Thursday, January 29, 2015

Free Matter

For anyone who might be interested, there are eight of my short stories up on the web site.  Also: Jack Womack and I interview each other, some articles and reviews, two lists, and an autobiographical fragment.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


My first encounter with the internet was back in 1992, when the university I was working for gave all their teaching staff what was then a state-of-the-art Apple Macintosh with the Pine email client and the first a hard line to the JANET university network. About a year later, I found that one of the first commercial ISPs, Demon Internet, had a server node in Dundee, inside the local telephone area of my house. For ten pounds a month, I had a 56k dial-up connection, an email address (which I still use) and, a few years after that, a small tract of web space.

And so I began to build my first web site. It was pretty basic to begin with, and although it has evolved in fits and starts since then, it's still fairly simple. I picked up HTML pretty quickly, but fell behind the curve when frames, CSS coding and so on were introduced.  A few years ago, I pruned back a bunch of unwieldy links and tried to unify the appearance of the main pages, and then . . . well, I let it languish.

It hasn't been updated for three years. In that time I've published a new novel, a new short story collection, an omnibus edition of the Confluence trilogy, and a non-fiction book on Terry Gilliam's film Brazil. And in a few weeks I'll have a new novel out. So it's time to tidy up the web site yet again.

And here it is.

It's still very much a work in progress, and is still incredibly simple, but since all of my output is text-based it doesn't need much in the way of flash and filigree. At some point I'll introduce drop-down sub-menus and some kind of framing. And it might be a good idea to either port the entire thing over to WordPress, or bite the bullet and finally set up my own domain name, something I've never gotten around to because of a) free web hosting and b) the last time I looked, someone was still cybersquatting my name.
But at the moment I simply want to get the poor old thing up to date. I've just added a contact page, and a new free short story, and there are other changes on the way - especially to the section devoted to books in print. Any comments and suggestions welcome.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Machines Of Loving Grace

From Karel Čapek's play R.U.R., through Isaac Asimov's stories and novels revolving around his three laws, to William Gibson's Sprawl novels and the latest iterations of machine transcendence, science fiction has long explored existential questions about artifical intelligence. Can we construct a self-aware thinking machine that perfectly mimics human thought and affect? Would human-like machines actually be human, or would they develop their own agendas? So forth. In his film Ex Machina, writer/director Alex Garland merges this theme with the scientist-as-creator-god trope most famously embodied in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau. The resulting hybrid is a deft, tightly-plotted science-fiction thriller in which two geeks go head to head over a female android who not only appears to be self-aware, but may also be more cunning and manipulative than either of them.

It's mostly set in a modernist one-man research facility in an isolated estate in Alaska, where a young coder, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleason), arrives after winning a lottery that gives him face-time with the boss of his search-engine company, Nathan.  Played by the ever-versatile Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year) with a shaven head and hipster beard, Nathan embodies all the manic, macho, super-controlling vices of Silicon Valley's alpha-geekdom.  He gives Caleb a pass that allows him access only to certain areas of the house, and tells him that the lottery was a sham: he's actually been recruited to test Nathan's latest creation, Ava, an android that may or may not be self-aware enough to pass for human. With only the overbearing, manipulative Nathan and his silent servant/bed companion Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) for company, Caleb soon falls for the coolly sympathetic and beautiful Ava (Alicia Vikander), assumes the role of her white knight, and enters into a contest of wills over her freedom.

The film's examination of the nature of intelligence is capable rather than novel, but its story is furnished with cleverly unsettling twists and revelations, and there are some nice touches in the genesis of Ava - her silicon-sponge brain runs on data derived from Nathan's vast search engine, for instance, so that she embodies and has access to all of the desires and appetites of its users. And although she's the object of the contest between the two men, Alicia Vikander's delicately assertive portrayal of Ava steals the film. Moving with controlled and slightly inhuman grace, displaying unsettling sharp insights into human behaviour, Ava is an ethereal, poignant Miranda whose yearning for the whole wide world beyond the confines of her glass and concrete cage captures the sympathies of both naive Caleb and the audience.

Alicia Vikander's performance is aided by CGI that seamlessly marries flesh with plastic and metal, a terrific example of state-of-the art visual manipulation.  Given the ongoing difficulty of developing actual artificial intelligence, and recent advances in wearable virtual reality, perhaps the most pressing question technology presently poses is not how to spot machines passing for human, but how to distinguish illusion from the actual.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Another Advertisment For Myself

 I spent most of 2013 and a small chunk of 2014 thinking about and writing Something Coming Through; part of 2014 was also consumed by the processes that turn a manuscript into a book: editing, copy-editing and minutely inspecting proofs. And while I wrote and revised the first draft of a new book, the production and publishing process has been edging forward and suddenly, in less than a month, the thing itself will be in the shops. So it goes from the point of view of an author - slow, slow, quick, slow, and then the sudden birth.

Gollancz are offering a special price for the ebook: you can pre-order it right now from all UK sellers for £1.99. So why not take advantage of their reckless generosity?

Friday, January 09, 2015

Into The List

It's pointless, really, to argue with award shortlists. They are what they are; no amount of complaining will change them. And actually, the right of the first three films to be on the shortlist for the 2014 BAFTA Award for Best Film are hard to argue with:

BIRDMAN Alejandro G. Iñárritu, John Lesher, James W. Skotchdopole
BOYHOOD Richard Linklater, Cathleen Sutherland 
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson
THE IMITATION GAME Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky, Teddy Schwarzman
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce, Anthony McCarten

Birdman, Boyhood, and The Grand Budapest Hotel are all fine, innovative films in different ways, made by directors at the top of their game, and all feature great performances. I find it hard to choose between them frankly, but The Grand Budapest Hotel just edges ahead.

But then there are the other two films on the list, both dead straight British Heritage biopics. And both biopics about scientists, which is of course A Good Thing. There aren't enough. Actually, I liked The Theory Of Everything, which framed Stephen Hawking's work with the human story of his illness and fraying marriage (it was based on a book by his first wife). You came out of it with some understanding of his work, and how he achieved it. But you can't say the same for the Turing biopic, The Imitation Game. All fictionalised stories of real lives bend the truth, but The Imitation Game bends it more than most, and while there are good performances by Keira Knightly and Benedict Cumberbatch, the latter echoes his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. The superbright outsider, bemused by mere humans, isolated by his intellect - and, in Turing's case, by his sexuality, shown here to be as crippling as Hawking's amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Both have edged out far better films, notably another biopic, Mike Leigh's Mr Turner, with its terrific central performance by Timothy Spall. Under the Skin (up there with The Grand Budapest Hotel as far as I'm concerned) and '71 would also have been good choices for Best Film, but instead are relegated to the Outstanding British Film category. And then there are The Babadook, Blue Ruin, Calvary, Locke, Maps to the Stars, Nightcrawler . . .  2014 was a pretty good year for great films. Such a shame the BAFTA list includes two disappointingly safe middle-of-the-road choices instead.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015


Something Coming Through will be published in six weeks or so, and to celebrate my publishers have arranged a giveaway of ten copies over at Goodreads.

Meanwhile, here's how it begins:

1.  Just Another Snake Cult
London, July 2nd
Four days till she was due to appear before the parliamentary select committee, Chloe Millar couldn’t take it any more. The rehearsals and group exercises, the pre-exam nerves and pointless speculation, the third degree about the New Galactic Navy . . . No to all that business. She banged out of there and minicabbed it down the A13 to check out a lead in Dagenham. Traffic glittering in hot sunlight, factories, housing estates and big box retail outlets, sewage works and power stations. A glimpse of the Reef’s dark blister and the river beyond. A welling feeling of relief with an undercurrent of guilt that she tried to ignore.

The minicab was negotiating the Ripple Road junction when her phone rang. Jen Lovell, Disruption Theory’s office manager, wanting to know where she was and what she was up to.

‘I’m chasing a lead. A good one.’

’We’ve all had to give up our Saturdays. Even you, Chloe.’

‘There’s a cult. Definitely turned, about to break out. They announced it on Facebook, a public meeting supposed to start at one o’clock. I’m late, but these things never run to schedule. I won’t have missed anything important.’

‘Preparing for the select committee: that’s what’s important.’

‘They haven’t shut us down yet,’ Chloe said. She wasn’t going to feel guilty. She was doing her actual job. ‘It’s probably just another snake cult, but I can’t be certain until I see it in action.’

Her destination was a displaced-persons camp at the eastern edge of Old Dagenham Park. A row of single-storey prefab barracks and half a dozen L-shaped stacks of repurposed shipping containers, built a decade ago for refugees from flooding caused by climate change and rising sea levels, privately rented now.

Chloe found a bench in the shade of a gnarly old chestnut tree, ate chips out of a cardboard clamshell, and watched people gathering around a makeshift stage where a scrawny old geezer in tattered jeans and T-shirt was setting up a microphone stand and a stack of speakers. Young children ran about, transformed by face paint into rabbits and tigers. A pair of policewomen watched indulgently. They were wearing new-issue stab vests, spun from tough self-healing collagen derived from a species of colonial polyp that rafted on Hydrot’s world ocean. The Met’s logo stamped in dark blue on the pearlescent material. High above, an errant balloon bobbed on an uncertain breeze, a silvery heart blinking random Morse code in the hot sunlight.

It reminded Chloe of the music festival where she’d first been kissed, seriously kissed, by a boy whose name she’d forgotten. She’d been, what, fourteen. A late-starter, according to her mates. She remembered a Hindu procession that wound through the streets of Walthamstow to the temple each year: drummers, men with painted faces in fantastic costumes, men animating giant stick-puppets of gods and dragons. She remembered one Hallowe’en, the first after First Contact, when every other kid had dressed up as a Jackaroo avatar.

The geezer bent to the microphone, dreadlocks hanging around his face as he gave it the old one two one two. And a shadow fell across Chloe and someone said, ‘Give us a chip.’

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

That Was The Year That Was

A short, self-indulgent roundup of everything I published in 2014. Please bear with me. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

In February, the revised version of Confluence trilogy - Child of the River, Ancients of Days and Shrine of Stars - was republished in a fat omnibus of close to 1000 pages that included two related short stories. I think that the trilogy contains some of my best work, so I'm very pleased to see it back in print. The mass-market paperback will be published in August 2015.

The mass-market paperback of Evening's Empires, the last in the Quiet War series, was published in April.

I was a guest of Polcon 2014 in Bielsko-Biala, Poland, and of the Bucharest International Literary Festival in Romania.  The trips to Poland and Romania coincided with publication of Polish editions of The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun, and a Romanian translation of The Quiet War.

I was thrilled to be commissioned to write one of the British Film Institute's Film Classics books - a study of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. This was one of nine special editions on science-fiction films published in October as part of the BFI's season on science-fiction films, Days of Terror and Wonder, that's just ended. Writing it was a steep learning curve, and also something of a sprint. It was commissioned in January, and I turned in the final draft in May. So now I have an academic study complete with footnotes - more than a hundred of them - in my bibliography. And I was able to present Terry Gilliam with a copy.

Short Fiction
I published just one new short story this year -  'The Return of the King', in Zombie Apocalypse! Endgame (2014), the third in a series of linked portmanteau books edited by Stephen Jones. 'The Return of the King' closes out a story cycle that began with its heroine attempting to cure the heir to the crown of the effects of a zombie bite.

My short story 'Transitional Forms' was republished in Gardener Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction, 31st Annual Collection, 'The Man' was republished in Aliens: Recent Encounters, edited by Alex Dally MacFarlane, and a Spanish translation of 'The Choice' was published in Terra Nova 3. I was guest of honour at Fanasticon in Copenhagen, where the organisers published Under Mars, a collection of my short stories translated into Danish. Oh, and Italian translations of two of my short stories were published as a little ebook.

I didn't publish a new novel in 2014, but I did finish one and write the first draft of another. Something Coming Through will be published in the UK on February 19th 2015, and I'm currently working on a companion novel (a stand alone that shares the same future history, rather than a direct sequel), Into Everywhere. Both are about the effects of first contact with playfully enigmatic aliens, the Jackaroo, and the weird stuff left behind by former clients of the Jackaroo - about the uses we find for technology, and the uses technology finds for us.

A novelette, 'Planet of Fear', will be published in Old Venus, an anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, in March 2015. Also out sometime in 2015 should be 'Wild Honey', a story I wrote in November and sold to Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. Not a bad way to round off the year.

New Year's Resolution: write more short stories. And, as always, fail better.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

There Are Doors (22)

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Inevitable List

Ten of the novels I most enjoyed this year (a couple published in the UK in 2013 and one not out until next year, here, so it goes). Click to embiggen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

In Bucharest

Writing takes you to some odd places - a warrant sweep in a fleabag hotel in Portland, Oregon, for instance, or one of the store houses of the British Museum. And then there are conventions and literary festivals, like the one in Romania from which I've just returned.

The Bucharest International Literary Festival, small but lively and terrifically hospitable, was held in an arts club that, because smoking isn't banned in public places in Romania, had the authentic haze and tang of a bohemian intellectual gathering. Science fiction and fantasy are growing in popularity: a new publishing house, Paladin, run by Michael Haulica (who's also an author) is bringing out more than a dozen titles a year (The Quiet War was published this year). The SFF panel, the first in the festival's history, featuring Romanian authors Michael Haulica and Sebastian A. Corn, Richard Morgan and myself, attracted a pleasing large and attentive audience. There was also a fun evening at the British Council's library - you can find the video here.

Bucharest is a bustling, cosmopolitan city, and its fantastically eclectic architecture mixes Neo-Classical with Art Deco, Baroque, and much else. So it's a great city to wander through, with unexpected encounters with odd and lovely buildings.

Chestburster architecture - the National Architects Union Headquarters.

Kretzulescu Church, built in the Romanian Brâncovenesc style, 1720-1722.

The OTT French Baroque of Cantacuzino Palace.

Belle Epoque shopping arcade in Bucharest's Old Town.

Pleasing miscellany of vernacular buildings in the old town.

Spiked amongst the older buildings are steel and glass boxes in the bland international commercial style, many built immediately after the 1989 revolution, as well as huge Brutalist apartment blocks, some in a style inspired by Ceaușescu's visit to North Korea.

North Korean Brutalism.

Straightforward Brutalism.

Detail, cast-concrete lamp post.

Although outwardly prosperous, parts of the city are crumbling because of lack of public and private investment. The bright plate glass windows displaying luxury goods along the Calea Victoriei are overhung by the decrepit balconies of private flats; there are empty shops and derelict buildings in the city centre; on one main thoroughfare the pavement had been ripped up and work seemingly abandoned. Still, there's a definite buzz in the air. It's almost exactly twenty-five years after the revolution that toppled Nicolae Ceaușescu's Communist regime, and just a few weeks ago, in a hotly contested presidential election, the incumbent prime minister was defeated by an opposition candidate running on an anti-corruption ticket. Many Romanians are hoping this will be a hinge-point, a move away from a political system that has strong links with the country's old regime. I'd love to visit again, to see how things are changing and to take in much more of its deep and eclectic history.

The Memorial of Rebirth, Revolution Square.

Home made memorial to anti-communist fighters. The neo-Romanian University of Architecture is in the background.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Figures In A Landscape

Erik Wernquist's short film,Wanderers, is a simple idea beautifully executed. He's taken images from actual places in the Solar System, animated them in HD, and used a meditative piece from Carl Sagan as a voiceover. Like many science-fiction novelists, he's given a measure to the strange and sublime landscapes uncovered by robot explorers by adding human figures and human purpose. And because he's used many of the same images that inspired me, it's startlingly like the inside of my head when I was writing my novels The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun (and as a bonus the wing-suited flyers on Titan are straight out of Eternal Light). I can't stop watching it.

Monday, November 24, 2014

In Other Words

Received in the post: copies of a Spanish anthology, Terra Nova 3, which includes a translation of my story 'The Choice'. Which reminds me that Future Fiction has just published a little ebook containing Italian translations of two short stories of mine, 'Gene Wars' and 'Rocket Boy'.

The ebook is part of a series run by Italian SF writer Francesco Verso to promote science fiction in Italy, where it's very much a niche-clinging genre. No one involved in the series gets paid; any profits are ploughed back into the next book. There's also an English version.

And of course, there are a few other collections of my short stories on Kindle, including Little Machines, Stories from The Quiet War, and Life After Wartime.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

An American Story

'The great thing about Dylan is that he is such an American story, and such an American artist. He’s an American in a more important way than the Beatles or the Stones are British. He is so identifiably American—and this comes across very well in the movie, and I think it’s one of the most important things about the movie.'
Don DeLillo in conversation with Greil Marcus after a screening of Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home.
Bob Dylan is the golden thread that runs through my novel Cowboy Angels. He never appears: he's in the air: a ghost, a breath, a vibration. Cowboy Angels is about America's dreams of itself; one of its sources was Greil Marcus's The Invisible Republic, which was about Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes, and its relationship with what Marcus called the old, weird America. The country of dreams and myths recorded in old-time blues and country music before big-box retailers and Clear Channel and Fox News and the blipverts of the internet homogenised and leveled culture. I was lucky enough to live in America for a couple of years in the early 1980s, when the last traces of the old weird were still visible, if you knew where to look. That experience informed Cowboy Angels, where agents move through alternate versions of America in 1984, including our own, chasing dead men and deep conspiracies.

My publisher at the time tried to suppress the novel. Talking of conspiracies. It was a kind of cold-war paranoia thriller (it was structured as a thriller, at any rate), but it was also 'too science-fictiony' for their taste. It sprawled over their rigid notions of what genre boundaries should be, and what genre was supposed to do. I had to buy it back from them eventually, and was lucky enough to find a home for it elsewhere. It was published in 2007, four years after I wrote it, when talking of 'genre boundaries' already seemed so tired and old-fashioned - and how much more that seems now, when everything gleefully appropriates tropes from everything else without a thought of boundaries or obeisance to the keepers of the mirrors where alternate realities cross and mingle.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


 Image courtesy of ESA/ROSETTA/PHILAE/CIVA

Last week the European Space Agency landed a fridge-sized robot, Philae, on an actual comet. A tremendous and hugely exciting achievement that was compromised by the failure of various devices meant to firmly attach Philae to the surface, meaning that in the comet's vestigial gravity it bounced a couple of times and came to rest in a boulder field hard by the wall of a crater. With their lander stranded mostly in shadow and unable to top up its batteries with solar power, Philae's team raced to do as much science as possible, and in the last moments used Philae's hammer, drill and flexible landing legs to try to bounce it into sunlight. As of writing, it appears that Philae rotated by some 35 degrees but then ran out of power and is unlikely to awaken.

It's exactly the plot of those old pulp SF stories where a lone space adventurer tries to get herself into a jam using basic Newtonian physics - see, for instance, Isaac Asimov's 'Marooned off Vesta' or Poul Anderson's The Makeshift Rocket. And, substituting relativistic effects for Newtonian mechanics, it's also the crux of Interstellar, Christopher Nolan's blockbuster SF film I caught this week. Note - if you haven't seen it yet and intend to, SPOILERS AHEAD.

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former astronaut turned corn farmer who's so cool he doesn't have a first name. In the film's dystopian near future, corn is the last major crop plant: all others have succumbed to disease; Earth has been turned into a dust bowl by what can't be called climate change for US marketing reasons; billions have died but all the values of small-town America have survived. The story kicks off when Cooper's bright daughter helps him realize that a poltergeist in her bedroom is actually a manifestation of alien intelligence. Decoding a message transmitted using gravity points them towards a massive super-secret NASA base that apart from the lack of sharks with frikking lasers on their heads is exactly like a Bond villain's lair. It's run by Cooper's old mentor, Professor Brand (Nolan's favourite father figure, Michael Caine who basically plays the same role here that he did in Children of Men, but without being permanently stoned), who despite the urgency of the project hasn't bothered to track down NASA's best former astronaut.

Clunky exposition reveals that aliens have set a wormhole in orbit around Saturn. The wormhole leads to a dozen worlds in another galaxy that might be suitable for colonisation - it's too late to fix problems on Earth because corn is about to be blighted by a rust that will consume the nitrogen in the atmosphere or some such nonsense. A dozen astronauts have been sent out to explore those new worlds; none have returned. Now there's one last chance to check out the last best hope - three worlds orbiting a supermassive black hole. Naturally, because this is such a critical expedition, Cooper is at once appointed mission commander despite not having flown for many years (not seen is the astronaut who, after years of preparation has been bumped).

So it's off to the black hole via Saturn with Cooper in charge of a four-person crew, including Brand's daughter (Anne Hathaway), leaving grandpa John Lithgow to look after Cooper's daughter and son and the farm. And as soon as the mission transits through the black hole, needless to say, it's in deep trouble.

The outer space scenes are gorgeous (if you can, you should see it, as I did, in IMAX), there are some cool robots and space hardware, a credible attempt to render the inside of a five-dimensional tesseract, and a great score by Hans Zimmer, and McConaughey perfectly renders the laconic heroism of those who work at the bleeding-edge intersection of hardware, human endurance and orbital mechanics. As in his Batman films and Inception, Nolan develops a complex multistranded story (co-scripted with his brother) that climaxes in a deftly orchestrated concatenation of swift intercuts, and he makes the human stories of Cooper's long exile from those he loves the heart of a film that's heralded as cleaving closely to scientific realism. Unfortunately, as in those previous films, Interstellar also aims for profundity and falls far short, with characters uttering lines no human was meant to speak about love, like gravity, transcending time and space, a ludicrous fistfight on an ice planet, and scientific bloopers and a story stretched thin over huge plot holes. Those three planets are orbiting a black hole but possess light and a modicum of warmth that can't come from the black hole's accretion disc because it was that active it would also fry them with radiation; at one point for plot purposes an astronaut is left alone on a spaceship for 29 years and doesn't go crazy, kill himself, or run out of food, air and power; because the plot requires hands-on exploring, there are no probes like Philae, and communications are mysteriously flaky, but not so flaky that the explorers can't pinpoint the landing sites of their predecessors; the trick that Cooper uses to communicate with his daughter across years and light years echoes that used in Contact; and the film's big reveal has been used in countless SF stories and novels.

Despite many homages that stud it - the best being an inversion of that famous air lock scene - Interstellar is no 2001: A Space Odyssey (I'm really looking forward to watching a new 70 mm print of that at the end of the month). Frankly, it's much more like 2010. But despite its many flaws it is a big gorgeous SF epic, and for all its pretension, bombast and abrupt slides into silliness it does possess what so much so-called hard SF lacks: a raw bruised beating human heart. And the ending, which I'm not going to give away, is, like the ending of brave little Philae out there in the lonely dark, quiet and lovely and touching.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Becoming A Thing

In the post today: bound proofs of Something Coming Through. So now the book has moved from being an electronic file to an actual artifact. After all the necessary corrections and final adjustments have been made to the text, the book will enter the queue at the printers (and the system that converts manuscript files into ebooks) and at some point in the New Year finished copies will appear. Meanwhile, bound proofs will be sent out to reviewers and booksellers as part of the signalling process that something new is coming through. In its own small way this is part of that signalling process too.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Postcard, 1914

Sent by my grandfather to my grandmother, while he was in an army training camp, 1914. Here's the reverse:

Friday, November 07, 2014

Mr Turner, I Presume

In Mike Leigh's new biopic, we're given an idea of JMW Turner's priorities from the outset. After a brief scene that situates him as a remote figure studying a Dutch landscape, he returns to his house in London, where he gropes his compliant maid, reassures his father, who acts as his manservant, that he was a safe distance from a fatal explosion much in the news, and heads straight for the easel. Artists, eh? Selfish buggers.

The film stitches together vignettes from the final years of Turner's life, showing him producing a series of masterworks,visiting sponsors, at home in banter and rivalry of the Royal Academy, and gradually falling in love with the twice-widowed Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), the Margate landlady with whom he would live out his last years in Chelsea, growing ever more crankier and spurning his maid and his common law wife and daughters. Timothy Spall gives an award-winning performance of the artist as a huffing and grunting outsider with bulging eyes and pendulous lower lip. A lonely man armoured in gruff self-confidence, who only occasionally reveals his inner self - when he breaks down while sketching a prostitute after the death of his father, or the tenderness with which he sings, in a reverent but cracked baritone, his favourite Purcell aria.

There's no through plot, except that of Turner's increasing solitude and eccentricity as artistic fashion leaves him behind, he becomes, in the public eye, a caricature, and distances himself from almost everyone but his beloved Mrs Booth. You have to give yourself up to its flow, immerse yourself in its translucent depictions of English landscapes and riverlight. Leigh uses CGI to recreate the moment that Turner reproduced in The Fighting Temeraire, when a warship that fought at Trafalgar is towed down the Thames towards the breaker's yard. Turner's friends, out on the river with him in a skiff, remark on the end of an era; Turner is more interested in the steam tug towing the hulk, and sets it at the centre of his painting.

It's one of the moments when we are allowed a glimpse inside Turner's creative process. Otherwise, we see what he's sees, and see how he translates scenes onto the canvas, stabbing and sweeping with his brush, spitting on oils to make them flow into his great falls and flows of luminous colour, but the psychological process of creativity - of translation - remains unexplained. It's a romantic view of the creative genius: a remote, alien figure unable to form proper relationships because he is consumed by his art. But it's also how Turner happened to live his life, vividly captured in this long, meditative film, and beautifully shot by cinematographer Dick Pope in the style of Turner's paintings, full of misty white and gold. See it on the biggest screen you can find.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Book Birthday

Published today. Do try to avoid filing cabinets and misprints.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (17)

Chuck Palahniuk has a reputation as a high-concept satirist who unflinchingly explores extremes of human behaviour. Beautiful You, which takes aims amongst others things at every kind of feminism, chick-lit bonkbusters, consumer-society sex, and male fears of uncontrolled female sexuality, is definitely high-concept. But its satire falls woefully flat, and at times flirts a little too closely with misogyny.

Penny Harrigan, an ordinary and humble associate in a Manhattan law firm, and is wooed and won by billionaire C. Linus Maxwell. So far, so romance beach reading. But Maxwell has an ulterior motif: he wants to use Penny as a test-bed for his new range of sex toys, including Beautiful You, the ultimate in vibrators. After he dumps Penny, the Beautiful You range threatens to cause civilization to collapse as women abandon men and obsessively diddle themselves to death. Only Penny and a two-hundred-year-old sex guru can frustrate Maxwell's fiendish plans.

There's plenty of energy and invention in Palahniuk's apocalyptic vision. Women beg for batteries; sex toys are turned into weapons ('Flaming dildos continued to pelt down, dealing random death'); there's a vividly cartoonish climatic confrontation at a wedding. But as satire it's thin stuff. The characters are caricatures and mostly dislikable, the sex is graphically gynacological, but unlike, say, J.G. Ballard's clinical descriptions, it's also interminable, the sex guru seems to have wandered in from an unfinished Kurt Vonnegut novel, and the idea that women would become instant sex addicts is risible.

Straight men, frustrated and disenfranchised, turn into Paleolithic rapists, and the reaction of the gay community is summed up by a couple of joggers ('Let the gals have their fun!' 'I don't care of they never come back!'), but women come off far worse. Penny, about the only vaguely sympathetic character in this short novel, is a chick-lit cliche from the Mid-West caught between careerism and old-fashioned notions of marriage and family as she tries to make it in the carnivorous Big Apple, and despite some Learning and Growing she remains wedded to cliches of female fulfillment. The female autoerotic addicts are pitiable - Penny's mother is saved as if from substance abuse by the intervention of her husband and a male friend - and at every level female sexuality is shown to be determined by what men want and by their fear of losing control of it - let's not even get into the nanobot powered vagina lasers that update the concept of chastity belts. In short, nobody comes out of this well, including the author.

Friday, October 24, 2014



Down to the British Film Institute to see, as part of the BFI's celebration of science-fiction films, the premiere of what was billed as a Polish science-fiction movie filmed in Iceland, but which turned out to be something completely different. The European Space Agency commissioned director Tomek Bagiński to make a short SF film (link to YouTube because I can't embed it) to promote and celebrate the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The premiere was the unveiling of this hitherto secret project.

 A Master (Aiden Gillen) and Apprentice (Aisling Franciosi) in the art of world-shaping look back to the beginning of humanity's great expansion, and the first spacecraft to probe the mystery of the origin of the most essential element for life on Earth. It's a swift little parable, rich in CGI and making good use of Iceland's primordial terrain and some of the amazingly detailed images of the comet, and the fusion of SF speculation and an actual space mission is an interesting new direction. The showing of the film was followed by a presentation by some of the scientists involved, a short talk by science-fiction writer Alastair Reynolds, a brief panel discussion, and a reception where I was disappointed to discover that none of the drinks were fuming comet-wise.

At the end of the 'Making of...' featurette, one of the pixel wizards who helped make the film muses that it's odd that the fantastic achievement of catching up with a comet, following it as it plunges sunwards from beyond Jupiter's orbit, and attempting to set a small spacecraft on its surface, needs a piece of fiction to catch the public's imagination. But what the film does is, like all the best science fiction, attempts to give the science - the vast distances, the mathematically precise manoeuvres and the alien cometscapes - a human context. It's a bit of a stretch to imagine that up the line, people will look back and pinpoint this particular mission as the hinge-point (especially as the brave little lander won't attempt its risky drift to the comet's surface until November, but given the mission's ambition, and its success at turning science fiction into the actual, this little bit of hubris is forgivable. It would be interesting, though, to try to frame the mission to the comet in a mundane, contemporary setting, rather than the abstraction of a free-floating far future. Its discoveries are, after all, adding to knowledge and speculation and wonder about the origins of the solar system and life on Earth right here, right now.
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