Monday, 22 August 2016

The Accidental Species - in Chinese

Here is some news I have been sitting on for a little while, but can now announce: The Accidental Species is being translated into Chinese. No publication date, so far as I know, but I shall post updates as and when I get them. Intriguingly, reviews of the English-language edition have begun to appear in Chinese.

The Italian edition is already out, and plans are afoot for me to visit Italy this autumn to promote it, which should be lots of fun.

Foreign language editions are great. Apart from the fact that they introduce your work to an entirely new readership, they also earn money for almost zero effort. After all, the writing is already done, and the work falls to that rare and select individual, the professional translator. Although translation royalties are not enormous, they can, if one is lucky, be a nice source of almost-effort-free income.

I started to calculate how much J. K. Rowling must have accrued by this route alone, given that her seven Harry Potter books have been bestsellers practically everywhere, and translated into sixty-something languages ...but I gave up.

I know for a fact that her work exists in Chinese, if only from the reaction of a diminutive Chinese graduate student who met me once, and, aware of my Olympian frame, said one word - 'Hagrid!'

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Aliens On The Beach

Unable as I was to clear the early-morning fog from my brain, I took advantage of an early low tide and took the dogs to the beach at Trimingham, a few miles down the road from my home.

This is not a ctenophore. It is something else.
It's not uncommon to find a sea gooseberry or two washed up on the strandline. Sea gooseberries, formally known as Pleurobranchia, belong to a group of sea creatures called comb jellies or ctenophores, by virtue of the rows of cilia or 'combs' they use to swim through the water. When captured on film, they have an unearthly beauty. Washed up, they look like small blobs of jelly, their comb-rows faintly discernible.

This morning, though, there were dozens scattered like pearls along the shore, ranging in size from a pea to (indeed) a gooseberry. I have never seen a mass-stranding like this before. Sadly I didn't have my camera on me to take pictures - I returned to take the snaps you see here. I did manage to rescue a few. When cupped in a small amount of seawater you could just see their comb-rows flick to and fro.

A Fistful of Jellies

Pearls scattered along the shore

Ctenophores used to be grouped with cnidarians - stingers such as jellyfish and sea-anemones - such as this jellyfish I snapped in an aquarium in Las Vegas some years back.

But over the past few years zoologists have come to realize that ctenophores are different -- very different. Different enough to deserve their own separate major group, or phylum. When the first genome of a ctenophore was published (see also here) the difference widened into a chasm: ctenophores, it seems, do things differently not only from cnidarians, but from all other animals. Their nervous systems, for example, are constructed rather differently from those in any other animal, and it has been suggested that ctenophores represent a strain of evolution entirely distinct from that of any other animal. They are perhaps the closest things we have on Earth to aliens - in which case it was prescient of James Cameron to have made the undersea aliens in his magic-lantern production The Abyss (pictured here) look very much like ctenophores.

More recent work has cast doubt on some of these assertions, and broadened the argument to include other early-branching animals such as sponges. Once assumed to be primitively nerveless, it is possible that sponges once had nervous systems but lost them, making the position of ctenophores as merely aberrant rather than entirely distinct. Some researchers have lamented that these broad-brush ideas about evolution might be refined were zoologists to spend more time studying the basic biology, development and evolution of creatures usually left languishing in the more unread parts of zoology textbooks. If I were a young zoologist just starting out and wondering how to make my mark, I might well consider working on these beautiful, fascinating and enigmatic creatures - for much of what I find is likely to be entirely new, possibly unexpected, and might even yield clues to the deeper secrets of animal evolution.

Oh, by the way, books I have read since my last literary update include At Home and The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson; The Garden by Chaz Brenchley and Dr Mütter's Marvels by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz. I'm currently reading SPQR by Mary Beard.

Monday, 27 June 2016

A Piece of Work

Some time ago the Ivy Press asked me to write copy for an intriguing book called 30-Second Biology, which I see is now available for pre-order. I wrote quite a large fraction of it (almost half).

The task was rather like Monty Python's notorious 'Summarise Proust in 15 Seconds' competition - one had to distil the absolute essentials of vast subjects (such as evolution, sexual selection, neurons, plants, bacteria) into a readable nugget no more than about 160 words long.

It was a tough assignment but intensely enjoyable, I had to revisit skills I'd acquired long ago writing press releases about complicated science that were succinct, accurate, and in language that non-specialist journalists could understand.

It also brought back to me the jewel-like shine of a perfect paragraph honed down to the irreducible minimum, where choice of words is vital, and one has to make hard decisions about which concepts must be developed, and those that can be safely left out.

When giving seminars to would-be science writers, my advice has always been to go read the works of people who could really write; and my choice has always veered towards the early nineteenth century when people still spoke the kind of English that Shakespeare might have understood, but sufficiently modern for us to enjoy without a dictionary - and which had yet to run into the slough of prolixity that characterises much later nineteenth-century prose.

My picks are always honed down to the novels of Jane Austen, and the poems of John Keats. These were writers who could express entire universes of thought in one well-crafted sentence. It might seem odd, perverse even, for a science writer to seek inspiration from Emma, or Ode to a Nightingale - but I nevertheless cite these as masterpieces not just of elegance, beauty, craft and line, but of brevity.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Keep It Simple

Here is a witty and possibly Einsteinian apothegm that got stuck to my shoes while I was out on Twitter this morning. When I got home I peeled it off and this is what I found (I quote from memory)


I've found this to be devastatingly true while slogging away at Across The Bridge: Understanding Vertebrate Origins. I have also found it to be related to the quip attributed to Mark Twain, viz and to whit

I'm writing you a long letter as I haven't the time to write you a short one.

So there I was trying to write about Spemann's Organizer (no, you look it up), writing bits and pieces down while reading and making notes from various ancient grimoires, Akkadian clay tablets, Pictish runestones and other research materials. The result was the accumulation of a large pile of literary sludge: incoherent, at times self-contradictory and far too long. It took quite a bit of editing and further recourse to aforementioned grimoires, tablets and runestones before I got it into decent shape.

A little further on I found myself writing about somitogenesis, the process in the embryogeny of vertebrates (you too) whereby unblemished sheets of tissue are divided into compartments called somites. This time I read and re-read the grimoires etc etc before writing down anything more than a sketch of the argument, and, presto, it came out, as Thornton Wilder had one of his characters say in Our Town, like silk off a spool. Much shorter, more intelligible and I hope more comprehensible to the naive reader. Anyone who comes away from my piece on somitogenesis without at least grasping the essentials is in all likelihood antisomitic.

The next section was about the supposed division of the vertebrate head into discrete segments, a topic that's generated a great deal of heat since the days of Goethe. Luckily I had to hand some of the most up-to-date grimoires written by colleagues whose views leaned either this way or that (it's still a heated debate) - read and inwardly digested for some while - and the text more or less wrote itself.

All of which shows, I think, that simple, clear understanding relies on a wealth of preparation. As someone else said, all my witty and spontaneous one-liners are carefully rehearsed beforehand: or, that it takes years and years of hard work to become an overnight sensation.

Sunday, 15 May 2016


I wrote somewhere or other that there is no surer admission that one's ambition to be a writer is failing than an unattended blog. To which I'd like to add this mitigating if belated circumstance - unless one is too busy writing something else.

Much of what might otherwise have been on my blog has occurred via social media. And I have been busy writing Across The Bridge: Understanding the Origin of Vertebrates.

When I write a long, solo work I usually get to about 25,000 words into the draft when I find that picking away at evenings or weekends or when the rest of the family is watching The X-crement Factor is simply not enough. I have to take two weeks off and write as a job. Nine to five, with an hour off for lunch. That's usually enough to break the book and get a good way more than halfway.

Across The Bridge is a rather different kind of book from anything I have tried before - or at least, not for the past twenty years or so. It's not a popular science book, and it's not a novel. It's more of a specialist textbook, designed for the advanced-undergraduate or graduate-seminar market. Such books rarely admit to the easy flow of text. Writing is more of a slow construction, grain by grain, with each statement backed up by references. I'd got up to 49,000 words of occasional scribbling when I decided that I needed that fortnight of immersion - but even then, about 8,000 of the words were in the references.

At the end of the fortnight I've reached a shade under 65,000 words, of which about 12,500 are in the 500-plus references - and I'm still perhaps a little more than halfway done. The work was so intense that I couldn't write more than three or four hours in any given day. I'd manage 1,300 decent words on a good day. On one day my word count actually reduced as I found myself cutting material I'd written the day before that seemed too detailed and confusing - at least, to me. I reckon the work will top out at 100,000 words, and will need to be cut back to 80,000, as the contract specifies, by the time the deadline comes around, on 1 December. Some of the cutting will have to be as neat as that of any brain surgeon as I seek and hopefully resolve contradictory statements in the text, caused by consulting works of different ages. Science, you see, doesn't stand still.

Still, no artwork.

Still, haven't sent anything to beta-readers.

I am sure I achieved quite a bit on my fortnight off, but the downside was that it almost drove me round the bend. Back to occasional hunt-and-peck for now, but with that deadline looming.

As well as writing, I have been reading. Since I last checked in I have read Ringworld by Larry Niven; Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds; The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman; Landline by Rainbow Rowell and At Home by Bill Bryson. Of that bunch the Gaiman title stands way above the rest.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Music of the Night

Daniel Levitin started life as a musician and a recording engineer and through slow degrees (did you see what I did there?) became a neuroscientist interested in how the brain processes music. In This Is Your Brain On Music he goes into the neuroscience of music in great depth, coming to the conclusion that music fulfils a basic social function in human society and is connected with sexual selection. Our perception of rhythms, and how the motor areas of our brains are, to everyone’s surprise, linked with parts more connected with emotion, lend weight to the view that music was once inseparable from dancing, and that both fulfilled a need for sexual display.

Some thinkers about thought, notably Steven Pinker, has dismissed music as ‘cheesecake’, a kind of fluffy accessory to language that came along for the ride, but to anyone who has been a scientist as well as a musician will know that some of our fellow weekend warriors – especially guitarists and singers – got into music specifically because being in a band made you more attractive to the opposite sex. Being articulate had very little to do with it.

I’d have liked to have seen more exploration of the social side of music, and rather less of the neuroscience, which can be heavy going despite Levitin’s enthusiasm. Cheesecake is meant to be light and airy, and not rest at the pit of one’s stomach like so much stodge.

It’s rare to find a book that’s been so improved by a televisual adaptation that one should go for the TV version and ignore the book, but I think I have found an example.

I was impelled to read The Night Manager by John Le Carré after having enjoyed the recent BBC television production. The story starts with one Jonathan Pine, ex-soldier and now Night Manager in a luxury hotel. He finds himself in possession of documents showing that multibillionaire entrepreneur Richard Roper not only dabbles in the arms trade, but he’s in it up to his neck. Passing the documents on to British Intelligence results in the murder of the woman he loves, and a long series of events in which as part of an elaborate sting he becomes Roper’s chief Man of Hench and yet despite himself (and against orders) irresistibly attracted to Roper’s girlfriend. Behind the scenes we see Pine's handler, the bluff secret agent in charge of enforcement fighting against the Whitehall Mandarins secretly on Roper’s payroll.

The book is set in the 1990s and is all about Colombian drug cartels; although Pine gets the girl the ending is flaccid and sappy, and the villain sails on unaffected. The TV version, however, is updated to the modern Middle-East, adds a snappy double-bluff, and the bad guys get the comeuppance they deserve.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Mythago and the Martian

Two very quick reviews here, of two very quick books.

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock is a fantasy very much in the British twentieth-century tradition. Despite having been published in the 1980s, it is curiously old-fashioned. It reminded me of Alan Garner (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen) and Philippa Pearce (Tom's Midnight Garden). Indeed, there seems to be a strain of English fantasy fiction in which an author (or protagonist) scarred by war or deprivation finds that the walls between contemporary Britain and ancient myth become so thin that in places they wear out altogether - from C. S. Lewis and Narnia right up books such as the excellent Bone Jack by Sara Crowe. Such stories are deeply dyed with a sense of place.

In Mythago Wood it is a stretch of ancient woodland in Herefordshire that has unaccountably fallen from the notice of map-makers and generates mythic archetypes ('mythagos') to haunt the lives of anyone who ventures inside. Steven, a veteran of the Second World War, comes home to Oak Lodge - on the edge of the wood - to find his brother Christian curiously agitated. Both have been raised, or not, as the case may be, by a father, now dead, who had been obsessed with the woodland. Christian disappears into the wood for months at a time, but comes back aged in years. Various mythic figures from Robin Hood to the Green Man pop up, with variously disastrous consequences. Mythago Wood is like a black hole in reverse in that the closer you get to the singularity, time speeds up. Without giving too much away, Steve follows Christian into the wood, and then one damn thing happens after another.

I am afraid to say I didn't share the enthusiasm of those friends who'd recommended it to me. Although some of the writing shone (especially the description of smells, something that's hard to achieve) the story seemed derivative, and is the case with much of the fantasy I come across, events and their causes seemed arbitrary. That, and I can't take seriously a hero called Steve.

In fantasy you can make stuff up by waving a wand. Not so hard SF, where everything that happens should have a scientific basis. In which case, the hardest of all the hard SF I've read in a long while is The Martian by Andy Weir.

Set sometime in the near future, astronaut Mark Watney is on the surface of Mars with his crewmates from the NASA Ares 3 mission when a dust storm blows up. The astronauts have to leave in a hurry but Watney doesn't make it and the crew assumes he's dead. He isn't, of course - and the rest of the novel is the story of how he survives and is eventually rescued. The story is mostly told in the form of Watney's journal entries, in which he sets out in great detail and with amazing good humor how he survives and copes with the various mishaps he encounters on the way. There is very little standing and staring, less philosophizing, and of purple prose none at all. If The Martian is about anything, it's about the persistence of human resilience through keeping a cool head and the appliance of science.

I came across The Martian first in the form of the derived magic lantern production, and found it to be that rare and refereshing beast - a thoroughly enjoyable and realistic space movie that takes the 'pre' out of 'pretention.' The book is the same, though of course you get to pore over every watt, joule, amp, thrust vector and calorie Watney has to account for as if it's a matter of life and death, which of course, it is. And 'yay' for duct tape.