Today is Who day. It’s the first day of a new Doctor and it’s also a brand new series. I was taking a look around online and all I could see was a lot of people proclaiming their excitement. It got me wondering, is it just me, is it wrong to expect more?
Before I go on I want to make myself clear; I’ve enjoyed Dr Who since I was a wee lad and, on occasion, Dr Who still produces some of the finest telly in Britain however, those flashes of brilliance are becoming fewer and further apart. I think that franchise needs some serious … umm … regeneration.
This isn’t however a day for me to car about the series itself but a common opinion I see expressed. The argument normally goes like this:
It’s a family/kids fantasy show – set your expectations appropriately.
I understand the temptation of the argument but I don’t agree. When it comes to storytelling I think you should treat the audience the same no matter who they are. For example just because your intended audience is kids doesn’t mean that you can skip the internal logic of a story. No, treat your audience with respect and they will appreciate the reward even if they can’t articulate why.
Ah what about the arcs! My reply, “What about them?” Arcs, the little hints of something deeper, are the barest nods to something bigger outside of a single episode. They are a cheap way of telling a wider story and not often successfully. If anything they act as a tease to the audience who are left asking: why this, who is that person, what is the significance of that motif? Whoever is writing should definitely close off the arc satisfactorily because the audience does not enjoy being left hanging or being lied to.
In many ways I think that British drama is lagging American these days. While the Americans are getting over* the “serialisation is bad; episodic is good” mentality we in the UK still seem mired in it. Events happen in one episode have that have little or no impact in the next. The character beaten here is fresh into the battle there and doesn’t bear the scars (at least openly). This is disjointed and unrealistic storytelling.
So I think that no matter the story, no matter who you’re aiming your story at, you should treat them with the same level of respect. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that one audience deserves sub par storytelling because… that’s what that audience can handle. I think we should assume that the audience is demanding and engaged and the storyteller should rise to that challenge. The result can only be a good thing for everyone.
*Ok, this is only partly true but I think their top drawer drama is becoming far superior to ours.
This will be the first of a couple of posts covering a couple of the interesting short films I’ve found in the online archive of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB).
There’s something gloriously ominous about this animation. It has a colour-on-black design overlaid with a deadpan narration which adds up to a film with a remarkably dark tone. It also avoids the normal cliché of Also Sprach Zarathustra and instead offers a wonderful score by Eldon Rathburn.
As we journey through the solar system we see the construction of a space telescope (hubble?) watched over by an astronaut as his crewmate tumbles over and over in time to the music. In another scene we see a lander apparently orbit 1685 Toro. I should mention that despite what it says in the film Toro isn’t in fact our “second moon”. It’s actually an asteroid locked in a similar orbit to our own – something that dates the film. There are also several illustrations of the surfaces of the planets as observers imagined them at the time of the film’s production. There’s an almost science fiction quality to it.
Satellites of the Sun was originally intended as an update for the remarkable short film Universe (itself was a source for 2001: A Space Odyssey) and aimed at Canadian schools. However Sidney Goldsmith decided because of the work involved he would make something wholly original.
I’m glad he did. Watch the film and be chilled by the faceless astronauts while your mind expands to take in the immensity of our Solar System.
It’s (British) World Book day and my friend and author Caroline has published a list of books that shaped her as a child. It’s an intriguing list – especially as she’s Swedish – and I thought I would do my own. I wasn’t sure about her definition of childhood but she ended her list when she got to age 12.
Without further ado (and in no particular order) here’s mine.
Meg and Mog
Yes that’s right. When I was in my early single digits I loved Meg and Mog. In my primary school we had a book club and every month we were given a catalogue of cheap books that we could get our parents to buy. I remember a tearful Gav clutching this booklet and demanding more witches and cats!
The Animals of Farthing Wood
Another surprise entry for me. I remember reading this book (it’s the first in a series) when I was a kid and eh … being blown away. I remember it being a lot darker than the enjoyable TV show. I cried. I’ve never forgotten that I cried although I can’t remember why.
The Phantom Tollbooth
Norton Juster’s American classic. This book is funny, it’s smart and it’s thought provoking. Juster throws in a ton of complex concepts and he expects you to keep up. Read it as a child and love the story. Read it as an adult and marvel at how Juster did it. Some people say it’s “too old” for kids but quite honestly tell them to F— off. Kids will get it so trust them to do so.
Yeah yeah… The Hobbit. Everyone reads the Hobbit and yes I think it is a children’s classic but everyone seems to forget he wrote a lot of other stories. My mum read me the Hobbit when I was 4-5 but later I read Farmer Giles of Ham and Smith of Wooton Major (this one is hard going…) and others. These showed me that fantasy didn’t have to mean princess and dragons. It could be mythic.
King Solomons Mines
I get the impression that H Rider Haggard is slightly out of fashion. My mother gave me King Solomons Mines to read when I was about 8 and I lapped it up. There’s something … manly … about Alan Quatermain. His stories are ripping yarns with interesting characters and an exotic Africa that feels like it’s another world. True his attitudes on race would raise eyebrows these days but they are representative of their times. Haggard himself is far more sympathetic to other cultures and the female sex than most writers of that period. It’s been a long time since I read this novel and I think I’ll go back and read them again now.
I started reading Wells when I was about 9. My godmother gave me a collected edition that included his normal novels and also some that people don’t talk about. Wells was my first introduction to Science Fiction as a mode of writing that could be more than just an adventure story. The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds and The Time Machine remain stories that shaped my world view.
Biggles is a distinctly unfashionable character these days. Many of the attitudes apparent in the writing would, these days, be seen as “problematic” but that was the attitudes of the time. I loved these stories. I loved the WWI setting and the descriptions of dogfighting in the clouds over the trenches. One Biggles book (The Cruise of the Condor) also marks the first time I ever had a problem with what I was reading. I had a serious issue with use of the N word and 2 dimensional characterisations. The Germans are evil! The blacks are servile but (so long as they don’t challenge their masters) noble. I found it deeply unsettling. I stopped reading Biggles soon after. End of an era and probably marks the period where I stopped being a child and moved into adolescence.
The popular conception of fairy tales is that they are easy and nice. These aren’t – not if you think about the consequences. I have a very creepy volume of traditional folk tales. I also had an old copy of Grimms fairly tales.
Comics are also books so I am going to list a couple
I loved… no LOVED … these comics when I was a lad. I recently started buying the collected editions again. I admit I don’t find them as funny as I remembered but they are amusing. They’re enjoyable on a different level as a an adult the sly humour and satire is much more clear to me now. My mouth still waters when I think of wild boar and I blame Asterix!
Strictly speaking I’m not old enough to remember Eagle. I never bought it but I did inherit my dads Eagle annuals and it’s from these that I came across Dan Dare and the Mekon. That the classic British comic SF hero hasn’t been treated properly since the end of this comic is an absolute scandal. I loved the fine artwork and the stories. They’re quintessentially British tales with a distinctly post-war feel that hark to a Britain that had an eye to the future and wasn’t somehow obsessed with a halcyon past that never existed. More than that Eagle eventually gave us 2000ad.
Unfortunately I cannot show these books because my mother gave my original copies away when was at university. Seek them out for you and your children (careful with Biggles) and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Reading broadens the mind. Spending time in your imagination deepens your understanding of the world. When you read you pick up more than the words in the page. We shouldn’t need a World Book Day, encouraging your children to read should be obvious it should be natural. I hope this little list reaches out to someone and has a small impact of its own.
SF Author Ian Sales has published his parts 1 and 2 of his top 50 essential Science Fiction books in partnership with Jared Shurin and James Smythe. I read their lists with a great deal of interest and thought I’d offer my own top
25 27* essential reads. All picked from my head because I consistently recommend them. I think that in some fashion they illustrate some facet of the genre I really enjoy or I think is important. They also illustrate that Science Fiction is more than its detractors would have you believe. I didn’t deliberately miss out any big names these are just those that I think you should read if you have an interest in this sort of writing.
So here’s my list in alphabetical order:
- 1984 by George Orwell
I doubt any list could be written without this novel. Almost certainly gave me the world view I have today. Powerful, disturbing and bleak it’s no wonder this is one of the great 20th century novels.
- A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick
Let’s get something out of the way. Dick wasn’t as great an author as some revisionists would have you believe. This novel though is a masterpiece. It distils all of Dick’s obsessions into one great story about drugs, responsibility and the nature of reality.
- At the Mountains of Madness and other tales. by HP Lovecraft
Is this fantasy? First book on the list where I will ask that question. In later works Lovecraft became increasingly SF-ish and much less horror focused. He had a unique gift for conveying the un-knowable and I think this is his best collection.
- Babel-17 by Samuel R Delaney
Everyone will tell you “Dhalgren” is Delaney’s masterpiece but this is my personal favourite. It’s the book China Mieville wishes he’d written with Embassytown. Delaney explores the effect language has on our perceptions. If language is a construct of our mind is it possible that language could have some retroactive effect if it was constructed that way?
- Dune by Frank Herbert
A great book. A good story and a “how to” manual on world building.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
I wanted Bradbury on the list. I recommend his collected short stories as a separate project (so much to read) but I read this as a teen and it’s another book that informed my world view.
- Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
We learn the fate of a disabled man whose intelligence is broadened through intervention by scientists. Algernon is the mouse who they first try the procedure on. A great story and meditation on ethics. If you don’t cry there’s something wrong with you.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
A highly influential book. One of the first proto Science Fiction stories. Do I really need to say much more than read this book?
- Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
- Proto-Science Fiction and political satire. Forget the Bowdlerised edition and read the original. Masterful storytelling and thought-provoking. Amazing work – even now.
- Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Has there been a better comic novel which lampoons modern culture, Science Fiction, Cricket and Everything Else? I doubt it. Many people wish they had written this and only Douglas Adams managed it.
- I am Legend by Richard Matheson
Humanity has been infected with a disease which turns them into slathering vampires – except one man. And he’s decided to survive as long as he can.
- Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
It’s such a shame that Stapledon is largely forgotten these days. Between this and Starmaker he wrote some of the most intellectually rigorous early Science Fiction.
- Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
Part SF-part fantasy part deconstruction of Hindu myth (with a tiny swipe at Christianity for good measure). It’s a brilliant novel.
- Neuromancer by William Gibson
Gibson’s first great novel. It’s surprisingly short (and oddly dated) but still packs a lot of punch.
- Picnic by the Roadside by the Strugatsky brothers
I wanted at least one non-English book on this list and I decided on this. At some point Aliens have invaded the Earth. No one knows why and as suddenly as they arrived they left. Where they lived they left behind zones filled with mysterious objects and where the rules of physics seem to be slightly different. Stalkers make their money by retrieving this artefacts but at great personal risk … It’s a great book made into a great film and influenced a generation of Russian game programmers.
- Rendevouz with Rama by Arthur C Clarke
If we encountered an enigmatic starship passing through our solar system how would we react? Read on and find out.
- Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
The title is an allusion to the saying that everyone in the world could stand on the Isle of Wight. A great novel about the effects of over population which utilises a very strange collection of intersecting narratives and snippets of the culture it describes. It’s ambitious and long. Stick with it until the very end and you will be handsomely rewarded.
- The Aleph and other stories by Jorge Luis Borges**
I’m cheating by having this book on the list. I think Borges only ever wrote one story that bore any resemblance to actual Science Fiction – and he is more noted for his fantasies – but I wanted him on this list. His obsessions with time and the infinite, his playful creativity, his serious (very serious) skill with story telling should inform far more genre than it apparently does. His stories are also far less pretentious than you might think. I want people to read Borges!
- The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
John Wyndham’s famous novel about humanity surviving accidental blinding and the escape of the eponymous Triffids. I think it’s far bleaker than its cosy catastrophe appellation. A highly influential novel.
- The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Quite possibly one of the best novels about war and its effect on the individual. Our protagonist Mandela must deal with the effects of time dilation as he joins in an interstellar war. Every time he comes home her realises he understand less and less of this world. I doubt there’s a better parable of loneliness and alienation arising from conflict.
- The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
An excellent book about the fall and redemption of a man. Ignore the hokey and dated teleportation gimmick and revel in the story of a very disturbed individual. It’s also beautifully written.
- The War of the Worlds by HG Wells
It’s hard to pick which of Wells novels I think everyone should read. There’s more going on here than the alien invasion sub genre it helped spawn. Man’s powerlessness in the face of overwhelming force from indifferently malicious aliens is a parable we’d do well to heed.
- The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
I swithered over which of Moore’s works I preferred: this, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or V for Vendetta. In all of their own ways they are amazing. In the end I opted for Watchmen. The meta narrative, the critique of the ubermensh ideal of superheroes and … the storytelling (oh the story telling). It’s an amazing piece of work. Pay attention at the back this is great.
- Use of Weapons by Iain (M) Banks
The famous Iain Banks has written many books set in his Culture universe. His first SF novel Consider Phlebas is considered a classic but for my money this is a true a work of art. A tale of love and revenge it features interlocking narrative time streams that lead to a truly shocking denouement. Brilliant.
- Viriconium (SF masterworks) by M. John Harrison
Is this Science Fiction? Possibly. It’s certainly an amazing omnibus of 3 short story collections.
- Vurt by Jeff Noon
Manchester! Drugs! Sex! Alternative sub cultures! Amazing! Not actually my favourite Noon (but still very very very good) book but you have to read this one first before tackling his other work. It’s great news that he’s back writing books in the genre again.
Originally I said 25 but now I realise I listed 27…. because I can’t count.
Where are the women? I am painfully aware of the lack of women on this list. For example why no Le Guin, why no Atwood? For the former I just didn’t put her in because I made sacrifices to bring my list down to a quick 25. Read The Dispossessed and you won’t be disappointed. For the latter … well I’ve just never got on with her. I don’t know why. Maybe I need to grow up a little more? Maybe it was the preachy Hollywood film of the Handmaid’s tale. It’s hard to say. I have to admit that I’ve not read much female written SF and it’ something I’ve scratched my head over. Looking at my bookshelves I’ve got quite a few good female authored Fantasy novels I would recommend so why not the SF? I suspect that as I grew up I just wasn’t as aware of the female authors as I was the males.
Edit: Erk. Forgot Mary Shelley and Frankenstein which is a book everyone says you must read – added now. Few people mention The Last Man which is another I would certainly recommend. Also why no Verne? Good question. Mostly because I limited myself to 25.
I also think I could do the same for fantasy as SF but it would be difficult (much more difficult) to list decent fantasy of a quality sufficient I would deem them worthy of recommending. It’s a simple truth that there is much more mature, well written SF than Fantasy. Fantasy appeals to … well people looking for an escape to somewhere else where there are more certainties. If people think that SF is the refuge of the right wing libertarian then I shudder to think what those same people might think of the fantasy genre. Well there’s a discussion for another time…
25 27 due to time constraints. The list would be different where I to go for 50. I also decided that I didn’t have time to properly construct a list that covered the entire history of the genre (unlike the better informed writers that prompted me to create this list).
** I am self consciously aware how much I have cheated by having Borges on the list. It’s my “fan boy” choice. I am surprised that more SF&F readers haven’t read him as his writing has such heavy genre elements. Read the Aleph, the Immortal, The Other or even the Zahir and tell me that these aren’t great pieces of fantasy/horror or esoteric SF (stretching myself here quite a bit). If anyone involved in the SF genre ever reads this list they will probably tsk. But I don’t actually care – you should read him, have your mind blown and horizons shot out into space.
I previously mentioned that a small story (tiny in fact – it’s a piece of flash) was picked up by an anthology.
I travelled down to the Diamond Light Source Synchrotron to pick it up. It was a long way to go but worth it. The facility is literally amazing. It looks remarkably like a V mothership crashed in the Oxfordshire countryside.
Unfortunately I neglected to take any pictures while I was there but I am hoping that I can get some copies from the site office. There will be another update once I have them.
You can find Ariadne on page 16 of the Light Reading Anthology. But don’t stop there take the time to read some of the other submissions. I discovered that the illustration was used on the cover. Gosh. Colour me flattered.
Go ahead and read – those digital versions are all free.
ps. I am not sure if there’s going to be a print version. There was some talk of a PoD edition but I don’t have any information on that just now.
Remember, in space no one can hear you over eat!
The BBC are about to show the new Dirk Gently mini series (March 5th). I’m in two minds. While I was so looking forward to the pilot that some disappointment was inevitable I don’t think that excuses the production team any responsibility for the completely unfunny mess that we were given. On the other hand it IS Douglas Adams and it IS Dirk Gently. I hope that the rumours are true and that the writer has held back on most of the material for this series. Fingers crossed. I shall at least give it a go.
This blog post isn’t about my fingernail biting worry. Nor is it about my general contrariness. What I wanted to share is a set of YouTube links to a South Bank Show special dating back to the early 90s. It’s about the life and works of Douglas Adams.
Take a look at these:
I don’t particularly like Art shows. In the UK they tend towards either the rigidly conservative mainstream or the gloriously pretentious art world. There are exceptions. I used to watch the South Bank Show because there was normally something interesting on it. Looking at the links I have posted below it reminds me of a happier time in British broadcasting. This is an example of the ITV that gave us Spitting Image, World in Action and countless other works before it devolved into meaningless celebrity worship and soap operas.
Of course back then there were only 4 channels (and I dimly remember when there were only 3) but it’s disappointing to look back on ITV and see how good it used to be.
The Guardian runs a very good books podcast that I recommend listening to. They talk about all sort of literature and developments in the field and they’re not afraid to muck around in genre.
This week’s episode is particularly interesting as it features 2 of my favourite authors : Alistair Reynolds and Jeff Noon. Yes, that’s right Jeff speaks! I’m a bit of a fan (as anyone who has read this blog before will know) and his new novel sounds as trippy as you’d expect. Michael Moorcock also talks about his general disappointment with Science Fiction as it is now.
Lauren Beukes also features. Between her, District 9 and the well regarded Pumzi it looks like there’s a real renaissance in African Science Fiction at the moment. Even Reynolds latest book features a near future Africa.
What IS Flash Fiction?
When I started writing I was only dimly aware that Flash Fiction even existed. Over time I’ve read it a few times and I’ve always believed that it was any work that was less than 1000 words. It turns out that it’s anything under that limit, under 1500 words, under 75 or anything else in between – there’s no cast iron definition. In fact it’s whatever a writer says it is though the common consensus is that at 1500 words you should stop being coy, grow up and call it a short story.
I wasn’t even aware that some people could win a competition or earn a bit of extra cash with it, yet here I am on the long list for a small competition which means £50 and inclusion in an anthology. Voting closes on the 20th of January.
My story is Ariadne (by Gavin McMenemy) and you can read it (with voting instructions) here: Light Reading.
A little geeky diversion today… train times. Yes, one of us Brits favourite topics is whinging about the unreliability of our train network. Now there’s no excuse. You can use the excellent Traintimes.org.uk. If you live in London there’s even a live geographic map of the Tube Network. The site’s been around for a while but popped up in a discussion of London’s shiny new bus times predictor… something we in the frozen north have had for a long time now…
So, I’d like to welcome London to the 21st century. We’ve been wondering when you’d join the party.
No I am not a train geek.