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…

https://tonyballantyne.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/duality-materialism-and-why-people-like-robots/

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.

www.legacy-hotels.co.uk/legacy-chesterfield/

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 alt.fiction@writingeastmidlands.co.uk

or call Alex on 07896 228367

Schedule information at http://sffeastmidlands.blogspot.com/

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
nothing
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;

    doorChecker()
    {

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

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

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

	for(String s:itemsVerse2)
        {
	    if(openDoor(s))
	    {
		    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;

	if(item.equalsIgnoreCase(door.getOutside()))
        {
	    itemExists= true;
	}

	return itemExists;
    }

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

}

Diana Wynne Jones

April 1, 2011

I just read that Diana Wynne Jones died this week.  I feel genuinely sad at her loss.  She was one of my favourite authors.

It was one of her books that first inspired me to write.  I mean to really write, not just mess around thinking about it and scrawling out the occasional 100 words.  Up until reading her I had thought of writing, as most beginners do of any activity, as rather straightforward.  I imagined that anyone could do it. When I began Howl’s Moving Castle, the first book of hers I ever read, I was immediately struck by just how clear her writing was.  How imaginative, witty, wise and beautiful that good writing could be, whilst always remaining entertaining and, in this case, suitable for children.  This was before Children’s writing was enjoying its current renaissance.

I also became aware that I couldn’t write that well – anywhere near that well – and this opened my eyes to the realisation that writing was something that you had to work at.  That’s what made me become a writer – I wanted to write as well as Diana Wynne Jones.  I haven’t managed it yet, I don’t know if I ever will, but I keep trying.

I never met her, I was bitterly disappointed when I found out we once stood near to each other at a convention.  I would have loved to have said hello and tell her how much she inspired me, but that’s life: missed opportunities.  At least I got to read her books.

I was going to put a link here to Amazon and my favourite book of hers: Fire and Hemlock.  I was going to, but the cheapest second hand copy was £15.

Instead, here’s a link to Charmed Life.  It’s also good, but, to be honest, I’d recommend just about anything by her.


Alt.Fiction Spring Writing Weekend

March 4, 2011

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:

Tony Ballantyne – science fiction writer of the Recursion Trilogy and the Penrose Series

Simon Clark – acclaimed horror novelist and author of The Night of the Triffids

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.www.legacy-hotels.co.uk/legacy-chesterfield/
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.

To book your place, or for any enquiries, email alt.fiction@writingeastmidlands.co.uk or call Alex on 07896 228367

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 13 May 2011.

Alt.Fiction is a trading name of Writing East Midlands


First Drafts

February 25, 2011

I notice from the news yesterday that John Le Carre has donated his archive to the Bodleian library.  Amongst the collection are original drafts of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (you can see a part of a handwritten MS by following the link).  Personally, I find these hand written drafts fascinating.  The British Museum has some of the Beatles’ lyrics on display, although what I find exciting is not so much the chance to see the crossings out and the changes, but the scrappy pieces of paper on which the words are written.  It’s funny to think of an ordinary envelope being picked up and having words that will someday be sung by millions scrawled across the back.

One thing that amused me about the news report was the following:

Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections and Associate Director of the Bodleian Libraries, told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the collection showed how “just how much industry, effort, craft” went into the works of a writer of Mr Le Carre’s stature.

He said, for example, that on one page of the manuscript of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, only about three lines had not been altered, corrected, amended, deleted or rewritten.

I wonder how much industry, effort and craft people realise goes into the work of other writers?  I often talk at writing workshops about my own rewriting process, which is as follows: after three or four drafts my wife reads and crits my work. I then redraft two or three more times before sending the work to two other writer friends who will then make comments.  After more redrafting the work will then be rechecked by my wife before being passed to my agent for comments and then another rewrite.  All this is before an editor gets hold of it.

This is common practice amongst writers, in my experience, and is, I find, a pleasurable part of the writing experience.  One of the things I really enjoy is having got the shape of a story nailed, and then going back and filling in the details, expanding the characters, or – something that really appeals to me – cutting out as many extra words as I can.

Of course, there has been a significant change between Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and now, and that is the word processor.  I write entirely on a word processor, I only use a pen for writing down ideas in my notebook.  And of course, when you use a word processor, all those crossings out and changes that you can see on Le Carre’s MS, are never to be seen.

A little bit of a shame, I think.


A Narrower Focus

February 4, 2011

I sometimes wonder if I should narrow the focus of this blog.  I can’t help think that  allowing myself to write about Robots and Accordions gives me too wide a scope and I should instead restrict myself to, for example, only writing about 72 Bass accordions and androids.  Or maybe even further, so that I only discuss accordions that are actually being played by robots.

It has never been said that life is like a robot playing the accordion, but then again a lot of things haven’t been said about accordions, and maybe I am the one to say them.  After all, there aren’t many people talking about accordions nowadays.

But let’s get to the point.

A friend bought me a CD for Christmas.  I won’t name the friend, or the CD, but it was typical of a certain style of music that is popular at the moment, one which contains elements from all kinds of music.  A little Jazz, a little folk, baroque harpsichord ostinatos that segue straight into South American rhythms. You probably know the sort of thing I’m talking about.  Now, not for a moment would I suggest that people refrain from experimenting with other forms, but I think that there comes a point when you have to commit yourself to something.  You can’t really develop a piece if you keep throwing something new in every time you’re struggling for inspiration:  you’ve got to work with what you’ve got so far.  This is just as true in writing as it is in musical composition.

This, for me, is one of the attractions of good Genre fiction.  Immerse yourself in the conventions, and then use them to create something new.  It’s not the only way to write, by any means, but it’s a good one.


Tesco Christmas Adverts

January 3, 2011

If you missed Tesco’s Christmas Adverts and you feel the need to watch one of them then follow this link:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5bSiAV4chE

Alternatively, you can read about them here.

The series of adverts is based on two sisters.   One sister (Amanda Holden) has come into money, possibly through marriage, and is now very well off.  She now equates price with quality and is inclined to show off her wealth. The other sister (Fay Ripley) is more of an everyman figure, full of common sense.

Why am I mentioning this here?  Not, alas, because I have been paid to promote Tesco.  Rather, because this blog celebrates good writing.  The advert manages to convey the above situation in about two seconds worth of film, simply by the characters’ dress, their attitude and the fact that Fay Ripley says in rather hesitant voice, “Wow, this is lovely Sis”

Whatever you think about the rest of the advert, this is wonderfully economical writing.

Speaking of which, I’ve just seen the film Armageddon for the first time.  During this film, the heroes are caught on a malfunctioning space station.  Back at ground control, the supervisor asks for the personnel detectors to be turned on, and we see lights appear on the map of the station showing the crew’s current positions.  Now, surely it would have made sense to have the personnel detectors turned on at the start of the mission, but that ‘s not the point.  In one sentence the writer has explained what we are looking at and added just a smidgeon of tension to the action.  Great stuff.


The Cleverest Man in the World

December 15, 2010

A new short story of mine, appearing in Nature, 9th December 2010.