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!

Milky Way News Network added

Posted in Readers content, Website news with tags , , , , , , on April 16, 2011 by keithmansfield

The latest change to the website is the addition of the Milky Way News Network, a place for readers’ versions of how the events in the Johnny Mackintosh books might have been reported. To send me your own reports, or links to online news videos, email keith[at]keithmansfield.co.uk (replacing the “[at]” with the regular email symbol.

Readers’ Gallery Created

Posted in Readers content, Website news with tags , , , , , , , on April 13, 2011 by keithmansfield

In true Vision On style, I’ve finally taken some of the wonderful pictures I’ve been sent and begun a readers’ gallery. I’ll do my best to scan more images and start adding others as they come in. You can access it by clicking on this thumbnail drawing of a Krun.

If you want to send me your drawings, you can email them to keith[at]keithmansfield.co.uk replacing the [at] with the regular email symbol.

Cover preview of Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth

Posted in Battle for Earth, Book news with tags , , , , , on January 3, 2011 by keithmansfield

Here’s a sneak preview of what you have to look forward to later in 2011:

I’ve been lucky to have had three absolutely fabulous cover designs so far, each striking but different. They all have their strengths, but what this one does is tie the story to Earth in the here and now, which is always something I’ve been very keen on. When books are branded “science fiction” it can suggest “a long time ago in a galaxy faraway” and immediately exclude 95% of your potential audience. Of course I love the genre, but have always tried to write for a general readership.

I do like that bold, slanted text, which I’ve not seen on other books. Perhaps, as word of Johnny Mackintosh spreads, we’ll be able to re-cover all the books so they match and we can establish a series identity.

Happy New Year!

Timeslip Tuesday Review from America

Posted in Book news, New York, reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2011 by keithmansfield

Some of my favourite stories include the possibility of time travel. From Hermione’s time turner to Clare Abshire being forever left behind, it’s a theme that can lead to engrossing books. So it was exciting to discover a whole review section of Charlotte’s Library (a book site for kids and teenagers) called Timeslip Tuesdays.

For the weekly feature, Charlotte’s reviewed Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London. As far as I know, it’s the very first US review of Johnny’s books and hope it paves the way for more to come. Having lived in the US (I spent some time growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania) and travelling there often for work, it’s a country I’m especially fond of and I hope New York readers of Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze will vouch for the accuracy of Johnny’s escape through the city.

Readers of this blog will know that there was recently a review of Star Blaze from Australia. For an author, it’s an amazing treat to discover people in other countries reading your stories. I’ve also seen reviews from South Africa and heard of people seeing the books on the shelves in Singapore! Sadly, world domination still seems some way off, but it’s good to know that the books are slowly percolating around the globe.

Charlotte’s timeslip review says:

“Lots of action, twists and turns of plot, and a generous dollop of suspense make for a page-turning adventure that is, I think, just the ticket for a sci fi loving upper middle grade reader (and the sort of book an adult reader who’s willing to suspend disbelief and who’s looking for something fun should appreciate as well). The story is told strictly from Johnny’s point of view, so the reader only knows what he does, keeping things very interesting indeed.

“… I’ll be passing this one right over to my ten-year old, and I bet he enjoys it (space ships! computers! aliens! dinosaurs! sinister bad guys!).

“Time travel-wise–the journey of Johnny and Clara back in time leads to interesting sub-plots and intriguing explorations of paradox. It’s a key part of the plot, in a very sci-fi way (as opposed to time-travel for the sake of exploring the past, or for the sake of exploring characters). And as such it works well, adding zest and excitement to a story already full of both.”

For those who want to read more about time travel, take a look at my Science of Johnny Mackintosh page.