Book Review: A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris

He is known by several titles. Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots, Edward Plantagenet. He is Edward I and the author believes that his life is overdue a modern retelling of his life. Perhaps inspired by Alison Weir’s dominance of the Tudors, perhaps wanting to correct the injustices of Braveheart (cruel pagan indeed!), Morris has sought to provide a critical and factual account of his life largely bereft of personal prejudice. Some may sneer at the moral relativism of excusing Edward I’s anti-semitism as fairly conventional for the time, but for me this adds a harsh tone of reality for the King and his people of feeling toward the Jews in the 13th century.

Morris has worked well in carefully omitting whatever his own personal feelings are, showing in equal measure why Edward I was at once both a great and a terrible king, prolific builder, ruthless conqueror, shrewd businessman, tyrant, prolific taxer, defender of the faith concerned largely with ensuring the safety of his kingdom.

It is his history with Scotland that receives the most analysis. Morris carefully demonstrates the role Edward played in bringing the conflict between Robert Bruce and John Balliol to a close and the fact that the land north of the border would occupy his time right up to his death. His dealings with Scotland is a microcosm of the man: excellent diplomat on one hand, ruthless militarist on the other. One account describes his engineers building the largest trebuchet ever seen (which he named Warwolf) to besiege a certain castle; it was so large that the Scots, upon seeing it, decided to surrender. Edward refused to accept until the ‘Warwolf’ had been fully tested against them.

In conclusion, Morris highlights some interesting facts: Edward was so well travelled that it would see the dawn of the modern age before we would see another monarch who would visit as many countries.

Where the author falls down is in his apparent belief that Edward sought to create a proto ‘Britain’. Even the sub-title ‘Edward I and the forging of Britain’, as delectable as that might sound, urges us to caution. Certainly the case is compelling: he ended the Welsh royal line and first granted the title of the heir to the English throne ‘Prince of Wales’ but I’m not sure this can be indicative of anything other than a desire to expand the kingdom of England with a view to claiming lands he desired (Wales and Scotland) and lands he believed was his by right and had been lost by previous kings (France).

Overall this is an enlightening read about one of England’s most notorious kings.


End of the World scenarios in science fiction – Post a Day #105

What is it that fascinates us as people so much about the end of humanity? What is it about the end of humanity, or the end of the world, that entices science fiction writers so much? For an answer to the first question you are best off asking a psychologist, for an answer to the second I will answer from my own experiences.

For me, it is about speculation on two things: 1) how it happens and 2) what happens next. And as science fiction is speculative with a limitless ways of how the end might come about and an equally limitless number of “what happens next” scenarios. It can be quite a fascinating idea just thinking about the potential disasters we face and how we might react. Will we have a complete breakdown of all social norms fighting in a dog-eat-dog world for resources? Or would we seek to form communities founded on what went before or something entirely new? Would we be able to survive? There may be obstacles – giant man eating plants like Triffids in a world where most people are blind; the land might be poisoned where nothing can grow, as in The Road; a population reduced to less than 1% having to learn to do so much just to grow enough food in Survivors, or a population suffering the ravages of nuclear war in Threads.

I’m sure I don’t need a comprehensive list but in the last ten years we’ve had (in film and TV): The Day After Tomorrow; 2012; 28 Days/Weeks Later; I Am Legend; Dawn of the Dead; The Road; Aeon Flux; The Book of Eli; Daybreakers; Doomsday; Terminator: Salvation; Children of Men; The Road; Knowing; Survivors. Some of these were based on books but all had the theme of the end of civilisation and what happened next.

I have used the scenario in three of my short stories: A New Age Exodus; Crimson Sands; Forlorn and of course, my novel and each explores a different theme.

The best known recent example of post-apocalypse novel is Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” which was made into a film a couple of years ago. I know I’ve discussed it before and I still haven’t read it (though I have seen the film). It deals with a complete collapse of society as people struggle to survive. The ground is poisoned and the environment is locked in a permanent winter. Like the TV film Threads before it it is an utterly horrific existence, so what possesses people to write something so bleak let alone read it? Beats me, and though I’ve not written anything as bleak as The Road, I have every intention of reading it. I used to think that it was a secret desire on the part of all of us to wipe the slate clean and start again… and to get it right this time. If so, are we that deluded? Even in fiction things are never that simple. If any reader here would like to hazard another guess then please comment on this issue.

There is arguably no more prolific apocalypse scenario than a world over-run by zombies, and even more arguably it is possibly the worst possible outcome to be walled into a fortress unable to leave for the threat of the undead outside. From the first Night of the Living Dead in 1968 to last year’s The Walking Dead, walking rotten corpses have never been very far from popular imagination. And when you think about it, we never seem to grow bored with the same recycled storyline. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much as fascinated with them as I ever was and I’ve recently bought a booked called Zombie Apocalypse! by Stephen Jones. It isn’t really a novel in the traditional sense, it is put together more as a collection of personal e-mails, newspaper cuttings and telephone conversations. But anyway, when you think about it most zombie films are the same… a group; of desperate humans walled in somewhere suffer cabin fever and end up being swamped by zombies in their once safe fortress after somebody goes mad, gets desperate, spiteful or negligent. Yet we never grow tired of it and I guess the zombie genre is the one where we might forgive repetition.

BSFA Awards 2010

Although I seriously doubt any of the contenders for the 2010 award read this blog, I would like to wish all of the shortlisted nominees the best of luck for this weekend’s announcement of the winner of the BSFA 2010.

Best Novel
Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl (Orbit)
Lauren Beukes – Zoo City (Angry Robot)
Ken Macleod – The Restoration Game (Orbit)
Ian McDonald – The Dervish House (Gollancz)
Tricia Sullivan – Lightborn (Orbit)

All BSFA 2010 Nominees

Shamefully, I have read few BSFA winners (Chasm City 2001 winner; Excession 1996 winner; Red Mars 1992 winner; Rendezvous with Rama 1973 winner) if the quality of those are anything to go by then I am confident that all five nominees represent the best examples of British Sci Fi of the last year.

Elisabeth Sladen 1948-2011

I wouldn’t normally do this but today, one of the greatest Doctor Who companions passed away aged 63 and I feel compelled to write.

Elisabeth Sladen first appeared on Doctor Who playing journalist Sarah Jane Smith during the tenure of Jon Pertwee. She would go on beyond his regeneration and become one of the best loved companions to Tom Baker. She left when The Doctor was called to Gallifrey on urgent matters at the end of The Hand of Fear. Wiki reports that the press coverage of her departure was unsurpassed for a companion, such was her popularity.

But The Hand of Fear would not be the end of her role with Doctor Who. She was invited back first to see out Tom Baker’s era (but declined) and then for a spin off series featuring K9 (which was never made). She did appear in The Five Doctors.

She went on, as most did, to record audio books and her popularity would carry over to 2005 when Doctor Who returned to our screens. In 2006′s School Reunion she reprised her role and met David Tennant’s Doctor. She told him that he (as Tom Baker) had left her, not near her London home, but in Aberdeen.

Following on from this popular cameo, Sarah Jane would appear on two more occasions before Tennant regenerated. Also, Sarah Jane got her own spin off series The Sarah Jane Adventures which Matt Smith’s Doctor and Katy Manning (Jo Grant) would appear. It ran for four years with another two series planned by the BBC.

Farewell Sarah Jane.

Book Review: Dune by Frank Herbert

Duke Leto of the House Atreides is given the contract to mine the all-precious spice melange from the sands of the harsh desert world Arrakis. His wife Jessica and son Paul leave the watery world of Caladan for their new home. The previous operation had been run by their mortal enemies, House Harkonnen and they arrive on a planet whose people suffered at their brutal hand. Melange is the most important substance to the empire and without it, space travel would not be possible.

When the Atreides are betrayed and attacked by the Harkonnen, Paul and his mother must take sanctuary with the indigenous population – the Fremen – and learn their ways in order to create an army and fulfil the prophecy of the Mahdi. Finally they discover the truth about the conspiracy that led to the fall of House Atreides and the roll of the church and the Emperor himself.

For me, no other book matches the sheer scope of imagination that Frank Herbert invested in his best known work. We can only begin to imagine the effort required to painstakingly create such a complex society and integrate it seamlessly to create one of the finest genre novels ever written. The characters are rich and realistic, the plot has so many layers and the political and religious intrigue and one of the most comprehensive back stories ever that Frank Herbert’s son was able to write six prequels, makes Dune one of the ‘must read’ novels for the scifi fan.

So far, Dune has been adapted for the screen twice. In the 1980s, David Lynch created an adaptation that was visually amazing but lacking the substance of the novel. About ten years ago, a small screen adaptation despite having a minuscule budget, managed to do what Lynch could not… but the lack of budget was obvious and the desert backdrops were clearly matt paintings because you could see where they were joined.

The first two sequels (Dune Messiah and Children of Dune) were later adapted to TV. With a much higher budget, well adapted script and superb acting (a first major acting role for James McAvoy as Leto II), I highly recommend it.


The First Six Months

I have been blogging for six months now and so far it has been an enjoyable and enlightening experience.

At first I wanted it to provide a focus for my fiction writing. By publicly setting goals it gave me a sense of having a deadline that, though not to be strictly adhered to like school work, forced me to focus and motivate myself to write something… anything.

My first target was to finish (then untitled) ‘Angel’s Mass’ by Christmas. Once I knew that the best way to go forwards with it was to go backwards by cutting out such a significant section, the rest seemed to flow with relative ease.

I never intended this blog to be post after post of ‘another 500 words tonight, whoop!’ or ‘didn’t write tonight, keep checking back!’ littered with the occasional link to an online article, because I knew that I would get few readers and it would be a pointless waste of time. That was why I decided to start writing discussion pieces about my short stories (I will get around to doing similar articles for my older work in due course).

In turn, this made me start thinking about ideas behind the fiction and about what we as writers are trying to say about the world. Of course, most just want to tell a story and we shouldn’t attempt to put words into the mouth of anybody and insist that social messages exist where they do not. However, the majority of good quality science fiction does have a message, whether that be about the human condition, the dangers or the social impact of technological advance, religion and philosophy or many other ideas that are designed to get you thinking.

Writing articles and mini essays (I think the first was this post from the end of January about technology) has really got me thinking more about what I am trying to say through my fiction besides telling a story. I find I’m projecting those thoughts when engaging with fiction written by others ever since seeing The National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein. I’m currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream and I’m expecting that this will be yet another of Robinson’s fine work that will spin my head around. Writing about these thoughts also helps me to channel my own ideas. I expect that mini essays such as the one about Frankenstein will continue, so watch this space.

I hadn’t initially intended to publish book reviews (though I do write them for publication elsewhere) but the benefits so far has seen an increase in my daily hit rate from around 10 to around 40 and a lot more traffic from search engines. I’m going to continue publishing them here for now.

My final comment goes to you, my readers whether you subscribe to this blog or not, for reading, liking and commenting on my posts. But please may I politely ask if you are so inclined to read some of my written work at Elfwood or (links are on the left hand side)? I crave feedback and any comments you have will always be appreciated.

- procrastin8or

My novel – Post a day #99

This one is right up my street. Obviously I have written a book, it is finished and now I’m editing prior to finding a potential agent. I’m going to give a quick run down of what it is about… not quite sure I have done that yet in any great depth.

It is the mid 26th century and the apocalypse has been and gone. Mankind has survived, but barely. Europe descended into chaos but was quickly reorganised by a new church. This church is anti-technology and effectively, we have a second medieval period. They are also anti diversity and are brutally suppressing all other Christian groups.

When the Archbishop of Westminster (the most senior church official in Britain) sees his brother brutally murdered, he goes on extended absence and stumbles upon a plot he could never have imagined. At the other end of the spectrum is an assassin who, when caught in the act of committing a serious crime, is offered the chance to switch sides.

That’s all you’re getting :p

Using all of your senses 3 – Smell and Taste

Smells and the description of odours can be used to good effect in fiction writing and similarly to sound, can invoke a wide range of emotions. The smell of fresh bread baking can invoke childhood memories of a much-loved grandparent, or it can emphasise that the character is in a supermarket.

As writers we arguably underestimate the usefulness of the description of smell. A well-used description can place ideas into the reader’s mind, effectively creating so many blanks for the reader’s mind to fill in. For me the term “fresh-cut grass”, just three words long, invokes spring. My mind will fill in the rest: sun shining, cool breeze, flowers blooming, bees, lazy sunday afternoons in the garden sipping my drink of choice.

Similarly to my example of a baby crying in the post about sound, smell can be used to dramatic effect. The most obvious is a fire which are often smelt long before they are seen.

Horror writers are highly likely to use smell as a plot device: the smell of rotting or burning flesh can build apprehension. Stephen King refers to the resurrected animals in Pet Sematary smelling of soil and rotten flesh and I can recall several of James Herbert’s novels referring to a certain smell (such as roses) preceding a supernatural event.

I can think of precious few examples of fiction where taste has been used to particularly good effect. In fact I can’t think of any. It is probably because its range is so limited, after all we associate it almost entirely with food and it isn’t very often we read a detailed description of somebody eating a meal. In the real world, most of us do that three times per day and as adults we rarely eat things that we find unpleasant.

There are other uses. Writers often in their text refer to air ‘having a bad taste’, which usually means that oxygen supply is limited. Though technically they probably mean ‘smell’, some smells are so pungent that when breathing in through the mouth they do leave an unpleasant taste. A character deciding to put a gun in his mouth might notice the taste of oil.

Book Review: The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

Book 1 in the “Sally Lockhart Mysteries” series.

This is the first in Philip Pullman’s series concerning a quiet, reserved young girl as she attempts to unravel the mystery of her father’s death. Set in Victorian England, this short novel is populated with a colourful cast of characters: cheeky cockney Jim, the sinister Mrs Holland, a noble photographer and his outspoken sister.

With their help, Sally gets sucked into and then attempts to uncover the mystery of a coded message she receives from her father and races against time to discover the secret of a priceless ruby and just why so many people have died because of it.

Sally is quite a fascinating character, far from being what is now a stereotype of a surprisingly emancipated woman in a time before suffrage, is practical, strong yet vulnerable at the same time. No big social issues concerning Victoria society are covered here and this makes a refreshing change amongst the wealth of historical fiction and relies on telling a good story that keeps you guessing until the end.

Although aimed at young adults, this will also appeal to fans of Victorian mystery writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle.

A bit short at a shade over 200 pages but a cracking lazy weekend read.

There was a TV adaptation a few years back starring Billie Piper as Sally, Matt Smith as Jim and Julie Walters as Mrs Holland.


Social Commentary in Science Fiction

So I can’t really get the events of Frankenstein out of my head and it is still giving me much to ponder, not in and of itself, but how science fiction is such a major and important conduit for social commentary. If I had studied sociology instead of archaeology at university, I would like to have written a dissertation on how science fiction is the most effective medium for raising awareness of, or commentating on, social issues.

I have already discussed Frankenstein at great length so I’m going to say no more on it here. Instead I am going to deal solely with 20th century fiction and issues that will be most familiar to us.

I guess the most famous examples of social commentary through science fiction are the dystopia novels of 1984 and Brave New World. Both deal with issues that were immediate concerns at the time of writing.

1984 is a bleak and unrelenting critique of totalitarian government inspired by the abuses of Hitler and Stalin. Even those who have not read it are familiar with the terms it invented and arguably no other book has introduced more words into the vernacular: Big Brother, doublethink, doublespeak, thought-crime, thought police and more that escape my memory.

Brave New World is a slightly different kettle of fish. This focuses on the new industrial world and the worship of capitalism and industry as the new gods. There is a tone of satire about the writing style, though it is by no means humorous. In Huxley’s world, “Fordism” is the philosophy and religion on which society is based, the principles of industrialisation from production through to consumption created in the image of Henry Ford. Enforced consumerism and a “throw-it-away-for-the-greater-glory-of-the-market” attitude makes this as relevant today as it was when mass production began.

Ray Bradbury is the master of social commentary in scifi. He uses the mass availability of rocket technology in The Martian Chronicles as a catalyst for the civil rights movement. We may chuckle at the quaint idea that we might have in 1950s believed that by the 21st century we would wander around a showroom for a rocket for our travels as we do with cars, but the wrong-headedness of this sort of thinking is irrelevant when we consider the sort of social impact such a change in technological availability might give us. Obviously the civil rights movement was not born of technological revolution, but there are examples of social change that have come about as a result of technological advancement.

John Wyndham is another such writer, I recently discussed ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ and mulled over whether the issues that the writer tackles in that book is a critique of Communism, or of anti-Communist sentiment that would have been contemporary at the time of writing, or whether it was a critique of fear mongering in general.

Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ which has attracted much scorn from the religious right for its negative portrayal of Christianity, and particularly the Catholic Church, is ultimately a fable about free will and the inherent tyrannical nature of organised religion. One of Pullman’s most vocal supporters is no less than the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Doctor Rowan Williams. Where I disagree with Williams is that he argues that the story is a critique of how religion can be corrupted by the failings of humankind, I feel that Pullman is saying that religion by its very nature is tyrannical. Further, Williams is ignoring the critique of the concept of “free will” and how HDM demonstrates that it is an illusion.

Social commentary needn’t be tackling grand ideas about politics, religion or society. They can also handle smaller issues and those on a personal scale. My favourite TV series of all time is Babylon 5 and three episodes in the first series were initially not aired by the channel that showed it in the UK. They are TKO, Believers and Deathwalker.

Be warned, I have strong views on some of the issues I am about to discuss but I am only going to present the facts of the relevant stories for the purpose of this article. I am not going to attempt to push my views onto anybody so I would appreciate that anybody who feels the need to comment on this article refrains from doing the same. I appreciate that you too may have strong views but please, do not use this thread as a soapbox.

Channel 4 refused to show TKO on the basis that it was too violent. A ‘Karate Kid’ clone about a world champion boxer looking for a new challenge, it wasn’t that good and the subject matter is irrelevant to this discussion so I will not comment further.

Believers deals with a highly delicate issue that may have been considered offensive to some religious people, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses. The story was about a family of aliens who had recently arrived on the station looking for medical help for their sick son. Doctor Franklin explains that it is an illness that would require only a minor operation… and therein is the problem. Their religion forbids the body being cut open as it may permit an evil spirit to enter the body. At first Doctor Franklin tries to reason with them but in the end he gets frustrated and asks Commander Sinclair to make the boy a ward of the station so that the medical staff can perform the operation against the wishes of the parents.

Deathwalker is controversial in a different way. Jha’dur is the last of her species, a Dilgar. Unfortunately, she is also a war criminal responsible for horrific Mengele-esque experiments on G’Kar’s people, the Narn. When G’Kar’s aide Na’Toth attacks Jha’dur, it is revelaed that she has derailed an attempt by the Narn government to profit from some of her research. A struggle ensues between the parties on board the station to gain exclusive access to her discovery. What it is and how she achieved it is absolutely horrific but that doesn’t stop all of the races fighting for exclusive access to her elixir. Clearly, this is a simile for how the allied powers struggled against one another to gain access to Nazi technology following World War II despite that some of this technology was acquired and developed through the most inhumane and horrific means.

There is arguably no greater contentious issue in the world today than abortion and though Babylon 5 (as far as I can recall) never tackled the issue on-screen, its natural successor Battlestar Galactica had no such qualms as it handled the issue twice.

The first instance was when it was discovered that Sharon ‘Boomer’ Valerii was pregnant with a hybrid baby (Boomer was a cylon). There was some discussion about how they could afford the luxury of such an abomination being born. Many people were angered and there was some suggestion that Boomer, who was a prisoner at the time, and her child should not be afforded the same rights as humans. In short, they wanted to forcibly abort her baby against the parents wishes. The irony of the storyline was that the stem cells of this hybrid baby ended up saving the life of a cancer patient.

In the second storyline, we have the issue of a young girl who claims political asylum from her colony of birth and wants an abortion under Twelve Colonies law. The colony she came from was very religious, though abortion was not actually illegal. The girl wants an abortion, she has the legal right. End of, right? Actually no. The problem being that the whole premise of Battlestar Galactica is that millions of humans from 12 colonies had fled – not a war – but a genocide that no more than 40,000 humans survived. With constant military action, surprise attacks both by and against the human race, numbers are dropping faster than babies are being born. Can they any longer afford the legal luxury of aborting a healthy baby?

President Laura Roslin, who was pro-choice before, has now taken the opposite stance. I always found President Roslin a deceitful character and this episode demonstrates perfectly my reasons for having this opinion of her. You see, though she claims that her reason for opposing this abortion are purely for the numbers and the continued survival of humanity, by this point Roslin has become a bit of a cult figure to the religious groups as she is expected to fulfil a prophecy of a dying leader finding the lost 13th colony. President Roslin has fostered this view, and perhaps has even come to believe it, but either way she relies on these religious groups for votes in the upcoming Presidential election.

Battlestar Galactica also tackles suicide bombing perpetrated by both sides. In an early episode, a cylon that looks human detonates himself in a crowded hallway on board Galactica. This is the first confirmation for the survivors (though not for the audience) that there are cylons that look human. This confirmation sows discord as suspicions arise – now anybody could be a cylon.

In the third series, the shoe is on the other foot. The human colony has been discovered and they are now occupied by the Cylons. There is a resistance led by Saul Tigh and Laura Roslin… and now they are encouraging people to strap bombs to their bodies and kill as many collaborators and cylons as possible.

In the first instance we are clearly feeling the fear of what the cylons can do and how they are now undetectable. In the second instance, we are seeing it through the eyes of freedom fighters and forced to confront the morality of their actions.

Which brings me finally to the role of religion on Battlestar Galactica and the subversive criticism of it. Both the cylons and the humans have religion in which they profoundly believe, there are fanatics on both sides and both are convinced of their righteousness through their god or gods of choice. Through the evil actions perpetrated by both sides against the other in the name of religion, we are perhaps forced to ask ourselves a question that television rarely dares to confront us with: Are gods created in the image of man as an attempt to justify the horrific things we are capable of doing to each other?

I’m not finished on this issue, and I promise to return to it at a later date.