Wednesday, 18 January 2017

In a Clarke Orbit

This year is the centenary of author, engineer and visionary Arthur C. Clarke, subject of an anniversarial appreciation in Nature by Andrew Robinson. My orbit intersected that of the great man on two occasions.

The first was in 1996 after I'd written a review in Nature on a truly dreadful popcorn movie called Independence Day. Why did movie-makers resort to such barrel-scrapings when so many great SF stories remained unfilmed, I asked? How about Clarke's Childhood's End, which starts in much the same way as Independence Day, with alien spacecraft hovering over Earth's cities, but goes on to be much more interesting? Clarke read the piece and faxed me a table listing all his novels, and when they had been optioned by film-makers. The only ones to get filmed were 2001: A Space Odyssey (and its sequelae), the irony being that 2001 started as a screenplay.

The second was three years later when I drew the short straw to start a new and temporary section of Nature called Futures in which we would run a few SF short stories to usher in the millennium. Like all temporary solutions, Futures has become a fixture, a firm favourite, and has even won an award. Back then, I wanted to start the series with the only SF writer I was sure everyone would have heard of ... Clarke responded to my request for a story by return. (You can read it in this anthology.)

It took a while to set up the new section, so Clarke's story (and, by then, those of several other writers)  had been waiting in the wings for some months before they hit the streets, as it were. In the interim I got the chance to attend a private view at the National Portrait Gallery in London in which the portraits of famous people would be exhibited alongside their subjects. Clarke was there and I got the chance to meet him. I remember that Clarke's first words, after I had introduced myself, were "when's my story going to be published?" That, and his broad Zummerzet accent, undimmed by decades of life in Sri Lanka.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

My Reads of 2016

This year I read 43 books - two more than last year - but looking back at the list I have to admit that my reading has veered somewhat to the lower brow. No major classics, no Dickens, no Iliads or Aeneids, unlike last time. My excuse is that I have been so busy writing my own book this year that reading has been for relief rather than improvement. In short, my requirement has been for Something Sensational to Read on the Train. So with no more ado here is my list of ten Reads of the Year, from tenth placed counting down to the winner, owning that such a list is always somewhat rough given the range of styles and genres. Having said that, a theme emerges, as you'll discover.

10. Andy Weir - The Martian
The book on which was based the engaging Magic Lantern Production, itself memorable for being a space flick without any kind of pretension. Well, the book is just the same. A feelgood read. Or, to be grammatical, a feelwell read. It's all about an astronaut stranded on Mars after his crew takes off without him by mistake; how he survives; and how the crew eventually returns to pick him up.

9. Bernard Cornwell - The Last Kingdom
I got into this after watching the Televisual Emission of the same name. It's a historical novel set in the ninth century tracing the story of a Saxon warrior called Uhtred, son of the Lord of the fortress of Bebbanburg (now Bamburgh Castle in Northumbria), who is betrayed and raised by Danes, and his long quest to retrieve his birthright. This is really an excuse to tell the story of how England was forged from a series of warring kingdoms. We get to know real people such as Alfred the Great and his family, his enemy Guthrum the Dane, and the mix of history and fiction is fascinating. There is a great deal of violence, sex, and violent sex, but unlike the lamentable Game of Thrones there is at least the background of actual history and some attempt at historical accuracy, though whether Alfred actually burned the cakes during his exile in the marshes of Somerset is conjectural. With or without cakes, life back then really was nasty, brutish and short. The possibility of death by disease or slaughter was never far away. Even the grandest mead halls were, by our standards, draughty outbuildings hardly fit for housing cattle. Literacy was rare. Window glass and interior plumbing were unimaginable luxuries. Women were marriageable at twelve and men who lived to see their fortieth birthday were old, and looked it. No wonder that people believed in all sorts of gods, and Uhtred admires the decaying ruins of Roman buildings. The Last Kingdom is in fact the first book in an entire series - Mrs Gee gave me most of it for Christmas last year, and the latest one, The Flame Bearer, for Christmas this year.

8. Alex Clare - He's Gone
It's always great to bruit forth the achievements of one's friends, and goodness, this one is some achievement. I've known the author for years, and that she was busy writing, and her debut is worth the wait (I interview her here.) It's a police procedural of an entirely new kind. The title has a double meaning. The case is of a small boy who has been abducted from a shopping centre. He's gone. But the detective is a man with gender dysphoria who has to live life as a woman for a year before undergoing surgery. He's gone, too, coming back to work as a She. One could see this as a rather extreme way of finding a detective with a tic we haven't seen before, but the subject is treated sensitively and in depth. Very highly recommended. Hopefully we'll be able to read more about D. I. Robyn Bailey and her adventures.

7. Sara Paretsky - Hardball 
While on the subject of female detectives, I've always enjoyed Sara Paretsky's novels about feisty feminist private detective V. I. Warshawski, who's been righting wrongs on the mean streets of the Windy City for many years. The novels are all the same, although the later ones are better written and raise wider social issues. In this one, set during the Obama presidency, Warshawski uncovers corruption in a political campaign that brings back bad memories of the freedom marches and race riots of the 1960s. But there are all the ingredients - Warshawski against the Man (always white and middle-aged) during which she gets seriously injured in feats of derring-do while neglecting the boring stake-outs and insurance scams whereby she is supposed to make her meager living. But most of all it's about Chicago, the first city in the United States I ever visited and for which I have a lingering affection.

6. C. J. Sansom - Lamentation
Like The Last Kingdom this is a historical novel and part of a series (and, like The Last Kingdom, Mrs Gee bought me the rest for Christmas, so expect a revisit in a year's time, if we're all still here.) The series stars a lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, through whose eyes we witness the comings and goings at the court of Henry VIII, and meet many of its movers and shakers such as Thomas Cromwell, Bishop Stephen Gardiner and Sir Richard Riche. Lamentation is the last in the series: Henry VIII is dying, and his queen, Catherine Parr, has mislaid a devotional work of her own devising that could get her into trouble with the religious authorities. The Queen charges Shardlake with finding it before news gets to the King. Unlike Uhtred of Bebbanburg or V. I. Warshawski, Shardlake solves problems with a legal mind rather than a sword called Serpent-Breath or a 9mm Smith & Wesson, but all have a certain cunning and all get into hair-raising and potentially lethal scrapes. I think I can detect a certain theme emerging in my reading.

5. Annie Proulx - The Shipping News
I'd read this a long time ago and enjoyed it, but had forgotten much of the plot by the time I picked up a secondhand copy. It's about a hopeless hack journalist called Quoyle who, deserted by his no-good wife, moves with his tough-talking aunt and two delinquent daughters from New York to Newfoundland, the stormy, fogbound country of his ancestors. It's a novel about self-discovery and redemption, and during the voyage we meet many comic characters and tragic stories until our boy finally comes out on top, gets the girl and lives happily after. But what is most captivating is the quality of the writing. A different kind of feelwell novel.

4. Neil Gaiman - The Ocean At The End Of The Lane
Like Alex Clare I can boast some slight acquaintance with the author (his kid sister was in my class at school when I was 14) but unlike Clare, Gaiman is hardly an author just starting out, but a colossus in the world of fantasy with films and TV adaptations in his train. He's even written an episode of Dr Who, which as far as I'm concerned has to be the apotheosis of anyone's zenith. And quite right too, for his blend of real life with the fantasy around its edges is never short of compelling. Whether mainly for kids or for grown-ups (Neverwhere to American Gods) Gaiman's work conceals a core of bowel-loosening terror in a wrapping that's fey on the surface, and so taps into the genuine spirit of fantastical fiction. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is set in the Sussex countryside where the author grew up (as did I - did I mention that I was in his sister's class at school?) and, for me, evoked buried memories of playing in fields and woods that could, in the half-light at the end of the day, and the corner of the eye, seem haunted with beings from an older world.

3. Mary Beard - SPQR 
Celebrity classicist Mary Beard presents her history of ancient Rome in an attempt to answer the question of why a small tribe on the coast of nowhere in particular managed to dominate the known world for a thousand years such that Uhtred of Bebbanburg could marvel at Hadrian's Wall and the clerics of Matthew Shardlake's time write regularly in its language. It's a good question, and the key seems to be delegation - the Romans crafted a society in which Roman citizenship was a goal worth attaining by anyone, the result being that the Romans, once they had conquered somewhere, largely encouraged the local population to do things for themselves, as long as they paid their taxes and enforced the Pax Romana. It's a model the British used in India, where the entire continent was ruled by a number of well-educated Britons that these days wouldn't be enough to run a biggish NHS hospital trust. Matters began to unravel in AD 212 when the Emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to just about everyone. And, like the man said, if everybody's somebody, then no-one's anybody. A pile-driving, thought-provoking read and, unusually, the only straight nonfiction of this year's list. 

2. Neal Stephenson - Quicksilver
From historical fiction to fantasy to real history to an audacious novel that plays with all three. Although I can say that the novel is stuffed with real people, from Isaac Newton to Louis XIV,  a young Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Pepys, William of Orange to Robert Hooke, I can't really say what it's about, except it's an extended and playful romp on the theme of the Enlightenment, and that I enjoyed every minute. Note - my edition is actually the first three novels of what is a much longer cycle: the rest are collected as The Confusion and The System Of The World, which I haven't read yet, and they are all meant to stand as a prequel to Cryptonomicon, which I haven't read either. Clearly. many boxes of delight await.

1. Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall
Perhaps given the theme of this year's collection it's fitting I close with a historical novel; one that's just one of two (the other is Bring Up The Bodies); set during the reign of Henry VIII; and which I first encountered as a marvelous TV adaptation. The novel is a fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from low beginnings to be the right hand man of Cardinal Wolsey and, eventually, the chief Man of Hench to Henry VIII himself. The two novels (Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies) are really the same story without a break, and conclude with the execution of Anne Boleyn. The style is confusing because although it's from Cromwell's point of view, much of which is an internal monologue, it's written in the third person so one must on occasionally backtrack and work out who said what. Having said all that the novel is gripping and edgy, and one gets a picture of what it must have been like to have to arrange matters to suit the changing whims of an absolute monarch at a time of religious confusion and dissent when a word out of line could mean a grisly death.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

First Draft Done!

It's been sixteen months of hard work, but I have - at last - submitted the first draft of the book I laughingly call Tropic of Chordates to the publisher, and a selection of beta readers. I'm not, as the late Douglas Adams, one to relish the sound of deadlines whizzing past my ears. I'm only about fifteen or twenty thousand words over the limit and not quite a month after the (original) deadline.

This was a book I didn't really want to write. It's on the same subject as this one, now more than twenty years adrift, and various academics had gently suggested my doing a new treatment. I had demurred as the subject is enormous, the range of scholarship required possibly beyond my grasp. But I had a willing publisher flushed with the modest success of an earlier effusion, willing to take on this new project on the basis of a proposal consisting of no more than a single sheet of bullet points, when a synopsis is usually a year of agonizingly hard work. I admit it, I was flattered. Though it's not as though I hadn't paid my dues in the meantime. After all, it takes twenty years of hard work to become an overnight sensation. And I'd run out of excuses.

Not to say I haven't enjoyed it. The subject has always enthralled me. I have received a great deal of encouragement, and I have learned a lot. I broke ground mid-August 2015 and drafted the first two chapters in a couple of weeks. After that it was a matter of slow and steady accretion of knowledge, pieced together, grain by grain. About three quarters of the way through I hit a patch where I felt I'd never finish, and if I did, I swore I'd never write anything again.

I managed to reach all but the concluding chapter just before I went to China at the end of November, and was sufficiently refreshed to get the draft done over the Yuletide break. I read through what I'd done - twice - made some notes, drew quite a lot of pictures, and finally pulled the last few pieces together. Of course, the typos rushed out of the woodwork as soon as I clicked 'submit', but this is only a draft, and I expect I'll be required to do quite a bit of edits before the final version is approved for the presses.

Then there are the proofs, the indexing and so on, and a fair bit of admin - and there will be another point in the process where I shall feel that a book, once started, never ends. But I shall think of that blessed day, still far-off, when a box of comp copies is couriered to my door, unbroken, and with the exquisite smell of brand new book.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Adventures of an Immovable Cultural Relic

In the course of my day job at the science journal Nature I had the good fortune to travel to China, where I visited laboratories and research institutes in Shanghai and Beijing. I LOVE China. The people always seem to be in a foam of quiet and confident business, yet always have time to be friendly and helpful. Oh yes, and there's the food.
Hotel Breakfast, Shanghai
During my visit I was able to give my talk on The Unknown. Here I am on the stump at a small public lecture in the Shanghai Natural History Museum.
Me. On the Stump. Picture by Piao Li.
This was the same talk I gave at the Bergamo Science Festival, but the subtitles are in Chinese (thanks to my colleague Piao Li). It says something about the education system of China that even though I gave the talk in English, it was followed by very many highly articulate and interesting questions from the audience - in English. For shame. And I only know four Chinese words. Given the importance of China on the world stage, Chinese should be mandatory in English schools.

As some of you know I founded the SF column Futures in Nature back in 1999, and published a best-of anthology Futures from Nature. The column was taken over by my colleague Colin Sullivan in 2012, and soon after we published a joint anthology, Futures2. We had been only dimly aware that these anthologies were being translated into Chinese, so I could only express surprise and delight that after my talk in Shanghai I was politely ambushed by two excited young editors from Shanghai Jiao Tong University Press, who gave me copies of the anthologies; interviewed me; got me to make a short video message to their readers, and had me sign some books (below). What it is to be famous. 
Me. Being Famous SF Anthologist. Pic by Piao Li.
I do apologize for the dearth of posts recently - unless, of course, you view my silence as a relief. Between my various adventures I have been working very hard on the draft of Across The Bridge. Well, it's nearly done. Before traveling to China I had drafted all but the final chapter and was able to read all of it while in transit. Now I am able to go through what I have written; edit to remove repetition and improve the structure; make notes for the final chapter, with a view to drafting it, and think about other things such as illustrations. I am hoping to do all this over the Christmas holidays.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Italy In Pictures

Last week I enjoyed a wonderful diversion. I had been invited to Italy, to speak at the Science Festival (the 14th) in the picturesque city of Bergamo, outside Milan.


  My host was Professor Telmo Pievani of the University of Padua ...


who as well as being a formidable scholar in his own right is also a translator - it was he who had translated my book The Accidental Species into Italian.


The lecture took place in the Teatro Donizetti - a grand old opera house named after Bergamo's favorite son. There I spoke to more than 600 people who'd actually paid for the privilege (there was a simultaneous translation into Italian.)



..... and afterwards I was interviewed for a piece in the Italian daily La Stampa.

After Bergamo came Padua, a city of breathtaking beauty ....


.... and, with one of the oldest universities in the world (est. 1222), a cradle of the Renaissance, attracting such luminaries as Galileo Galilei and William Harvey, and which, in 1678, graduated the first woman to obtain a doctoral degree in anything, anywhere in the world. I gave a lecture in the biology department, and with Professor Pievani and his wonderful students was shown the city, including the botanical garden, which among many other treasures features a palm tree studied by Goethe...

 
.... and the world's first anatomical dissection theatre, where Vesalius did his stuff.
 


A particular pleasure was visiting the Scrovegni chapel, decorated by Giotto between 1303 and 1305, that is, at least 711 years ago.  I'd last seen this as a schoolboy, in 1980, when the egg-tempera frescoes were a mere 675 years old. A particular highlight is this gruesome vision of Hell, which must have terrified the congregation.





Wednesday, 5 October 2016

To Dr & Mrs Gee's Dog

It's Heidi the dog's 9th birthday. To celebrate I have written her a poem (with profuse apologies to John Keats)


Dog! who hast passed thy grand climacteric
How many chairs and sofas hast in thy days
Destroyed? How many smelly socks stolen? Gaze
With those big round doggy eyes so brown, and lick
Thy tender parts, but prithee do not prick
Thy fierce teeth in my leg, and up-raise
Thy lusty bark, and tell me all thy frays
Of balls, soft-furnishings and crunchy stick.

Nay, not look down, and lick thy swollen wrists
For all thy dodgy hips, and for all
Thy knees are knackered, and though the paws
Of many a mog have given thee many a maul
Still is that fur as soft as when the surging sea
In youth thou first braved to chase that tennis ball.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Biology in Thirty Seconds

Those of a certain age will remember Monty Python's 'Summarise Proust in Fifteen Seconds contest. One feels that had they had thirty seconds the contestants might have succeeded. No such madeleines worries for 30-Second Biology, a handsome volume now available from all good emporia. Here is the copy the publishers kindly sent me yesterday.
A copy of 30-Second Biology, recently. The Python (Monty) is extra.

It's a compilation of fifty topics in biology, from Archaea to Genetics, Excretion to Phylogeny, always there when you want a brief exposition of some toothsome topic in biology. I can imagine it'll be handy for the GCSE or A-level student in your life. And the pictures are tremendous. Here is an inside spread.

I have to declare an interest here - I wrote twenty-two of the fifty topics, an exacting task that taught me the joys of brevity. Among the other contributors was my friend Mr B. C. of Swindon, who can only have been brought in to raise the tone, as he's a physicist. No matter. I commend this book to the house.