Terry Pratchett

Let me add my tuppence worth – and it really is tuppence, old pence at that – to the Pratchettiana doing the rounds. Because I can.

My first short story sale was to the collection Digital Dreams, edited by David V. Barrett. My story ‘Digital cats come out tonight’ appeared alongside work by authors who included Neil Gaiman, Garry Kilworth, Storm Constantine, Diana Wynne Jones … and Terry Pratchett. This was only 1990, but even so, I knew I trod on hallowed ground.

As did the publishers, who – with Terry’s permission – added a panel to the front cover announcing ‘original stories from Terry Pratchett and the best of British science fiction’. I still have an advance publicity copy of that cover, sent out by the publishers, so can attest that all the words appeared in the same font and same size, and it was down one side of the cover, while Dave’s name as editor received far more prominence.

Cover of Digital Dreams, edited by David V. BarrettThe version that appeared in print, without any consultation with either Dave or Terry, was subtly different. Can you spot it?

I only caught the edges of the storm, but it wasn’t pretty: accusations flew over bigging up Terry’s name at the expense of everyone else to boost the sales (which, let’s be honest, it probably did). It was just some bright unsupervised spark in NEL’s publicity department, but it left a bad taste.

(A review in the British Science Fiction Association’s critical magazine Vector by A Well Known Author & Journalist panned it, devoting all but a few lines to the issue of the cover and finishing with a demand that Dave be expelled from the BSFA, and if no mechanism existed for doing so then one should be created. Of the stories themselves, surely the most salient part of any anthology, he said very little, which was irritating to all of us but not least to those of us hoping to break into the wonderful world of writing by this opportunity. Years later, the WKA&J approached me via a mutual friend to ask for advice on getting his son’s own novel for young people published, clearly with no recollection at all that I had any reason to recoil at his name. I pointed him at my publisher David Fickling without comment and wished the young man well. I can heap burning coals with the best of them.)

Ten years later, when I was accidentally a publisher myself, my launch title was a reprint of David Langford’s The Leaky Establishment, a wonderful send-up of his time working in the nuclear industry. (Curiously, all my big breaks in publishing have come from people called David: chronologically, Barrett, Pringle, Fickling, Langford.) When I asked this Dave if I could publish it, he dropped a mention that a big fan of the book and fellow veteran of the nuclear industry, one Terry Pratchett, had kindly offered to write an introduction if it would help get the book back in print. Was I interested?

Well, what do you think?

It’s no coincidence that Leaky was my best-selling title. And because I’m not stupid, I too wanted Terry’s name on the front cover – but I took care to ask his permission first, and to stress that I wouldn’t mistreat it as NEL had done with Digital Dreams. He replied: “Thanks. That hurt.”

Thereafter we were in the same room a few times but the only time I can say I properly met him was when I moderated a panel in Glasgow, 2005, on young adult fantasy – what is suitable to go in, what isn’t, etc. The precise title of the panel was “It’s OK, it’s Lurve: Sex in Children’s and YA Books”, which is the only explanation I can think of for how talk somehow turned to the then-current urban myth of rainbow parties. Artist Oisín McGann, also on the panel, protested that the concept was fundamentally flawed because any artist will tell you that if you just mix colours willy nilly – so to speak – you just get a bland sort of ochre.

“Well obviously,” said Mr P, “you use masking tape.”

And thus end my recollections of Terry Pratchett.

What I learned from Geoff Love

Geoff Love's Star WarsA recent Facebook discussion made me all nostalgic for a classic of my childhood, Geoff Love’s Star Wars and Other Space Themes. I wondered if it was available on Amazon and, blow me down …

It’s probably rare for a cheesy easy listening covers album to hold a special place in one’s heart, but it does for me, and I can think of at least two friends in the sf community who have admitted similar feelings. Why? Well, because I learned a lot from this album.

No prizes for guessing that my sole reason for buying it, at the age of 13, in 1978, was to get hold of the Star Wars theme. As far as I was concerned this LP was a single with an A side and a lot of B sides. I had seen the movie once by this stage, and remembered the music as being quite good. For some reason I had it in my head that it was a bit like the theme to Born Free. (At least, it goes up and down in an approximately similar way.)

And I learned …

I began to learn new things just from the cover, which featured a montage of people and ships that were obviously based on the shows depicted on the album … but weren’t. That wasn’t Luke and Leia. (‘Luke’ is more like a bizarre Luke/Han hybrid.) That ship might be based on a Federation design but it’s not the Enterprise. There’s a space station which may or may not be the one from 2001, except that it seems to have part of a third ring which somehow gets lost.

And there was a fairly straightforward rendition of Jane Fonda as Barbarella, which no 13 year old boy was ever going to complain about.

So, I learned that artists can have fun riffing off other artist’s work. I’m sure all the rights were paid – no one was getting ripped off – but why confirm mindlessly to what is when you have your own idea of what could be?

I also learned a few things from the track list, like the very existence of Things to Come, the aforesaid Barbarella, and Quatermass. I decided I would seek these things out and find out more, and am glad I did.

And then there was the music, which brings me back to the first point – artists having fun by being inspired. The title track is a straight orchestral rendition of the Star Wars theme, and as that was what I bought it for, I can’t really complain. Other straight orchestral pieces are Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War”, a thankfully abridged version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and the theme to Things to Come. But the rest … Different versions of Star Trek and Thunderbirds and U.F.O. and Space: 1999 and … and … With everything from orchestra to sax to 1970s wacka-wacka electric guitar, sometimes in the same track (and something else I didn’t know and could not have appreciated at the time: the legendary Herbie Flowers on bass. I didn’t know that bass existed, though could probably have worked out that something must be making those deep notes).

And, what the hell was Princess Leia’s theme, I wondered? I only knew the title music: I didn’t recognise any others. But the next time I watched Star Wars, now that I knew of its existence, I was able to pick it out of the background music. Since then I’ve learned to listen to what is going on as well as watch it, and that has helped me enjoy movies on a different level to simple childlike reception.

And an extremely boppy version of Doctor Who, which at first irritated the hell out of me because I accepted no substitutes. But, you know, it grew on me … And I had no idea there would come a time when I would look back on it and wish we could have that one instead of the Bontempi drek that assaulted us during the 80s. Again, artists having fun, coming up with new ideas, fresh expressions, and why not?

Don’t take my word for it.

Soon after this Geoff Love bandwagoned his way onto the other big craze of the late 70s, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Other Disco Galactic Themes. This has been tacked onto the end of the first album in the Amazon download, so if you buy the first one you get this free. This one is … differently good.

Geoff Love's Close EncountersNo longer Geoff Love and his orchestra, note: we’re onto Geoff Love and His Big Disco Sound. Disco-tastic versions of the CE3K theme (which I will grudgingly admit actually improved on the original tune by having one) and other sf classics such as, um, Logan’s Run, The Omega Man and Flight Fantastic, whatever the hell that was last one is. Apart from the title track, the only one worth the admission price is the discoed version of Blake’s 7, which at least justifies the inclusion of a four-armed Liberator-alike on the cover. But you do rather get the idea they were running out of ideas.

And so my last lesson, which I really wish Geoff had learned too, was: quit while you’re ahead.

Because I can, I will leave you with the Geoff Love rendition of Blake’s 7.

Imitation of Life

cumberbatch-turingThere is one thing that absolutely has to be said about The Imitation Game before we go any further.

ALAN TURING WASN’T IN SCHOOL HOUSE, HE WAS IN WESTCOTT.

There, that’s off my chest. I was carefully watching for any Morse-like wormholes in the heart of Sherborne – the kind of thing whereby Morse can get between any two points in Oxfordshire in two minutes by driving down the High Street. Nothing of that kind was spotted in The Imitation Game; instead we just get a drastic repositioning of everything by about quarter of a mile to the east.

I know, I know, it made cinematic sense – it let them film generally in one central location with a background continuity they wouldn’t have got otherwise. Apart from that key point, is The Imitation Game accurate?

Well, in some ways, goodness knows. I don’t know if its depiction of everyday life at Bletchley is true or not – though as I gather there were several thousand people based at Bletchley at its height, you have to ask where they all were. I don’t know if its depiction of real people is true. I do think it does us all a favour by indicating that Bletchley life may not have been 100% harmonious. With personalities like that, under those stresses, there must have been ego clashes and eruptions, and it does us good to be reminded of it.

It does have to be said that the clashes and eruptions in the movie are fairly standard biopic stuff. Person who is Right is Unappreciated, given an Artificial Deadline, proves he is Right at the last minute. Cue next setback wherein a key problem is solved by an off the cuff remark by an Innocent Stranger. (I find it very hard to believe that they hadn’t already worked out that the German weather reports all ended with the same two words, one of which being “Heil”.) And so on. Meanwhile large chunks of history and the people who made it – Tommy Flowers, the various generations of Colossus – are excised in the name of brevity.

I was particularly irritated by the sequence of events whereby, in the space of one night: they crack Enigma; they work out the disposition of every Allied ship and German U-boat in the Atlantic; they work out that an attack on a convoy is due in about 10 minutes (and one of them has a brother on one of those ships); and Turing takes a stand that no, they Must Not Tell Anyone because then the Germans will know Enigma has been broken. Real life: it wasn’t their job to evaluate or pass judgement on any of their results. Their job was just to produce the results – people much higher up the chain took the decisions on what to do about them.

That said, the moment where the Bombe quietly and without fanfare spits out its first bit of plaintext from a cracked code is very well done – eerie, probably like it will be the first time a genuine AI talks back to someone. And there are many well done moments like that, with good performances by good actors. An especial wave to the set of actors playing the other people in Hut 8, who manage not to be swamped by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Turing is essentially portrayed as a functioning autistic – Sherlock without the innate social skills. Was that accurate? Again, I don’t know. He is depicted as being bullied at school and having serious problems reading social cues. And yet, we know Turing was an excellent runner, and any kind of athlete is going to be accepted to some degree at a place like Sherborne. Trust me on this. We also know – and indeed it’s a key point of his life story – that he had quite some experience in gay cruising, which I would have thought (and I’m speaking purely from theory here) would not be easy if you absolutely couldn’t read any kind of social cue at all. There again, maybe I’m just misjudging the Mancunian gay scene of the early 1950s. Or indeed of any location and period.

All in all, the movie does a good job of depicting (a) just how key the work of Bletchley, Turing and Hut 8 was, and (b) what a massive, massive injustice was done to this civilian war hero, to the point where you’re either welling up or quivering in fury. And it certainly can’t hurt to be reminded that this could happen in the Britain of still just about living memory, together with women not really being able to aspire to anything higher than being a secretary, and healthy teenagers dying suddenly of bovine tuberculosis. It’s well written, well made, well acted and generally fun, so see it if you can.