Friday, 12 December 2014


Splitty wardrobe robot to the rescue

Interstellar very nearly passed me by. I found the trailer a little dry, and wasn’t that attracted by the cast. Still, I found myself ejected from the office at 4PM on a Thursday, and having nothing better to do I thought I would check it out before it disappeared from screens.

I saw it at the Waterloo IMAX – which I have been meaning to visit since they were building the thing – and had a pleasing experience. Prior to the show a cinema official stepped out front with a microphone to boast about his whopping screen. It’s the largest in Britain he said, and though we were watching a digital projection instead of film, we should be assured his digital team was among the best in the world. I liked them taking pride in their kit – it helped create a sense of occasion.

Anyway, some thoughts:


For a starving world, Interstellar’s United States is a very calm place. Its people are quietly dignified, indomitable farmers, fleeing a future dustbowl in SUV jalopies. Their plight is briefly noted but not investigated, as this film isn’t here to talk about the perils future Oakies might face on their travels across the blighted Earth – whether prejudice, starvation, or violence. Hints are made about the country having emerged from a period of conflict, but you see little trace of that.

The film whispers something about the wasteful old materialistic society that created the new wasteland, and wants to condemn its profligacy - yet propagates tossing away an entire planet as the solution. There is also no discussion of how man will treat its new home planet once established. It would have been nice if someone suggested that, in leaving Earth, we might want also want to leave behind the rampant capitalism that caused all this… but I guess that would be too un-American.


The film’s experience is wholly American, and that is a little strange for a film about humankind taking an evolutionary step. The existence of other nations is only acknowledged when Cooper chases an Indian Air Force drone through a cornfield. That whole sequence reeks of an America that feels reduced, or slighted:  a world in which India can spy on the US is a world gone mad, and one that must be left behind.

But really, are we going to beat up Nolan for producing an entirely American fantasy? In some ways it’s a good thing – at least there is no drunken cosmonaut comedy relief, or token references to destroyed foreign nations. And what’s wrong with suggesting that a reawakening of the pioneer spirit might be a good direction for American ambition, now that the superpower thing is ebbing away?


Trouble is, pioneers tend to impose themselves on new worlds, as opposed to integrate. And so it is with Interstellar: here the plan for man’s great leap forward seems to be: transplant America to a place where people can’t hurt it, then reset and carry on playing baseball.

The colonisation of space doesn’t really change man – the film loves relativity and has fun with it, but can’t escape the pull of the (very familiar) father/daughter reconciliation story at its core –so it doesn’t get to explore any of the outer reaches that you find in great science fiction literature.

I could moan about all the wonderful books there are out there which have far more interesting things to say– but a part of me knows that Hollywood simply can’t work with those kind of materials. If Universal tried to make Revelation Space they’d almost certainly bugger it up - probably by dumbly tacking on a 'relatable' father daughter narrative. This at least is built on a Hollywood premise, and feels solid enough as a result.

Down to Earth:

In the end, I have to admit that all these thoughts came to me after watching the film – seated in the cinema I was with Interstellar, heart and soul. Despite all the questions, or maybe because of them, it’s an excellent production.

The design is superb. I am a particular fan of the splitting wardrobe robots, and each world is brilliantly realised. The action sequences are astonishing – the 'crazy Damon' hatch blow-out, and subsequent spinning dock sequence, drops the jaw.

Overall it is the best Nolan could have produced within the constraints of what seems like an increasingly conservative studio system. If it gets a few of us looking up from our phones to the stars, that can only be a good thing.

And if it does leave me with an itch, a sense that there are better stories in science fiction literature, why moan? Better to go to the bookshelves, select some likely looking treats, and accept that there are some things Hollywood won’t ever do as well as the written word.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Barricade in August: #nineworlds #gollanczfest, #loncon3 and all...

Caption competition!

Now that my holidays are done I thought I’d document a few thoughts about the conventions that packed out my August - one particular ten day stretch involved Nineworlds, Fantasy in the Court, Gollanczfest, and Worldcon. It was exhausting and tremendous fun in equal measure, and I wanted to get a few thoughts down about it before it fades from memory.

Love the total strangers

I’m easily intimidated by large crowds and remain a shocking networker, so I approached the conventions with some trepidation. However, I’m glad to report that I did fine - simply by settling my nerves with an early pint, mooching about and letting the event bump into me. I had some brilliant conversations with complete strangers, on subjects as varied as the ugliness of Athens to the merits of safari jackets.

Curiously the spirit of the genre seemed to travel with me, out of the conventions and into the city. I departed Nineworlds early one evening to attend a leaving do at H’s office. I was reluctant to go, but ended up having a very stimulating exchange with a stranger at the party. It turned out she was a massive Asimov fan, and she told me all about the Black Widower stories, which I had never heard of before.

On another late-night tube journey I was accosted by a fashionable group of 20 somethings, fresh from some club or other. They were seeking nothing more than a friendly chat and, being pleasantly juiced, I was happy to oblige. I soon discovered that one of them was working on Star Wars Episode VII - I had a fascinating talk with him about the production. If I could remember any of it I’d tell you.

Watch rocket scientists

I missed out on a lot of Worldcon panels due to overcrowding, but I really enjoyed the BIS (British Interplanetary Society) events I attended. It’s refreshing to hear a succession of brainiacs spell out how very doable expansion into space actually is, even if the species remains depressingly noncommittal. On the other hand, there is a dark side to these speakers.

One in particular caught my attention. He was advocating human expansion into the asteroid belt, and he’d come packing statistics: 380 trillion terrawatts of energy produced by the Sun, 1000 years of extraterrestrial travel made possible by harnessing that energy, the asteroid belt’s potential to house 100 times the Earth’s population. These were seductive, awe-inspiring numbers.

But then I wondered: did he have any figures which predicted how many people might perish in the construction of his asteroid belt utopia? I don’t believe he’d care if he had. To him all that mattered was the space faring society his numbers made possible. All other considerations, particularly environmentalism, were condemned as small-minded horseshit. I think he would happily obliterate the Earth personally if it meant hurrying humanity into space. It was fascinating and kind of funny listening to him, but a little chilling too.

Pity the death weasel

So I’ll come out and say it: I kind of hate the Excel Centre. I’m not having a go at Worldcon organisers, they had to choose from what I imagine is a limited and super-pricey list of London venues. But I have always found the place enervating. I first went there to watch Olympic table tennis and everything about that charmless box made me want to escape.

Panels often took place in hot, packed, windowless rooms. I had my first moderation job in one of the smaller spaces, and it got off to a shaky start when our flustered sound guy announced: “only one of the mics works. You’ll have to move it up and down,” then buggered off at speed before we could protest. We might have been OK, but the moment we started speaking a persistent, incredibly irritating noise filled the room. I can only describe it as like someone sawing a weasel in half. It drove audience and panel to distraction - until we figured out we could stop it by switching off our mics. We had to yell our way through the rest of the event.

Aggravating this stifling atmosphere are a lot of overpriced, soulless food outlets, and the location - which is somewhere around the arse-end of nowhere – so there’s no local area to adjourn for half an hour.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time at Worldcon and I was privileged to moderate my SciFi comics panel with Scott Edelman, Phil Foglio and others. I’ll also bet that every venue has its bad points - but those Excel mic weasels can really try your patience.

Know your fellow debuts 

One of the pleasures of Crazy August was the opportunity to meet Anna and John, the two US debuts published by Gollancz this year. They were two more impressive, friendly people to add to Ed Cox and Den Patrick and it was a great opportunity to build on our excellent “Class of 2014” camaraderie.

Gollancz did an excellent job of bringing debuts together at panels and events. Meeting them provided me with some useful perspective on my experience (Holy shit, Anna is 17? I couldn’t tie my shoelaces at 17!) and has given me a group of Fantasy authors to introduce me to the genre (being almost solely a scifi reader until this year).

I have only read Den’s novel (the Boy with The Procelain Blade) so far, while H has read the Seventh Miss Hatfield, but we’ll get through the lot soon. You should too. More details here.

Share it all with your love

I wouldn’t have got through the many parties, and all the associated drinking, without the balance and joyful presence of H. People love her. One Gollancz debut approached me one night specifically to tell me that: “Dude, your wife is an absolute fucking delight”. And so she is.

It makes these things so much more fun when she’s there to share in the experience. Being published for the first time feels unique, with all the good and the bad, and it’s been a heady delight to have H by my side throughout.

She has thrown herself into the deep end of SFF, ploughing through genre novels, tweeting the good and the great for all she’s worth and attending what events she can. That kind of support is worth its weight in gold, and it would have been much tougher without it.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

I went to see this on Wednesday night in my local Odeon, an Art Deco George Coles design that was brutally chopped in the 70s to permit the installation of two smaller screens. This has made the beautiful main cinema a balcony-only affair, which means the audience endures odd, echoing acoustics and the sense of being very far away from the film. Luckily this time I got screen 3, which was cosy and nearly empty. So, the movie…

1. The jokes:

The film is pitched as a comedy/scifi, which is a nice idea, but it's hit and miss stuff. The best comic actor in the cast, Peter Serafinowicz, is criminally underused, and while the script isn’t bad, but it’s not great either. It just illustrates that it's hard to get consistent laughs in films, doubly so when your lead has to interact with CGI characters. Making jokes snap and pop when interacting with a racoon stand-in on a green screen backdrop must be HARD. Still, kudos for trying.

2. The cast:

Are good. Pratt, Saldana and the Diesel/ Cooper voiced characters all do fine, and although the movie is in such a rush it kind of misses setting up the group properly, the emphasis on friendship is something I like. The raccoon is probably the best-rounded character, both Pratt and Saldana developed little further than nods to tragic background tales. Still, it’s surprising how well they fit as a group and how much more likable they are for their light-touch bickering. The supporting cast of Rooker, Hounsou and Gillan are all nice picks. I only felt a little sorry for the villain, who had no good lines at all.

3. The music:

Falls weirdly flat – or at least it did for me. I am a massive fan of the songs in the soundtrack, yet to me they added little to the film. They didn’t generate goosebumps and they didn’t make me smile. I don’t know, maybe it was the sound system in screen 3. In the end I think that it all felt a little tacked on. Perhaps that’s harsh, but I do prefer Luc Besson’s approach in the Fifth Element, where a riot of spliced world music helped create something that felt really new.

4. The Galaxy:

Overall this galaxy looks pretty good – the hollowed out space head was nice to see, and I enjoyed Star Lord’s time residue device, which scans ghostly echoes of the dead in a ruined city. One setting that's a bit of a letdown is the home world, which ends up looking like any spick-and span Star Trek city - but the only real niggle is that it feels like they missed a trick with Star Lord’s ship. Couldn’t they have designed him something with a touch more personality?

5. The emotion:

One moment in the movie, shared between a tree-creature and talking raccoon, choked me up good and proper. I didn't see that coming. Starlord’s childhood trauma had no effect. Go figure.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Outlander (2008)

1. Looker

Outlander (2008) is the first movie I watched on my brand, spanking new telly. I chose it despite a clutch of poor reviews, because it seemed to be about Vikings fighting an alien monster. What, I wondered, is not to like? It turned out to be well worthy of an HD screen - the scenery and sets are gorgeous, cinematographer Pierre Gill doing grand work. There's striking imagery throughout, including a huge, picked whale carcass in a sacked village, and a monster which is a very decent effort for a movie of this size. 

2. Crasher

Ah, films that start with crashing space ships. Pitch Black, Alien 3 - and Outlander. I am a simple enough creature and I have to confess that any movie opening with such a scene will need to work hard to lose me. Good casting helps too, and this was no slouch, with John Hurt as a pigtailed Chieftain (always good) and Sophia Myles doing a decent turn as his warrior daughter. However, any film that casts Ron Pearlman as a rival Chief, then does absolutely nothing with him, is going to frustrate me. 

3. Portrayer

After the Pearlman madness my mind wandered a bit and I started to think about the way Vikings are depicted in the movie. I really enjoyed the shields game sequence - second and final element in our hero's acceptance into Viking culture, after slaying a bear. But the Viking warriors reminded me of Costner-esque Merry Men or Jackson's Gimli - gruff with hearts of gold. I know academics frown upon portrayals of Vikings as rampaging savages - but might it have worked here? Could it have been interesting to have the hero caught between two breeds of beast, as opposed to protecting noble primitives from a "dragon"?

4. Liner

Look, I enjoyed the movie - I probably only started thinking about different stories because there is a definite lack of good lines in the movie. I don't really mind the cuddly Vikings as long as they have a strong script to get their teeth into. In this case, for me, there just isn't enough for Hurt, Myles and Caviezel to say. It's not a terrible script - it doesn't make you groan too often - it's just that it doesn't ever fizz. Frustrating, because I really think one more draft could have significantly improved the movie's overall effect.

5. Caviezeler

I still don't know what to make of Jim Caviezel. My instinct is to say that he's atrocious, but then I must have watched his super-hammy Count of Monte Cristo movie a hundred times. Yes that's mostly about the scene chewing Guy Pierce sneerathon, but I couldn't get the whole way through if Caviezel was poor, surely? Plus I kind of like the way he mutely blinks through the first ten minutes of Outlander, after learning norse through a robot eye device. Maybe he should do more silent movies...

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Barricade at #LFCC: 5 things about the London Film and Comic Con

Gillian Redfearn, Den Patrick, Ed Cox. 
Just time to post about the London Film and Comic Con 2014, which I had the honor of attending with fellow debut authors Den Patrick and Ed Cox on Sunday 13 July. Our panel covered breaking into the SciFi and Fantasy industry, as moderated by the very excellent Gillian of House Gollancz. 

I remember my early, post-University days, when the dream-crushing weight of 9-5 sloggery made my ambition to publish a novel seem horribly distant. Attending a talk like ours would have been helpful, I think - a few simple, practical accounts about the publication process might have made the whole thing seem more achievable. I was very pleased to take part.

#LFCC was certainly the biggest such event I’ve yet attended, so I thought I might share five things I learned from the experience:

1. Stay Frosty:

The Green room at LFCC was a partitioned space with tea, biscuits and trestle tables. When I arrived there weren’t many people around. It had the air of a sleepy station waiting room.

Then Lena Hedley, Summer Glau and David Wenham wandered past.

I’d love to pretend that I shared a cool nod of acknowledgement with each, but that would be a big, fat lie. Truth is, I was star struck. I will have to work on keeping my cool in these situations. Otherwise how am I going to cast them in the inevitable Barricade movie?

2. Ride the wave:

I was nervous enough before I noticed my famous room mates. There is a definite pattern to my emotions when I attend these events: on the morning I wake with a churning stomach and spinning head. I travel to the venue listening to loud music, blocking out all thoughts of Barricade, science fiction and public speaking in general. My heart pounds even worse as I meet my fellow panelists and await our turn on stage.

Then, the moment we start… I relax.

It just seems to be the way I work. Of course it would be far worse to become a gibbering jelly the moment I’m asked a question - but I still need to learn how to ride that pre-event terror wave.

3. Savour the moment:

We must have had at least thirty bright, interested folk turn out to hear us talk, which was a thrill. We only had half an hour, so couldn’t open things up for a Q+A, but Gillian drew some interesting stories out of us and I think we covered things pretty nicely – everything from finding an agent to dealing with dodgy reviews. Still, when you have an engaged crowd like that and we're all enjoying ourselves it's hard to stop.

4. Dress better:

When it comes to my clothes, I have to do better than work shirt and waterproof. I looked like I was taking a break from train spotting, for heaven's sake. Meanwhile Earl's Court heaved with some of the finest cosplay I’ve seen. Maybe I’ll go to the next one as Fatty…

5. Identify the competition:

I saw this monstrosity out front of Earl’s Court. No Fair. This is entirely the wrong Barricade.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Barricade at Waterstones

So here's the poster for the Gollancz Festival on 13 August at Waterstones Piccadilly in London...six quid is pretty bargainesque if you ask me...

Friday, 11 July 2014

Barricade update!

Things are barrelling along nicely with Barricade so I thought I would drop an update...

First of all, I have to say what a waking dream it is to discover the book on London's bookshelves. Seeing Barricade in my local bookshop window, plus Foyles, Blackwells and other town shops, made me tapdance on the spot and mutter happy things - causing fellow customers to edge slowly away from me. I remember my Dad taking me up the Charing Cross Road when I was little, and telling me it was the "Book Street" in London. It feels pretty damn special to see my novel living there.

That's in Sweden, that is
I should also mention that Barricade is doing good things in Sweden, where it's picked up a nice review already (or so Google translate tells me) - those cover colours may have helped. In fact the blue and yellow beast has picked up heaps of good reviews, which you can read in full here. Other notices are available...

I was privileged to attend the Wordpool festival a week ago today. I didn't get any pictures as it was a fleeting trip, but everyone involved was incredibly nice (free Jaffa cakes) and it was great to see the library services being so well used. I WILL return...

This weekend (Sunday 13th July) you can join me at the London Film and Comic Con with fellow Gollancz debutants Ed Cox and Den Patrick, legends both, discussing the doings of debuts, and if we get time, the meaning of it all. August 13th we'll also attend the Gollancz Festival 2014, held at Waterstones Piccadilly London, which promises to be quite something.

At Worldcon I am appearing on a  couple of Sunday panels - one on scifi comics slated for 12-1.30PM, then another on tropes in science fiction running from 7-8PM. Should be fun.

Finally must say that Barricade is also available in audiobook, as read by the very brilliant Rupert Degas, which is another genuine thrill.

Well, that about wraps us up for now. I have notes on Book 2 of the Barricade series and really must get cracking. Thing is I'm waiting to hear from the garage how the car's doing, and that is never a relaxing feeling. I really should take it to Rick's. A long way to go, but worth the service...

Sunday, 22 June 2014

People and Paper

Before I forget, I wanted to mention something cool that happened at a wedding recently.

I was stood outside the venue, sipping a Prosecco in the sun, when I was tapped on the shoulder and introduced to a lad of about ten years old. His mum explained that the boy (let’s call him Tom) was a science fiction fan.

We shook hands. Tom said that his absolute favourite was Doctor Who. We discussed the relative merits of television Doctors for a few minutes, then moved on to the novels. He said he preferred the books to the TV show, because books could do things that TV couldn’t.

Listening to this brilliant, bright kid speak, I realised I had an opportunity. I could ask a bonafide next generation reader how he likes to consume his books.

The point is, I like my collection. It's been torn apart, displaced and rebuilt many times since I was Tom’s age - but in my early teens I was spoilt enough to build up great stacks of comics: 2000AD, Groo, Asterix. Paperbacks too: George Orwell and Roald Dahl. Much of it's lost or boxed up now, but in those years I was a conscientious curator. My friends were too.

I’ve often wondered: has this all changed? Some commentary gives the impression that today’s kids have no need of shelves, only access to the great cloud. You could easily believe that the days of hardcopies are numbered. Oh, I’ve heard arguments against that, but mostly from authors and publishing folk, which naturally feel unreliable. It seems a sad notion, that future children might sit in empty rooms, with no clutter save a single, glowing slab.

I asked Tom if he did all his reading on Kindle.

“No, I like books,” he said firmly.

“You collect them?”

He said that he did, but noted that his pocket money restricted him to one book a month, so it was slow going.

It’s probably obvious to someone who has children, but I was surprised and delighted: so the kids are still building little libraries. For now, at least, they’re still re-shuffling shelves, preserving paper, accumulating treasure.

Bless the lot of them, I say. May Tom’s shelves overflow, and the collector spirit live on.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

So a few thoughts on Edge of Tomorrow before I forget: saw it at the Vue, a great dirty brick of a multiplex, after cheeseburgers and coffee. (MacDonalds coffee is good. Is that bad?)

1. Weasel factor: I like that this movie has the guts to have its main character start out as a scumbag. His cowardly attempts at draft dodging are engaging, because you can relate to someone who’s terrified of being shot to pieces in battle.

2. Tom Cruise. I think he might actually be getting better as an actor. He does simple things well. Oblivion and War of the Worlds were average, but he was oddly watchable in them. He’s good in this too.

3. Paxton Squad: they were a little weak. Not terrible, but casting Bill can’t help but make you compare it to Aliens. It actually has a decent stab at doing the Sulaco Squad thing, but it’s not quite confident enough.

4. Rita Vrataski: The Director might have been slightly in love with Blunt, but that’s fine - he hasn’t tried to smother the script with romance. Refreshingly her character’s not defined solely as love interest.

5. Hollywood Ending. It’s a harsh thing to say about what is a very strong script with a much better sense of humour than most of its peers - but I think they might have had a bit more fun with the last five minutes.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Barricade: it's publication week

Very brilliant to say that we have reached publication week for Barricade!

Heaps of cool stuff's been happening - last Sunday I was privileged to take part in a panel discussion at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, talking all things science fiction with the very brilliant Stephen Hunt, Mitch Benn and Ben Aaronovitch.

It was great to meet such accomplished folk and sip a beer with them afterwards. My editor Simon did a top job moderating, noting that it took ten minutes for the conversation to turn to Star Wars/ Trek. I brought up Star Trek: Voyager, which I guess made me the most hopeless case of all...

Meanwhile the brilliant team at Gollancz have been getting the word out near and far, through Barricade "taking over" the website at sfx, and by previewing the first few chapters for free on the splendid Gollancz blog.

Opening this week is the blog tour  - a heap of articles I've penned to share with the scifi community's premier bloggers - I will post all the links here in one batch the moment they're up but the calendar is right here...

The book's got a few cracking early reviews, which I will post soon. Finally, just remember you can buy the ebook for £1.99 on Amazon until the end of the week. That is actually cheaper than chips - round here anyway...

Monday, 26 May 2014

Barricade: less than a month to go

Note Landy in background...

With less than a month to go to Barricade's publication date on June 19, I thought I'd post an update as it's all getting a bit exciting. Receiving a box of books through the post was a particular treat, and on the bank holiday I got a little carried away, with the above results. Well, what are you gonna do? I'm a big fool, and constructing a Barricade from Barricade copies was just too tempting...tragic, I know.

So, what's going on?

Well, right now and for the next week we're giving away 20 free proof copies on Goodreads. Worth a crack, surely?

You can also pre-order the ebook on Amazon at only £1.99, which has got to be worth a pop - the price only lasts until the end of first week of publication, so get in now if you like your books in e format - or if you want to buy six and build your own barricade. Not that I'm suggesting you're even half as sad as me.


First off, I'll be signing copies at Forbidden Planet on June 18 from 6-7PM.

I'll also be making an appearance at Wordpool, Blackpool's literary festival, on Friday 4 July.

Then it's a busy August with Nineworlds convention and Loncon3.

Should be a cracking summer...

I'm also in the process of polishing off a number of articles for the upcoming blog tour, relating to the writing, characters and setting of the book, plus an article on other dystopian visions I love. Stay posted for more links and more info.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go take down my Barricade...

Monday, 14 April 2014

World's Fair 2064

As you may well know, this year marks 50 years since Asimov produced an article for the New York Times which attempted to predict the technologies that might be on show 50 years in the future, at the World's Fair of 2014.

Recently I was pleased to contribute to a similar article in issue 92 of SciFi Now magazine. I produced a couple of brief versions - the optimistic and the pessimistic - and to my surprise the editors chose the optimistic one, which you can read in the mag.

I was quite fond of the other version, so I thought I would print it here instead:

The World's Fair 2064: the pessimist's version

Anti-drone sprays are a big attraction at the 2064 World’s Fair.

Drones are now small enough to sit on a fingertip, their use so widespread that the surface and skies of the Earth are infested with them. Drones are mostly operated by marketing firms seeking to spy on consumer habits, and the anti-drone sprays are promoted as a simple way to kill these new household pests. Still, most people will tell you that a cat remains the best solution.

The Fair also features a range of new health technologies; expensive gene therapy drugs offer the rich and their progeny enhanced physical and mental capabilities; Thumb patches - simple devices which, when pressed to exposed skin, instantly identify disease - provide an important new advance in world health, but also an effective method for employers, insurers and bankers to discriminate in their choice of worker and customer.

Other exhibits sell living space on vast new “Seasteads” – exclusive, ocean-going city platforms that provide wealthy residents with splendid isolation from modern evils like the augmented reality virus and the bacterial “superbug”.

Still, since the first ever Seastead, the Atlas, struck an iceberg and sank with all hands, sales remain stubbornly low.

Friday, 28 March 2014

5 things I learned from writing book 2

My friends

Having just submitted my second book to Gollancz (part two of the Barricade Trilogy) I thought I would write a few lines on what I’ve learned during its production.

The answer, truthfully, is not a lot – but I thought I’d have a crack at a brief list of the key points. The internet doesn’t have enough lists.

1. I can’t write at home.

OK, I kind of can, but only very late at night when the world is silent and still. It’s not just that I live on a noisy street - It’s that I’m super-easily distracted.

Often, when I sit down to write my 2000 words, I suddenly gain the will to take on household chores: any household chores. I once actually cleaned the bin rather than get on with my writing sesh. It’s extraordinary, but it’s the truth. If I don’t get out of the house my chances of productive writing are near zero.

I have now located a great cafe near my flat where I get a huge amount done every time – it’s quiet, with great ambience, lovely staff and delicious coffee.

I’m not telling you where it is. You’ll ruin it.

2. The mice are my friends.

I wrote all of Barricade at home… I have no idea how I concentrated, except perhaps that in my old flat writing was the best way to ignore the mice scurrying about my feet.

I wrote most of Book 2 in Barbican, and there were mice there too. While having my lunch I would spot them running along the walls. Occasionally they would stop and look at me, as if to ask:

“You going to finish that sandwich?”

I had a fair few ideas, down there with the mice. Still more when I stared at Underground tracks, watching their subway brethren track in and under the rails.

Only now does it occur to me that they’ve been with me throughout the entire process. Were they my inspiration? Could they have been transmitting ideas directly to my brain? It’s not impossible. As Douglas Adams states: 

“These creatures you call mice, you see, they are not quite as they appear. They are merely the protrusion into our dimension of vastly hyperintelligent pandimensional beings.” 

So I wouldn’t put it past them.

3. I can write 2000 words of NOTHING.

Reading through the first draft of book 2 I was struck by the huge seams of utterly worthless garbage running through it.

It was interesting because I can’t remember walking back from one of my Barbican sessions and going: “Wow, that was a hopeless waste of time.”

Maybe that obliviousness isn’t such a bad thing, though – maybe the important thing is simply to go through the motions for a couple of hours, to know that the project, however, gracelessly, is at least growing.

Without that I might think about the enormity of what I'm doing (writing something to a meaningful deadline) and hurtle off into a great black abyss of panic. I’m pleased to report that never happened during the first draft. It just kept coming.

4. I can’t write books in parallel.

Obvious one this – or so you would think. The submission deadline for Book 2 seemed impossibly far away. So when I finished the first draft of book 2 I decided to go off and start another novel that I’ve had bumping around my head for a while.

I really got into it and had loads mapped out. Then I sat down, re-read the first draft of Book 2, and broke into a cold sweat. I realised I had a huge amount of work to do and would in no way have time to write another book at the same time. I had to ditch the new novel and step on the gas with Book 2. Now that other novel is just a lot of cryptic scrawls on a white board.

Weirdly, that might be for the best. While wandering about on a lunch break the other week I had a moment of clarity about the story and became really excited about it again. I just hope I don’t try and write it in parallel to Book 3. Because that would be a mistake.

5. I am lucky not to be dead.

I am constantly bleating at H about my hopes and fears for the book. I can’t seem to compute how dull this stuff must be for her, particularly when she hasn’t read the damn thing.

The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that she hasn’t snapped one evening and plunged a kitchen knife into my chest, or made me eat my own laptop. Somehow, she’s maintained her sanity, despite the constant assault on her mental health.

Curiously, when I Google “Wife murders writer husband” I don't find many instances of it. What I do find is a lot of stories about male writers murdering their female spouses.

Great. I’m potentially even more of a health hazard to her. 

Yet somehow she stays with me. A good thing too: she is my rock and my muse and without her there would only be the mice.

I guess I should buy her some flowers or something…

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Remaking Robocop: and the point is?

I wonder how Joshua Zetumer slept the night he found out his first produced script was going to be a Robocop remake? Not well, probably. On top of the excitement there must have been a cold current of fear in his blood. Because one thing is for sure: if you’re going to remake Robocop, you’re going to have to say something. 

Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original is one of a handful of scifi satires that manages to tell an exciting story and get its point across, without suffering from pompous speechifying or violent mood swings. Its future world, an extrapolation of Reagan America to a violent, corporate mafia state, is wittily and believably established, without dragged heels or heavy hands.

The average cinema experience illustrates what an accomplishment that is. It is also a very difficult trick to repeat. I don’t think any of Verhoeven’s films are close to as clever as Robocop, and none of the original writers seem to have done much else. It has the feeling of a happy accident, and something uniquely of its time. Whatever the reason, it enjoys a powerful and enduring reputation.

So, how the hell was Zetumer supposed to approach these large, clunky shoes? Well, Robocop 2014 begins with a hint that he might just carbon copy the method of Robocop 1987. The opening scene resurrects the original’s news device, once again showing America as a violent force in the world - but updated for the age of drones and prolonged occupations. You would presume that Samuel L Jackson’s “Novack Element” (read “O’Reilly Factor"), will then swing the spotlight back on the United States, and have fun satirising Obama’s morally panicked USA. 

But you would be wrong.

It is surprising how the film shies away from looking modern America in the eye. Obama’s USA offers a wealth of topics for Zetumer to have fun with, not least mass surveillance, gun crime and the great recession. But the terms Snowden, Sandy Hook and Freddy Mack would mean nothing to this Robocop.

There is something in there about the morality of drones and drone warfare, but none of it is examined through story, only via lumpen court and newsroom debate – and purely in terms of judicial killing, without reference to drones’ primary role of keeping an inescapable eye on us all.

That is really problematic - a film about future law enforcement that doesn’t cover eavesdropping? The film is utterly ambiguous on that point. If anything the surveillance society is a positive influence in this film, hi-def CCTV footage helping Murphy solve his murder.

Even if it were better handled, any message about restricting military tech on US streets is doomed to failure when the film has such a massive hard-on for military technology. The makers of 2014 Robocop love guns and gunfights: a plot point (that goes nowhere) even hangs on a particular caliber of weapon. The 12A certificate, bloodless shoot-em-ups are about as real as a videogame orientation sequence, and contain nothing like the brutal and disturbing mutilation by handgun Murphy suffers in Verhoeven’s original. 

ED 209: The original's homicidal, easily-tripped demento-bot
was a fun joke at expense of US build quality
The new Robocop doesn’t even bother to show us why OCP deploys Robo-Murphy in Detroit. The original’s Detroit was a lawless war zone, a jobless wasteland on the brink of anarchy. This time around the city is barely glimpsed, only viewed from the air or blurred behind Robocop’s motorbike. All we know of its citizens is that they cheer him when he drives by. 

The script and director feel more comfortable in lab settings, where they can have fun with Robocop’s physicality and explore the one genuinely new character in the story: Gary Oldman’s scientist. His efforts to help Alex Murphy through the process of becoming Robocop take up a large section of the first half and present the one interesting avenue the film does explore: the psychology of becoming more machine than man and living with catastrophic body trauma.

Some of the most successful moments in the film were actually those I was most dreading: I didn’t like the sound of Murphy retaining his memories, but it works fine. The scenes of him waking up, seeing a mirror and asking to die, through to his first skype conversation with his wife, were well done and finely acted.

But this new area doesn’t get the space it deserves. Robocop’s reconciliation with his wife is wrapped up with a bow on it (turns up at his old house, she rests her head on his big metal chest – boom, healing complete) and his child doesn’t run away screaming the way you might expect the poor little mite to do. No, they are just there for him, right from the beginning.

There is an interesting idea about Murphy’s brain chemistry being altered, to make him an unwitting prisoner to his programming – but the film doesn’t have any time to explore it or figure a way around it. So in the end we’re asked to swallow simply that free-will beats software – which is just a bit unsatisfying compared to Verhoeven’s solution:

“Dick, you’re fired!”

This is a big problem for Robocop 2014. The script just doesn’t fizz as it should. Oddly enough most performances are good, with Keaton, Jackson and Oldman giving it the beans throughout. Joel Kinnaman does a good job as Murphy as well. But they barely have a good line between them. The original is famous for its sharp, brutal dialogue: “lose the arm”, “bitches, leave”, “I’d buy that for a dollar”. It’s packed with caustic exchanges between grotesque suits and hoods: more a freak show ensemble than well drawn characters, but highly entertaining in their way.

That’s Robocop 2014’s final failure: the best it can do is quote the original, deploying a series of progressively skin-crawling allusions that can only make you think:

“What is the point in all this?”

There is a good little body-shock scifi movie in there about a man going mad inside a machine. It wouldn’t be Robocop, but it would be inspired by it, and left alone it might have grown into something great, with space left over for all the gunfights you could ask for. Instead Zetumer, by all accounts an astonishing talent, has been shackled by some producer’s numb-brained “must have” Robocop checklist. It’s a shame, but I guess it’s just the way Hollywood works at the moment. It was a hell of a first gig for Zetumer, but he’d better get used to it. As Bob Morton would have it:

“That’s life in the big city.”

Friday, 17 January 2014

Barricade: cover reveal

It's a real delight to present the cover for my novel, Barricade, which is coming on June 19 2014 from Gollancz. Seeing this puppy on a bookstore shelf will be a dream come true. You can read all about it here. You can follow the main character, Kenstibec, on Twitter here