Monday, June 24, 2013

Minority Report

Every little helps. So say Tesco.

And if I had their umptillions, I’d probably be able to hijack a common platitude for my massive advertising campaign too. Heck, I’d splash out on a duck-billed one.

Sadly, we can’t quite match their corporate might and it’s with feelings akin to those of a sentient and emotionally sensitive Titanic that I have to report the sales figures of Evil UnLtd books for the past 6 months (Nov 23rd 2012 to May 24th 2013) were pretty dismal.

Well, I tell a lie. They weren’t pretty at all.

This would be disappointing in any six month period. But for this particular six months it’s extra depressing. Because I’d decided to donate all royalties from the Evil series to Cancer Research UK and I’d really hoped to do some significant good. I even managed to feel a bit more comfortable with the whole promotion side of things and stepped up the campaign on social media, appealing to local newspapers and so on with greater determination and less shame than previously.

Clearly, I’m doing something wrong.

Obviously, I hate to lump anyone – least of all myself – in the same bracket as the Chancellor, but I fear I have fallen as far short of my targets as George Osborne. And that’s not a happy comparison. To be honest, I’d rather be a sentient Titanic and routinely strike icebergs. (The latter experience could be mitigated considerably by having Kate Winslet on board.)

When I first launched Evil UnLtd, I was resistant to self-publication. But in terms of my ability to spread the word about my books I’d based my calculations on the numbers of Facebook friends, Twitter followers and other internet contacts in my email address book. But as everyone knows – and I learned – it’s not quanity that counts so much as quality. Out of 400+ Facebook friends, for example, about 30 would usually respond in the positive to Event invitations and the like. (A special breed of ‘friend’ will consistently respond in the negative and then follow up shortly after with an Event or promotion of their own.) Many online reviewers are charging prohibitive fees for reviews. And in the real world, magazines and bookstores generally seem to interpret self-pubbed as something to be snubbed. It’s an uphill struggle with the mountain of titles out there only getting bigger.

Etc. Etc.


It’s not on the barriers and obstacles I wish to focus. No, because with every cloud there’s a silver lining and in this case it’s golden.

Because although they are in the minority, I am blessed with a truly brilliant core of friends who have shone like stars. Sharing links, tweets, status updates, lending guest spots on blogs and generally doing all they can. A number of them on a constant, unfailing basis that never ceased to impress and hearten. So when I say, ‘every little helps’, in their case it’s no platitude.

They know who they are. And in Evil UnLtd Vol 3, I’ve included the names of everyone who’s helped over those six months in the credits. There are, I'm happy to say, some individuals out there who are guaranteed my support for their projects.

It’s the least I can do until we can start giving them their own stars in sidewalks outside Chinese theatres. A heartfelt thank you to you all.

Meanwhile, there’s no ignoring the diminutive figure that we’ve managed to raise. Totting up royalties from all ebook sales on Amazon and Smashwords for the six months plus a rare paperback sale, we have amassed £40.06 for Cancer Research UK. While most marketing would like us all to aspire to smaller figures, I had hoped for more. So I will apply a spot of financial airbrushing to round that up to £50.

To paraphrase Douglas Adams, you might think that’s big, but that’s peanuts to cancer.
But I have to hope that every little does indeed help.

Of course, no sooner had our six month campaign concluded than another hero of mine was lost to cancer.

It’s no coincidence. The fact is, we’re losing them all the time.

So, in case you hadn’t heard, I decided then and there to extend the 100% donation for another year. So that’s 100% royalties from all Evil Unltd books (in all formats) going to Cancer Research UK until May 24th 2014.

You can find links to the various ways you can get your hands, virtual or otherwise, on the paperbacks and/or ebooks by visiting the official Evil website:

So please treat yourself to a copy of Vols 1, 2 and/or 3. According to reliable sources, as the tabloids say, they are a) funny and b) you don’t even have to be an SF reader to enjoy them. Alternatively they could make for a wicked gift for someone. But they’re not much use as a doorstop unless you go for the paperback version. And even then you’d probably have to get three and glue them together in a solid block.

I can’t say for sure. I’m not much for DIY. I’m still a Learner at this self-publishing lark. So slap an L plate on me and I’ll have to do some rethinking on how to go about promoting books more effectively. Any and all suggestions welcome.

Please help spread the word and share the link on Facebook, Twitter, blog, email – wherever you can.

Help make Evil do some Good.

And thank you, again, to all those who have helped so far. It means a great deal.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Foundation Course

Writer and Guardian columnist, Damien Walter, asked today, "What are the 5 SF books you give to non-SF readers to win them over?"

Although my own Evil UnLtd won over plenty of non-SF converts on authonomy, I don't know that it's a good introduction to the genre. Humour is a good gateway and some of the series' humour plays on knowledge of popular SF from the realms of TV and film - which many people who 'don't do SF' will be familiar with, even though they might not have actually picked up any sci-fi in book form.

The obvious answer then might seem to be TV and movie tie-ins, but there might be too great a risk that someone who found they enjoyed Doctor Who books, say, would simply end up devouring more of the same and that wouldn't really open their eyes to the wider universe of SF in general.

Initially I wasn't sure I could think of 5 books that would fit the bill and I was reminded that another project of mine was developed to slot into this kind of gap. You know how it goes: if there's a book you feel like reading and you can't find it anywhere, it may be that you have to write it. But it's as yet unpublished and I'm working up the courage to start submitting it around, enduring the ensuing rejections and so on.

Still, the question continued to niggle away and, despite the best intentions of working on something else this afternoon, I gave the matter further thought and decided to take up Damien's challenge i.e. to blog my selection of 5 books that would serve as a starter course for non-scifitarians.

For added fun, rather than choose 5 books that would each serve as a bridge, I thought I'd pick 5 that might work in progression. Building a bridge section by section, so to speak.

So here they are:

The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy
Douglas Adams

A fairly obvious choice, but it's a particularly good one as it's not science fiction. But it wears elements of SF the way Arthur wears his dressing gown throughout. My wife was stunned only the other day to discover one of her work colleagues who hadn't read the books, so there are still people out there who haven't tasted this strong source of Brownian Motion. And after reading and chuckling their way through that, they should at least be ready to embrace

The Stainless Steel Rat
Harry Harrison

An oldie but a goodie. The old ones are not always the best, but this is James Bond In Space and about as taxing to read as that sounds. It's a brisk, pacey adventure with lots of tech and 'gadge' and, crucially, no aliens. It's a spoof, but it represents an easing up on the laughing gas after Hitch-Hikers and a step towards - gasp! - more serious SF.

Larry Niven

Not only is this a bona fide SF classic - which some 'not-we' may even have heard of and needn't feel the loss of too much street-cred if caught reading - but it has scope and scale and big ideas while being written entirely accessibly. It's also not without a sprinkling of humour and has aliens. While aliens may prove too difficult an adjustment for some non-SF readers to handle, it presents them as colourful characters and the treatment of them isn't that far removed from what people might have encountered through playing popular video games like Mass Effect and/or in episodes of popular SF they might have chanced upon while surfing the channels.

Neal Stephenson

Alas, I no longer have a copy of this for confirmation, but I recall it as a fast, whiz-bang ride - all the appeal of a Hollywood blockbuster but full to the brim with thought-provoking ideas, great characters and a few hard edges. No aliens - we've come back down to earth for this penultimate module in our course. But in a world where Google glasses are a reality, there's very little in this - if I recall correctly! - that should trouble the committed non-SF reader too much. And it's a cracking story.

Galactic North
Alastair Reynolds

Gloves off, no holds barred, hard SF. But it's an anthology, so it's all served up in bite-size portions. Often dark, grim and edgy, these are not to be tackled until you've made it through the previous four modules. But they also serve as a great introduction to the wider universe of Alastair Reynolds' own brand of SF and if, after reading these tales, you feel ready to immerse yourself into one of his novels, well...

Congratulations, you have graduated.

Or maybe not.

Either way, I hope you will have enjoyed the course.


Sunday, June 16, 2013


Best make it clear from the outset, I’ve built this review almost entirely around a silly joke title. Hopefully Chris Chibnall and those involved in the making of Doctor Who’s Dinosaurs On A Spaceship won’t mind.

And if it doesn’t quite all hang together at the end, well, that’ll be because it was built almost entirely around a silly joke title.

They must have had such larks in the script meetings: yes, it’ll be like Snakes On A Plane but, you know, BIGGER! Take the daftest Hollywood action movie you can think of and really Who it up.

It’s a bold aim and I admire ambition in Doctor Who, but is it real ambition to ape the lowest common denominator of Hollywood output? Especially as Snakes On A Plane was obviously intended as a joke in the first place and a spoof of a spoof runs the risk of producing a Scary Movie to take a 'humorous' poke at Scream. And rather like my thoughts on those lampooning horror in the Scary Movie series, I fear it would have taken a sharper wit than Chibnall to pull it off. By setting it on a Silurian vessel, the writer reminds us what a hash he made of the golden opportunity he was handed previously – namely, to bring back the Silurians in a huge two-parter. Suffice to say, the results were more pedestrian than Silurian.

Here, he’s at least trying to be clever and this should be encouraged because with practice he might get there. Maybe that’s why Moffat keeps commissioning him. (Another one to look forward to this season.) Chibnall pays homage to his employer by preceding the action with one of those very Moffatesque prologues where the Doctor recruits a colourful Scooby gang to aid him in his quest. Except these extraordinary ladies and gentlemen are not in the same league.

We get a one-dimensional Nefertiti and a hunter I’d be tempted to call Alan Eighthmain except he’s not half the man H Rider Haggard’s hero was in his day. Thankfully, we also get Brian – Rory’s dad – and he is a real treat, brilliantly brought to life by Mark Williams. And there’s Rory and Amy, of course, who are great here although we don’t get so much of their shared chemistry with so many others in the mix. Brian, though, is so well established as part of their family you’d think we’d seen him dozens of times before in the series.

Unfortunately, in a 45-minute episode there’s not really the scope for this small army of companions plus a rich and full story. So what we get instead is a pretty simple scenario: spaceship hurtling towards Earth, dinosaurs on board, villain, Doctor has to avert disaster before the military take out the ship with missiles.

So far, so Hollywood.

Various conveniences, contrivances and contradictions have to be bolted on along the way in order to make it work. Which is also, as far as I can gather, how many a Hollywood movie is constructed. After post-production and all that, it’s blasted onto our screens like a fire-and-forget missile.

The structure and mechanics of this particular rollercoaster are all exposed and advertised, along with every loose nut and bolt. There are big and even novel ideas attached to the framework – like the wave-powered engine room that happens to be a beach, an Indian Space Agency guarding Earth and a database that appraises everything in the universe and assigns it a value (“a sort of Argos of the galaxy”). Nice. Everything and everyone is there for a purpose: Nefertiti to provide an alternative prize for the bad guy to take; Brian’s golf balls to get the Triceratops moving; Riddell (Rupert Graves), er, because Chibnall saw Bob Peck in JurassicPark; and Brian so that he and Rory could operate the ridiculous gene-dependent piloting system on the ship – or quite possibly flip that one around: i.e. the ridiculous gene-dependent piloting system is there to give Brian and Rory something to do at the end.

It creaks and groans like a rusty Meccano set and you can almost hear the writer insisting “It will all fit, it will all fit” as he assembles his masterpiece.

Hate to break it to him, but it doesn’t.

In a galaxy where there’s a price tag on everything – including sentient beings – the ultra-mercenary and vile, utterly unscrupulous Solomon elects to revive the Silurians (a race believed extinct) a handful at a time and execute them because the lizards wouldn’t let him have their dinosaurs. They refused to negotiate. Erm, so why not keep them frozen and sell them too?

There’s no record of the Doctor in the Argos anywhere-in-time-and-space catalogue, but he’s clearly known to the ISA in this time zone. Missiles need an alien doohickey to lock onto their (enormous) target but not so vital a part of the ship that it can’t be removed and planted on an alternative target. Internal teleport can transport you anywhere on the ship until you land trapped on a beach beset by pterodactyls when it will emerge that the local teleport has burned out. Comedy double-act robots can’t hit a dinosaur on the run. Yeah, fair enough, bad guys can’t shoot for toffee in movies – but a dinosaur. And why is the Doctor on the run anyway when he later disables the same robots with a single zap?

All of that and more. Plus that small act of pre-meditated murder that ties everything up so neatly for the finale.

Context is everything and I rewatched this about a week after Game Of Thrones Series 3 Episode 9. So I was less bothered, second time round, about the Doctor killing David Bradley in such a callous offhand manner. He gets what he deserves!

Fair to say, the Doctor has acted ruthlessly before so there is a precedent for this – and the episode goes to great lengths to spell out what a total bastard Solomon really is – and Bradley is excellent at playing total bastards. (He has tremendous presence here which goes some way to make up for the way he’s thoroughly underused. But we get to see him as William Hartnell later this year, folks!) So it’s, like, totally justified, right? But... it seems completely at odds with the Eleventh Doctor’s goal of lowering his profile and stepping back from the terrifying figure he has become to his enemies.

It’s also an uncomfortably nasty note that jars with the often juvenile humour – most notably manifested in the Mitchell-and-Webb-bots, but also in the sexist and sexual quips (you can’t call them innuendo) from the likes of Alan Eighthmain.

There are flashes of better humour and Amy’s especially good at shooting down the chauvinism. The comedy intention is clear, but while Graves does well with the material handed, the character (for want of a better word) has none of the warmth or charm of, say, a Brigadier. Similarly, pause for a moment and compare Nefertiti with Liz 10. Barring a few elements, it’s all sub-par whether you stand it alongside old Who or new.

More than a Hollywood actioner, this feels like a return to the Graham Williams era of Who (Invisible Enemy or The Horns Of Nimon – not City Of Death), with only a fraction of the wit and none of the subtlety. Instead of Douglas Adams on script duties we appear to have, I don’t know, Jimmy Carr perhaps. The kind of comic who tells a gag then looks smugly around to draw attention to just how funny and clever he’s been. Not very, Jimmy.

Ultimately, it is only intended as a romp. But it’s not Hollywood enough to pull that off.

Its absolute crowning glory is right at the end, where Brian sits in the TARDIS doorway and sees the world. Just before finally travelling off to see the world. Thank heavens it has that at least. And it was worth the risk of taking a second ride on the dodgy rollercoaster for that.
That aside, I think I’d rather have overambitious rubber dinosaurs in a richer, more susbtantial story than the CGI creations in this shambles.

Next Time...

A Town Called Mercy.


Monday, June 10, 2013

In Memoriam Banks

No matter who you lose – loved ones, relatives, friends, personal heroes or heroines – life goes on. But it carries a heavy taint and the world loses some of its colour. For a while at least. Actually, that colour’s gone forever, but we do what we can by way of a restoration job. Put some of our own colour back in.

Yesterday, I checked in on Twitter to throw some glib comment out into the virtual world only to be stunned and saddened when I read the news that Iain Banks had died. Just two months after he’d announced that he was terminally ill. Just over seven years ago, my Mum was diagnosed with cancer on a Friday and passed away on the following Wednesday. Five days later. But somehow the news about Iain Banks still managed to come as a shock.

Bastard cancer. You’d think I’d be inured to it by now.

I didn’t even know the man.

On the other hand, to call him a hero of mine would be no understatement. Like Lis Sladen, Caroline John and Mary Tamm, he added colour to my life. Starting, in his case, many years ago when I first discovered The Wasp Factory and bought a whole bunch of his books (including Walking On Glass, The Bridge, Canal Dreams, Espedair Street) in one go one sunny Saturday afternoon after browsing the local bookstore in search of something new and different to read. What a haul of riches. I read through that lot like a shot. Then imagine my delight when I discovered that the same guy (with the deft application of a middle initial) wrote science fiction.

Bloody hell. Seventh heaven.

Vast, imaginative, thought-provoking heavens they were too. Whether he was writing in our world or other worlds, I’d never read anything like them.

So needless to say, he was a major influence on me. The first novel I ever completed was a misguided effort to emulate Mr Banks to some degree. Even with the Evil UnLtd, books, serious sci-fi is as key an inspiration as Douglas Adams and Hitch-Hikers. Possibly even greater in many respects. And back in my days of role-playing games, I used to run a Traveller campaign and pinched stuff from the Culture to help colour the official RPG universe. Adding colour, like I said. And to more than my reading experience.

So. Thank you, Iain. You’ll be greatly missed. I haven’t memorised every line of your books like in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – my brain’s not nearly equal to that task – but rest assured I still carry them with me in my heart and my imagination.

They made a difference. The least I can do now is to try to make some small difference in the fight against cancer.

Last November I launched my Evil vs Cancer campaign, which came to an end on May 24th this year. I’d intended to continue that in some form, donating half of the proceeds to Cancer Research UK. It goes without saying, the books don’t make huge amounts of money and the practical reality is that I need some level of revenue in order to produce the paperbacks. But I couldn’t sit by and allow cancer to claim another hero of mine without doing something.

So here’s me saluting you, Iain Banks, and shaking my fist at cancer again.

For another year (and I'm backdating that to include all purchases that were made between now and last May 24th) I’m extending the Evil vs.Cancer campaign and we’ll be donating the full 100% of royalties from all the Evil Unltd books (all formats) to Cancer Research UK.

You can find links to the various ways you can get your hands, virtual or otherwise, on the paperbacks and/or ebooks by visiting the official Evil website:

Please help spread the word and share links on Facebook, Twitter, blog, email – wherever you can.

Help make Evil do some Good.


Saturday, June 08, 2013

One Flew Over The Dalek's Nest

Hats off to 21st century Doctor Who. They’ve really done a bang-up job of making vast armies of Daleks a tiresome trope. It gets to the point where you miss the days when they could only trundle out three at a time. All the numbers amount to nothing and too-simple solutions wipe them all out as well as undermine all the good work done in Rob Shearman’s Dalek to render them scary and formidable again.

Hats off to Steven Moffat then for supplying a scene of a Dalek host and adding on a new twist. It’s one of many moments in the opening of Asylum Of The Daleks that could have spun us off into the whirling vortex titles. “Save the Daleks!” the alien pepperpots cry, to which the Doctor declares, “That’s new.” And we’re off.

It’s a great beginning to the season – and to an episode which then goes on to do much to make the Daleks scary. Worthy of applause for that alone.

The Asylum is built on shaky foundations. The very idea that Daleks would have an asylum for their nutcases is a dubious conceit, but if you can get past that it’s great. Much as the Dalek eyestalks sticking out of people’s foreheads (and egg-whisk guns sticking out of their palms) has a tendency to look a bit silly – but if you can get past that, it’s disturbing and a rare dose of body horror in today’s Who. It works best in the scare department on the reawakened corpses in the wrecked ship.

The Daleks’ own argument for the asylum is that they consider it sacrilege to destroy such divine hatred. Which is tenuous, but on the other sucker arm it makes a twisted sort of sense in the context of the semi-religious spin that’s been built into Dalek philosophy in recent years and, more importantly, leads to a wonderful rationale as to why they’ve never been able to kill the Doctor. So while flawed, this is essentially a case of the ends justifying the means.

Within the asylum itself, there are Daleks in chains and we can pretty much file those under the same category. The whole idea of chaining Daleks, let alone the logistics of other Daleks chaining them, is absurd. It chimes well with the Gothic aesthetic is all and I can only assume it was included for pure visual effect without pausing to think about it much beyond that. The chains fall apart with all the ease of a Dalek army in the face of a feeble plot device anyway, so it’s clear they serve no worthwhile function as a restraint. Luckily the story is a great deal stronger than these trifling weak links.

From the immediate attention-grabbing opening in the mile-high statue of a Dalek in a war-blasted city on Skaro, it’s bold and audacious and whisks up a perfect blend of vivacious wit, dark and atmospheric menace and an intriguing core mystery that will turn out to be the heart of this season’s arc.

And if I’ve used the word ‘whisk’ one too many times, it’s because Moffat also makes a great play on eggs. And soufflés.

Clara is a gem. Even without the prior press announcements she marks herself out here as clear companion material. And even though (first time around) I guessed her ultimate predicament in this story well ahead of the reveal, it’s still a dramatic and touching moment when the reality hits her and we know that (this particular) Clara won’t be joining the TARDIS crew. (At this point, my imagination is drawn to an irresistible but highly impractical ‘what if’: Dalek Clara could have been saved and become the first ever Dalek companion. Oh, the possibilities.)

Still, as roomy as the TARDIS is, there’s no space that could accommodate the two big personalities of Amy and Clara. Revisiting this such a long time after the fact, it’s wonderful to be reminded of how bloody brilliant Karen Gillan is as Amy. And she and Rory (Arthur Darvill, who's always been great even when his character is underused - happily, not the case here) make a great if slightly dysfunctional team. At the time, I recall being a little disappointed to be starting the season with them initiating divorce proceedings and it still stings a little as you really want these two to be happy together. But their domestic situation serves a crucial role as the basis for a brilliant scene in which Rory expresses what we all felt – i.e. that he loved her more – and is duly obliged to reconsider his perspective in the face of Amy’s emotional outpouring.

Ultimately it re-forges their relationship – phew – and it’s a another strong human core to the story, right there alongside the fate of Clara. Kind of like the Doctor, the story has two hearts.
Matt Smith is on tip-top form here. It’s almost like he’s come back after his holidays and enjoys his work a whole lot more than the break. All his avuncular warmth – which I always find quite a quality to pull off in such a young actor – and his Troughton-esque combination of haplessness and authority, gloom and humour are in full evidence and are a perfect complement to the palette of the episode.

There’s a clever final twist as Clara hacks the Daleks to make them forget the Doctor. This aspect of the Doctor’s record being wiped, lowering his profile so that the universe isn’t quite so out to get him all the time, becomes an incidental sideline to the Clara question throughout the series ahead. But examined again this moment is an effective piece of foreshadowing, setting us up for the ‘new beginning’ that we appear to be heading towards in The Name Of The Doctor.

It’s another testament to Moffat’s skills in that, seen so soon after its ultimate resolution, you get a very clear impression of how carefully he constructs his masterplans. It’s all as delicate as a soufflé and could collapse at the slightest provocation, you feel, but the ingredients are way more complicated and the recipe way more involved. And at this point, in Asylum Of The Daleks, I’m convinced he got the mix right.

It’s loaded with potential for more in-depth exploration of mentally disturbed Daleks (if that’s not tautology) and I do feel more could have been done with that. But ultimately it’s family viewing and a step too far in that direction might have led to a lot of disturbed kids.

At the end of the day it left me wanting more and that’s a very laudable quality in both Doctor Who adventures and soufflés.

Next Time...

Dinosaurs On A Spaceship.