Experiencing Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport

Out of all the novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year, Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport had the most arresting summary: a first-person one-sentence inner-monologue spread over approximately 1,000 pages, covering every thought that runs through the Ohioan housewife speaker’s head, including worries, observations, clickbait headlines, jingles, and wordplay.

More accurately, the book is 988 pages, although that number increases to 1,030 if you include the glossary, appendices, and front matter. It’s also not just a single sentence; punctuating the stream of consciousness is another narrative about a lioness told in third-person prose with the blessed inclusion of full-stops. There are, by my count, 17 instances when the main stream pauses for the lioness’s story, each time for 1-2 pages. The pauses occur every 100 pages or so for most of the novel, the gap between pauses decreasing to as little as 10 pages towards the end. The two narratives are linked thematically and eventually the plots intersect.

I was curious to know how such a novel could work; whether a single sentence could be maintained for that length without degenerating into nonsense word soup, and whether the extreme page-length was justified.Read More »

Brexit: The View from the Moon

Edgar Mitchell steps onto the powdery grey surface, plumes of dust swirling around his feet. The land, empty except for rocks and shadows, stretches to rolling hills and a close horizon. Above him, the huge blue and white disk gleams in the black sky.

‘You develop an instant global consciousness,’ he told people after he’d returned to Earth. ‘From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”’

The Brexit referendum has encouraged some of us in Britain to see, like Mitchell, the world from a new perspective. If we are not going to be part of the European Union, what should we be part of? If we are to remain inside the EU, what are our reasons for subverting the vote? Where is our home — Britain, Europe, or the world?

Earthrise, taken by Bill Anders during Apollo 8 (1968). Image © NASA.

In January 2017, Theresa May spoke of ‘a truly Global Britain,’ and Brexit as a vote to ‘embrace the world,’ but only referenced an increase in the number of trading partners when describing the nature of this embrace. The pro-Brexit report from think tank The Henry Jackson Society (September 12, 2017) also used the phrase ‘Global Britain,’ but only when arguing that the country is a potential ‘leader of nations.’ There is no sense of global unity in either of these visions; only a desire to be important in a world divided into nation states.

In his speech on the future of Europe (September 26, 2017), Emmanuel Macron talked about an ‘open world’ in which European identity and values are constructed. But for Macron, as for May, the world is still only considered in terms of trade; he framed his ideas ‘within the context of globalization,’ rather than within the concept of a single world with shared issues to tackle.

We may have to wait until politicians visit space before we hear a speech with a truly global perspective. That day, however, may not be far away; by the time Britain leaves the European Union and begins its transition phase in 2019, SpaceX plans to fly tourists around the moon. By 2020, one year into the transition phase, Blue Origin aim to run their first cargo trip to the moon’s surface. Around 2025, when Britain will have established its new relationship with the rest of Europe, the European Space Agency (ESA), ChinaNASA, and Russia intend to begin construction on their permanent moon bases.

SpaceX plan to use their Dragon2 craft for their commerical moon missions. Image © SpaceX.

These projects will change human perspective. For the first time, anyone — not just scientists and astronauts — will be able to see our planet from a distance, so long as they can pay for it. We will have Instagram posts and tweets from the moon, and each Earth-rise and comment on the fragility of life’s existence will be shared by millions. Most importantly of all, by establishing a lunar base, and later, visiting Mars, we will become a multi-planetary species. Will we still be thinking of our place in a hierarchy of nation states, then? Or will we instead be considering our place in the universe?

Britain can play a role in reaching this new global perspective, by contributing to space exploration. For some science-fiction writers, European unity and space exploration go together: Eoin Colfer describes a rocket ship painted in ‘European Union blue’; Andy Weir’s The Martian features a German astronaut with the EU flag on his space-suit; and in Ben Bova’s Mars, the English character justifies his place in the first team to land on the red planet, when so many other nationalities were not included, by explaining that ‘England represents the European community.’

We do not have to remain part of the EU to contribute to space exploration, but to be influential we do need to collaborate with other countries on issues other than trade. Continuing to contribute to ESA is one way of doing this.

The value of global collaboration and perspective should not be forgotten during the Brexit negotiations; maintaining and strengthening the links Britain has made across national borders will not only help advance space exploration and science, it will keep the country relevant, even as the boundaries between countries become less important, in an increasingly interconnected world and solar system.

Edgar Mitchell planted an American flag on the moon. Decades of solar radiation have since bleached the markings of that flag, wiping away the stars and stripes to bare white.

And above it, the world.

Look at that.


· Anatoly Zak, ‘Russia Will Team Up with NASA to Build a Lunar Space Station,’ Popular Mechanics, 21 September 2017.

· Andy Weir, The Martian (New York: Random House, 2014), p. 134.

· Ben Bova, Mars (New York: Random House, 1992), p. 91.

· Christian Davenport, ‘An Exclusive Look at Jeff Bezos’s Plan to Set Up Amazon-Like Delivery for ‘Future Human Settlement’ of the Moon,’ Washington Post, 2 March 2017.

· David Grossman, ‘China, European Space Agency Plan to Collaborate on “Moon Village”,’ Popular Mechanics, 26 April 2017.

· Edgar Mitchell, ‘Bio: Edgar Mitchell’s Strange Voyage,’ People Weekly, April 8, 1974, pp. 20–23 (20).

· Emmanuel Macron, ‘Sorbonne Speech of Emmanuel Macron — Full text / English Version,’ Ouest France, 26 September 2017. French text.

· Eoin Colfer, The Supernaturalist (London: Penguin, 2004) pp. 200–1.

· James Fincannon, ‘Six Flags on the Moon: What is Their Current Condition?’ The Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, ed. Eric M. Jones and Ken Glover.

· James Rogers, ‘Towards “Global Britain”: Challenging the New Narratives of National Decline,’ The Henry Jackson Society, [September 12] 2017.

· SpaceX, ‘SpaceX to Send Privately Crewed Dragon Spacecraft Beyond the Moon Next Year’SpaceX, 27 February 2017.

· Theresa May, ‘Theresa May’s Brexit Speech in Full,’ The Telegraph, 17 January 2017.

How to Dig Graves in the Snow: A Story of Grand Forks, Yukon, and Jews in the Klondike

Last winter I wrote a 1,000 word story titled ‘The Kevura’, about the discovery of a dead body in the snow. It’s now been published, in the online Flash Fiction Magazine.

The story is set in the town of Grand Forks, Yukon, a place now so forgotten that it only has a 72-word entry on Wikipedia. First established in 1896 as a small settlement of forty buildings, the town grew to house 4,000-10,000 people (the number varies according to accounts) after gold was discovered nearby in 1897. The town had electricity, a public bath, a dentists, a famous roadhouse, and a municipal government.

In 1899 gold was discovered in a more accessible location, in Alaska, and Grand Forks fell into decline. By 1911, just fifteen years after the town was established, the town was completely abandoned so that the ground underneath could itself be mined for gold.

This is what the town looked at in 1902, around the time my story is set:

Dawson City Museum (1984.139.1). Reproduced with permission. The annotations were added by someone who lived in Grand Forks from 1903 to 1907 (when they were 10-14 years old).

The annotated panoramic lists some of the towns amenities, including a Japanese restaurant, a German bakery,  and a photographers’.

This is the same site in 2017:

Google Earth aerial photograph.

Almost nothing is left, except for a single derelict building and the remains of the cemetery, carved into the hillside, protected from mining by (let us assume) reverence for the dead. In 2009, historian and conservationist Ed Jones began restoring the cemetery.

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The Thing about the Thing Itself

9780575127739I recently finished The Thing Itself (2015) by Adam Roberts. I don’t want to reveal too much about this book because one of the pleasures of reading it is being surprised by the plot twists. And when I write ‘plot twists’ I don’t just mean revelations about the characters or developments in the order of events, I mean actual twists in the plot; moments when the plot twists into a new form or setting whilst adhering to an overall structure (albeit a structure which doesn’t become fully apparent until the end). Reading The Thing Itself feels like tracing your finger along one side of a Möbius strip: you go inside out and upside down, but eventually the twists connect together seamlessly.

The main plot follows Charles Gardner, a ‘Reading born and bred’ astrophysicist, and his experiences with Roy Curtius, a Kant-loving sociopath. There are other plots as well, which I won’t spoil.

Roberts knows how to use the perfect image to convey setting and character. Take this description of the sun in Antarctica, for example:

The sun loitered near the horizon. A cricket ball frozen in flight.

– p. 8

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The 2016 Man Booker Prize

In November I was lucky (*Kylie Minogue voice* lucky lucky lucky) enough to go the 2016 Booker Prize announcement dinner.

After a difficult journey — the train was cancelled so my Dad had to drive my mother and me into central London from Oxford — we arrived at the drinks reception in the very grand and beautiful London Guild Hall.

It was a particularly special night as my mother remembered going to the first prize dinner back in ‘69 when her father won. That, too, was also a very glamorous event, even though the prize did not yet have the international recognition it has today.

My mother and I at the dinner
My place at the table

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Celebrating Warcraft

Warcraft: The Beginning, the film adaptation of the video game Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994) is now in the cinemas. It was ravaged by the mainstream press; at the time of writing it has a rating of 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it not just ‘rotten’ but rancid. The Herald Sun called it a ‘dull, soulless slurry of sucktastic SFX’. For The Guardian, watching the film was ‘like being bludgeoned by the war hammers of a thousand orcs’. One journalist working for the BBC was so angry he abruptly ended an interview with the director because he dared to defend his own film. To quote King Theoden in Lord of the Rings, ‘What can men do against such reckless hate?’

I went into the film expecting it to be a mess, but one that I would probably enjoy nonetheless, as I’m a fan of the video game series. Instead, I watched a film that I not only enjoyed immensely, but also considered a highly valuable and important contribution to the fantasy genre.

There’s been many attempts to make video game movies, and most of them have been terrible. Warcraft itself has been stuck in development hell for about a decade.

Still, studios keep trying to crack the formula that would translate the huge popularity of video game franchises into box office success, and Warcraft director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) was keen to crack the much harder artistic formula: how to translate a story from a video game, shaped by gameplay restrictions, into a cinematic story, unrestricted by anything except for length. Jones hoped that Warcraft would ‘right the wrongs’ of previous video game movies that had failed to make this leap.

For some journalists, the odds were stacked against Jones before he’d even started; The Radio Times questioned whether a video game movie could ever work, asking ‘can this kind of narrative really compete with the original version, where the adventure is [the audience’s] to choose and experience?’

The Radio Times suggests that game narratives are always interactive and defined by player actions, whilst film narratives are only passively observed, and never the twain shall meet. In fact most video games borrow heavily from the cinema.


Read More »

William Morris on the £20 Note

When I heard that the Bank of England were going to replace the historical British figure on the £20 note from economist Adam Smith to someone from the arts, my first thought was that the figure should be William Morris.

I first became a fan of Morris’s work when I picked up The Wood Beyond the World in a second hand bookshop in Machynlleth (who could resit that title?). Since then I’ve written a Masters thesis on his prose romances, and reviewed several books for the Journal of William Morris Studies.

I think Morris would be a good choice for the £20 note for a variety of reasons…

  • Unlike most other artistic figures, Morris produced beautiful art in a wide range of mediums. Literature (poetry, prose, and essays), translation, wallpapers, tapestries, book design, typefaces, paintings, interior design… you name it! This range means he has a wide appeal. I recently visited a friend’s grandparents who have Morris willow pattern curtains and cushions; they appreciate him as a designer. Another friend of mine raves about News from Nowhere (and the actor/author Robert Llewellyn is a celebrity example of someone who has been profoundly influenced by that work). Still others love how he took the best things of the Middle Ages into his own time. If Morris was on the £20 note, lots of different people would appreciate him for different reasons.
  • Having said that, Morris is not as well-known as he should be. Most people would probably only recognise one of his designs, or his name, and not know about his life or philosophy. Putting Morris on the £20 note would increase people’s knowledge of him and promote him as a national figure, rather than just someone that people are vaguely aware of.
  • Morris’s private life is also very inspirational. He worked hard all his life and fought for what he believed in. He was good to his workers and cared for his epileptic daughter, at a time when families were more likely to ostracise members who had long-term illnesses. It’s nice when the person on your money isn’t an arse-hole.
  • Bank note designers often use complex designs to foil forgers. Ideally these designs also need to look aesthetically pleasing. Usually these patterns are completely unrelated to the figure featured on the note, but complex and beautiful patterns is Morris’s thing, so designers have the opportunity to actually use Morris’s work in the note itself.

When I thought of that last point, I couldn’t resist throwing together a mock-up of a Morris £20 note. It gives you an idea of what it could look like…

William Morris £20 Note

My design uses a quotation from Morris’s A Dream of John Ball which I think summarises a lot of Morris’s philosophy. The quotation is set in Morris’s own Kelmscott typeface. The image in the middle is Walter Crane’s sketch of Morris speaking at a socialist rally in 1894.

I’m not the only one to think of Morris, either. The Guardian ran an editorial making the case of Morris, and the BBC’s Art Editor, Will Gompertz, also argued for Morris (whilst at the same time making a separate case for Julia Margaret Cameron).

If you want to nominate Morris for the £20 note, you have to be fast! Nominations close on July 19th.

Astounding Science-Fiction May 1942

I recently got my hands on a copy of Astounding Science-Fiction from May 1942 and wanted to upload it here as a .pdf, partly to share it (because there aren’t many copies out there) and partly to preserve it (because being 73 years old, and produced on very cheap paper, it’s not in the best condition and won’t last forever).

There’s movements to preserve these important literary documents on the internet, but as far as I know the May 1942 issue isn’t available online. So here it is.

Leave a comment if you have any problems opening the file. It’s not the best quality, because ideally I’d need to scan it in rather than photograph it, but that would damage the spine and the binding. Hopefully it’s readable, and better than nothing!

Share and enjoy!™