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.

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