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The Twelve Days of Star Trek Original Series isn’t very good

Nothing says Christmas like moaning about old TV.  I am watching Star Trek The Original Series –  I used to love this when I was ten or so.  It lit up my world with wonder.  Now, rewatching, please send help, because it’s terrible.

I’m not particularly fussed about the terrible clunky sets, the lack of common sense like seat belts, and the fact that it was thirty years behind written SF in addressing either bold speculative ideas, or social issues.  In the Christmas Spirit of putting the boot in, I call in evidence:

  1. The teeth-gritting sexism. Female characters as one episode love interest, professional women constantly characterised as flighty idiots incapable of driving a shopping trolley, women getting no lines except screaming and screwing things up.  The uniform with incredibly short skirts.  Women who get married leave Starfleet.  Everyone wanting to shag Kirk (ewwwww).
  2. The balls-aching line of command. No-one ever has any independent authority.  Kirk has to tell Spock to tell someone to do the bloody obvious thing.  In a real warship, they’d be blown out of the sky waiting for permission to wipe their own arses.
  3. The teeth-gritting sexism can’t be entirely excused by the times. The pilot famously had a cool, competent, strong First Officer who was a woman, and they dropped the character because test screenings didn’t like it.  In the pilot, all the Starfleet women wore trousers and weren’t stupid.  So, don’t tell me the team were prisoners of their time – they backed down under pressure.
  4. Even as a kid I noticed that they sent exactly the wrong people down to the surface, and let’s all face front so the monsters can jump them from behind. Although some nerd has shown wearing a red shirt is not an indicator you are going to die.  Endless terrible decisions.
  5. Broadly racist, white Americans tend to hold all the positions of power. My ten-year-old-me’s crush, Nichelle Nichols, was urged to stay by Martin Luther King; she inspired other black women into TV; I know she’s an icon, but she’s never given that much to do.  Sigh of relief when Uhura’s shown with a soldering iron doing something.  Soldering, not just smouldering.
  6. The science. I don’t mind ‘handwavium’ – I don’t think the point of science fiction is to explain exactly how your faster than light works.  It is the GCSE level science that everyone watching ought to know.  Like, if you bombard a planet with incredibly bright ultraviolet light, aliens hiding in the dark still won’t be touched by it.  Light doesn’t bend round corners.  Humans looking up would be burned or blinded.  Also, antimatter isn’t ‘evil’.
  7. The world seems inconsistent from episode to episode. For example, if you don’t have enough energy to run the warp engines, can you still have enough energy to have shields and full impulse power?  This stuff really matters to the story, different episodes give different answers.  What happens when a nut locks themselves in Engineering, which happens every Wednesday?  Different solutions in different episodes.
  8. Primitive people enslaved by a god/god like computer – three times in the last eight episodes I watched.  Women choosing flightily.  Immortal chasing immortal for all time (twice).
  9. Spock is not that credible a character, Vulcan an unbelievable society, Amok Time might be the worst episode of any science fiction programme ever. Not least because of the teeth-gritting and illogical sexism.   (The modern take – Vulcans have emotions but suppress them, is far more logical, believable, and dramatic.)
  10. Jim, Bones and Spock ‘joshing’ humourlessly may cause cancer and should be banned.
  11. Characters give speeches which are plot points, not consistent with their character.
  12. The story telling is sometimes ponderous, the acting hammier than a pork sausage, but AT LEAST THE MUSIC SUBTLY TELLS YOU WHAT TO THINK. Oh, the Woman is Being Seductive
  13. Bonus point, Chekov is impressively annoying as a character. The Wussians probably agreed to a nuclear arms treaty on the promise Chekov would be frozen in ice for two billion years.

STTOS is optimistic.  It espouses diversity and peaceful cooperation, even if it doesn’t deliver.  It aspires to progress.  Its penal system is based on rehabilitation, the culture aspires to be meritocratic.  Not every episode is terrible.  But sometimes when you go back to something, the river has flowed on.  Nothing ages like the future.

(Apologies to Pigs In Space)

Backstage: Why does publishing take so flipping long?

Everyone is astonished that a book accepted in Summer 2017 won’t be out until Feb 2019.  And I’ll be honest, I gulped.  Naively, I was hoping Our Child of the Stars would be out for summer or autumn 2018.

Reason 1: traditional publishing takes time.  If I was self-publishing, you’d be reading it now.

Reason 2: most books in the UK are sold ‘for Christmas’ and ‘for the beach’.  Tons of books are published to grab the shelves for those times.  October 5th, 2017 was this year’s Super Thursday, the day the largest number of titles hit UK shelves.  505 new books were published in that one week.  I mean, Jo Fletcher Books could launch a debut novel, a bit unusual, into a Hurricane Pullman of new books.  That might work.  Better chance for a quirky debut they don’t.

Reason 3: they really like the book.  But editors don’t buy a book and say, it’s fine, we can go straight to copy editing.  They bring their own commercial and artistic insight to it.  It needs some work – not massive but not inconsequential.  And it’s not, wouldn’t the trousers in chapter six be better blue.  Or change that character’s name.  It’s more like, bring this up, bring this down, I need to believe this character would do this.  When that’s right, there’s copyediting – real dots and commas – then proofing.  I will do a piece on Editing is not Ruining.

Reason 4: Covers.  People judge books by their cover.  It sells you the book before you even pick it up.  The wonderful draft design I saw really gives the feel of the book – the hope, the wonder, the beauty and the tinge of danger and darkness.  All that without spoilers. Publishers must factor time to get the cover right, and they need the cover right long before you see the book, to sell into the trade and to talk to foreign markets.

In short, they think the book will do better with more time.  They’re paying.  And as they cheerfully say, ‘You’ll never get this much time with a book in future.’   No pressure there.

The good news is that some lucky people do get to see it a lot earlier, when advanced copies become ready.  That’s for another time, but a very good reason to subscribe to my newsletter.

Backstage: Do judge a book by its cover

Don’t judge a book by its cover.  That’s a weird saying.  Covers are designed to help you judge the book.  They’re designed to make you pick them up, or click on them, to find out more.

Look at these above – you can see which is science fiction, fantasy, horror and not sure.

Think of the last fifty novels you read.  In how many did you think, oh that cover misled me? It might have been a terrible book, but was it in the ballpark of the sort of book you wanted?  You didn’t pick up a light women’s fiction beach read and find duelling dinosaurs in it, for example.

Agents and publishers know covers matter, not least because booksellers care about them too.  Big publishers have been known to consult Waterstones and the supermarkets.  I’m told a publisher once paid for a special cover just for Tesco, cos the supermarket didn’t like the planned one.  Smart self-publishers pay for professional designs, even when their book is primarily sold on Amazon.  Covers matter.

Authors have rights to be consulted on the cover, and I detected just a touch of nervousness in The Big Publishing Office.  A little warming up work as they prepared to show me what they believe Our Child of the Stars should look like.  They showed me the proposal – and I loved it.  It really suits the book.  It has the mix of wonder, love, beauty and a hint of darkness that it needed.  They love it too.  We sat in the canteen and loved the cover together.   It’s been presented to the sales team, and they love it.

An important feature is that it is designed to appeal to a very broad audience, which is what the book wants and needs.  I’m very happy with where we are going.

No, it’s not quite ready yet, and probably the cover reveal will be next year when more is sorted.  Why not be the first to see it? 

And I will be trumpeting the designer’s name because we creatives gotta stick together.

PS: I could have given a million examples but contrast Alison Littlewood’s dark and chilling Gothic, and a beautiful take on Jeeves and Wooster

Jeeves and Wooster, Bertie up a tree

Covers, Edits, Delays

I have some updates coming, but my lovely subscribers will get them first.

I have seen a first draft of the cover art and I love it so much, I am seeking legal advice as to whether I can marry it.  That’s led to Serious Thoughts about Covers.

I’ve got some hot thoughts on Why Does This Take So Flipping Long?  The quick answer is, it does, and if Our Child of the Stars is going to take a bit longer than a typical debut, then it’s with good reason.  Which I explain.

I’ve had my Important Notes off my editor, Jo Fletcher.  Notes are the editorial changes she wants, and this work is underway.  I might write sometime about what this sort of editing is about.  It’s not line or copy-editing, which is fixing semi-colons, tenses, and noticing characters’ eye colour changes.

Yes, this is coming.  Stay tuned to this channel.

Free short story on Medium.com

The year of shouting a lot

On Saturday morning, early and dark, Kitten heard a crash. Her Monsters, Inc.clock said five and a bit, which was very, very early. Sasha was a quiet lump in her cot. Kitten went into her parents’ room, because the door was open. Even though it was cold, Mummy had the big bay window open and the room felt like outdoors…

 

I’ve published a short story on Medium and I hope you like it.  I’ve had great feedback from the people who’ve read it so far.

Subscribers to my newsletter got to see it early.  Why not subscribe?

The History Boys is bunk

TL:DR great cast and acting can’t save this morally bonkers and weirdly unrealistic school story.  Spoilers.

The History Boys was an acclaimed play – did I hear that it is being revived, or being turned into a musical?   The film was widely praised.  Alan Bennett is of course a national treasure.  The work deals with love, growing up. the purpose of education and the nature of history.  So, we watched the film on my partner’s birthday, and to quote from the play ‘You can’t polish a turd’.

OK, that’s harsh, but I wasn’t impressed.

The History Boys follows eight scholarship candidates being coached for Oxbridge, in a boy’s grammar school in 1980s Sheffield.  And it’s brilliantly played by the ensemble, some of whom launched a well-deserved career from being in it.  (James Corden, Russell Tovey!)

It’s really problematic.  The eight eighteen year-olds are, to a lad, not real teenagers.  They include well known types; the Christian hunk, the natural charmer, the obvious gay, the working-class kid who’s not expected to succeed.  But they float in an odd world where they learn lines from Brief Encounter, or know show tunes from the Fifties.  They don’t talk football, or music, or much about girls. They are, to be honest, a late middle-aged gay man’s strange fantasy of what he’d like teenagers to be like.

One of the teachers, Hector, regularly gropes every boy in the group, except the completely gay one.  The pupils treat this as a harmless habit of his, although they don’t actually court it.  The idea that they might be upset or suffer any lasting damage – that anyone might have a serious problem with it – is never challenged and is actually laughed off.  It has clearly been happening for years.

The dislikeable Headmaster receives a complaint when Hector gropes a pupil in public.  The Head clearly knows this groping happens – and we are supposed to take him as a homophobic bigot, because he arranges for poor old eccentric Hector to leave.  The bounder.

The gay, repressed, cynical supply-teacher Irwin is slightly more believable.  But then he is propositioned by Dakin, the class charmer, on the last day of term, and agrees.  Under the ridiculous laws of the time, Dakin was underage.  Any rational man would fear they were being set up.  It’s just one of several points in the film where the characters are puppets in the writer’s hands.

Dakin uses the Head’s wandering hands with his girlfriend, not to help her, but to save Hector.  So the lovely old sexual predator gets his job back.  The old letch is completely unrepentant and it’s clear a further group of teenagers can look forward to his crude fumblings.

A writer makes moral choices.  If you paint a sexual predator as harmless, try to get us to condemn his punishment, have his targets defend him, and expect us to cheer when he comes back, to immediately repeat his behaviour… well, you could have made other choices.   It’s an insult to those of us who fought for LGBT liberation in those years.

OK, it’s well-acted, and entertaining.  The verbal duels about history and education and art may distract you from the grope-athon.  Frances De La Tour gets to leaven the undiluted testosterone of the piece.  (Dakin’s love interest barely gets to speak.)

But adults in positions of responsibility using vulnerable people for their own gratification is, guess what, not OK.  Whatever their sex or sexuality.  Null points.

Orbit Means Orbit

 

The people have spoken, united and clear.

Away with the dull tug of gravity.  Away!

 

Away the dull drone of experts.  “How

Shall we eat, bathe, or breathe?

Will the land not just break apart?”

Moaners are never satisfied!

 

If only they would get behind it.

Whining that there is no freedom

Drifting lifeless in space.

They lost and must get over it.

 

Do they not see how glorious,

How free an Empire we could build,

Trading with ringed planets and moons,

Under a billion callous stars?

 

Drake, Dunkirk, more red on the map,

The people have spoken and will pay any price.

Our countdown to destiny has started,

 

The universe, blue passports, the thruppenny bit…

Orbit means Orbit.

 

#RuinYourBookInOneLetter

Our Child of the Stars might be:

 

Our Chili of the Stars

(‘This taco is as hot as Aldebaran’)

 

Our Child of the Starks

(Bloody Game of Thrones…)

 

Our Child of the Stays

(Rewritten in corsets.  Hmmm, Victorian era not such a bad idea.)

 

Our Child of the Stares

(Oh, creepy. Or maybe a gloomy teen.)

 

Our Child of the Stabs

(More Game of Thrones)

 

Our Child of the Stags

(Deer shapeshifters anyone?)

 

Why is Our Child of the Stars based in the 1960s?

Smartphones.  The first novel I completed was a modern adventure with teen protagonists, and I was fed up with smartphones.

No, that’s not a problem, they’d Google.  No, they’d message each other.  No, they have time to text the Mayor that they’re in danger.  No, you can’t use signal problems or running out of battery AGAIN. 

I would’ve gotten away with it – if it wasn’t for those pesky smartphones…

In Our Child of the Stars, it’s true that law enforcement with modern tech would mess with the plot.  But that’s fixable.

Stories come to me, and the setting and period is one of the things that come unbidden.  Sometimes, I need take a step back and challenge my subconscious for being boring or obvious.  This kept feeling like a period piece.

The original short story was written after reading Ray Bradbury, a writer who is nostalgic even when writing about the future.

We mythologise the past, and the Sixties in particular.  It was another country, and they did things differently there.  The novel is posed at that point of high idealism souring, at a time when the wave of change was reaching into further corners.

To write about the past is not to be backward looking.  The book is first and foremost about family. It isn’t a preachy book, but I knew that it would touch on difference – sex, race and sexuality.  It’s about the morality of violence – peace and war, and the dishonesty and power of the state.  The Sixties was a time when all those issues were in ferment, even in out of the way places like Amber Grove.  Arguments exploded and if you look at the news, the pieces haven’t landed yet. Our Child of the Stars does have a nostalgic streak, but also it might make people think, could we have done better?  Can we now do better?  It remembers what we gained as well as what we lost.

Why small town America?  Biggest, it would be easier to hide Cory.  And, I didn’t want to write about radicals in a big city, but peaceniks living in a small town.  Inclusion mattered to me, which is why there are honest, decent people, friends of Gene and Molly, who support the Vietnam war, however reluctantly.  That was part of the tragedy of that conflict.

A book needs a soundtrack.  I write to music.  I knew whose records Gene and Molly are listening to in the original story.  The more I listened to the classics of the era, particularly the folk-protest tradition, the more music became important. It quickly became central to Gene’s character, and the framing of the tale.

There were so many good reasons to go with when I did.  But, also, smartphones.

 

Books I would love to have written

A few years back, I sat down and wrote, unprompted and off the top of my head, in five minutes, the books I wished I had written.   Are these favourites?   They are certainly not perfect, there are cogent criticisms of each of them.  If I had written them, they would have had different faults.  But these were the books that came to mind, without perusing lists of the canon.

  • Northern Lights – (Philip Pullman)
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, and The Left Hand of Darkness – (Ursula K Le Guin)
  • Player of Games – (Iain M Banks)
  • The Handmaid’s Tale – (Margaret Atwood)
  • The Persian Boy, and The King Must Die – (Mary Renault)
  • 1984 and Animal Farm – (George Orwell)
  • Easter – (Michael Arditti)
  • The Sparrow – (Maria Doria Russell)

Revisiting this list recently I added

  • The Girl with all the Gifts – (M R Carey)
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane – (Neil Gaiman)
  • The Name of the Rose – (Umberto Eco)
  • Binti – Nnedi Okorafor

Commentary on this

  • These immerse you in their world with complete authority
  • Nearly all have great characters you care about.
  • They do tend to address issues however obliquely
  • The only ‘contemporary novel’ is Easter, a satire.  Well, an everything.
  • None of the thrillers, spy fiction, or detective stories make it in.

It is interesting that writers I really rate and recommend do not have a single work that leaps out.

To take some examples, Saki, Borges, Ray Bradbury, Angela Carter I think of as short story writers.  No P G Woodhouse book or story is strikingly better than the next one.

Remember this list is books where I thought, I wish I had written this.  That’s not ‘fave read’ (many are), or ‘most impressed by’.