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Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Kingdom of Bones

Here's an advance look at the paperback cover.

Launch date is September 9th, 2008, and it's available for preorder now, should you be so inclined.

More info about it on the Random House website here.

To tie in with publication I'll be putting online a free novella, In Gethsemane, for a limited period.

In Gethsemane was originally published in Peter Crowther's Heaven Sent anthology, and was included in my first collection of short fiction. It's the story of a Spiritualist and a stage magician, opponents who travel together and debate their positions nightly on the small-town lecture circuit in the years after the Great War.

I'll add it to www.thekingdomofbones.com and post details when it's up.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Life in Transit

The first people to find Transit found it by mistake. They got lost in the fog and, literally, stumbled inside. For centuries the only way in and out – the only known way – was on foot. As time went by the feet doing the finding included mule train hoofs, camel hoofs and, allegedly, elephants. Once the existence of the place became more widely known, of course – it had been a dark and mysterious secret of the there-be-dragons variety – entrepreneurs drove through a road. Nowadays the main route in and out is by train. You can't fly. No one's sure why not.

Life in Transit is a new online project from David Mace, author of Shadow Hunters, Frankenstein's Children and The Highest Ground. It's an unfolding story in weekly parts published exclusively on his website. When last I looked - which was about five minutes ago - he was up to part four. They're bite-sized chunks of narrative, full of wit and invention, in a form that well suits the medium.

David and I collaborated on an ambitious online project of a different kind, a few years ago. Life on Mars - no, not that one, this was in 2001 - was a 28-day 'real time' narrative about a Red planet landing that... well, obviously everything goes horribly wrong. It was made by Mark Gorton's Multi Media Arts for E4, and was structured around a daily video feed from the lander backed up by a mass of explorable online content in the form of mission data and company communications that revealed all kinds of stuff that the crew weren't being told.

Mark had the idea, I roughed out the main story developments and the character arcs, and then cunningly left the scene while David did all the actual work. The spacecraft stuff was shot inside a WWII submarine. Hey, Galactica, eat my shorts.

It was, frankly, too much ahead of its time. It relied on a version of the Flash player that almost no one had and called for a reasonably fast connection, which no one had either. The planned five-minute videos were cut down to one minute each, and it went online in May-June of that year without fuss, fanfare or promotion.

I've never even seen it. But I don't feel too left out because nor has anyone else, as far as I can tell. I suppose the material must be stored somewhere, encoded in some form... I wonder if it could ever be revived and rerun? Or, even better, remade at its originally intended length.

Give Life in Transit a try, though. An altogether more accessible piece of online storytelling!

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Crusoe Cast

I said I wouldn't be leaking any Crusoe insider info on this blog and I've pretty much limited myself to passing on what's already out there; this stuff also appears on NBC's own website so I reckon I'm safe.

Photo shows Anna Walton and Philip Winchester. Friday is played by the brilliant Tongayi Chirisa, whose picture I'll add when I can get hold of one of him in character.

The off-island and passing-through cast includes Sean Bean, Sam Neill, Joss Ackland, Mia Maestro, and Joaquim de Almeida as a character whom Defoe names only as "the Spaniard".

Filming's well under way now, with the 2-hour series premiere set to air at 8.00pm on Friday, October 17th. That's a week after the debut of Eleventh Hour, which will start its run in CBS' post-CSI slot on Thursday, October 9th.

I was on set for some of the UK shooting and I've been seeing dailies of the island footage and, biased though I obviously am, I have to say it's looking awesome.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Eleventh Hour USA

I was encouraged to hear that Eleventh Hour Executive Producer Cyrus Voris told the Television Critics Association last week that "We're trying very hard to ground our show in the real world. There was a CBS press release that described the show as 'five minutes in the future.' I don't even know if it's even five minutes in the future. I think it is sort of happening now."

Executive Producer Ethan Reiff added, "Our lives have been directly touched in one form or another over the last decade by these endless cutting-edge breakthroughs in genetics, in biochemistry and [in] miniaturization and nanotechnology. Speaking for myself, I'm an insulin-dependent diabetic, and the insulin that keeps me alive now is manufactured by genetically engineered bacteria. So that's where this show lives and breathes... the science that's really here. And we think that's really cool."

That's good news for me; I always argued that straight scientific probity was the show's USP. Not science fiction, but thrillers about headline science.

You can read the rest of the piece on SciFiWire.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

That's One Bad Horse

If you haven't caught up with it yet, today's the day to catch all three parts of Joss Whedon's online musical Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, with Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Felicia Day.

It gets off to a slow start but it's witty, glorious, and sweet. After tomorrow it'll be taken down and you'll have to pay to see it in one form or another - iTunes or DVD. I've seen it online and the thought running through my mind was that I'll probably buy the disc and watch it again, 'properly'.

Maybe it's just me, but I find that watching online content is like eating a sandwich grabbed on the run. And with anything that runs more than a minute, I start to feel like I'm being held up from all my other stuff.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The Thirty-Nine Steps

I recently went back to John Buchan's novel The Thirty Nine Steps, the template for all modern on-the-run thrillers from The Fugitive to 24 to the entire Jason Bourne trilogy.

The re-reading confirmed my remembered impressions. The book has terrific narrative velocity. It also falls apart to an utterly unmemorable end, and the story doesn’t hold up under anything but the most uncritical scrutiny.

But somehow, it's still has greatness in it.

Though the execution can be shambolic, the overall shape is a classic one. The glue that holds it together is Buchan’s portrayal of his hero, Richard Hannay - an impressive achievement in the light of the fact that the author shows no discernible ability to characterise anyone else. The other players are all the stock types of Clubman’s fiction. They're mostly defined by rank and class, to the extent that some of them don’t even get names.

Buchan has obviously sensed from a distance the arc that he wants to achieve. It starts in the bustle of the city and loops out across the far wide country, where Hannay discovers with a rug-from-under-the-feet feeling that, far from making his way to safety, he’s made his way to the heart of the conspiracy that he's been running from. In the final act our hero, with his good character restored, leads the forces of right in the final showdown.

I suppose my contention here is that The Thirty-Nine Steps, in its combination of personal conflict and open landscape, offers the closest thing we have to the Great British Western.

That Buchan falsifies process and reality at every turn in order to achieve this is actually something of a key to how the book works. It operates on a level of almost pre-adolescent magical thinking. How else to explain the way in which authority figures hand control of their operation over to the man they've been chasing, on the basis that "He's been doing a pretty good job of it so far"? That’s the kind of thinking that has the Chief of Police calling on eleven-year-old Johnny Atom in order to beg him to take a look at the case that has his best men baffled.

People are recognised as good sorts and bad sorts without any need for qualification or demonstration. It’s a story completely without women. Oh, there's Julia the Czech girl, who gets a promising mention at the beginning. Her name provides the key to a cipher, but she herself makes no appearance.

My antenna says that Buchan had a vague idea that she would, but then went ahead and found no place for her in the execution. I’m convinced that he didn’t pre-plan his story to any great degree. I think that’s the reason for the looseness and breeziness of the writing, but also the dissatisfaction that you’re left with at the end. It’s a bit like realising that you’ve been entrusting your education to a teacher who’s only two chapters ahead of you in the textbook.

Charles Bennett's screenplay for the Hitchcock feature essentially took the framework of the novel and laid an almost unrelated romantic comedy over it. Comparing book to film is a bit like watching Noises Off on stage, where the old warhorse of a story is playing on one side of the flats and the enjoyable stuff with the lighter touch is playing only inches away on the other. The surprising thing is that the combination of thriller and romcom works so well, a fusion of genres that was to become a genre in its own right.

I’ve only a dim recollection of Ralph Smart's 1950s version. Memory suggests that it was a remake of the Bennett screenplay that rested almost entirely on the cheery personality of Kenneth More, one of those actors that I always feel pleased to see. For the rest of it, what I remember is a lot of two-dimensional staging and unconvincing back-projection at precisely those points where tension and thrills are required.

As for the '80s Robert Powell version, I’ve no memory of that at all apart from the image of Hannay dangling from the hands of Big Ben at the end. Though that's not to knock it. Production values appear to have been high and I wouldn't mind seeing it again.

The pic shows Charles Edwards, who appeared as Richard Hannay in both the West End and Broadway productions of Patrick Barlow's spoof/homage to Buchan's novel and the Hitchcock film. Edwards also played the young Conan Doyle in my Murder Rooms story for the BBC Films series. And everyone else's, for that matter.

Monday, 14 July 2008

What the Filk

Got to share this...

Every now and again I used to walk 200 yards up the lane to my village local where I'd meet with a bunch of fannish mates who, once a month and in a more central venue, constituted the core of the Preston SF Group. PSFG meetings were open to all; the ones in my local were just an off-duty hanging-out of old friends.

We always got on well with the management. But the landlady had a fondness for chick-flick background music that could sap a person's will to live.

Now, I don't know if you're aware of what filk music is. Filkers are a subculture within SF fandom dedicated to the writing and performing of science fiction-themed music. I'm not going to knock 'em; my old friend Lawrence Dean is one of the leading exponents of the art. Those who love it, love it lots. But I've seen one eager filker with a guitar empty a convention bar faster than a riot squad.

After the umpteenth runaround of the Bridget Jones soundtrack, we concocted a plan. Someone got hold of a filk CD. I nicked some images off the internet, and made and printed an ersatz Robbie Williams CD label. Stuck it on the filk CD and, when I saw an opportunity, nipped behind the bar and slipped it in amongst the others.

Then we waited for the tracks to show up, followed by the inevitable WTF? response and subsequent outraged accusation.

But it never happened. Time moved on and so did we.

Some months after that, the pub changed hands. I walked in one night. And as I stood at the bar watching my pint being pulled, I heard from the speakers an unholy wail of, "He's the Lorrrd... of the Rinnnnngs" with guitar accompaniment.

All the regular solitary drinkers were standing there looking as if they'd been struck by a profound sense of misery and couldn't work out why. The mostly teenaged bar staff were standing around looking as if someone had just whispered the date of their deaths in their ears.

I reckon the manager had loaded up the six-disc CD changer and gone off to clean-down the kitchens, sticking what he thought was Robbie Williams into the mix. The staff didn't interfere because they thought they were hearing his choice.

The entire CD played out to its end. Then something different came on and the whole place gradually brightened up a bit.

I'd been assuming that the original gag had passed unnoticed. But I now reckon that this was our landlady's revenge...

Every so often, it shows up again. I reckon they've tried to weed it out but no one can identify the disc.

In case they ever do, I've made another one with a Dido label and slipped that into the stack as well.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Plots and Misadventures

Thanks to Ellen Datlow for the heads-up this morning, telling me that my second book of short stories has been nominated in the Fiction Collection category of the IHG Awards.

"The International Horror Guild Awards have been presented annually since 1995. Based on public recommendations, the juried awards recognize outstanding achievements in the field of Horror and Dark Fantasy. Nominations are derived from recommendations made by the public and the judges' knowledge of the field. This year's awards will be presented Friday evening, October 31, 2008 in an online presentation via its Web site."

I won't get my hopes up - it's a strong field with nominees that include Joe Lansdale and Lucius Shepard. But I'll bask in the sunshine for as long as it lasts.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Thomas M Disch

I'm sad to hear that the death of Thomas M Disch has been reported.

Tom Disch was my first real-live author, by which I mean the first one that I met and talked to in the flesh at my first convention - that was Yorcon 2 in Leeds in 1981, where he was the Guest of Honour.

He was friendly and gracious and he made me feel considered and important, in what couldn't have been much more than a five minute conversation. It was a long time ago but I can still remember it with great clarity.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Eyes Without a Face

On that trip to Paris a couple of weeks back I gave myself an excuse to browse the stock of the Bouquinistes, those riverside bookstalls along the Seine, for a copy of the source novel of one of my favourite films. All I knew of Les Yeux Sans Visage was that it was written by Jean Redon, and that when it's spoken of at all it tends to be dismissed as lurid trash fiction.

Which would hardly matter to me, as I don't read French fluently... I can blunder through a text with a dictionary to hand, but that's as far as it goes. And since much of the literature that I loved when I was growing up was also considered to be trash fiction, that wouldn't deter me either. Georges Franju's film based on the novel reads, in synopsis, like a low-grade shocker; on the screen it's a thing of memorable, terrible beauty.

And you know how it is. I just like looking for books. The browsing was the point. Were I to find a copy, it would have been more for souvenir purposes than for reading. I didn't even hold out much hope - all the evidence pointed to rarity.

According to some sources, Redon was supposedly one of the noms de plume of prolific fictioneer Frédéric Dard, but that appears to be a misconception springing from Dard's contribution of a back-cover quote for the paperback. In it, he describes Redon as a former journalist, film publicist, screenwriter and now debut novelist. Perhaps someone once misread a bibliographical note and that's where the misattribution began.

When I raised this on a newsgroup, Remy Lechevalier told me:

"The story, as I was always told it, was that Redon sold his first novel Les Yeux Sans Visage to Fleuve Noir for their 'Angoisse' collection of fantasy/horror novels. At the same time, he had written a movie treatment of the novel ; both were accepted at about the same time and publisher and producer worked together on how to coordinate. The book was postponed by a couple of months and a picture from the movie then hastily slapped on the cover. But it was not meant initially as a true movie tie-in. The book was written first."

I didn't find the book. But I'd stoked my own curiosity to the point where I checked out French eBay when I got home, and got a nice copy there for a reasonable bid - that 1959 Fleuve Noir first edition tie-in with images from Franju's film on the jacket.

Was the novel was ever translated into English? I'm guessing probably not, as it doesn't even appear to have stayed in print in France. Googling just brings up hits for the movie.

(which was co-scripted by the Boileau/Narcejac writing team, they whose twisty tales of suspense inspired Hitchcock's Vertigo and Clouzot's Les Diaboliques - I've English translations of a number of their novels, which are faithful but read like language exam exercises, and make me wonder if, someday in my Copious Spare Time, I might be able to make a better fist of an English Les Yeux)

And here's a trivia point. In the first version of Eleventh Hour I based the character of Lita Valentine, the woman who procures vulnerable host mothers for cloning technician Sidney Hayward, on Alida Valli's Louise, who performs a similar function for the ruthless and driven Dr Génessier in Les Yeux.

Having now seen the US pilot, it seems that Davis, Cannon & co must have been reading the vibes and channelling more than the script. The IMDB doesn't list the actress yet and my copy didn't have credits, but when I find out her name I'll let you know.