The Cleverest Man in the World

March 14, 2012

This short story, originally published in Nature Magazine, is now up on the Concatenation website…


March 10, 2012

Keith Brooke interviews me here…

War Horse

January 23, 2012

If I’d written War Horse, it would have been about a horse with machine guns strapped to its side.  It would have run through the trenches shooting down the enemy, and it would probably have been piloted by a monkey.

If Steven Spielberg reads this, I’m open to negotiation for the rights to the idea.

The Zeppelin Museum

September 2, 2011

Over the summer I visited the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, a small town by Lake Constance in Southern Germany.  The museum was small but well laid out.  I’m not going to discuss here what I saw in there as I use that sort of thing in stories, but it was all interesting stuff. All in all a fascinating visit, marred only at the end by something that is all too common now when visiting technical museums.  Something that annoys me more and more, something that reduces me to standing in the middle of some room loudly asking:

Why is there an art exhibition?

Why, every time I visit the a museum showing steam engines, industry, aeroplanes, cars, anything vaguely scientific, do I have to have an art exhibition thrust upon me?  Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not that I don’t enjoy art galleries, I have even written about them here on occasion.  No, what irritates me is the patronising assumption that whilst I’m looking at a history of how things were made, I also need to be culturally educated in some way by second rate artists who couldn’t get their work displayed anywhere else.

Worse, there will be a sign up explaining to me that there is a link between science and art, and this is going to be demonstrated by some painter’s abstract representation of machinery they probably don’t even understand.  This annoys me for two reasons.  Firstly, you don’t need an artist to show you the link:  the form of just about every machine transcends its function – there is a beauty in the shape of those Zeppelins that is owed to more than just aeronautical design. Why not point that out, rather than forcing me to walk through a selection of badly executed paintings before I rejoin the exhibition I came to see? Secondly, if the link between science and art must be expressed, why, on leaving an exhibition of sculpture or ceramic design, do I never see a small display explaining how the internal combustion engine works?  Don’t supposedly arty types need educating too?

I am not arguing for a moment there is no link between science and art.  Of course there is, although every so often I hear a report on the TV or radio discussing a new artist who is producing revolutionary work combining the two.  Is this supposed to be news?  I know lots of people who have been doing just that for years.

Haven’t the BBC heard of Science Fiction?

Why I wrote Twisted Metal…

June 5, 2011

The Edinburgh SF Book Club recently met to discuss Twisted Metal.  They asked me to provide them with a little bit of background to the book.  Here it is…

The main inspiration behind Twisted Metal is here on my blog:

…but that’s not the full story.

The working title of TWISTED METAL was THE BOOK OF ROBOTS. That was never going to be a commercial title, but I liked the way it literally described not only the novel itself but also the rather biblical “Book of Robots” within the text; and that it also sounded like the sort of big SF picture book I used to read when I was a child.  One of the reasons for the manga like illustrations within the novel was to make the book look like an old illuminated manuscript.  The joke on the robots is that they don’t believe in their creator when they clearly have one.  The reader can form their own conclusions about our world.

TWISTED METAL was partly inspired by the nature and form of old ballads:  the idea of old stories that subtly change in the telling over the years.   I have since written a quartet of stories: STORIES FROM THE NORTHERN ROAD based on old English ballads but set on Penrose.  These may eventually see the light of day if Macmillan ever get round to giving me the go ahead to publish them.

The names in TWISTED METAL weren’t chosen by accident.

Karel should need no introduction to SF robot fans, his wife Susan dropped her maiden name of Calvin.  Turing City and Penrose offer differing thoughts on the nature of machine intelligence, and the countries of Segre, Bethe, Wein et al are all connected.  Even Artemis featured in my previous Recursion trilogy under another name.  Whilst reading the book, you may want to spot the connections, SF and otherwise, between the names.   The only original name, by the way, was made up by my daughter who, when she heard I was writing a book about robots said “You should have one called Banjo Macrodocious, then.”  I realised that she was right, and he was so included.  She also came up with Wa-Ka-Mo-Do from BLOOD AND IRON.

There comes a moment in the development of every story when I have the realisation that finally allows the transition from my mind to the page.  For TWISTED METAL, this eureka moment came when I figured out the mechanism by which robots reproduce:  with the women twisting the shape of a child’s mind and the men looking on and having to trust what they were doing.  This led to the book’s original opening line:  Two robots were making love in the middle of an electrical storm.  The preceding paragraphs were added later to make the opening more commercial.

TWISTED METAL and BLOOD AND IRON were originally going to be one book, but the characters developed a life of their own and the first book expanded.  Kavan, in particular, was only going to be a minor character, but such is the nature of his belief he quickly invaded more pages than he should have.  That’s why Karel and Kavan have such similar names, by the way.  If I were to write the book again Kavan would be called Arban and would play the cornet beautifully.

There is a third, as yet untitled, book that completes the trilogy.  Personal circumstances have meant that it is as yet uncompleted, but in time I hope that both Karel and Kavan will finally make it to the top of the world.

Spring Writing Weekend

May 1, 2011

Alex Davis has asked me to remind you all about the Spring Writing Weekend, together with the special Day Rates:

Alt.Fiction is proud to present its Spring Writing Weekend – the perfect chance for writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror to meet and work with like-minded people and enjoy workshops and talks with established authors in the field. Offering workshops, feedback sessions and expert advice, these weekends are sure to both inform and inspire.

Spring Writing Weekend, 20th-22nd May

Guest Speakers:
Simon Clark – acclaimed horror novelist and author of 
The Night of the Triffids
Tony Ballantyne – science fiction writer of the Recursion Trilogy and the Penrose Series

Venue: Legacy Chesterfield Hotel, Malkin Street, Chesterfield, S41 7UA

With a convenient location next to Chesterfield rail station and a wide range of leisure facilities, the Legacy Chesterfield Hotel is a great place to work and relax.

The Spring Writing Weekend costs just £180, including two nights’ shared accommodation, all meals and hot drinks, plus a full programme of writing activities throughout Saturday and Sunday featuring two guest authors.

Day rates are also available for the 21st and 22nd May at only £40 per day, including access to all workshops, lunch and drinks throughout.

To book your place, or for any enquiries, email

or call Alex on 07896 228367

Schedule information at

A £90 deposit is required to confirm your place, with a further £90 to be paid at least one week before the event. Deposits are non-refundable except in case of event cancellation. No refunds will be given in case of any changes to guest authors, or in the event of participants being unable to attend for any reason. Please note, the deadline for booking your place is 4 May 2011.

Alt.Fiction is a trading name of Writing East Midlands

The Door

April 20, 2011

My friend disagrees with me when I say that programming can be  just as creative as writing.  She questions the fact that code is poetry.

After much argument, she sent the following poem, and challenged me to write a program just like it.  I went one better and wrote a Java implementation of the original.

I must admit, the original poem is a lot shorter than my implementation, but the Java version has the advantage of scalability. You can add as many items as you like to my program, rather than restricting yourself to the (rather paltry) eight the poet allows.  (I note, for example, he included “Magic City” but neglected to check for a normal City, or even a village or town.)
I would also add that it would take a good 10 or 15 seconds to read the poem, whereas my implementation will run in in under a second.  Score one to science, I think.

The Poem

The Door
Go and open the door.
Maybe outside there's
A tree, or a wood,
A garden,
Or a magic city.

Go and open the door.
Maybe a dog's rummaging.
Maybe you'll see a face,
Or an eye,
Or the picture
Of a picture.
Go and open the door.
If there's a fog
It will clear.

Go and open the door.
even if there's only
the darkness ticking,
even if there's only
the hollow wind,
even if
is there,
go and open the door.
At least
There'll be
A draught.
By Miroslav Holub
Translated by Ian Milner and George Theiner

Java Implementation

import org.sensibility;
import com.darkness;
import com.wind;
import com.external.door;

class doorChecker
    Door door = new Door();

    String [] itemsVerse1 = {"tree","wood","garden","magic city"};
    String [] itemsVerse2 = {"dog rummaging","face","eye","picture of picture"};

    boolean isDarknessTicking = false;
    boolean isWindHollow = false;


	Darkness darkness = new Darkness();
	Wind wind = new Wind();

	isDarknessTicking = darkness.isTicking();
	isWindHollow = wind.isHollow();

	for(String s:itemsVerse1)
		    System.out.println(s + "exists outside the door");

	for(String s:itemsVerse2)
		    System.out.println(s + "exists outside the door");

	    System.out.println("Also, the fog will clear");

	if(isDarknessTicking || isWindHollow || door.getOutside().isNull())
	    System.out.println("There is a draught");



    public boolean openDoor(String item)
	boolean itemExists = false;

	    itemExists= true;

	return itemExists;

    public static void main(String args[])
	new doorChecker();