Since you ask …

The British Science Fiction Association is carrying out a survey of British science fiction and fantasy writers “to get a handle on the state of British sf”. I see no reason why everyone shouldn’t get to share my insights. So:

1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?
I consider what I write to be science fiction and/or fantasy, and in my writing I try to contribute some new idea or concept to the field with each story or novel. However, not every idea that comes to me is necessarily science fiction or fantasy and it’s not impossible that one day I’ll get round to writing something in another genre.

2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?
The fact it contains concepts that are either presently impossible or not yet possible given our current understanding of the way the world works. To wit: alien life forms, starships, faster than light travel, time travel, technologically advanced Neanderthals.

3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?
It has always been my favourite genre, for the possibilities it offers: the outsider view of humanity; geeky fun with technological and/or philosophical concepts; and big explosions.

4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?
Two of my novels have been predicated on the idea of the British monarchy still being around, in recognisable form, in the 23rd century. I don’t think an American author would think twice about his nation’s way of life still being around 200 years from now, or there being a US Space Force: he might wonder how it came about but wouldn’t be surprised to learn it existed. As a matter of national pride I wanted to perpetuate some of the things I consider good about the UK: we are far from perfect but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. So, that is probably distinctively British.

5. Do British settings play a major part in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?
Only one novel has been physically located in the British Isles, but as it dealt with the English Civil War that’s not really surprising. Despite my answer to question 4, I try to make my futures as multinational as possible, in terms of setting and characters. Characters are generally multi-ethnic with names meant to imply mixed race ancestry. Why? Because my dream future would be like Cordwainer Smith’sInstrumentality of Man: all of us quite unmistakably one race, with no superiors or inferiors, but at the same time able to draw on the marvellous riches of our many cultural heritages.

6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?
I don’t consciously set out to imitate anyone but I suppose I have been influenced by any writer who has given me a sense of joy and / or wonder in reading their work. Conversely, I do consciously set out not to imitate writers / TV shows / movies that get it wrong. Sometimes I actively try to correct the error (e.g. putting seatbelts in my starships …).

7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
I have a YA publisher so it’s hard to say: my editors don’t base their actions on the science fiction content. Scholastic Inc. in the US apparently had no difficulty with a novel about the Royal Space Fleet per se, but bafflingly renamed His Majesty’s Starship as The Ark. However, this latter decision has also baffled other American YA editors I have spoken to so it could just be a Scholastic thing.

8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
Not really, no. Based on reviews I’ve read and mail I’ve received, audiences on both sides of the Atlantic have similar proportions of those who get it and those who don’t.

9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?
The sense of wonder! The reader should close the book with the feeling that they have been somewhere they could never have got on their own. New thought processes or neurons should have connected that mean they will never see the world quite the same way again.

10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction and fantasy as a genre?
More than any other genre? There is often the risk of everyone trying to put on the Emperor’s New Clothes, maybe not realising the Emperor actually knew he wasn’t wearing anything all along. I will stop stretching the metaphor before it breaks.

For example, someone coins the phrase “New Weird”. Suddenly everything is New Weird – until it isn’t, or people just get fed up with New Weird and move on to something new on principle, leaving all the official New Weird authors stranded.

11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?
The explosion in TV sf has been a significant development but not a particularly good one. We don’t have any TV executives who are particularly aware of what constitutes good sf. Therefore they scramble to imitate either Joss Whedon or Russell T Davies, not realising that Joss Whedon has a very wide-ranging understanding of sf&f (so trying to imitate Buffy kind of misses the point) and RTD doesn’t (so trying to imitate Dr Who will get you nowhere: the strengths of the series predate RTD by a long way).

On the plus side, the crop of authors who came up through Interzone are flourishing, and more power to them. Twenty years ago would a very good but not particularly famous sf author have got a £1m, 10 book deal? I think not.

Days the Earth Stood Still, as a game of tennis

The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur: the two exceptions I will allow to the golden rule of Do Not Make Remakes.

Case in point: The Day the Earth Stood Still. The classic 1951 original gave us a film that can still hold its head up with pride today: good acting; properly thought out science fiction; a clever story; a ground breaking, eerie theremin score; Gort; and a b&w 1950s movie that wasn’t about Commies in disguise. The 2008 remake gives us … a wonderfully snarky review by Roger Ebert (Keanu Reeves “makes Mr Spock look like Hunter S. Thompson at closing time”).

1951 serves.

  • 1951: gets straight into the action.
  • 2008: utterly missable prologue set in 1928, in which a lone mountaineer (Keanu Reeves plus a beard) encounters a strange glowing sphere which, presumably, takes a DNA sample so that he can be recreated later, though why anyone would want to recreate Keanu is a problem not tackled.
  • Score: this is a bit of a cheat but the alternative would be to give 2008 minus points from the off. So, by sheer virtue of doing nothing, 1951 leads 15-love.
  • 1951: flying saucer lands in the national mall, Washington DC and is immediately surrounded by troops.
  • 2008: big glowing sphere lands in Central Park, New York and is immediately surrounded by troops.
  • Score: 1951 let itself down a little by jumping on the flying saucer bandwagon, though what we saw was impressive. It was blank and featureless; when it opens and closes it does so without even leaving a seam behind. But it is still obviously a flying saucer. What the 2008 sphere is and how it works is anyone’s guess. Utterly alien technology, totally unlike anything seen on Earth. 15-all.
  • 1951: spaceman Klaatu emerges and is shot by a panicking serviceman. Gort emerges behind him and destroys a couple of tanks before Klaatu tells him to stop. After which, he just stands there.
  • 2008: as above, though Gort doesn’t at this point cause any destruction and just looks scary.
  • Score: new-Gort looks scary because he’s a 50′ tall CGI robot. Old-Gort was a mere 7′ man in a shiny suit – in fact two shiny suits, one with the zip in front and one behind, so that it could be filmed from any angle and appear seamless. Both have the same basic humanoid layout, with a single beam weapon hidden behind a visor in the head area, but old-Gort comes across as much more menacing because he’s there and doesn’t look like something off a Playstation. 30-15.
  • 1951: in hospital, Klaatu is revealed to be Michael Rennie. His default expression throughout the movie is a slightly quirked smile, like a parent so totally in control of his toddler that he will let the kid think he’s the one in charge. When that smile vanishes – and it does – you know you’re in trouble.
  • 2008: Klaatu eventually becomes Keanu Reeves, a man who we know from Bill & Ted and Parenthood can in fact laugh and smile and have fun, until 10 years ago he got typecast in The Matrix and hasn’t cracked a smile since.
  • Score: On that basis alone I would make this 40-15. However, whereas old-Klaatu wore a (fairly futuristic looking) spacesuit, new-Klaatu is clad in an organic false skin akin to a placenta that everyone at first assumes is his natural form. This nicely follows the philosophy of his sphere – it’s so advanced it doesn’t resemble anything we have, and is therefore nicely sfnal. So, 30-all.
  • 1951: Klaatu has a conversation with a bone-headed government functionary, is told it will be impossible for him to address the UN, and is put under lock and key from which he effortlessly escapes – though we never see how.
  • 2008: as above, though this time we do see how he escapes and for the first time get an inkling of just how unstoppably powerful this man is.
  • Score: Very nice. The functionary is slightly more sympathetic, but whereas the 1951 version could never have seen ET, she must have so her actions are even more inexcusable. 30-40.
  • 1951: Klaatu, now in civvies, finds lodgings at a Washington guest house with a diverse mixture of fellow guests, including war-widow Helen Benson and her son Bobby. As plan A, address the world leaders, isn’t working, Bobby fairly plausibly sets up a meeting with Einstein-alike Dr Barnhardt, world-famous scientist and thinker who happens to live in a quiet DC suburb.
  • 2008: Klaatu goes on the run. We have already met Helen because here she is one of the scientists drafted in to handle him, and one of the few to be sympathetic towards him. He gets in touch with her and uses her help to meet up with – um – one of his own race who has been here for the last 70 years. Here we learn that the plan is to exterminate humanity to save the other forms of life on the planet. Smaller spheres start emerging all around the world – presumably they were here all along, or had slipped past our defences – and creatures of all kinds start heading into them. Watching human scientists deduce: “it’s an ark!” Helen then sets up said meeting with Dr Barnhardt.
  • Score: this is where the 2008 story breaks down. So they’ve been here all along? So they intend to exterminate us anyway: it’s a foregone conclusion? So what possible purpose does Klaatu’s public arrival in Central Park serve? Deuce.
  • 1951: Klaatu meets Barnhardt, points out the errors in his life’s work and agrees on plan B – he will address a meeting a world scientists and thinkers.
  • 2008: Klaatu meets Barnhardt, points out the errors in his life’s work and agrees that maybe humanity deserves a second chance – he will call off the extermination, if he can.
  • Score: here the new version actually improves on the original. Part of that is the surprise choice of actor for Barnhardt who plays the role completely straight; part of it is the convincing meeting of minds; part of it is that some shots and dialogue are lifted directly from 1951, but reworked. The ease with which Klaatu is persuaded to call of the extermination, however, robs it of a point. It would have been a pretty weighty, well-thought-out decision in the first place and so not something to be randomly overthrown by a field worker. So, score steady at deuce.
  • 1951: Klaatu is betrayed to the authorities by Helen’s irritating boyfriend. Shot and killed, but not before giving Helen the famous instruction that should Gort go on the rampage, the words “Klaatu barada nikto” will calm him down again.
  • 2008: Klaatu is betrayed by Helen’s even more irritating stepson. Nice one!
  • Score: Advantage 2008.
  • 1951: Gort goes on the rampage. Helen calms him down with the safe phrase. He retrieves Klaatu’s body and, back in the ship, manages to bring him back to life.
  • 2008: Gort goes on the rampage and begins the extermination, for no particular reason except perhaps irritation with the humans who keep trying to blow him up or take samples out of him.
  • Score: Nice visuals – new-Gort dissolves into a storm of nanobots that destroy anything artificial, and which goes on a rampage across the US. But it still raises the question – why now? Why not the moment he landed? Deuce.
  • 1951: Klaatu addresses his meeting. We’re under observation, and the powers that be are worried about us. If we keep on as we’re going, they’ll step in and destroy us. Oh, and Gort, who we’ve all assumed is Klaatu’s servant? Actually it’s the other way round. He’s one of a corps of galactic peacekeepers. Don’t make them angry. Bye!
  • 2008: Klaatu’s human body is destroyed getting back to his sphere, a victim of the nanobots, but he still manages to call off the attack. The sphere takes off. It’s all over.
  • Score: Pathetic ending. Advantage 1951.
  • 1951: The Day the Earth Stood Still: this actually occurs earlier, but I put it here for ease of comparison. Barnhardt persuades Klaatu that we could do with a demo of his power, so he arranges for (almost) every electrical device on the face of the planet to come to a halt. For 30 minutes, 12-12.30 eastern seaboard time. Crucially, that “almost” does not include hospitals, aircraft in flight … it’s a benign but terrifying demonstration of his total superiority, and of course it just convinces certain parties that he Must Be Destroyed.
  • 2008: The Day the Earth Stood Still: the price for humanity’s continued existence is that the EMP that disables the Gort-swarm also disables all electrical devices on the face of the planet, presumably for good.
  • Score: So, hundreds of thousands have already been killed by Gort, millions more will die of starvation and humanity is knocked back to the Stone Age. But look on the bright side – the race survives, Earth abides, and bratty stepson finally accepts stepmother as his new mum! Gee, thanks so much. Game very definitely 1951.

Remakes. Don’t.

Ancient and modern

Ancient: this nineteenth century writing desk brought back from my grandmother’s flat yesterday, already lightly encrusted with clutter. “French mahogany secretaire a abattant with boxwood outline panels” …

and “… satinwood veneered interior with an arrangement of six drawers”.

It replaces a much more modern G-plan writing desk, so while we’ve probably traded down in terms of storage capacity we’ve traded way up in style. It now looms over to one side of our room like a TARDIS with a slightly iffy camouflage circuit. If it was a TARDIS then we could have just landed it, rather than have to manipulate it up a flight of stairs slightly narrower than it is with two right angled bends. A good family bonding exercise, not least for Bonusbarn who was squished against the wall on a couple of occasions but took it like a man.

Modern: later the same day, an Oxfringe do at Borders in Oxford on Reading & Writing Sf and Fantasy. A panel of three – Juliet McKenna, Chaz Brenchley and yours truly – talked about what we like to read and write, while an audience of 11 – so at least outnumbering the panel, always a good thing – listened with rapt attention. So, nice people happy to let me talk about myself for a lot. I could get used to that. As Juliet put it in her email inviting me to attend, it was:

“Essentially, a panel discussion of the kind we’re all so used to via the convention circuit and which so many bookshops/libraries regard with awe akin to someone splitting the atom in their back bedroom.”

Well, quite. Let’s hope they don’t catch on. Mark Chadbourn was meant to attend but couldn’t, which sadly meant I was unable to tell him I read his novel Jack of Ravens on honeymoon and still turned in my review of it on time (the five hour round trip to the Scillies did help). The review was only mostly complimentary, but he’s a pro and I’m sure he could have taken it.