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Friday, 22 July 2011

Science and Sensation

I love this. Under the headline, Experts Warn Over Humanising Apes, the Associated Press has put out a lengthy science piece which has been picked up by, among others, The Independent - in fact it's being reprinted everywhere, from Pravda to The York Advertiser. It begins
Action is needed now to prevent nightmarish "Planet Of The Apes" science ever turning from fiction to fact, according to a group of eminent experts.
Their report calls for a new rules to supervise sensitive research that involves humanising animals.
One area of concern is "Category Three" experiments which may raise "very strong ethical concerns" and should be banned.
An example given is the creation of primates with distinctly human characteristics, such as speech.
A tip of the hat to Chernin Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox, for happening to launch their advance publicity for Rise of the Planet of the Apes in the very week that the story breaks... what are the chances, eh?

Here's how we did it in 1991.

I know for sure that this kind of sensationalism is an irritant to many working scientists, though maybe not to the extent that you'd think. Apparently there's an entire generation of computer designers inspired to their choice of career by 2001's murderous HAL 9000. How many people working in gene science today had their imaginations fired by the mayhem in Jurassic Park? And I know from my own experience that it's never hard to find a scientist ready to share a beer and speculate in the aid of some extreme worst-case scenario in their chosen field.

(Would that more producers would take advantage of this, instead of regarding such due diligence as, as one critical of my method put it to me, 'letting the tail wag the dog'.)

Science and sensation will always go together, not least because science can be pretty sensational in its own right. But there's more involved than simple awe and the contemplation of wonder; science is our age's way of connecting with myth, with those eternal patterns of human behaviour writ large and lurid in tales designed to captivate.

The coverage inspired by Chimera was, to put it mildly, highly speculative. Not that we didn't encourage it. But nor, in interview, did I ever try to blur the line between actual science and the concerns of the fiction we'd based on it. When the novel first came out I met with John Burke Davies, a reporter from The News of the World, whose editor had sent him to investigate or expose this charlatan who claimed to have inside information on the whereabouts of man-made monsters. Once it was established that I was claiming no such thing, our meeting turned into an eighteen-hour pub crawl around the journalistic haunts of Manchester. I remember drinking with sharply-dressed Sun reporters in a bar panelled with timber salvaged from an R101 airship. But that's all I remember.

The 'eminent experts' quoted in the AP release include Sir Paul Nurse, whose encouragement toward the creation of a pro-science show set me on the path to Eleventh Hour. As far as I can tell from the selected quotes, most of them are talking about the hazards and ethical issues of modifying gene functions at the cellular level, which is where the real science is at.

Dare I suggest that the raising of ape armies and the overthrow of mankind is best left to those of us who deal in that kind of thing.

Now available with added Andy Serkis.

Saturday Event

On Saturday I'm giving a talk-with-clips about my TV career at the Lass O'Gowrie on Charles Street in Manchester, and as the day gets closer I'm growing convinced that no one is going to turn up. If you've an events diary or similar feature and might be interested in giving it a mention, feel free to pass the information on.

I was born in Salford so this is a homecoming for me. I'll be covering ground from my start with Doctor Who through working with Brian Clemens on BUGS in the 90s with side-trips into TV horror and Rosemary & Thyme, right up to the experience of remaking Eleventh Hour in Hollywood for Jerry Bruckheimer (the first version, with Patrick Stewart, was shot in Manchester).

The talk's in an upstairs room of the Lass at 6.30, right after my old friend Bryan Talbot speaking about his Grandville graphic novels. It follows a day of events with Johnny Vegas, who I suspect will have no trouble pulling an audience.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Chris Moore

In my post of the influence of Philip K Dick I talked about Chris Moore, cover artist for many of the PKD titles in the SF Masterworks series; just to add you can now buy signed prints from his website.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

'Sizzling Summer Reads' Promotion

It's with some irony that I'm writing this as the rain hammers hard on the skylight above my head... but the Top Suspense Group, of which I'm a member, is running a day-to-day Summer Reads promotion and yesterday was my day in the sun.

Titles featured so far include Lee Goldberg's Watch me Die, Vicki Hendricks' Voluntary Madness, and Naomi Hirahara's Summer of the Big Bachi. There'll be a new title featured more or less daily until the end of the month.

So if this rain continues, you can always stay in and read a book. With my salesman's hat on, here's what I wrote for the Group's blog.
I was within two blocks' drive of Paradise when the call came over the air. It was a 927, a general code meaning to investigate unknown trouble. The dispatch girl was offering it to Travis and Leonard, both of whom were checking IDs for warrants in the scrubby little park around the Adult Center on Jefferson; knowing that I could have them as backup in three minutes or less if the 'unknown trouble' turned out to be something bigger than anticipated, I cut in and took the call. Squad Sergeant responding, one minute or less.

Valley of Lights is a fusion of crime and horror, a dance between predator and prey in which the story twists, the stakes increase, and the tables are repeatedly turned.

It grew out of time that I spent in Phoenix, Arizona, researching the city and the desert and going on ride-alongs with the Phoenix PD. I was working on a novel that I never actually got to write. That novel idea was ambitious and sprawling. It was everything I ever wanted to say. It was art. It would have been as boring as hell. Instead, I wrote this.

It began as a simple idea for a short story and grew as I wrote it, in the way that no book had ever grown in my hands before. The story flew. All those days in the squad car with Lieutenant Dave Michels, the late shifts with Sergeants Tom Kosen and Jesse James, the flophouses and the trailer parks and the stakeouts in gaudy motels and the millionaires' houses in the Camelback Mountains - everything came together to feed the tale.

This is the book of which Dean Koontz wrote, "If thriller reading were a sin, Stephen Gallagher would be responsible for my ultimate damnation. His work is fast-paced, well-written, infused with a sense of dark wonder, and altogether fresh."

When I selected the title to present as my Sizzling Summer Read, fellow Top-Suspenser Ed Gorman kindly wrote, "I still think that Valley of Lights is one of the coolest - and most imitated - novels I've ever read."

Here's what Phoenix PD Sergeant Alex Volchak finds on his arrival at the Paradise Motel:
We came to the last of the units. Beyond this was some empty parking space and then a high cinderblock wall topped with wire. Not a place, on the whole, that I'd have cared to spend any time in. The desk clerk stood out front and gestured me towards the window as if to say take it, I don't want it, the responsibility's all yours. I was aware that, some distance behind me, one or two people had emerged and were watching to see if anything interesting was going to happen. I stepped up to the window and looked inside.

The sash was open an inch at the top, and some faint stirring of the air had caused the drapes to part down the middle. The bug screen and the darkness inside made it difficult to see anything at all, but as my eyes adjusted I began to make out shapes. Something that had at first looked like a bean bag resolved itself into a human form, slumped, halfway out of a low chair as if he'd fainted while sitting. The details weren't clear, but also in my line of sight across the room was the end of the bed with somebody lying on it. I could see a pair of soiled tennis shoes for this one, not much more.

Just drunks sleeping off a party, I thought, remembering the heavy breathing that was being picked up by the dislodged phone, and I turned to the clerk and said, 'Who's the room registered to?'

'A little s...' he began, but then he caught himself. 'A Hispanic guy. I don't think he's even one of them.'

'Well... all I see is people sleeping. I don't know what's so unusual in that.'

'For four straight days? It could have been longer. He registered weeks ago, he closed the drapes on day one and he musta sneaked the others in when no-one was watching.'

'What about the maid?'

'We're residential, maid service comes extra. She just leaves the towels and sheets outside, doesn't go in. What do you think?'

I felt a definite stirring of interest. I said, 'I think you should get your pass key so we can go inside and find out what the problem is.'

'And that's legal? I mean, I'm all square with the owner if I do what you say?'

'Get the key, all right?'

We went inside; or rather, I went inside and the little monkey in the technicolor shirt hovered in the doorway behind me. My first expectation, which was of the smell of opium smoke, turned out to be wrong; what hit me instead was a rank odor like bad breath and drains. I crossed the room and opened the window as wide as it would go, and then I turned to look at the place in the harsh angles of daylight.

Nobody had moved. There were three of them. Slumped in the low chair opposite the window was a man in a grey business suit, an expensive-looking summer lightweight with the pants stained dark where his bladder had let go. He was the one who'd fallen against the phone and dislodged the receiver, as if he'd been propped awkwardly and hadn't stayed that way. The soiled tennis shoes on the bed belonged to a short, muscular-looking man in his late thirties, while over in the other chair by the key-operated TV sprawled a black teenager in a leather jacket.

All three of them were inert, like corpses; but I checked for a pulse on each one, and they were all alive and steady. The arms of the man on the bed, who was wearing a T-shirt, showed no fresh needle marks or even old scars.

I said to the clerk, 'Did you move anything when you came in before?'

His face was that of an animal that had just been stunned prior to slaughtering. Perhaps he thought I'd read his mind; he probably didn't realise that he'd already given himself away.

'No,' he finally managed. 'I didn't move a thing.'
You can find Valley of Lights for the Kindle right here.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Bedlam Detective

New book coming. If you were waiting, sorry to have made you wait so long. Issues mostly beyond my control.

(This isn't it, by the way. This is the Italian paperback of The Kingdom of Bones, which just came in.)

The Bedlam Detective
picks up Sebastian Becker's story in 1912, one year after the conclusion of The Kingdom of Bones. When Kingdom ended, he'd brought his family back to London in fulfilment of a long-standing promise to his American wife. Now he's working as the Special Investigator to the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy, sent out to uncover criminal insanity amongst those who have the wealth and position to conceal it.

I've a date for early 2012 publication but it's not set in stone yet, so I'll not get too specific until it's confirmed. Ditto with the cover, of which I've seen a rough.

This is the novel that I'd originally titled The Suicide Hour, but once it was in proof my editors at Crown suggested a change to something that sounded more more like the book I'd written, and less like a memoir of despair. Before you leap in and argue on my behalf, let me say that I didn't take much pushing to agree. The new title's all mine, too.

Previously I wrote:
It's a murder mystery, with locations ranging from Southwark to the Americas. Becker is sent to the West Country to establish the mental state of Sir Owain Lancaster, a discredited industrialist under the control of a personal physician. Following the deaths of two children on Lancaster's land, Becker unravels the secrets of a disastrous expedition that destroyed the man's reputation and possibly his sanity.
If The Kingdom of Bones owed its origins to Bram Stoker, I suppose The Bedlam Detective could be described as my Conan Doyle tribute number. But like The Kingdom of Bones, it's very much its own thing.

I didn't intend it as a sequel, or ever see Becker as a series character - in fact Howard Morhaim, my agent, had to persuade me not to kill him in one of the early drafts of Kingdom - but I'm deep into a third Becker story now, with an idea lined up for a fourth.

If it isn't a series then I'm not sure what to call it - a sequence or a cycle, maybe, following a character through his life and seeing him significantly changed as he goes. Don't get me wrong, I love series characters. They're just at odds with what I try to do in a book.

Just as a track car is stripped of many of the features required for the road, series characters are built for distance and consistency. They collect just enough baggage to maintain the illusion of life, but never enough to slow them down. At the extreme end you get those private eyes who live lives of brutal solitude, yet have an endless supply of Old Friends who show up on their doorsteps in need of help.

I'm fine with that. It's just not what I do.

UPDATE: Amazon.com already has The Bedlam Detective listed with a US release date of February 7th. No image as yet.

As to why the US, see my previous post on the subject.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Scooter, Skeeter, Spud.

In one of the few non-Murdoch pieces in today's Guardian, critic Peter Bradshaw asks, "Why are closing credits full of nicknames?"

Grips, wranglers, animators, all kinds of below-the-line employees opt for their contractual credit to include the nickname by which they're known within the industry. Why? Mainly it's the internet. Crew members choose to be known by unique nicknames for the same reason that new businesses hire consultants to create compound or invented words, so that they'll stand out in database searches. It didn't used to matter; now it does. Ask the owners of Syfy, the former Sci-Fi Channel.

Few of us may hang around to watch an entire credit roll but it's the only permanent embedded proof of each project's workforce, and often the only way to verify a technician's CV. Production companies fold, studios clear out paperwork, negatives are lost, but as long as one complete print exists then prospective employers - and, later, historians - have a reliable record.

But Bradshaw concludes,
Real stars don't get nicknames. The nickname is for the little people: it's a nice thank you to the legions of supporting players and humble crew members essential to movie-making. It's well intentioned, of course, but if an American actor or second grip asked me for some career advice, I'd say lose the nickname. Do you want to get to the top or not?
Peter, I know your tongue is probably in your cheek at this point (or I hope it is) but I doubt those 'little people' will be beating a path to your door to pick up career wisdom.

A credit isn't a 'thank you', it's a contractual right. Unless it's a 'thanks to', in which case it's a usually substitute for money. If you're ever on a set visit, and you find yourself at the craft services table alongside any of those hardworking little people... it might be handy to get a nickname or a middle initial so you can blame all this on some other Bradshaw.

Meanwhile, those 'real stars' don't have any need to distinguish themselves. Never wondered why Equity doesn't allow any two actors to register with exactly the same name?

Friday, 8 July 2011

Paranoia and the Legacy of PKD

The Gary Sinise movie based on Philip K Dick's Impostor was a waste of the premise, but one of my earliest and most vivid TV memories is of a 1962 adaptation in ABC's Out of this World anthology series (that's the British ABC, the one that produced The Avengers, not the US network).

(That's the British Avengers, not the Marvel... ah, forget it)

Impostor is a PKD short story that involves a crashed spacecraft, and a sole survivor who's unaware that he's an android built around a bomb. Realising the truth will be the bomb's trigger. Doesn't that just send a chill though the back of your brain?

I recall a studio camera production, black and white, with cheap sets and a bit of modest model work for the crashed spacecraft. The final devastating explosion was achieved by cranking up the gain on the image so it went to white-out. The script was by Terry Nation and direction by Peter Hammond, two of the era's solid journeymen and go-to guys for genre material. As I was only eight at the time I had to have the ending explained to me, but that didn't diminish its power.

After broadcast, the tape was wiped and the show lost.

What lodged in my eight-year-old mind was the thrill of that notion. To think that you're human, and not be. That the reality you take for granted may be unreliable. It's an irresistible seed of paranoia. That's the appeal of PKD's fiction to filmmakers, I reckon, that strange poetry of identity with a sense of endless, unresolvable conflict.

The problem, shown up most recently in The Adjustment Bureau, lies in the inevitable drive to tame the intriguing premise in a conventional narrative. To resolve that which only grips because it's unresolvable. SPOILER: the ending of The Adjustment Bureau is total cack.

For a proper stab at a Dickian conclusion, see Source Code, which isn't based on a PKD story but which honours the legacy pretty well while achieving the near-impossible, a happy ending that doesn't betray the premise. Blade Runner, famously, was sent out into the world with a patched and cobbled ending that did exactly that, until later cuts removed the clumsy fixes and allowed the ambiguities to resonate. If you don't think that Deckard's a replicant while I'm certain that he is, then that's exactly as it should be. To push it to any firm conclusion is to kill the magic.

At the risk of lowering the tone, let me tell you that I drew on my memories of Impostor in the writing of a Bugs episode, once. It was in the second season, the one where we got steadily more sfnal before the BBC reined us in. My premise involved the first computer virus to jump the species barrier; the indebted twist was that awareness of the infection triggered its effects. Ros (Jaye Griffiths) grew ever more alienated from the others as they struggled to save her without being able to tell her why.

Those were the days, my friends, those were the days. I could ask for a Russian submarine or a particle accelerator and they'd get me one or build me one. If you're interested in the story behind the show, I wrote about it here.

Incidentally, the cover illustration at the head of the piece is by Chris Moore, whose bio I contributed to Paper Tiger's book on his art. Here's the image in its full glory:

Through the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, for many Chris has become the artist most closely associated with Philip K Dick's work. Those Masterworks covers are some of my all-time favourite SF art. You can see more like this on his website.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Tough Pitch

For some reason the networks are reluctant to take a look at my love-triangle procedural, Two Girls, One Cop.