Probably at least The Penultimate Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)
Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd.
© 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.


Well, that was fun. It starts as a retread of The Empire Strikes Back, then suddenly fast forwards to the end of Return of the Jedi, and then goes off in a whole new direction (with a brief reprise of the Battle of Hoth from Empire again). Brilliant. It does not kill off Leia, though the temptation must have been strong. It does kill off two prior villains, one minor and one major, both quite unexpectedly, obviously clearing the stage for the Grand Redemption of Kylo in the next one.

And Kylo finally becomes a threat. As ordered by Snoke, he takes off that ridiculous mask. After The Force Awakens, I observed that he is about the same height, if not shorter than General Hux: he certainly lacks his father’s ability to loom. He seems to have made up for that.

Meanwhile: a new hero to root for steps forward unexpectedly from the ranks of supporting characters, and is comfortably outside the usual Hollywood parameters of race, gender and physique for lead characters. Our heroes are in an even tighter spot than they were in the middle of the first trilogy. There are familiar faces that we will probably not see again, even allowing for the marvels modern CGI can perform for dead actors. This is the movie where Star Wars formally moves on.

Yes, yes, yes, but is it any good? I actually have to think about this. I got into it because I knew the back story. Does it actually take care to introduce itself to newcomers? I’m not so sure that it does. You’d have to ask a newcomer. Rogue One remains the best of the “other” movies, for many reasons, one of which being that it is a standalone story: you can come to it sight unseen and still be captivated.

The payoff to the climactic closing scene between Rey and Luke at the end of The Force Awakens is unexpected and hilarious.

And bits came dangerously close to being cute. Not Jar-Jar levels, but cuter than The Force Awakens. The furry penguins that serve no purpose at all apart from cheap laughs. BB8 mugging it up much more than before. Just watch your step, Disney.

On the other hand, as pointed out by my friend Jonathan Oliver, the first major line of dialogue is a toilet joke from Adrian Edmondson. Genius.

I don’t think there have ever been so many people on board the Millennium Falcon. Hope the toilets can cope.

Snoke is still a bloody stupid name. East End gangster, maybe. Evil Galactic overlord – nah.

Leia’s hair continues to challenge. In fact it does more than challenge. It throws down the gauntlet and looks you in the eye, daring you to respond.

I’m honestly surprised more fans don’t make a fuss about JJ Abrams’ notion of astronomical physics, because they are original-series-BSG-level insulting to the intelligence. We’ll allow the swooping and soaring of noisy spaceships: that’s par for the course. But previously we’ve just had it on general principle that things in space are a long distance apart, and you need hyperspace to get there at the speed of plot. Fine. But: in The Force Awakens, we had the planet-busting beam from Starkiller Base being visible across the entire galaxy as a line in the sky; the Millennium Falcon coming down from faster-than-the-speed-of-light to subsonic in the blink of an eye, guided by nothing more than Solo’s reactions; and an apparent unawareness of the fact that planets rotate. Now: out of this window is the planet we are approaching. Out of that window is the interstellar fleet pursuing us. Neither are getting noticeably closer. There are also repeated reference to hyperspace jumps as “lightspeed”. On the plus side, they do use parsec as a unit of distance, which is a first for the Star Wars universe.

I have developed a new Theory of Relativity based on the size/blast power of explosions and the speeds with which space fighters fly past the camera. They are always exactly the same to the audience. TIE fighters scream out of their hangars towards the Resistance: they must be going pretty darn quick. TIE fighters fly in formation above the massed ranks of stormtroopers in their own hangar deck: they must be going slower than the Wright Flyer. Alternatively, an X-Wing’s laser cannon takes out a highly armoured gun on an interstellar dreadnought, or blasts a hole the size of a small car next to a human on a planet who emerges unscathed: to the audience, the explosions are exactly the same size. See? Relativity?

The ending could never pack the emotional wallop of the last five minutes of Rogue One, because nothing can pack the emotional wallop of the last five minutes of Rogue One. But it packs a softer wallop of its own. The message that there will always be a little light, flickering in the darkness, even if it’s just a spark. That spark can still ignite things. The little boy gazing up at the stars, unconsciously holding his broom like a lightsaber, will become an icon.

And quite possibly the hero of another movie, further down the line.

For an excellent review exploring other aspects of the movie, see Paul Cornell’s take.


Aten’t dead

Image from, nearly a year since I last did any kind of blog post. A record, and not a good one.

So here’s an update. I’m still here and I’m still writing. Since the last post we’ve moved house twice. We moved into rented accommodation so that our old building could be rebuilt and made safe for habitation – and therefore, the buyer who had just agreed to buy the place when we discovered the need for the work could finally get a mortgage. It took 18 months from her first expression of interest to the sale going through, but she hung on. Then, with lots of lovely cash in the bank, we bought a new place. Frankly it was all frazzling enough even with the security of renting somewhere in between, and how people manage to sell, buy and move all on the same day without an interim lifeboat is beyond me.

The reason for the lack of bloggery is of course Facebook. Facebook brilliantly supplanted the blogging industry with its microblogging newsfeed, and then made it unsearchable and so randomised that at best what you’ve written will vanish into the ether, never to be seen again; and at worst will never be seen at all because its algorithms don’t find it interesting enough to tell other people about. And I have fallen into the trap, like millions of others, and don’t really have the strength of will to get out of it again.

I still manage my monthly post for More than Writers, though.

After Facebook and my lack of willpower, the biggest culprit is the day job. I’m writing full time, lots of words every day, and just can’t muster the energy to be creative and witty and bloggy at the end of it. I could maybe try harder at being creative and witty and bloggy at the start of it, of course, which is what I’m doing now. I have contracted work and wordcounts to keep me busy until late 2018, which is nice, and I always welcome more. For this month only I’m on a writing deathmarch, as having agreed to write something in two months, deadline end of November, I was then asked if please, please, pretty please, is there any possible way at all you could do it by the end of October? If you knock a month off a six month deadline then that’s irritating, but if you knock it off a two month deadline then you’re reducing the writing time by 50%. I could have said no but frankly I’m interested to see if I can do it. And if it’s any good at the end.

I’ll be at the Sutton Courtenay Day of Books this weekend, opening the proceedings with a talk on ‘A writer’s path’. There’s no such thing as a typical writer’s path, but I’ll describe mine: how my career developed, with especial attention to how the unexpected or sheer strokes of luck can play a part. I’ll make occasional digressions into how the writing business actually works, and hopefully be informative and instructive. If time permits (and it probably will) then I’ll give a reading and take questions at the end.

More on this when the publisher produces some publicity material that I can share, but David Fickling Books is publishing a series of biographies, in the style of Horrible Histories, but better, of famous people like Emmeline Pankhurst and Amelia Earhart and Elon Musk. I’m doing Ada Lovelace, who was an amazing woman and has been a fascinating subject to research. I’ll send the manuscript in next month.

And then there’s stuff of my own, always bubbling at the back of my mind, never with quite enough time to get down and get cracking on.

And for now, back to the day job. See you again, hopefully before October 2018.

Getcha luvverly ideas here!

20161025_113130You know you’ve made it as an author when you’re asked the time-honoured question, “where do you get your ideas from?” There are various time-honoured responses, but Neil Gaiman in the link nails it.

In our recent house move I unearthed a very old notebook from the time when ideas just kept popping into my head. Some even made it through in recognisable form to publication. Most got no further than the notebook. The last of them is dated 3-5-93, and as I started writing His Majesty’s Starship in Christmas 1993, that means everything here predates my career as a novelist.

I will probably never do anything more with them and it would be cruel to consign them to my bedside drawer for another 23+ years, so, boys and girls and other, please feel free to pinch with my blessing.

Professional killer of immortals (e.g. people à la Icehenge, who are bored of living forever).

Children born/bred in hyperspace as result of experiment to develop concepts for hyperspace travel – can’t cope with (or pose a threat to) men who come to rescue them. BRING IN MEMES & MIMETICS – hostile ideas and items picked up by children.

Accounts/investment manager for bloke who has deposited money and gone on a long space trip – plans to return & collect pooled-up interest. [I can’t claim credit for this, but this is similar to the origin of the AI Jane in Orson Scott Card’s Enderverse – a super-intelligent program develop to deal with the complexities of investments and index-linked pensions in a universe with time distorting relativistic travel.]

Christian minister in e.g. yuppy tower block – wins (e.g. against ambience of the buildings) through love. MAKE IT A STARSHIP? [“Giantkiller”, Interzone 89 (November 1994), available in Jeapes Japes.]

AI sets up own publishing co. Describe getting ISBNs, first bestseller etc. Survives takeover bid and ends up “X & Son” (X being its name.) [My first Interzone sale! “Memoirs of a Publisher”, Interzone 43 (January 1991), available in Jeapes Japes.]

Boy at boarding school comes from the future … 3 or 4 years in the future is all. Some kind of time swap? No one believes him until at the end when his 13 year old self reappears. [I was on a roll. My one and only sale to Fantasy & Science Fiction (September 1997): “Pages Out of Order”, available in Jeapes Japes.]

‘Rights broker’ for different classes of being (e.g. human with genetic upgrades) – rights (to live, to work etc.) are treated as commodities.

Christian sets out to evangelise parallel worlds – maybe causes the Fall in one?

Village (à la Prisoner?) where people go to disappear – get absorbed into the timestream that suits them. Detective story? Fantasy?

Elite band of actors who can act anything (à la Songbirds of OS Card). Hero is ‘foreign to his own body’ (Oliver Sacks, Michael Flynn) and a great actor. Poss. setting – post-holocaust Europe (biological holocaust, not nuclear. Nanotech?).

Prayer book is in fact spell book in disguise. Belongs to young Salvation Army bloke? Ends up as poetry book? Baddy must also be disguised. [Hmm. Not dissimilar to an idea that ended up in The Comeback of the King.]

Child’s collection of cuddly toys have lives of their own. Eventually we learn it is the child’s subconscious psychokinetic powers moving them (poss. when he dies and they collapse?) Maybe they gang up on him to stop him growing up. Maybe an older brother went through the same thing. [“Getting rid of Teddy”, Interzone 76 (October 1993), available in Jeapes Japes.]

Spaceship with different groups of people on it, poss. fleeing something. (At least one group is Cosmochristers?) Detect something near them (à la Liberator at start of Blake’s 7). What is it? Each group has its expectations – all; are satisfied simultaneously à la Schrodinger when the ship is finally revealed visually. Say, ship has been hijacked by nutters who expect, say, God to come and rescue them and think the UFO is his vehicle. Crew think it’s a battleship come to rescue them. Poss. a third alternative? At the last moment, the head religious nutter vanishes.

Treatment for mental cases – brains are wiped and a copy of their minds inserted, minus the madness therefore they remember being mad.

Time travelling reporters sent back to cover historical incidents (or history in general) – have to ‘live’ back to the present. Poss. one meets his family as children? (Or his wife’s family.) [“Correspondents”, Aboriginal SF, Summer 1998, available in Jeapes Japes.]

Society where bonfire burners are members of an elite – poss. parallel with oppressive religion. Hero fights them.

Journalist investigates someone who was a key influence in the lives of 3-4 different, important people. X knew them at school, at university etc. but is totally unremarkable him/herself. He/she is a gear in the mechanism of society. Perhaps bring in butterfly effect etc. in social terms.

Correspondent gets himself imprisoned on a life sentence – the Home Time will have to get him out, or people will see him not ageing (at least, that’s his plan). [Definitely incorporated into Time’s Chariot.]

Time travel agency brings people to pre-AIDS times in order to get laid safely. Have to work out why they don’t pass on infection.

Man looks after ‘teenage’ (problem?) AIs which can’t be erased – one gets a crush on him. [“Crush”, Interzone 68 (February 1993), available in Jeapes Japes.]

Youngster yearns to be a feelie-star (or whatever) – can’t break into it. His hero got into feelies when they started. Youngster works out that he is the star, time-travelled. MAYBE youngster grows up and matures. Sends tachyon signal (à la Timescape) back containing info to clone him from.

FTL has been invented recently. Someone works out that in C20 a Rama-type ship passed through the system undetected. It broadcast signals (e.g. the chaos number from Ian Stewart’s book) that have only recently been recognised as important. They were dismissed as static or whatever beforehand. Now we have FTL, we can go after this thing!!

Time travel – son takes his crippled Dad, who was a great sailor, on a C19 sailing ship as a treat.

Time travel – mother whose son has been taken away by social services for child abuse (real or imagined) is visited by the grown-up son.

First contact between invisible, mass-sensing aliens and humans, who can’t see them.

Scam – for some reason, guy pretends to be an AI.

Old-fashioned, clunking AI is found which can only communicate by icons, not sound.

Courtroom drama – a time traveller hops to and fro in time to create the required precedents to win a case in the present.

In SF, Earthmen make contact with less-developed aliens but still seem to deal with a worldwide society. In reality they would be dealing with one government amongst many. How about an alternate world where aliens deal with one country on Earth – a couple of centuries ago? E.g. America, 1776? Germany, 1914? [It turned out to be Cromwell’s England in 1645, in The New World Order.]

Man crashed on a far-off planet has to work out how to program ship’s computer to get back into space.

Man followed everywhere by ghost of 2-year-old toddler son (or not a ghost – he doesn’t have a son! Left over from temporal realignment …)

Aspects of a real person’s life are recorded in VR for other to experience. The real person (e.g. the Queen) doesn’t like it.

A time-travelling Red Cross, careful not to disrupt history but bringing relief to the wounded of historical battles.