Thoughts on Emma Newman’s Planetfall

PlanetfallThe affecting, twisty-turny, and beautifully written Planetfall (ROC Publishing) is easy to recommend but difficult to review because, honestly, the less you know going into it then the better your reading experience will be. Personally I knew almost nothing about the story when I began the novel a week-and-a-half ago (I had seen it praised by Gareth L. Powell on Twitter and, honestly, that was good enough for me). I read the first hundred pages or so aboard the train en route to Mancunicon and quickly finished it over the following few days.

This is a very strong novel which consistently surprises the reader despite what, in retrospect, seems to be the inevitability of the story’s trajectory. The protagonist is Renata Ghali, or simply Ren, is a fabrication engineer and one of the leaders of a human colony on an alien planet. Twenty years ago she followed “Pathfinder” Suh-Mi – part scientist, part messiah – to the foot of an alien structure known to the settlers as “God’s City”. Since then Shu-Mi has resided in the city alone while the colonists wait for her return and Ren struggles with the difficult, debilitating truths of life on this otherwise desolate world.

Newman carefully paces Planetfall and builds the novel around a handful of genuine game-changing moments (the first of which is the appearance of a stranger who bears a striking resemblance to Shu-mi despite being far too young to have been part of the initial landing). Such reveals are convincing, with the reader never feeling cheated or mislead. What’s more, they build on one another in organic fashion. The novel is thus a masterclass in using little details to prefigure big developments. It is delicately done – typically arising from Newman’s logical, lyrical worldbuilding – and for the most part it is not apparent until after the event. In that regard, Planetfall is a novel I am already looking forward to rereading.

Indeed, as much as a reread offers the chance to trace Newman’s careful use of foreshadowing, it also offers an opportunity to spend more time with Plenetfall’s complex and realistically rendered protagonist. For it is Ren’s perspective, informed by suspicion and loneliness (and there are good reasons for both of those), which grounds this otherworldly novel. She refers to her own story as a “mosaic” and it is one assembled not just from secrets dating back to the colony’s foundation but from fragments of a heart broken multiple times over. Her narrowly focused first person narration further allows Newman to conceal and manipulate in satisfying fashion.

Some observations:

  • Newman employs something akin to social media throughout the novel but does so in a laudably unobtrusive fashion. Despite the tech underpinning it, it is nothing special; it is simply part of the characters’ lives and how they communicate.
  • Planetfall is, in many ways, like Prometheus done right.
  • The novel is as much an indictment of organised religion as it is an endorsement of faith.
  • If you enjoyed Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation you are likely to find things you will enjoy in Planetfall.
  • This might be the first great novel about 3D printing.
  • Go read it.

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Other posts you may find of interest:

Con Report: Mancunicon 2016

Manchnicon BeeI’m just back from Mancunicon, the 2016 British national science fiction convention (or EasterCon) in Manchester. It was a busy EasterCon for me. I participated in three panels over the first three days (though I know some people were on up to five!) and got to spend time with many good friends from across these islands and beyond whom I only see once or twice a year. That is the best part of any convention. It always is. Of course, the second best part is listening to and meeting writers and critics and fans who make you want to raise your game in everything that you do, and Mancunicon also provided its fair share of that.

On the first afternoon of the Con I joined my Clarion classmate Tiffani Angus, along with novelists Matthew De Abaitua and Tom Toner, for ‘Transcending the Genre and Other Polite Insults’ moderated by Kate Wood. This panel explored (as several of the weekend’s panels did) the boundaries between literary and speculative writing. It did so by asking questions about setting, character, reader expectations, and marketing. I’m disappointed we didn’t get to discuss the role of prose style a bit more (or get to the ‘insults’, which I figured was the reason I was on the panel!) but, overall, it was an enjoyable hour poking at a subject which could (and occasionally does, though in more academic contexts) have many days dedicated to it.

On Saturday I participated in ‘Adapting as a Creator from One Medium to Another’ with Chaz Brenchley, Guest of Honour Sarah Pinborough, and Gavin Smith (ably chaired by Emmeline Pui Ling Dobson). We bounced off a lot of topics here (video game tie-ins, television, and films, to mention a few). This panel might be the only time I ever get to talk about both Ted Hughes and comic books during a single event (though, honestly, I should probably have spoken more about my work on Neil Jordan; and it would have been nice to have delved into unconventional narrative forms such as Twitter fiction and so on, but hey!). That said, I think the main value for the audience was the insight – especially from Pinborough – into the world(s) of screenwriting.

Finally then, on the Sunday, I moderated the ‘Supporting the Short Stuff’ discussion with Ruth EJ Booth, EG Cosh, Matthew Hughes, and Juliet Kemp. These panellists brought a wide range of experience and insights (including writing for fiction magazines, websites, journalism, and anthologies) to the challenges presented by the contemporary short story landscape. The panel covered a lot of ground, everything from diversity to market realities to the intersection of both. Or, as Cosh put it, ‘crowdfunding isn’t about selling stories, it’s about selling a relationship, a community’. And if there was a theme of sorts that snaked in and out of various Mancunicon events, it was exactly that: Community.

Case in point was a performance of the post-apocalyptic play North Country by Taj Hayer. If you know Taj then you know that, in person, he loves puns, but North Country is a serious, provocative look at the notion of community after the end of the world. It refutes the whitewashed nature of so much post-apocalyptic writing and instead embraces the complexities (dramatic and otherwise) offered by a multi-ethnic cast of characters. It is a beautifully imagined and carefully constructed piece of work. The conclusion genuinely moved me.

Also top notch was Ian McDonald’s Guest of Honour interview (which saw his recent novel Luna: New Moon described as ‘Game of Domes’ or ‘Dallas on the Moon’). The self-deprecating and quietly knowledgeable Peadar Ó Guilín was the perfect interviewer for McDonald, and their hour on stage together passed all too quickly. In a similar vein, the great Kari ‘I can’t not be political’ Sperring was the ideal host for Aliette de Bodard’s GOH interview, which offered an engaging and personal look at blended cultures and the manner in which gender roles vary from society to society. As de Bodard said, ‘not having equal rights is not the same as having no agency whatsoever. It does not mean you have no story, or no power to affect your story.’ She also told the audience how she did her engineering degree at a military school and she still remembers how to strip down and reassemble an assault rifle. (She further appeared genuinely surprised by her well-deserved  – and unprecedented? – twin BSFA Award wins.)

Meanwhile, on the panel side of things, I was particularly impressed by ‘Menstruation, Contraception, and Reproduction in the Apocalypse’ and ‘Place, Identity, Story’ which both delved into their subject matter with intelligence and verve (the ‘Menstruation, Contraception, and Reproduction’ panel was particularly strong in this regard with all five participants holding PhDs).

Indeed the only real negative at Mancunicon was that this was the first (and hopefully the last) time I had to raise someone’s behaviour to a convention’s organisers. My friends and I repeatedly encountered an individual both predatory and systematic in their application of that behaviour. It was unpleasant for all concerned however I am pleased that the convention organisers dealt with the issue promptly and we had no interaction with said individual after the intervention of Ops.

But, as I say, Mancunicon on the whole was a success story. Some quotes from the weekend:

  • ‘It’s Twitter. No one is listening. Everyone is shouting’ – Sarah Pinborough
  • ‘To an early Irish king, space is a social web; to a Viking it is an economic opportunity; to a Norman it is power” – Kari Sperring
  • ‘I’m Dickens at heart really… but with better sex’ – Ian McDonald
  • ‘A twist must be plausible as well as being something the reader didn’t see coming’ – Charlie Stross
  • ‘For me Feminism is equality. It’s diversity. It’s being able to choose the life you wish to have’ – @hiddeninabook
  • ‘If the apocalypse kicks off, run into Harrods… They have underground bunkers the War Rooms would be proud of’ – Russell Smith
  • ‘The best writing about sex and food is about what’s happening in the character’s head’ – Doug S
  • ‘Writing about Ireland almost cost me my career…!’ – Ian McDonald
  • What to cut from writing ‘depends on what you want to accomplish in that scene’ – Russell Smith
  • ‘Exploration of the outsider is at the core of both crime fiction and science fiction’ – Guy Haley

Lastly, some stray observations:

  • EG Cosh has assembled a list of some the great fiction which was recommended during her panels at Mancunicon. You can find it here.
  • Participants who particularly impressed me included Matthew De Abaitua, Kari Sperring, Ruth EJ Booth, Russell Smith, Sarah Pinborough, Niall Harrison, and Nina Allen. Some of those always impress me; some of those were people I heard speak for the first time.
  • The BSFA awards, in their unpretentiousness, were an appropriate and charming celebration of fan culture.
  • After a few days of queuing for the elevators one begins to feel a touch of High Rise setting in…
  • As is the way of cons, there were a lot of panels which clashed with the ones was on. I would have liked to have attended the Book Reviewing panel and the Guest of Honour interview with fourth GOH Dave Clements (who launched his short story collection Disturbed Universes, along with a selection of other volumes from NewCon Press, at the Con. I’m looking forward to diving into that). So thank you to the people who Tweeted from those events.
  • Dimitri’s Tapas and Mezes restaurant in Manchester is wonderful! And great value! Highly recommended.
  • #PeopleBeforePanels

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Other posts which may be of interest:

The supreme stylist plucks at the strings of his own oeuvre

Here is a review I wrote for the Irish Examiner a few months ago…

Blue.pngThe Blue Guitar
John Banville
Viking; €19.99
Review: Val Nolan

John Banville returns to the art world in the quietly absorbing referential puzzle box which is his first novel in three years. The story may be slight but then one reads Banville for the prose and not the plot: Oliver Otway Orme – “O O O. An absurdity” – is a professional painter and an amateur thief. He “steals” the wife of a friend, is discovered, retreats to various shabby boltholes to pen an address to an “inexistent confessor”, and eventually submits to the messy fallout of his affair.

In Banville’s hands, this simple tale becomes a darkly comic vehicle for digressive colour: Orme tell us the history of “a few hundred acres of passable land”, of “a fatal accident I witnessed as a young man” (in Paris, naturally), and on and on, while merely glossing over the specifics of his infidelity. “There must,” he says, “surely be something or somewhere I don’t want to get to, hence all these seemingly innocent meanderings down dusty by-roads”. Of course, each incident is weighed heavily with meaning but then the structure of The Blue Guitar is strong enough to bear it all.

Strong enough too to carry the magpieish aspect of Banville’s own intellect. This is after all a novel which takes its title from a Wallace Stevens poem while opening by simultaneously invoking a minor Greek deity of theft and echoing one of literature’s most famous opening lines – “Call me Autolycus,” Orme wryly says by way of introduction – and thus the book announces its referential nature from the get-go. Later Orme adds that “a large part of the pleasure of stealing derives from the possibility of being caught” and, for the reader as well, there is considerable enjoyment to be found in catching the novel’s endless allusions.

References to art and literature predominate, yet, more often than not, the most overt are to texts of a fantastical nature. These include Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and even (via “Omnium”, that “fundamental substance of the universe”) Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. Further call-backs conjure Banville’s own back-catalogue and fans of the author will recognize, for instance, the name Vandeleur from The Untouchable (1997) and the character of Adam Godly from The Infinities (2009).

Banville’s light touch in this regard offers a reflective and nostalgic backwards glance which aligns with the depiction of Orme himself. In that regard, character, text and, yes, even author blur together in satisfying fashion (with even the protagonist’s own sister thinking that he is a writer and not a painter). From a certain angle it is as though Banville is conducting a self-interrogation of sorts. One wonders, is he actually talking about a character named Orme… or me, meaning the writer himself?

For cloaked in Orme’s asides about art are insights equally applicable to the craft and practice of writing. “Everyone thinks it must be easy” if “you have some skill and master a few basic rules,” Banville-as-Orme says. He seems to be discussing not just writing in general but speaking to the authors of beautifully wrought but unimaginative and destined-to-be-forgotten literary writing in particular. Because “technique you can acquire, technique you can learn, with time and effort, but what about the rest of it, the bit that really counts”? Indeed, on occasion he seems to go for the jugular of misery fiction specifically: “I’m tired of brooding,” he says, “it availeth naught”.

By contrast, the pre-eminent stylist of his generation leavens the “new-old world” of The Blue Guitar with ideas more at home in speculative writing (and one should not be surprised given that he is also the author of some of the most notable European science novels, among them Doctor Copernicus, 1976, and Kepler, 1982). A kind of vague apocalypticism thus pervades the backdrop of this book. Eerie airships ply the skies between “spectacular showers of meteorites”. Meanwhile conversations are peppered with offhand remarks about “nasty new germs coming from outer space” and solar storms which show “no sign of abating”.

Moreover, clues sprinkled throughout indicate that Banville has set The Blue Guitar in the same physics-wise world as The Infinities. It is the seminal work of that novel’s patriarch, Godly’s “famous Brahma Postulate”, which has led to “the new science” and its acknowledgement of “intersecting universes”. All very intriguing, though Banville never allows it to overshadow the ordinary. He deploys it sparingly as the basis of hallucinatory moments of insight whereby Orme seems to glimpse the possibilities of other lives in mirrors and reflections.

Beyond that, however, the “technological wizardry” said to have changed the world has not had much impact on the dishevelment of the novel’s resolutely old-fashioned cast. Everyone here has a glass eye or a “Merovingian mother”. Everyone exudes a “lonely hauteur” within the “charmed if sombre realm of the half-mad”. It feels, if anything, like the rural 1980s, and it is in the dissonance between that threadbare ambiance and talk of “Godly particles” that the peculiar flavour of The Blue Guitar – the unmistakable Banvillianism of the novel – is at its most apparent.

That Orme inhabits the headspace of so many Banville protagonists before him – the outsider, the thief, the autobiographer – only reinforces this effect. As a narrator he is not strictly reliable and admits to changing people’s names for his own amusement, yet he is all too aware that “when I’m gone there will be no one here to register the world in just the way I do”. Again Orme might well be speaking for his creator, a distinctive talent capable of finding meaning in the most banal of images: a cup of undrunk tea; the fogged-up windows of a car; an artist’s dispassionate gaze.

Dr. Val Nolan lectures on Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

  • This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner on 19 September 2015, Weekend, pp.34-35.

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Thirty Thoughts on my First Term at Aberystwyth…

Aber SunsetWell, I’m pleased to report that I’ve survived my first term teaching at Aberystwyth University in Wales. It has been a big change from the many years I spent at NUI Galway, there’s no denying that, but it has been a positive and rewarding new set of opportunities and challenges which I have enjoyed immensely. And, because I’m me, I have of course been taking detailed, massively subjective notes! So, without further ado, here are thirty observations and reflections on the past few months in no particular order…

  • Aber sunsets don’t quit.
  • On a clear day, you can see the entire curve of Cardigan Bay. The effect of this is to give you what feels like an immediate sense of the size and shape of pretty much the whole country.
  • At low tide on a sunny day, the Aber seafront looks like another planet.
  • AU loves acronyms!
  • On occasion, it’s tempting to think that AU stands for “Alternate Universe”.
  • This is especially true when one considers how Aberystwyth is like the Galway of Wales: It’s a university town mid-way up the west coast of the country, has a promenade (at the end of which people kick the wall), and even a local Advertiser.
  • On the other hand, it’s a much smaller town. Think Galway shrunk to the size of Maynooth.
  • Even locals are syllable conscious here and don’t bother with the full names of places. More often than not they’ll use a nickname or an abbreviation. Thus Aberystwyth is usually just Aber, Machynlleth is Mach, and so on…
  • There is *always* a car coming at you. Look both ways. Look again. Look a third time. Because traffic in Aber operates on quantum mechanical principles: It is only when you step into the street that the wave function collapses and the car actually appears.
  • Steps and Hills. Inclined and uneven surfaces of every kind. These are the things Wales is made of.
  • I have found the collegiality in Aber to be striking.
  • Teaching rooms in the Psychology Building, where I have classes, are decked out (walls, desks, chairs, and so on) in different colours with the aim of creating different effects on those present: “Blue induces a calming effect” (so this is obviously where one of my most energetic classes takes place); “The Purple Room promotes good judgement” (um, because… Prince?); “Green promotes well-being and learning” (then why not have them all green?); “The Orange Room generates enthusiasm and creativity” (note: I have no creative writing groups here); and, finally, “Yellow enhances clarity and awareness in decision making” (which is how we all end up on Ryanair flights, yes?).
  • There is one blue desk in the Purple Room which A.) Shouldn’t be there, and B.) Moves around every week…
  • The Personal Tutor system here is excellent (and, I think, genuinely beneficial).
  • There’s bacon in pretty much everything in Wales. Even the chicken.
  • “Aberdashery”.
  • “Aberttoir”.
  • “Faberystwyth”
  • Technically spotted in Shrewsbury, rather than in Aber, but I also appreciate the punny names of PG Skips and Atlas Rugs.
  • Speaking of, it takes two hours to get from here to Shrewsbury. Which I guess makes it my new Limerick.
  • It takes three hours to get to Birmingham, which I suppose is my new Dublin.
  • Whereas in Galway you will always find people walking the Prom, in Aber I have found it is often empty outside of the summer/early-autumn days. This is because the wind and the waves can be quite intense.
  • A surprising number of you have Aberystwyth doppelgängers…
  • The Devil has evidently visited Wales many times.
  • North Wales (so, say, the drive from Aber to the ferry in Hollyhead) is stunning and I love it.
  • People speak of the “Aber Bubble” which affects new residents after a while. Once inside the bubble, one never wants to leave…
  • The Ceredigion Coast Path – which runs through the town – is an astonishing amenity to have on one’s doorstep.
  • In addition to being a Legal Deposit Library, the National Library of Wales next door to the university has very awesome features such as tunnels where Shakespearian manuscripts were hidden in case of a Nazi invasion, as well as a room made entirely out of copper (to block electric fields).
  • It’s really difficult to discuss Star Trek IV in Wales (“They have to go back in time to save *what*?”).
  • Since arriving last September I have been undertaking the “Walk to Mordor” (that is charting my distances walked against the distances Fordo and Sam travel in The Lord of the Rings). As of the winter break, I have completed 745 km in Wales which is a little more than my initial target of the distance between Hobbiton and Rivendell (737 km; distances via http://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/2012/07/23/walking/).

Now, roll on Semester Two… Or, if you prefer, next stop Lothlórien!

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Other posts you may find of interest:

Short sharp shocks from nasty little haunted house tale

Slade House

David Mitchell
Spectre; £12.99
Review: Val Nolan

David Mitchell is, in many ways, like the initial protagonist of his latest spooky offering: an immense imagination in a world where mould-breakers and genre-benders are too often told that “you have to act normal. Can you do that, please?”. Thankfully, however, Mitchell seldom limits himself to the normality of realism alone. It is in fact his great strength as a novelist that he so readily marries masterful prose to big ideas such as the sentient satellite of Ghostwritten (1999), the nested narratives of Cloud Atlas (2004), or the vast battle between good and evil which provides the backdrop to The Bone Clocks (2014).

In Slade House, set within the world of that latter novel, one finds Mitchell very much at play. Here he gives us a grand old home “that only blurs into existence one night every nine years”, a building “like a board game designed by M.C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever”. It is a classic haunted house inhabited by Norah and Jonah Grayer, sibling “soul vampires” who prey on lonely, isolated people.

The author’s signature technique of constructing longer works from interlinked stories here results in five novellas set across forty years. As they progress, we meet a young boy in the 1970s, a racist detective in the late 1980s, a 90s college student participating in a paranormal field trip, her reporter sister searching her out a decade later, and, finally, the clever, cruel Norah Grayer of the present day.

In a microcosm of how Slade House itself fits into what Mitchell calls his “Übernovel” – the interconnected characters and motifs from across his published writing – past characters blur into each subsequent story as the Grayer’s victims pass messages from one generation to the next. In this way they themselves become the true phantoms of this inside-out ghost story, for Norah and Jonah, despite their power, are ultimately mortal and in many ways are the ones who are really being haunted here.

While the bickering rivalry of the Grayers showcases the author’s skill at creating well-defined characters, the writing here is, on the whole, a little less thrillingly sharp than in The Bone Clocks. But, then again, that is appropriate as Slade House is dessert to that novel’s rich, multi-course meal and is unashamedly a work of genre drawing on horror and fantasy in equal measure. Those who appreciate “something a bit like The Da Vinci Code” will relish talk of “atemporals”, “psychosoterica”, “reality bubbles”, and so on (indeed, it is in these latter stretches that the novel’s relationship to The Bone Clocks is most clearly spelled out) though a straight literary audience may find such occult bric-à-brac to be more challenging. On the other hand, there is still a considerable amount for such readers to enjoy in Mitchell’s evocative and endlessly inventive imagery.

That said, to draw too firm a line between the speculative and literary facets of Mitchell’s work is to do a disservice to one of the great contemporary novelists in these islands. For though his fiction is frequently structured around partitions and section breaks, his real strength lies in his willingness to bring together literary style with the endless possibilities of genre writing. It is an aspect of his work which the brief, often quite nasty Slade House provides a frighteningly effective example of.

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Looking Back to Back to the Future Day…

BttF Clock

October 21st, 2015. The day Emmett “Doc” Brown and Marty McFly arrive in the future from 1985. Except now that is a month ago and the future they encounter(ed) – already an alternate timeline to us – has itself become history. Or at least historical fiction. It has got me thinking over the last few weeks about the franchise and about the life which stories like Back to the Future enjoy once their imagined future becomes out past. Because they endure in a way which I’m sure their creators could never have expected. Fans continue to cosplay as the characters. The original script – as structurally perfect a piece of screenwriting as you are every likely to find – is taught in film schools. Meanwhile the movies themselves return to the cinema again and again, delighting new audiences and new generations in ways which could never have been imagined thirty years ago.

As my friend Tiffani Angus said on Facebook last month, “How amazingly cool is it that Back to the Future, a movie franchise that didn’t win a best movie Oscar or a Golden Globe or anything huge like that, is so much a part of our lives – among the geeks and non-geeks – that we celebrate it for a whole day? And that we use this platform to do so, with people we likely didn’t even watch the movie with in the first place?”

***

I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.

My first memory of the Back to the Future franchise was sometime in the very early 1990s. It was a Sunday and my father had brought me with him on a visit to a friend of his in the village where he had grown up (which is how I know it was a Sunday; that was always the day we paid a visit to that side of the county). I recall how the family we were visiting were watching Back to the Future II and we arrived during the dystopian, alternate-1985 part of the film. I wasn’t even ten years old at that point and I had no idea what was going on, no context for either the film itself or the franchise. A tank? What? Who is this guy with the bad hair?

I didn’t get it. I didn’t even like it (I wasn’t there long enough to see anything other than the stretch between the lawless Hill Valley sequences and the scenes in Biff’s Casino). But now, of course, Back to the Future II is easily my favourite film of the trilogy; one of my favourite films full stop, if I’m to be honest about it, and my own personal benchmark for entertaining time travel shenanigans.

It’s amazing the difference which a flying DeLorean will make.

***

Last night, Darth Vader came down from Planet Vulcan and told me that if I didn’t take Lorraine out, that he’d melt my brain.”

Maybe it’s appropriate that my first exposure to a real time travel story was out of narrative order. It wasn’t until years later that I saw the original Back to the Future which – as mentioned – is one of the finest screenplays of all time (indeed, for me, the only film of the last thirty years which rivals it is 2007’s Hot Fuzz). I’ve seen it many, many times by now. I love it; not as much as I love Part II, mind (!), but it is definitive, isn’t it? For a whole generation, the original Back to the Future is how time travel works: you can drive your car down the street from one decade to another (which is to say the films don’t really address the spatial element of time travel); if you alter the past you risk slowly dissipating from reality; and, of course, pop culture is an inescapable aspect of life no matter the time period.

That said, I was on a time travel panel at Octocon in Dublin about six weeks ago and somehow – in retrospect this seems unforgivable! – I don’t think we ever mentioned Back to the Future. I corrected that yesterday when a Creative Writing class about narrative time became a group discussion about time travel (“technically relevant”, as one of the students put it!), about the challenges of telling such stories, and about the head-wrecking loops and possibilities which they present to a writer. We ended up talking about the effect of thinking too much about time travel might have on a person and I invoked the physicist David Deutsch, a “cloistered genius” whose home, according to one New Yorker profile, is:

“..Cluttered with old phone books, cardboard boxes, and piles of papers […] Taped onto the walls of Deutsch’s living room were a map of the world, a periodic table, a hand-drawn cartoon of Karl Popper, a poster of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a taxonomy of animals, a taxonomy of the characters in The Simpsons, colour printouts of pictures of McCain and Obama, with handwritten labels reading ‘this one’ and ‘that one,’ […] There were also old VHS tapes, an unused fireplace, [and] a stationary exercise bike…”

Certainly the similarities between Deutsch’s home and that of Doc Brown were not lost on the students.

***

I cautioned you about disrupting the continuum for your own personal benefit.

Nowadays the only thing I don’t like about BTTF II it is the trailer for Part III tagged on rather inelegantly to the final moments of it. Any time I am rewatching it, I make a point of stopping the film before that rolls because, for me at least, the trailer ruins one of my favourite film endings of all time.

That’s my way of admitting that I’ve never enjoyed Back to the Future III as much as the other two (I don’t even think I enjoy the western version of the BTTF theme music!). I suspect that it is because it never feels as urgent or as connected to the character of Marty as parts I and II. Structurally (and, again, this was something we spoke about in class yesterday) it fails to interlock with what came before in as satisfying a fashion as Part II does. Because while it has some fun moments for sure (the photograph with the clock, in particular), and no doubt many people rank it highly, for me it feels thematically disconnected from the universe of the first two films.

Maybe it is heresy to say (!), but I think this is because Doc is the protagonist here rather than Marty. Think of the diagram on the chalkboard in Part II and the symmetry of the 30 year-long jumps back and forwards from the 1980s in the first two films, jumps which allow Marty to explore the lives of his parents and his children in turn. Parts I and II feel like a complete unit which mirrors and interrogates its own best elements in interesting fashion throughout. There were reasons for those stories which informed and developed the characters (especially the character of Marty for, as much as Doc makes the storylines possible, Back to the Future is Marty’s story). By contrast, Part III’s visit to the Old West often feels like it exists because, hey, westerns are a thing, right? To me it has always felt forced; it feels like a generic time travel story and not a Back to the Future story.

***

The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?

In the week leading up to Back to the Future Day I had (speaking of twenty-first century platforms unimagined by BTTF II) a twitter discussion with @NIBunker. It grew out of a joke I made about the disposal at sea of material from the DeLorean factory outside Belfast (“What if all those DeLorean chassis rusting at the bottom of the Irish Sea are really failed time travel attempts…?”). @NIBunker clarified for me that “they are actually the moulds used to stamp the doors and body panels”. As they explained: “I was part of a group of DeLorean owners who tried to buy them back in 2003. We had a full survey done by a dive team. Sadly they had become too eroded to ever be used again which was our original intention. They are still down there”.

@NIBunker was also kind enough to share some photos related to this. The first shows a scene from the original dumping of the gullwing mould dies, the second – haunting and beautiful – shows what the same die looks like today.

While it is sad to see what is left of the DeLorean dream reduced to just “expensive lobster pot weights”, at least the car lives on in our imaginations, and this in no small part on account of Back to the Future. For outside of the DeLorean owners’ community, the first things most people think of when one mentions the car are Marty, Doc, and their adventures. And this despite the fact that the DeLorean Motor Company was itself history before the first film was even made. Testament, maybe, to the fact that, while one can always try to predict the future, one never knows what is going to be important to it?

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Other posts you may find of interest:

Puppet vies with puppet-master in thrilling cyberpunk debut

A great novel I read over the summer but which I’m only getting around to blogging about now…

Crashing HeavenCrashing Heaven
Al Robertson
Gollancz
Review: Val Nolan

An accountant and a ventriloquist’s dummy walk into a bar. One is an ex-soldier branded a traitor; the other is “a military grade systems infiltration unit” capable of hacking into anything. Such are the heroes – and the term is used loosely in the case of the sociopathic dummy – of Al Robertson’s hugely satisfying cyberpunk debut, a noirish sci-fi detective story pounding its neon beat from grotty backstreets to the minds of gods to the edges of death itself.

Of course, labelling Jack Foster an accountant is selling him short. He was the best forensic auditor there was before being drafted into “the Soft War” against rebel AIs in the outer solar system, at which point he was feared as much by his own side as by the enemy. Thus nodding to the best traditions of crime writing, Robertson portrays Jack as a hard-nosed investigator traumatised by his time on the front and by memories of a botched love-affair back home, an underdog for whom the reader roots more with every beating. But, that said, the real draw here is Hugo Fist.

An offensive weapon “grown” in Jack’s mind itself, the foul-mouthed Fist manifests virtually, with a macabre touch, as a “half a metre of wooden viciousness, all dressed up for an elegant night out”, a pair of “little black polished shoes, a scarlet cummerbund, bright red painted lips, a black bow-tie, dangling unarticulated arms, and varnished shining eyes”. He is both an unqualified bastard and an utterly memorising character.

For now Fist is “caged”, reduced to taunting and chattering inside Jack’s head, but, like most software, he has a licence agreement. When it runs out – and it soon will – Fist will take over Jack’s body and erase the identity of his host. This literal ticking clock grants the novel a propulsive quality and leaves Jack just enough time to return from internment and find out who murdered the woman he loved.

Home, however, is a nauseating futurescape of neoliberalism run amok. With the Earth a toxic ruin ravaged by war machines, humanity shuffles forward aboard an industrialised asteroid known simply as Station. Here they are watched over by the “Pantheon”, sentient corporations who behave somewhere between gangsters and Greek gods. In fact the Pantheon are worshiped by the humans of Station and, in return, grant favours and status to those who please them or prove themselves of use.

Robertson too rewards the reader by way of the attention and detail through which he brings Crashing Heaven to life. His Station blends the decaying urban dystopia of Blade Runner with the overly connected, information saturated world of today. In turn he populates this with cackling mobsters, despised artificial beings, and with eerie “fetches”, those being digital ghosts who mostly exist on the novel’s immersive version of the internet, though some have escaped that restriction.

Discarded into this morass of criminality and corporate skulduggery, Jack and Fist discover that they are both puppets in the wider machinations of the Pantheon. Yes, their seeming powerlessness contrasts starkly with their war record but, when Fist is eventually unleashed, it is everything the reader has been hoping for and the gratifying throw-downs which ensue confirm that, as much as Crashing Heaven is packed with ideas, Robertson also possesses the descriptive muscle to back them up. Indeed, as a consistently arresting and carefully paced novel combining striking characterisation with a masterclass in worldbuilding, the clever, cynical Crashing Heaven might well be the science fiction debut of the year.

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