If Only…

September 5, 2012

This short story appears in the current issue of Nature.  You can read it here for a limited time: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v489/n7414/full/489170a.html

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.

Rise of the Machines

October 21, 2010

I’ve never spoken at an event before where they were turning people away at the door… however, I strongly suspect that this enthusiasm was more down to a wish to see Dr Kerstin Dautenhahn‘s robots than anything to do with me.

What an interesting event, too.  Organised by Sci-Fi London, and taking place in the Royal Society, the evening began with Dr Dautenhahn giving a twenty minute talk about her own research.  Afterwards, Tom Hunter led a discussion contrasting real world and science fictional robots.  Dr Dautenhahn was keen to stress that robots were neither he nor she but quite definitely it.  Whatever human traits people saw in a robots were those they brought themselves.  Contrast this with the general Science Fictional robot which is a human clad in metal.  There are exceptions, of course.  Asimov made great play of blurring the distinction, and, as Tom Hunter kindly pointed out, I did the same in my own short story “Teaching the War Robot to Dance”.

But back to the real robots…

One of the stars of the show was KASPAR, designed to study human robot interaction. (I had an interesting discussion with a roboticist before the event about the importance of studying how people approach each other.  If robots are to be accepted, they can’t simply zoom up behind people)  KASPAR has been used to work with children with autism: apparently, the children can find it easier to interact with than real people.  The plans for KASPAR are available for anyone to view, you can build a copy for around £1000.  I’ve put some pictures of the other robots on my Facebook page.

Oh, and did you know that one of the staircases in the Royal Society was designed by Albert Speer?  Honestly.  Nazis, autism, robots and Tom Hunter.  You don’t get this breadth of coverage on other blogs.


Blood and Iron Extract

March 17, 2010

I finished checking the page proofs for Blood and Iron today.  I’ve posted an extract over on my website:  follow the link http://www.tonyballantyne.com/?page_id=178

Stone Age, Iron Age

January 27, 2010

I’ve just got the copy edited manuscript for Blood and Iron from Macmillan and I’m busy working through it.  It always amazes me the inconsistencies the copy editor picks up.  The MS must have been read by at least six people by now, including me,  and none of us noticed that I used the same word eight times on one page, or that one character knows another’s name even though they’ve never met before.

The copy editor also queried the fact that I said the Stone Age came after the Iron Age.  In fact everyone so far has pointed out this is the wrong way round.  They’re right of course, but I state here, for the record, before the reviews come in, that on Penrose the robots learned to handle iron long before they learned to handle stone.  In fact, for robots, the Iron Age means the time of the birth of the robots.

Okay, I make it me 1, copy editor 552 and counting.

Max J Friedländer

November 1, 2009

I came across Friedländer in Michael Frayn’s novel Headlong (which comes thoroughly recommended).

Max J. Friedländer , 1867-1958, was a German art historian who, according to Frayn, warned against the “vanity of attempting to describe pictures in detail”.  Friedländer recommends “the strictest economy of words”, limiting oneself to “aphoristic remarks, put together unsystematically”.  The advice struck a chord with me on reading the book, and, as I discovered on subsequently searching the web, it seems to have struck a chord with others.

The advice reminds me of the eyeball kick, mentioned by the the Turkey City Lexicon,  amongst other guides:

That perfect, telling detail that creates an instant visual image. The ideal of certain postmodern schools of SF is to achieve a “crammed prose” full of “eyeball kicks.”

It wasn’t always thus.  Chesterton opened one of his Father Brown stories  to excellent effect with paragraphs of atmospheric description of  dark and sinister pine forests, but this is old fashioned writing in the days of big budget movies, especially for those of us working in the SF field.  You’re never going to get the reader to imagine the same spectacle as they can be seen on the big screen, but you can arrest them with the small details (It’s years since I read Schindler’s List, but the image that to always comes to my mind from that book is not the barbed wire or the soldiers, but the little girl in the red coat).

Personally, I don’t like passages describing scenery, I like to keep such things to a minimum, but maybe that’s a matter of taste.

Or maybe not.  You’d be surprised how much description a reader fills in for themselves.  Think of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.  About the only description Austen gives is that he is tall.  The rest is left to the reader’s imagination.