his wedding on 8 June 1963 (p. 49). My guess is that if this were case he'd have been copied into the memo dated Monday, 10 June from head of serials Donald Wilson to everyone else involved at a senior level: assistant head of drama Norman Rutherford (head of drama Sydney Newman being away), drama department organiser Ayton Whitaker (no relation), associate producer Mervyn Pinfield, acting producer Rex Tucker and incoming producer Verity Lambert (who didn't start for another week). Maybe the story editor wasn't considered sufficiently senior for inclusion in this august company, but I make the case in my book for David Whitaker being assigned to Doctor Who on Monday, 17 June.

I'm especially impressed by pp. 104-105, where the weekly cycle of rehearsals, read-throughs and technical runs is spelled out. As far as I'm aware, there's no single document detailing this sequence and it's been deduced from scattered references in myriad different sources. Understanding that schedule illuminates much that follows. We can appreciate the frustration of actor William Russell being given a new six-page scene to learn on Thursday, 20 February 1964, the day before The Wall of Lies was recorded; it's additionally frustrating when we know that after a Thursday morning run-through of an episode for the producer and senior technical crew,

"the cast will normally be free to ... leave early that day." (p. 105)

The other thing that this book illuminates is the frantic spinning of multiple plates at any one moment. Most histories of Doctor Who - in Doctor Who Magazine or the Complete History, or on the DVDs and Blu-rays - scrutinise one story at a time. The Production History lays out how studio production on one story overlapped with filming for the next, the writing and editing of the story after that and planning and budgeting for stories months ahead. At the same time, there was press and publicity, and responses to enquiries about the episodes just aired. 

Detailing the treadmill of production demonstrates, time and again, the problems caused by anyone holding things up, whether late scripts or delivery of props, or the repeated machinations of the Design Department to kill Doctor Who before it even started. It's dizzyingly, exhaustingly fraught. It's all the more impressive that Doctor Who was often so compelling and easy to see why working on this series burned through talent so quickly.

This day-by-day approach is very revealing and has made me make a whole tonne of connections. I'll give the example of one story, to show how it is in fact lots of stories and things happening at once.

On Thursday 26 May 1966, William Hartnell (Doctor Who), Michael Craze (Ben Jackson), Anneke Wills (Polly) and members of the guest cast were in Cromwell Gardens in Kensington for location filming on The War Machines. We're told that this included a high-shot filmed from upstairs at no. 50F (by arrangement with a Mrs Lessing there), and that,

"The location in Cornwall Gardens is diametrically opposite the property where Peter Purves is living at this time." (p. 603)

Hartnell spent that same morning in rehearsals on the preceding serial with Purves (Steven Taylor) and Jackie Lane (Dodo Chaplet). The Savages Episode 3 was then recorded in studio the following day. Both co-stars were being rather abruptly written out of the series, Purves the following week and Lane two weeks later in the middle of The War Machines. The prevailing atmosphere was not great, as Purves told me in 2013:

"I was very disappointed [to leave]. Later, I knew [producer] Innes [Lloyd] quite well and there was no animosity. But I didn't want to go. Bill [Hartnell] was furious. I remember him saying he'd make them change their minds. A few months later, he was gone, too." (Me, interview with Peter Purves for Doctor Who 50 Years - The Companions)

Given this, it's all the more astonishing that the production were there on Purves' doorstep, filming with his replacements.

Also present at the location filming that afternoon were William Mervyn (Sir Charles Summer), whose son Michael Pickwoad later designed more than one TARDIS and Mike Reid (uncredited soldier), later a comedian, host of Runaround and Frank Butcher in EastEnders and Dimensions in Time. There was more notable casting on this story. When the first episode of The War Machines was recorded in studio on 10 June, one of the extras in the Inferno nightclub was Alan Cassell, later the star of Australian TV's The Drifter, written by David Whitaker. Two weeks later, another extra left production during the lunch break to go for an X-ray and then didn't return for that evening's recording of Episode 3; Mike Yarwood is,

"now better known for his later TV career as an impressionist." (p. 620)

That week had been a little fraught anyway. On Monday, 20 June, the first day of rehearsals on the episode were disrupted by Hartnell "still feeling the after-effects" of filming in Cornwall the previous day for next story The Smugglers. Having completed work, he'd had a long trek back to London by train. His second-class ticket from Penzance (p. 606) seems extraordinary treatment for a veteran star of a series and came at a cost: his "travel fatigue" (as the Production Guide puts it) led to a delay in the usual schedule. On 6 July, William Mervyn wrote a letter to Lloyd suggesting that Hartnell should henceforth be transported by helicopter - for all the joking tone, it implies there had been a real problem.

Reading events day by day, I think it might have been the final straw for Lloyd. On 24 June, the day that The War Machines Episode 3 was in studio, the producer notified story editor Gerry Davis that, by arrangement with Hartnell's agent, the star would be absent from whatever episode was to be recorded on 11 February 1967 - in the event, The Moonbase Episode 2. But the problems caused to the schedule following filming in Cornwall surely affected the decision Lloyd was then involved in. On 15 July 1966, three weeks after that memo to Davis, Lloyd seems to have broken the news to Hartnell that his contract would not be extended beyond the next four-part story, The Tenth Planet. Hartnell told his wife the following day that he would be leaving Doctor Who.

I've pored over much of the original paperwork used here and thought I knew this stuff. This exhaustive diary tells a whole new story. Let's have volume 2 sharpish, please and thank you.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Holy Disorders, by Edmund Crispin

First published in 1945, this is the second of the detective novels starring Oxford don and amateur sleuth Gervase Fen. Following the events of The Case of the Gilded Fly, we rejoin composer and church organist Geoffrey Vintner, now in a London cab with a loaded revolver. He also has a telegram from Fen:

"I AM AT TOLNBRIDGE STAYING AT THE CLERGY HOUSE PRIESTS PRIESTS PRIESTS THE PLACE IS BLACK WITH THEM COME AND PLAY THE CATHEDRAL SERVICES ALL THE ORGANISTS HAVE BEEN SHOT UP DISMAL BUSINESS THE MUSIC WASN'T BAD AS ALL THAT EITHER YOU'D BETTER COME AT ONCE BRING ME A BUTTERFLY NET I NEED ONE WIRE BACK COMING NOT COMING FOR LONG STAY GERVASE FEN." (pp. 3-4)

We learn that a local organist has been attacked and knocked unconscious, and that Vintner has also received an anonymous letter threatening that he will "regret" any trip to Tolnbridge. So, gun in hand, he heads to Tolnbridge (in Devon), stopping first at a London department store to acquire a butterfly net. There, he is set-upon by a would-be assassin in the midst of the sports equipment. In the ensuing battle, runaway footballs cause chaos on the lower floors of the store.

All this is within the first 10 pages, a mini-adventure like something from a silent comedy setting us up for the main event. As before, this is an arch and witty detective story, but much more in the John Buchan mould than its predecessor. One element of the plot involves a teenage girl drugged with marijuana to do the bidding of the villains, while another involves witch trials from 1705 and a modern-day coven led by a villainous priest, but really this is a shocker about Nazi spies working undercover in England. Oh, and Vintner meets a young woman in Tolnbridge and immediately falls in love.

For all it's fun, and peppered with literary allusions and jokes, the last few chapters are really suspenseful - Fen is kidnapped, badly beaten by the villains and there's added resonance here in the fact that these Nazis ruthlessly use gas to dispose of their victims. Rather than ill-fitting the light comedy / cost detective story stuff, this real-world horror works extremely well. The eccentric, idiosyncratic Fen is nonetheless a hero, still cracking jokes as the villains rough him up, in a manner that reminded me of James Bond in Casino Royale. There's something, too, of the plucky spirit of Went The Day Well? (1942).

 "'Do talk English,' said Fen, with a touch of acerbity. 'And try to stop imagining you're in a book.'" (p. 218) 

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Annie Bot, by Sierra Greer

Gosh, this is good — and thrilling, disturbing and difficult to put down. Annie Bot is all told from the perspective of a robot owned by 34 year-old Doug Richards. She’s a “Cuddle Bunny”, mentally and physically programmed to please him. Sensors score his displeasure our of 10, and we get a constant running total. The same is true of Annie’s own libido. Keep Doug happy and she will be happy, too… but he keeps giving out mixed signals. 

Slowly, Annie learns to understand him — and herself.

“It occurs to her, eventually, that Doug and all the other humans talk about their lives with a myopic intensity, sharing singular, subjective opinions as if they are each the protagonist of their own novel. They take turns listening to each other without ever yielding their own certainty of their star status, and they treat their fellow humans as guest protagonists visiting from their own respective books. None of the humans are satellites the way she is, in her orbit around Doug.” (p. 215)

Effectively, the book picks up where The Stepford Wives ends, told from the perspective of one of the robots. We’re often ahead of Annie in noting and processing things. For example, there are Doug's bookshelves: 
“For fiction, he is long on Poe, Grisham, Wolfe, L'Amour, Hemmingway, Nabokov. There's a paucity of female writers and writers of color.” (p. 152)

Or there's a character they meet and seem to get on with, until Doug and Annie discuss the conversation later.

“'Could you tell she was trans?' he asks ... She waits, expecting him to explain why this is relevant, but he doesn't add anything more.” (p. 164)

Some things are innocuous, some feel more like red flags. The effect is that we're on the watch-out, too, for warning signs of his anger. One key, early clue to put us on our guard is that we learn Doug had Annie built to resemble his ex, only that Annie is less black. He’s also controlling (something his ex seems to have noted, too) and when Annie doesn’t please him there are punishments.

But Doug has also allowed Annie to be ‘autodidactic’, and the more she experiences and reads, and the more that Doug treats her unfairly — or even with cruelty — the more she comes to question the strictures of her existence…

Fast-moving and suspenseful, this is also a novel of big ideas. Annie is just one of a whole world of robot slaves, including ‘Stellas’ for domestic housework, ‘Hunks’, ‘Nannies’, ‘Abigails’ and ‘Zeniths’. Then there’s the industry to support these machines: commercial interests, scientific research and even a robo-psychologist who helps humans and their robot partners — Dr Monica VanTyne is more counsellor to them both than engineer fixing robots in the style of Asimov’s Dr Susan Calvin.

We cover a lot of ground, touching on the ways different people are affected by or implicated in this system. I’ve just read Alex Renton’s Blood Legacy so was very conscious of the parallels with slavery. But I think this is also a novel in a particular tradition of sci-fi.

Earlier this year, I went to an event where Jared Shurin talked about his new Big Book of Cyberpunk. That includes a long and insightful introduction in which he grapples with what cyberpunk actually is, but at the event itself he suggests that the US and UK tended to have their own distinctive kinds of stories. In the UK, those stories were often railing against Thatcher - the punk attitude to the fore. In the US, a lot of stories tended to focus on the knotty philosophical question of “Can I fuck my robot?”

See also: