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With the kindle version of Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of Londontopping the Amazon children’s chart (across all media) recently, I was horrified to realize I’ve not announced the existence of the eBooks on the site. They were published in December 2012 and I think they look gorgeous.
Each time one of the print books was published I thought the cover superb, but my favourite is probably Battle for Earth. It’s tremendous now to have a standard look that clearly identifies the series to date, even if that’s only for the eBooks at present, and I’m delighted Quercus picked JMB4E as the model.
Of course eBooks exist in myriad different formats for all the various devices. I’ve had to make a choice here, so if you click a cover it will take you directly to the Kindle store. If anyone from Kobo/Nook/etc wants to email me and request I switch the links to a different eReader for a while, I’d be happy to do that.
How exciting. As I write, Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London is, for the second day, the number one title on Amazon’s list of Children’s book bestsellers, having displaced Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay from The Hunger Games series. Further down we find Percy Jackson, The Hobbit, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and even Key Stage Three Mathematics Revision Guide. No photoshopping has been done on this screenshot (honest!).
One of the biggest hurdles for many writers is showing their work to others. When I’ve been in writing workshops, a point I sometimes make to shy authors is that, if you want to be published, your work will be read. People will begin to comment on it, and it stops being your personal story, instead being owned by your readers. That’s tough because there’s no more personal, individual work of art than a book. Compared with a movie where hundreds of people can be responsible for the creative vision, with a book it’s a single person.
But we write because we love telling stories – we can’t help it - and most authors want their work to be read by as many people as possible, even if it’s a little humbling and daunting. It’s great that more readers are being introduced to Johnny’s story, and encourages me to get moving on book four!
Hurrah! It’s great that all three books are now available on Kindle and now, for one day only (May 7th 2013), Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London is one of five books on Amazon UK’s deal of the day. Buy the book before 11.59pm tonight and you get it for a bargain 99p.
As an author, you want your stories to reach as many people as possible, so this is a terrific opportunity for that to happen. Feel free to spread the word and, if you enjoy this story, remember the next two in the series are already published.
I wrote much of Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London while working for the British Film Institute and, probably inevitably, many sections ended up in quite a cinematic style. Scenes such as leaving Earth in the space elevator, or when the Spirit of London unfolds over a drowning Atlantis, or Johnny being chased through prehistoric jungle by a tyrannosaurus rex, were all very visual in my mind’s eye.
As a lover of film, it was always my hope that the books would one day be transferred to the big screen, but it still came as a surprise when I was approached by a production company, keen to make this happen.
When you’ve worked in film and television as I have, you know it can take forever for a movie idea to become reality, and most will fall by the wayside, but it’s still tremedously exciting and the production people have a track record of getting things done. I’ve taken a few day’s holiday to think about how the film would work, and script a few key scenes, to help the process along.
This morning at 6.31 am (British Summer Time), Johnny and Clara Mackintosh (and their Old English sheepdog, Bentley) made history: thanks to NASA and its Mars Curiosity rover, they became the first literary heroes to literally land on another world. And all broadcast live in Times Square – wow!
Johnny, Clara and Bentley, lowered to the Martian surface on the back of Curiosity (courtesy JPL)
The descent was scary (I wrote a piece about it for Bookzone4Boys) – even NASA had described it as “seven minutes of terror”. Eventually the Mars Science Laboratory landed by “skycrane” in Gale Crater, a perfect location to examine millions of years of Martian geology in one go. Onboard was a microchip onto which had been etched the names of some of the people of Earth, the very first ambassadors to land on another planet. And among those names were:
I confess I’m delighted to say “Keith Mansfield” was also included.
Some great fictional stories have been set on Mars, but the paper or celluloid that tells them remains firmly grounded here on our island Earth. John Carter may have disappointed in cinemas lately, but Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of “Barsoom” books are classics. A film that brought the red planet properly to life saw the now-Governator of California star as Doug Quaid in Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 masterpiece, Total Recall. Why anyone feels the need to remake a movie that was originally so stunning is a mystery, but I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve seen Len Wiseman’s remake.
As a child I grew up reading the late, great Ray Bradbury, whose thoughtful Martian Chronicles helped inspire the stories I’ve written. In the first two Johnny Mackintosh books there are mentions of Mars and Johnny and Clara always intend to go there, yet somehow they never quite get round to it. In Battle for Earth they finally make the trip (I won’t spoil it for future readers by saying whether or not they find Martians).
David Bowie famously sang “Is there life on Mars?” and in a fun Doctor Who tribute, Steven Moffat christened the first fictional human settlement “Bowie Base One”. I’ve written a few pieces on whether or not there’s life of some kind on the red planet over at my Keith Mansfield website.
We’ve always found Martian exploration difficult. On page 3 of Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth we read:
“Johnny and Clara had been planing their first ever visit to Mars, with Johnny telling his sister about all the probes scientists had sent to the red planet, but which had mysteriously failed to arrive.”
and then, a little later on page 61:
“Early space probes had taken intriguing but inconclusive photographs of the Martian surface, showing what were called the Pyramids of Elysium, next to what appeared to be a gigantic human face gazing upward. Johnny had always meant to visit and see for himself. For his part, Alf was curious to hear about the probes that had gone missing, so Johnny repeated the conversation he’d had with Clara, in a little more detail. Given the great expense of space exploration, the failure rate for Mars was unusually high. It wasn’t only Beagle 2 that had bitten the dust as it neared the planet. Over the years, around half the missions launched had failed for one reason or another.”
Of course the “giant face” is no more than an optical illusion, but sometimes you can’t let details like that get in the way of a good story. I first came across the pyramids through Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and these don’t only feature in Johnny Mackintosh – Total Recall also centred around the mysterious “pyramid mine”.
Nowadays we know a huge amount about this near neighbour, not least because there are actually three satellites in permanent orbit around the red planet. In the 1970s we sent the twin Viking landers to search for life (you can see a third in the Smithsonain Air and Space Museum in Washington DC). These tantalized, but also frustrated. Given the track record of previous Mars missions, this one played it relatively safe so the spacecraft set down in what proved rather dull areas – and that’s where they remained. The great thing about Curiosity is that it’s mobile.
Mars rover family portrait showing Sojourner, one of Spirit/Opportunity and then Curiosity (courtesy NASA)
We’ve come a long way in a short space of time with Mars rovers. The first was Sojourner, a little add on to the Pathfinder mission that landed in 1997. It was the size of a remote-controlled child’s toy and could only travel a few metres from the main landing station, getting up close and personal with a few interesting nearby rocks. Sojourner started the ball rolling, and the momentum was magnificently maintained by another pair of twin landers, the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which set down early in 2004.
Mars panorama using composite images from Opportunity, showing the rover’s own tyre tracks (courtesy NASA)
Larger, more independent and mobile, it was hoped these two would function for around 90 days. Spirit lasted fully five years, becoming immobile on 2009 and finally ceasing communication in 2010. Opportunity is still going! These two have shown that we are more than capable, not just of landing on Mars, but traversing its surface.
Curiosity being put through its paces on Earth (courtesy of JPL)
Curiosity is in a different league altogether. Weighing nearly a tonne, it’s around the size of a small car. It doesn’t move quite as fast, travelling at what’s almost literally a snail’s pace, but wherever it goes, Johnny, Clara and Bentley will go with it. I hope they and I are able to move across the surface of this faraway world for many years to come.
I have to say, this is interesting…in my own book series I feature a sort of faster-than-light travel method of the same name, though I haven’t heard anyone else using it as a name for another FTL system. This series sounds really interesting.
[...] (you just move very quickly) and have demonstrated it experimentally. However, as I mentioned in a recent article on the Johnny Mackintosh website, we can consider an antimatter particle to be the same as a [...]
Hurrah! Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth publishes today (Thursday 1st September, 2011). To celebrate, here’s my first ever attempt at a computer-based audio recording . Click the “play” symbol and you’ll get to hear me reading from the opening of the book. I’ll aim to follow it up with three shorter extracts so keep coming back for more.
It’s always good to support your local bookshop but if you’d prefer to buy the book online, of course that’s great.
Most of the entries in this series of things that have impacted on the Johnny Mackintosh books have been either science fiction or science based. I have though saved the biggest influence until last and it comes from another world, but one which many readers will know well: Jo Rowling’s spectacular creation, Harry Potter.
Some people might have heard the story of how I came to begin reading about the boy wizard from Godric’s Hollow, but for those who haven’t here goes. Of course as a publisher I’d heard about Harry and his creator JK Rowling, but I figured he was for kids and I had no interest whatsoever in books about witches and wizards and magic and broomsticks, even though the buzz about this remarkable creation wouldn’t go away.
I was working for a company called Addison-Wesley who were based in Boston, Massachusetts, so had been spending time over there. At the end of the week everyone from the office was out a party in a club (I think the House of Blues) and I would be heading back to the UK the next day. I was approached be someone looking a little sheepish who said she had something to tell me – that everyone in the office thought I was Harry Potter.
In hindsight it’s obvious. At the time, as you can see, I wore ridiculous round battered glasses, had black messed up hair, spoke with an English accent and (though I normally cover it under mounds of foundation) I do actually have a lightning-shaped scar on my forehead. Then there are all the mad things that seem to happen when I get angry, but that’s another story…
The next day I found and bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at Logan International Airport and read it on the flight home. Curiously, although I may have read all the Harry Potter books 20-40 times, I’ve still never read the Philosopher’s Stone version of book one where it all began. At that time Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was also published so I bought that at Heathrow Airport on the way home, and Prisoner of Azkaban soon followed. I loved this world that the woman who was to become my writing idol had created. It’s a tribute to her that she could even make things like magic and dragons and Quidditch sound interesting. But most of all it was what we call the voice of the books, and the cleverness of telling everything from Harry’s point of view, even when he got the wrong end of the stick.
It had never occurred to me to write the sort of books that children might want to read (as well as adults). I’d been trying to pen the ultimate cutting edge modern novel, a kind of cross between Iain Banks, Paul Auster, Tibor Fisher and Irvine Welsh (there’s a thought!) when one day, walking back from the
[...] I’d been trying to pen the ultimate cutting edge modern novel, a kind of cross between Iain Banks, Paul Auster, Tibor Fisher and Irvine Welsh (there’s a thought!) when one day, walking back [...]
One of the great things about books is how long they last. We’re still able to read stories from thousands of years ago, many of them being continually remade as films or television stories. One book that made a lasting impression on me as a child was something that was written over a century ago: Edith Nesbit’sThe Story of the Amulet.
The book features some brothers and sisters who acquire an ancient amulet that will apparently give them their hearts’ desire – to be reunited with their parents. But there’s a catch. They only have half the amulet and only when whole will their wish come true. But there’s hope because the amulet can form into an arch through which you can cross time and space. Sound familiar? Of course Clara Mackintosh is always creating such archways, which she models on the Arch of Lysentia that she and brother Johnny pass through in the Spirit of London.
What was great about the stories was how the children affected time through their travels. For instance, I think when they were being held prisoner in ancient Babylon they showed their prison guard a twopence piece and that was apparently how the Bablyonians came upon the idea of a minted coinage/currency.
*****SPOILER ALERT – DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU’VE FINISHED JOHNNY MACKINTOSH AND THE SPIRIT OF LONDON*******
Along the same lines, something that always stayed with me was when the protagonists travelled to Atlantis. They were there right at the end of the legendary city and escaped through the amulet’s arch just in time. This was very much my inspiration for having Johnny and Clara visit Atlantis and do a very similar thing. And another example, similar to Nesbit’s weaving in the Babylonian coinage, was the way I had Johnny wipe out the dinosaurs by accident, being responsible for diverting an asteroid onto a collision course with Earth.
***********END OF SPOILERS******************************
There’s so much great new writing nowadays that it can be easy to forget the classics of the past, but Edith Nesbit was a great writer and definitely deserves to be read and remembered. She also wrote The Railway Children, which is always being performed on stage or serialized. Tomorrow though, I’ll bring us right up to date with unquestionably the biggest influence on Johnny Mackintosh and the publishing phenomenon of recent times.
It may surprise a great many people who always know where their towels are that I’ve never really read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. I admit I do own the very first and did start reading it decades ago, but something about the writing in book form didn’t work for me. However, that’s because I listened to the original radio series, almost as it happened. It wasn’t quite live, but the summer of 1978 I was away on a camping holiday with friends and a guy called Ron Knott had recorded the show from a couple of months earlier (I think it was still just about the days of reel-to-reel tape recorders). Ron – wherever you are, I owe you a huge debt of gratitude.
In these pages I’ve written of how I’ve been fortunate enough to have met Carl Sagan, Iain Banks, Steven Moffat and Brian Cox, but I do which I’d had an encounter with the genius Douglas Adams who created the Guide. Sadly, he died ten years ago.
The radio series became a book series and a TV series and feature films, I suspect getting worse through each iteration but I confess I didn’t see the recent movie. Nowadays Eoin Colfer even writes additional books, but I haven’t read those either. When something becomes enormously popular there’s a terrible temptation for people to try to make as much money out of it as possible – sometimes it’s best for the original to be left well alone in its purest form. After all, how can you compete with the sound effects of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop or the voice of Peter Jones as “the book”?
The most direct link between the Guide and the Johnny Mackintosh books are the means of understanding alien language. If you have a story where humans go off into space they (and the reader/listener) have to understand what’s going on. I never liked Star Trek’s highly convenient “universal translator”. Adams came up with the brilliant idea of the Babel Fish. In his universe, these seem highly common. You put one in your ear and it telepathically translates the language of every being you’re speaking with.
I was looking for a method of translation for Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London and came up with the Hundra, which in many ways are like Adams’ Babel Fish. They’re not as portable and if you touch one they kill you, and they come with an ancient, lost history (of course I know what it is but couldn’t possibly say at this point!) but they do a similar telepathic translation trick. And because Johnny Mackintosh can touch them he ends up being unique in having a very Babel Fish-like personal arrangement, which can be highly convenient. For when Hundra aren’t around, I also invented a galaxy-wide form of language called Universal whereby different races can still communicate.
The links between the Hitchhiker’s Guide and Johnny Mackintosh don’t stop there. There are a few specifics in Battle for Earth that fans of Adams might spot, but I hope there’s also something about the storytelling style. What Adams did was right insightful but witty science fic
When you’re a writer you have a whole lifetime of experiences to draw upon that can go into your creations. Some things stick with you. When I was fifteen I watched a Play for Today (a great vehicle for writers to get onto television at that time) called The Flipside of Dominick Hide. Dominick (played by Peter Firth, nowadays known better as Harry Pearce in Spooks) was from the future but had travelled back to our time searching for a distant ancestor. Early on in the show he’s in a bar when someone asks his name. Not wanting to give himself away, he looks at the bottles behind the counter and chooses “Gilbey”, a brand of gin.
So now you know where Mr Wilkins, the cook at Johnny Mackintosh’s children’s home, gets his own hilarious first name from but you’ll have to read Battle for Earth to find out why.
I presume it’s not just me but many writers who sprinkle their creations with little homages to things they’ve enjoyed or have had an effect on them. The show had a great time travelling story arc where the future affects the past every bit as much as the other way around. After all, it was the great American physicist Richard Feynman who pointed out that an electron can simply be viewed as a positron (the antimatter equivalent of an electron) but travelling backwards in time, something I think is an incredibly deep observation – if only I could work out what it meant!
One of the arguments against being able to travel into the past is the so-called grandparents paradox: if you were able to do it and you killed your own grandparents, you could never have been born to travel back into the past to do it. While I’m very sceptical about time travel in the backwards direction (of course we know how to go forwards) this particular argument holds no water at all. It’s a fallacy brought about by our limited three-dimensional perspective of the universe. if instead we think about four-dimensional space-time as one continuous present, then the paradox vanishes. An interesting twist on it in Dominick Hide is that the title character sets out searching for his great great grandfather and ends up becoming him!
Unless you’ve been living on Mars the past few years, you can’t help but have been sucked into the hype surrounding the reboot of the Doctor Who franchise, with Doctors Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant and then moving onto current incarnation Matthew Smith. Even if you have been living on Mars, you can still catch the shows within an hour depending on where we and the red planet are in our respective orbits. The current series restarts tonight in the UK (and very probably in the US too as they’re so much better synchronized nowadays) so today of all days feels appropriate to post on the connections between Johnny Mackintosh and the sole surviving Time Lord from Gallifrey.
I grew up with Dr Who, John Pertwee being my first Doctor but Tom Baker the main and best one from my youth. Although there was a time when the ridiculous TV schedulers put it up against Gerry Anderson’s Space 1999 (Moonbase Alpha won that particular battle for me way back then) I’ve watched Who pretty much all my life when available. The paperback of Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London contains all sorts of time travelling adventures, and my publisher Quercus even referenced Doctor Who on the cover (we’ll swiftly gloss over the mention of Alex Rider).
When I first heard Eccleston was leaving and Tennant was taking over, I was very disappointed – how wrong was I? For me, David Tennant now bestrides the Who universe as the greatest of all Doctors, not least because he so clearly loved the role when it always appeared Eccleston felt a little above it.
For Who trivia fans there’s a great scene in the movie Jude (starring Eccleston as the title character) where the man Jude is drinking in an Oxford bar. He’s slagging off the Oxford scholars and ends up in a slanging match with one such, none other than Tennant himself. While Tennant’s character fits effortlessly into his surroundings, Eccleston’s Jude is deliberately awkward and it’s always reminded me of their respective Doctoral personas.
Perhaps it’s a precursor to Moffat doing one of those Five Doctor specials with everyone returning to save the universe from a particularly thorny problem?
Although Russell T Davies was the man who brought Who back onto the small screen, many people would say it was the writing of Steven Moffatt tha
For those who don’t know, Blake’s 7 was a British science fiction television series in the late 1970s/early 1980s. At the time I thought it was the greatest TV show anyone could have conceived.
In a dystopian future, Earth is ruled by the oppressive Federation. People live in domed cities, controlled by drugs (if I recall). There was a small but growing resistance but its leader and figurehead, Roj Blake, was captured years before. This is all dimly remembered, but the series opened some time after Blake had been subjected to all sorts of brainwashing/mind control techniques to try to make him confess and announce to the world that the Federation were the good guys after all. He’s been released back into society to lead the life of a regular good citizen, but a new resistance finds him and reveal the truth. His memories return and the Federation has no choice but to recapture him and put him on trial. Along with several other Federation prisoners he is sentenced to a life in exile off-world, and is transported to a penal colony on a faraway planet run by Brian Blessed.
Something goes wrong. The relatively primitive Earth ship (in fact called the London) is damaged, finding itself in the middle of some kind of interstellar war between far more advanced civilizations. And one of the advanced ships is found drifting nearby. A few members of the Federation crew tries to board it but all succumb to a terrible fate so next some of the prisoners were sent over. Blake, now aware of how to prevent tricks being played on his mind is able to overcome the ship’s automatic defences and assume command.
His craft was to become one of my all time favourites, the Liberator (pictured). The ship was far in advance of any other vessel, incredibly fast and with its own teleport system. It also came with a computer/mind called Zen (pictured with Blake) and when Zen spoke the lights on a vocal display screen flickered in time to the words – just like my very own Sol. As the series progressed the crew went on to steal an even more advanced computer called Orac that got carried around in a clear box and, to say the least, had something of a personality problem. When I write Kovac’s dialogue I try to imagine how Orac would speak in the particular situation concerned. For this third book, that really helped as Kovac (my Keyboard Or Voice-Activated Computer for the uninitiated, which comes with a quantum processor) has a bigger than previous role in Battle for Earth. Some of the early readers described him as their “new favourite character”.
While it was being broadcast, Blake’s 7 was absolute must-watch TV and the first show where I really appreciated the quality of the writing and the story arc across a whole series. The final episode of series 2 (entitled Star One) was one of my favourite all-time moments when Blake discovers an alien invasion of the galaxy is imminent. He’s wounded trying to protect the Milky Way’s defences. Faced with a terrible choice, the remaining crew of Liberator (now commanded by Paul Darrow’s magnificent anti-hero Kerr Avon) make the terrible choice to join forces with the Federation to try to defend the Galaxy. Waiting for reinforcements to arrive, the aliens are breaking through and the final piece of dialogue of the series is Avon saying, “Fire”.
The latest change to the website is the addition of the Milky Way News Network, a place for readers’ versions of how the events in the Johnny Mackintosh books might have been reported. To send me your own reports, or links to online news videos, email keith[at]keithmansfield.co.uk (replacing the “[at]” with the regular email symbol.
Thanks to everyone for their patience and enthusiasm for the third book in Johnny’s (and Clara’s) adventures. If you live in Europe, Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth publishes on Thursday 1st September 2011.
If you’re in North America you may have to wait a little longer. I was just in Canada where the pub date was being announced as 1st December 2011 and it’s the same in the United States. Perhaps I’ll combine a Christmas shopping trip to New York with a book launch?
If you want to pre-order the book (or buy any of the earlier ones) click on the three covers together to go to the buy the books page or support your local bookshop by going in and ordering direct.
In the run up to publication I’ll be publishing a series of posts about the influences on Johnny Mackintosh and tweeting about the new book using the #JMB4E hashtag. And I do plan to have a London launch but I’ve been so busy it’s not likely to happen until late September or early October. Watch this space!
Of all the science fiction I read as a kid, the dominant force was Isaac Asimov. It seems only right that I should begin my series of pieces on the influences behind Johnny Mackintosh with this master of “hard” sci fi.
My local library contained copies of a series of books about a young Earth hero called Lucky Starr who was always saving Earth from the upstart human colonists of Sirius – as part of their plans for galactic expansion these Sirians wanted to return to take over their homeworld. Nowadays I don’t remember much of the stories, apart from some legalistic dispute over control of the Jovian system (or was it Saturn?) and I’m pretty sure that, even here, the books contained Asimov’s famous Laws of Robotics.
Where the great man came into his own and his ideas stayed with me was the Foundaion Trilogy. I say “trilogy” – there are officially seven books but two prequels and two sequels were written later and in my opinion should be avoided. Far better to stick to the original three: Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation.
There’s a key idea in the books that concerns a mathematical theory of human behaviour. “Psychohistory” of which the greatest protagonist is Hari Seldon, is like a kinetic theory of gases for human beings – gather enough of us together (and the starting premise of the books is that humanity has colonized the entire galaxy so there are lots of people) and the overall, en bloc behaviour becomes statistically predictable. It’s an idea that always appealed to my own mathematical sensibilities – in my teenage years I thought long and hard about how it might work in practice. Asimov is aware of its potential flaws and cleverly builds them into the plot.
The book begins in the final centuries of galactic empire (although this demise isn’t obvious to the vast majority of the galaxy’s inhabitants). What Seldon did was to apply the equations of Psychohistory to predict the fall of Empire and a thirty-thousand-year period of anarchy – an equivalent of our Dark Ages – before a galactic civilization could reassert itself. It was too late to prevent the fall but by creating the Foundation on the rim of the galaxy he could cut those in-between times to just a single millennium.
*********SPOILER ALERT – do not read unless you have finished both Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London and Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze**********
The original settlers of the Foundation, believers in Seldon’s vision, were mainly scientists. Resources were deliberately kept scarce, forcing them to improvise and innovate. They created a device that features in my own stories – a personal shield. Something to wear around your neck that will protect you from blaster fire. In Asimov’s books these become the stuff of legend, and I wanted the same for mine.
***********END OF SPOILERS************
A second element I borrowed from the Foundation trilogy was the galactic capital. My Melania is similar to Asimov’s Trantor, in that every square inch of the planet has been built upon. In fact, Melania has an artificial second skin. On both worlds the only piece of greenery where natu
The very first episode of Cosmos should have hooked anybody:
“We will encounter galaxies and suns and planets, life and consciousness coming into being, evolving and perishing. Worlds of ice and stars of diamond, atoms as massive as suns and universes smaller than atoms … The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it, we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen out toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return.”
Here was a scientist who was also a poet – a slightly cheesy poet maybe, but definitely a great communicator of “awesome” ideas.
Cosmos was a TV series first transmitted in the UK at the start of the 1980s. Sagan’s definition was “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be” so it had quite a wide remit. In the show, the American professor traversed the Cosmos in his “spaceship of the imagination”, a dandelion seed that he would blow on – the next moment he was inside, hair streaming in a non-existent breeze, hands waving over multi-coloured controls while he quoted from the Encyclopedia Gallactica. In this remarkable vessel Sagan traversed the universe, past and present. Readers of Johnny Mackintosh should recognize elements of this description and understand that Emperor Bram Khari bears a striking resemblance to the cosmologist from Cornell.
I always felt meeting Sagan was a highlight of my time at Cambridge University. He came to give a talk on the new theory of nuclear winter, the idea of which had come out of studying volcanoes on Mars. Afterwards I spoke to him and he signed by (battered) copy of Cosmos that I’d taken along.
When Brian Cox first started doing his Wonders of the Solar System TV programme I was determined not to like it because I thought nothing could compete with Cosmos, but I quickly changed my mind when I saw how superbly put together Wonders was – not another dumbed down trite computer-graphics-laden programme but something of real substance, and I could see Sagan’s influence shining through. I first met Cox at the Royal Society and we talked about our shared love of Cosmos. Later, in the second series of Wonders, I found it funny to see that the Manchester and CERN professor had carried his battered copy of Cosmos on location and referred to the photograph of the Anasazi rock painting, possibly depicting the supernova of 1054, that he’d first seen on this wonderful TV series from the 1980s.
Sagan didn’t only write and present nonfiction – though we should remember his fact was often far more extraordinary than most made-up traveller’s tales. If you ever saw the Jodie Foster movie
Not long after I’d signed the contract to write Johnny Mackintosh, I came across Iain Banks in a London pub. I remember telling him I had a publishing deal and that he was my biggest influence, to which he replied, “I shall bask in your reflected glory”. It was a very lovely and typically self-effacing thing to say, especially given the great man had consumed several whiskies by this point.
Banks’ Culture novels are the most compelling modern fiction I know of. They present a utopian future of enlightened humanoids at pretty much the highest level of galactic civilization without “subliming” – the act of moving on to the next plane of existence.
Some of Banks’ books are under the moniker Iain Banks while others are written as Iain M. Banks (his middle name is the uber cool “Menzies”). I believe Banks regrets the distinction that was foist upon him in the early days of his writing. Publishers (I should know because I am one) are always trying to classify books and identify the correct market. I suspect his didn’t want people not buying future novels “from the critically acclaimed fiction of the author of The Wasp Factory” because they might turn out to be science fiction (heaven forbid). What are known as “genre” books can often get a very raw deal from publishers and critics. I’m sure Banks believes his Culture novels would be a good read for anyone, just as I’ve always said the Johnny Mackintosh books are aimed squarely at a general audience and not hard-core sci-fi fans. In fact, the Culture books are the only science fiction I’ve read since I was a kid. I remember one reviewer saying of Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London that it was reminiscent of “Asimov, Clarke, Moorcock and Dick” which I thought great only for the review to continue that these authors were “totally out of vogue now”. I’ve lost count of the times people have said to me, “I don’t normally read/enjoy science fiction, but I love your books” while sci-fi fans appear nowadays to be looking for something else.
Back to the Culture. Banks’ novels take place at the boundary of the Culture’s influence – the society itself is so stable that any story rooted in it would most likely be pretty dull. Everything’s good and there’s no conflict of note. Instead we tend to read about their equivalent of the Foreign Office, a body called Contact, and their division that performs dubious activities of questionable legality to ensure society and the wider galactic civilization function as they should: Special Circumstances.
This society has developed an incredibly high level of artificial intelligence and the machines work in harmony with the humans. Overall the society is run by these “minds” whether in charge of a spaceship or an artificial planetary-scale habitat known as an “orbital”. Now Sol is, I suppose, the mind of the Spirit of London, but she doesn’t come from Iain Banks – equally well she could originate from Zen in Blake’s 7 or Rommie in Andromeda (pictured), or just from my own head
My guess would be November or December, but I’m trying to find out. The books used to be distributed down under by Murdoch Books but it looks to me as though they’ve moved elsewhere (the author’s always the last to know!).