Archive for Star Wars

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.

More Reviews as The Empire Strikes Back

Posted in reviews, star blaze with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2010 by keithmansfield

Another week and two more reviews. I’m still waiting for someone to say something bad about Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze, but so far so good.

It was really touching that The Bookbag didn’t want to read the second book because they enjoyed Johnny Mackintosh and he Spirit of London so much. The Book Zone (for Boys) said exactly the same thing. I might have said before that I pitched Johnny Mackintosh to Quercus, my publisher, as “Harry Potter meets Star Wars” so it was wonderful to read The Book Zone’s description of the dilemma as to whether or not to read the second book:

“Ever since reading (and being disappointed by) Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator I have often felt a little pessimistic before reading sequels to books I had thoroughly enjoyed – will the author manage to recreate the magic with their second book? … However, with Star Blaze my pessimism was totally unfounded – in the same way that The Empire Strikes Back improved on Star Wars: A New Hope, so too does Star Blaze improve on its predecessor, and that is praise indeed. And the parallels don’t end there – like Empire, Star Blaze is also a much darker book in places than the first in the series.”

Sometimes in my school talks I’ve polled the kids on their favourite Star Wars films and then re-enacted a key scene from The Empire Strikes Back, much my own favourite of the series, precisely because it’s so much darker. Real life isn’t often black and white and I prefer a level of ambiguity in the books and films I read and watch. I don’t like the goodies winning through too easily and, if they get there in the end, it shouldn’t have been straightforward – there need to have been some tough choices along the way. I had been thinking the third Johnny Mackintosh book needed to be a bit darker to reflect this, but maybe I’ve already got there if The Book Zone’s picked up on this.

There were some further gems in the review:

“There are so many things I loved about this book that I don’t really know how to start … the characters are very well developed…. all of them, not just Johnny … The world building is also outstanding … On top of this, there is also enough action to rival the glut of boy secret agent books we have seen in recent years, and the plot twists and turns so it is difficult to second guess exactly what will happen next.”

I’m not sure there’s any greater satisfaction for an author than when someone really gets your book, so a huge thanks to The Book Zone. The pressure’s on to make sure number three isn’t full of silly Ewoks like The Return of the Jedi!

Also this week, Justine Crow of the brilliant Crystal Palace indie bookshop The Bookseller Crow on the Hill gave Star Blaze a mention on p.10 of the latest Families London & SE Magazine :

“While we are on the subject of world domination, coming out this month is a new adventure for medium sized readers starring the space-buckling hero who thinks nothing of zooming off on his private spaceship, The Spirit of London, to save Earth, though clearly jetting round the galaxy is gonna play havoc with his GCSEs.”

It’s always been important to me that Johnny’s life is grounded here on Earth, facing lots of the same problems as his readers. I did cut a whole load of stuff out of Star Blaze that showed how Johnny learns the national curriculum, and am delighted Justine realizes those exams aren’t going to be plain sailing.

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