Archive for August, 2011

Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Harry Potter

Posted in Battle for Earth, Harry Potter, Influences, Writers with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2011 by keithmansfield

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 writing class I’d been going to it hit me like a sledgehammer. Although I enjoyed reading authors like those four listed, there was nothing I loved reading more than Harry Potter. Just as it was books from my childhood that had left further, indelible marks on me. And that I felt that about Harry despite, not because of, the subject matter. How much better it might be if I could write the same sort of story, but replacing magic with science, and having aliens instead of goblins and house elves, and football instead of Quidditch, and pack it with fun gadgets and computers.

I began writing Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London. The other novels I’d tried to create had all been hard work – this was like reading my all-time favourite book, but it was up to me how it developed. It flowed so well. And, many twists and turns later, it’s remarkable that the third in my own series publishes tomorrow.

I have no doubt that Jo Rowling is the greatest writer and storyteller of her (my) generation and seriously underrated. I suspect a lot of it is due to jealousy of her success. Whenever I read other books aimed at the same market, often by lauded authors, I find myself picking holes in their writing and technique, but I can’t find fault with the writing behind Harry Potter. When I was first working on the Johnny Mackintosh stories I would actually read the Harry Potter books in a continuous loop to remind myself of the incredible voice I was trying to find. If a new book was coming out I might have to pause my own writing for a while so I could time it perfectly to finish, say, Goblet of Fire, the day before Order of Phoenix came out so I could carry straight on into the new book.

Sound a little obsessive? Maybe, but I am Harry Potter’s number one fan and don’t let anyone tell you different. In fact, here’s a Harry Potter Quiz I once wrote for the Sunday Telegraph magazine, just before The Deathly Hallows came out. They asked me to create something ungooglable. They also wanted me to include a fair amount of film stuff (as they didn’t realize fans cared about the last book being released, not the fifth film). Also, they wanted multiple choice and so I gave five answers to each question, but the final piece was printed with only four possibilities, so not all the questions work as intended. But I’m still proud of it. The STEWS setting was my idea too.

When I pitched the Johnny Mackintosh books to agents and publishers the 10 second sell I began with was “Harry Potter in space” (or sometimes “Harry Potter meets Star Wars in case they thought at this stage that Harry Potter alone hadn’t made enough money). People who know me will know that dreams are a big part of my life  and I suspect the same is probably true of JKR, because of the way she weaves Harry’s into the stories. I’ve done the same. The best bit about the Potter books is the way so many clues are hidden in plain sight. It’s wonderful trying to spot them – for instance, Chamber of Secrets is particularly packed full of clues that point to events into the far future, even including books six and seven. I’ve tried to do the same. Up until about draft 30 of Spirit of London (yes you read that right) I think my setting for Johnny was too similar to that of Harry’s, in that I had my own hero living with foster parents. Then, after a year of rewriting and plotting, I came up with the idea of Halader House and the children’s home in which my story begins.

I could wax lyrical about the boy who lived for days/weeks/months, but I’m sure you get the idea. Tomorrow my third book will be published and it’s a huge thank you to Jo Rowling for helping that happen. And now I might just pop out and see if I can buy a copy of and then start on a book I’ve still never read: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Edith Nesbit

Posted in Battle for Earth, Influences, Writers with tags , , , , , on August 30, 2011 by keithmansfield

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’s The 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.

Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Douglas Adams

Posted in Battle for Earth, Influences, Writers with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2011 by keithmansfield

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 fiction. Something I feel has been a little absent in the first couple of Johnny Mackintosh books has been that they’ve not been as funny as I’d like. As a storyteller, I like to be funny. As someone who scripts entertainment TV shows, I have to be funny. Even though the story of Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth is at its heart a serious adventure, I do think there’s a better balance with more humour thrown in this time.

Curiously, the Guide came out within three months of the original Star Wars movie (nowadays known as Episode IV: A New Hope). One of the things I’ve tried to convey to my readers is the sheer wonder anyone must feel at the sights they encounter in space. When we have the beauty of Saturn’s rings in our own solar system, just imagine what else is out there waiting for us to find and hopefully share, a little like Rutger Hauer’s final lines of Blade Runner (the “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe” speech). One of those sights must be the spectacle of a double sunset in a binary star system. It happens in Star Wars but I remember it very well from the Hitchhiker’s Guide as something I’ve always been desperate to see.

Arthur Dent, the accidental Earthman hero of the Hitchhiker’s Guide describes the double sunset he sees on the legendary planet of Magrathea as:

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my wildest dreams. The two suns … it was like mountains of fire boiling into space”

to which Marvin the Paranoid Android replies:

“I’ve seen it. It’s rubbish.”

When I wrote my blog about Blake’s 7 a few days ago I remember now (!) I meant to say my quantum computer Kovac is actually a kind of terrible cross between the Blake’s 7 computer Orac and the android Marvin – both were funny. For Arthur Dent, seeing this sunset is his first experience of standing on an alien world and I wanted to give Johnny Mackintosh the same thrill. When he first lands with Captain Valdour on Melania, he gets to see the twin suns of Arros and Deynar setting together and it’s something that stays with him throughout the books. Just as the Hitchhiker’s Guide has always stayed with me.

Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: The Flipside of Dominick Hide

Posted in Influences, Science, television with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2011 by keithmansfield

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!

Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Doctor Who

Posted in Battle for Earth, Influences, television, Writers with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2011 by keithmansfield

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 that really stood out. He penned such seminal Tennant episodes as “Blink” and “The Girl in the Fireplace” (pictured). I had a long chat with Moffat, lead writer and executive producer of Dr Who at this year’s Royal Television Society awards – Moffat had won a gong for lifetime achievement while at least I’d been rewarded with a very lovely dinner. We talked for a long time about our shared love of the show and he even said he’d try the Johnny Mackintosh books out on his kids.

The brilliance of Who is that it’s true entertainment for all the family. It’s become a televisual event – one of those must-watch shows that’s talked about by the watercooler. Great writers such as Moffat occasionally borrow and it seemed to me that “The Girl in the Fireplace” owed much to Audrey Niffenberger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.

In Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth I borrowed what I thought was one of the great lines from Doctor Who himself. They’re the very final five words spoken by Tennant’s Doctor: “I don’t want to go”. You’ll have to read #JMB4E to see why they’re spoken, but echoing Tennant’s lines was partly put into the book as a thank you to Tennant and Moffatt for the great pleasure they’ve given me in watching their work.

One of the strands of Doctor Who, certainly in the recent reboot, has been the way the Doctor’s time travelling influences real events. Those of you who’ve read Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London will know that’s a strong theme of the first book in my own series.

Interestingly, I can’t help feeling that the influence might sometimes have gone the other way. The Piccadilly, one of the Spirit of London’s shuttle craft is in the form of a flying London double-decker bus, something used later on Who in the Easter special episode, “Planet of the Dead”. Then, as we reached the halfway point of the current series there were headless monks dressed in scarlet robes at Demons Run (in the episode “A Good Man Goes to War”). These looked pretty much deadringers for my own (also headless) Owlessan Monks who first appeared in Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze and continue through Battle for Earth.

Like all fans, I can’t wait to discover how the current series arc all fits together. The curse of being a writer is that you often can’t help spotting the subtle clues planted along the way, so right now I’m confident of a lot of good guesses, but doubtless there’ll be plenty of surprises too. If you’re a fan of the Doctor and haven’t yet read any of my books I’d definitely recommend you start at the beginning with Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London.

Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Blake’s 7

Posted in Influences, Space, television with tags , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2011 by keithmansfield

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 show ended after four series with all protagonists being killed off. It was the days before video recorders so I put an audio microphone in front of the TV and recorded the entire episode onto tape. For years I could recite it word for word when the occasion arose (and you’d be surprised how often that happened).

Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Iain (M.) Banks

Posted in Influences, Writers with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2011 by keithmansfield

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.

I think where Banks has really influenced me is in the style of the story-telling. What I mean is that there’s normally a very long set-up and then everything comes together in a frantic, fast-paced conclusion. Sometimes you’re only seeing the situation from the point of view of a few characters (as with Johnny) and you only realize at the very end that rather more of the Culture’s resources have been brought to bear on events than you knew – that you’re just seeing a part of the story.

I think I re-read Look to Windward as I was writing Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze so the book ran along similar lines and it was only the strictures of my editor that brought it more into line with what you might more normally expect for a book that children read.

Where I have borrowed most openly from Banks is the design of Galactic Emperor Bram Khari’s flagship, the Calida Lucia. The idea of fields and a flexible ship structure, complete with potentially gigantic hold, are very similar to a Culture General Systems Vehicle (GSV), although I haven’t come across any of those that have carpets which massage your feet.

I often find myself falling in love with Banks’ characters – they’re so alive and attractive. For instance, in one of my all time favourite books The Crow Road, like hero Prentice I fall first for “beautiful cousin Verity” before realizing by the end just how perfect Ashley has been throughout. Then there was the adorable Isis Whit, title character of the novel Whit, and I defy any geeky bloke not to love the plethora of femail Special Circumstances operatives who constantly save the day.

A recent Banks publication was Transmission, published without the “M.” but a story about travel between parallel Earths as different political factions fight for supremacy. A brilliant little detail in the books was an idea for locating aliens that doesn’t involve huge radio telescopes and vast amounts of computer resources to decode the signals. It looks at the problem from a completely different angle. What is it about Earth that makes our planet special – possibly a unique place in the galaxy? The answer is that by a great cosmic fluke the Sun and Moon appear exactly the same size in the sky, which in turn gives us the phenomenon of the total solar eclipse.

This is a sight that must be rare, even in our galaxy of 400 billion suns. If you’re a super-advanced alien being with unparalleled resources at your disposal, perhaps you get your kicks by seeing the sights? Perhaps you come to Earth as an eclipse tourist? Next year there are total eclipses in the western United States and Queensland, Australia. I intend to be present at both, thinking of my writing idol and keeping half an eye out for extraterrestrials while enjoying the view.

Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Carl Sagan

Posted in Influences, Science, Space, television, Writers with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2011 by keithmansfield

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 Contact, it was based on a Sagan book of the same name. As is almost always the case, the book’s much better than the film, and a brilliant combination of science, faith, dreams and aliens to the extent I always thought it was the story I wished I could have written myself. But in many ways Johnny Mackintosh covers all these themes.

A final note is that Sagan and then wife Linda Salzman Sagan actually designed the plaque that went on the side of Pioneer 10, one of the early robotic probes. In some ways it’s unfortunate that it contains a map, using pulsars, showing where the probe was sent from (ie where to go if you wanted to wipe humanity out). Nowadays I think we’d want to be more careful about advertising out presence, but there’s very little we can do as the cat’s already out of the bag. Ever since the invention of radio and then television we’ve been broadcasting into space at the speed of light, so there’s now a bubble a hundred light years in diameter around the Sun to tell ET where we are, and no way to turn it off. Once someone, somewhere on a planet orbiting a distant star, watches an episode of Cosmos and decides to pay us a visit, let’s just hope they’re friendly.

Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Isaac Asimov

Posted in Influences, Writers with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2011 by keithmansfield

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 nature remains is within the vast confines of the Imperial Palace.

Asimov’s “world-building” is something I hope rubbed off on me, trying to create a coherent, consistent universe in which to set the Johnny Mackintosh books. I’d say that one of his other stories, The End of Eternity, has about the best structure of a book I’ve come across and it’s a goal of mine to one day write the screenplay that turns it into the Hollywood blockbuster it deserves to be. I think Asimov didn’t simply influence my writing – he’s had an affect on my whole way of thinking. This great writer introduced me to a vision of a galaxy-wide human civilization, set in a far future when Earth was long-since forgotten and it was the stars that had become our home. It’s what I dream of.

Not long until the Battle for Earth

Posted in Battle for Earth, Book news, Influences with tags , , , on August 14, 2011 by keithmansfield

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!

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