Archive for August, 2011

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!