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Cor, you do get to go to some amazing places when you write books, and meet some amazing people there. Here I am on a panel with TV's Charlie Higson in Dubai. (He looks a bit bored actually - I hope I didn't bang on too much).

I never used to have the nerve to go abroad for festivals and events when I was a lonesome solo author (or get invited to many, to be honest) but now that I'm one half of Reeve & McIntyre Productions that's all changed, so I was very happy to be asked to attend the renowned Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature  last week.

McIntyre has already blogged about our adventures, and there's not really much that I can add to her account, except my own small thank you to Emirates Airlines for flying us out there in such style, and to the lovely and hard-working festival team for making it all such a pleasant experience. Here's Sarah's picture of them, taken at the closing ceremony.

I originally decided to go because I thought I ought to see the desert. And I did! Here it is, look; your actual desert! It's got a dead bush in it and everything...

And here I am, wandering about in it, thinking IMPORTANT AUTHOR-Y THOUGHTS (all right, looking for a place for a wee)...

What I hadn't been prepared for was the sheer wondrousness of Dubai itself, a bizarre city of humming expressways and immense skyscrapers sprouting from land which was mostly desert itself until a few decades ago. One of the people Sarah met during the festival (and I sadly didn't get a chance to talk to) was local science fiction writer Noura Noman. 'How odd,' said someone in the green room, when Sarah mentioned her later. 'You don't expect to find science fiction writers here.' But if you live in a city like this, I don't see how you could possibly write anything else...

All of these photos were taken from the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building - and tallest man-made structure - IN THE WORLD. Here's its shadow, slicing across the facade of a tiddly little ordinary-sized skyscraper.  And that little gold spindle-shaped thing on the right is a metro station (Dubai has the coolest railway stations I've ever seen). Apparently the water in those massive artificial lakes (like almost all Dubai's water) comes from desalination.


All this sci-fi bling comes as a bit of a shock to European sensibilities.  I heard some of my fellow authors sniggering (a little defensively) at what they saw as the tackiness of the city's malls and megastructures.  I was told several times that I really ought to see the 'real' Dubai, the older districts along the creek, where the gold souk and the spice souk are, and the ships from India and Iran offload their crates. Well, I did get a glimpse of that Dubai, and very evocative and interesting it was too. But the new city is something else entirely; crowded, diverse, oppressive, beautiful.  And it doesn't really matter whether we like it or not - fifty years from now, all cities will be like Dubai. I'm hugely grateful to the Festival organisers for letting me have this glimpse of the future!


I did a long blog post about the 1979 Ridley Scott movie Alien on my personal blog a few weeks back (it should have appeared here on the Bee really, but I wrote it on my blog by mistake and then couldn't transfer it without losing all the pictures).  So it seemed only fair to go on and write about Aliens, the James Cameron sequel from 1986.  There will be SPOILERS.

When I ordered Aliens on DVD I accidentally bought the 'Special Edition'. This adds an extra 15 minutes or so to the theatrical release which I saw and loved when it came out. I usually steer clear of special editions and director's cuts of films I like (I preferred Blade Runner when it had a voice over and a happy(ish) ending) but in this case I was quite impressed. The only downside is the addition of a slightly cheesy bit of back-story for Ripley ( it turns out she's lost a daughter, which is a Hollywood scriptwriter's explanation for why she befriends and protects the little girl in the movie - and there I was thinking it was just because she was a decent human being).  Other than that, the restored footage really does improve the pace and mood, and allows for a lot of welcome little extra character details.

The film picks up where Alien left off, with Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, the sole survivor of the Nostromo, drifting deep-frozen in her space-lifeboat.  But - shock, horror!- when she's rescued by a salvage team she discovers that decades have passed since the first film ended, and the desolate planet where the alien was discovered is now home to a terraforming colony. The sinister company she works for doesn't believe her account of the alien, but when contact with the colony is lost she is persuaded to go back as an advisor with a squad of sweaty, sweary space marines to see what's happened.

A Ron Cobb design for the film.
What's happened, needless to say, is that loads of horrible aliens have killed everybody in hideous ways, and once the marines have got into the apparently deserted colony buildings they have the Devil's own job getting back out again: the second half of the film is one long siege/chase, as the dwindling band of survivors scramble out of the frying pan and into the fire again and again and again.

A criticism I've seen offered of Aliens is that it simply rehashes all the elements of the first film. To me, however, this doesn't matter at all because a) that's sort of what we want sequels to do, isn't it? and b) it uses these familiar elements to create a completely different film.  Alien is a bleak, haunting, horror film: Aliens is an exciting war story/action movie, and because its tone and aims are so different it somehow manages to step out of the shadow of its predecessor while paying ceaseless visual and narrative homage to it.

It never sets out to terrify us in the same way as Alien, although there a few effective shocks, and the bit where Ripley is trapped in a room with a couple of scuttling facehuggers is hard to watch if you're an arachnophobe (I've only ever seen that bit through the gaps between my fingers). It also uses our memories of the first film to create tension. The scene where the marines first make their way into the deserted colony was almost unbearably edge-of-seat the first time I saw it, while Lance Henriksen's creepy android Bishop, all lank red hair and poached-egg stare, looked likely to be as treacherous as the android in the original film.  Overall it feels much more like a piece of Hollywood product that Alien, but it's so expertly done that I can't help but be delighted by it.

Take the marines, for instance.  It's sometimes hard to get a handle on the minor characters in military movies - they all tend to be about the same age, wear the same uniforms, have the same haircuts, and spend their time covered in camouflage face-paint shouting things like 'Incoming!'. Most of the platoon in Aliens don't get much screen-time, yet each of them has a line or two of dialogue that helps us to identify them; they may be stereotypes, but we feel we know them.  'Have you ever been mistaken for a man?' the company wiseguy asks tough lady marine Vasquez as they prepare for their mission. 'No," she snaps back. 'Have you?'  Not exactly Oscar Wilde, perhaps, but it serves to introduce them, and tag them in our memories so that we at least know who's who when the acidic alien goo starts hitting the fan.

Unfortunately the marines are also the film's most serious flaw.  Cameron makes heavy-handed points about military arrogance and incompetence, but his take on soldiering seems to come entirely from the Vietnam movies of the late seventies and early eighties, and his marines behave more like strung-out conscripts than the hardened professionals they're supposed to be. And while real-life officers may sometimes be useless, it's hard to imagine them being quite as useless as Lieutenant Gorman. When he issues a panicky order to his troops that they mustn't actually fire their guns as they creep into the alien lair beneath the colony's nuclear reactor, the loud creaking noise we detect is the sound of the film makers stacking the odds against our heroes.

What makes this more annoying is that it's unnecessary: the marines could be as competent and believable as those in Generation Kill and still be defeated by the aliens. In fact, wouldn't that make it more exciting? Wouldn't that make it more of a vindication for Ripley when they end up looking to her for leadership?

The other problem is the little girl, Newt, who is discovered living wild under the floors of the colony, all her friends and family having been dragged off to the basement to act as gro-bags for baby aliens.  I'm sorry to say that the young actress who plays her isn't really very good: her lines sound rote-learned, her movements are often studied, and she isn't even much cop at screaming (which she does a lot of).  She makes you appreciate all the more the amazing performances which someone like Steven Spielberg can get out of child actors.

But most films have their flaws, and Aliens's are far outweighed by the good bits.  The best of which is Sigourney Weaver's performance as Ripley. I believe Alien was her first speaking role, and although she's perfectly good in it, she's one face in an ensemble and doesn't have to do a lot more than run about looking worried. Aliens revolves around her, and without her it would be unimaginable.  At the beginning she is traumatised by the events of the first film - the special edition, with its slightly slower pace, emphasises this - and her obvious dread adds to the foreboding that hangs over those first scenes where the marine squad set down outside the colony. Then, as the story moves on, she somehow gathers an immense inner courage, and ends up doing the things that usually only the male protagonists get to do in movies. When she turns back into the doomed colony to rescue her lost ward she is acting in the the tradition of a hundred Hollywood heroes. Taller, bonier, and slightly older than your average movie heroine, she was and remains the strongest female character I've ever seen in a film of this type.

I think in the end, while Alien is clearly a better and a more important movie, Aliens is the one I enjoy more.  In some ways the differences between the two sum up the differences between mainstream American films of the bleak, pessimistic '70s and the upbeat, can-do '80s.  In Alien, one of the good guys turns out to be a sinister robot; in Aliens the sinister robot turns out to be a good guy after all.  At the end of Alien when Ripley falls asleep in her chilly space-fridge she has lost everything and has only a cat for company. By the end of Aliens she has managed to assemble a little family around her. If you like your SF bleak and 1970s-ish you'll prefer the former images, but I think the end of the second film, with its two sleepers instead of one, makes a perfect, unexpectedly tender end to the story.

And of course it is the end: one hears rumours of a third and fourth film, of various spin-offs and some kind of prequel, but these are just misinformation seeping through to us from a parallel universe with less taste and greedier film makers than our own. Happily, Hollywood knew when to stop for once. There were only ever two Alien/s films.

Guest Post: Costly Kids

Thanks to Karen Dahl at Early Childhood Education, who has sent me this cheery infographic on the costs of raising a child:

Costly Kids
Created by:

Guest Post: Katzenjammer

By Bill Havercroft.

Listening to one of Norwegian all-female band Katzenjammer's two studio albums with no prior knowledge, you would be forgiven for getting the wrong impression. Here's a bunch of sweet-voiced girls, performing well-written songs covering a wide selection of genres but essentially falling under the single adjective "folksy", assisted, by the sound of it, by a solid session band and all the usual studio production magic. Big deal.

So you shouldn't do this. Instead, you should go immediately to YouTube and find some good-quality clips of them performing live. This should clarify a few things. Firstly, yes the Katzenjammer ladies all can really sing. Their repertoire calls on several different female vocal specialities: the fragile chanteuse, the sultry jazz siren, the operatic soprano, the roaring rock goddess, and my personal favourite, tight four-part harmony (I'm a sucker for good four-part harmonies). Lead singer duty rotates between the four members, just like the girl bands of yore, and they always sound great.

Secondly, it's clear that the girls are in fact extremely talented instrumentalists. They use a huge variety of instruments, and the rotation of the lead singer from song to song extends to mixing around who plays what. It sounds like a gimmick, but there's no trade-off; every member plays every instrument she picks up like a pro. It's a wonderful thing to witness.
Thirdly, "stage presence" is an ill-defined term, but goddamn, Katzenjammer have it, whatever it is. It goes beyond their technical ability, the quality of their songs and their glamorous, fanciful stage outfits. They obviously simply love to perform, and so they pour absolutely everything into it. The result is that they're the most stompingly entertaining live band I've seen in ages.

At time of writing, Katzenjammer are in the middle of a short UK tour, before embarking on what looks like an absolutely rammed schedule of summer festival appearances across Europe.  

Photos: The Katzenjammer website.


If you'd asked me before I read Tim Maughan's debut collection Paintwork, I'd probably have said that 'Hip, cutting-edge cyberpunk with a techno-rave attitude' wasn't really my cup of tea.  The observation, familiar from William Gibson and other cyberpunk writers, that the street finds its own uses for cutting edge technology, is indisputably true, but I've never really sought out books and stories based upon it - my own imagination is stuck too firmly in the pre-digital age.

But luckily I happened to sit on a reading by Tim Maughan at last year's Bristolcon, and I was immediately struck by both the crisply imagined near-future setting and the energy of the language.  " wasn't the gait-trackers, face-clockers or even the UAVs that got 4Clover in the end. The word on the timelines had said it was a Serbian zombie-swarm hired by an irate art critic that had tracked him down and smeared his co-ordinates all across the Crime and ASB wikis."

There are three stories in this short collection, and each is is set in the same very near and very credible future.  In the title story a graffiti artist called 3Cube stalks the mean streets of Bristol, hacking into the QR codes on virtual reality advertising hoardings to overwrite their corporate messages with his own artwork. In Paparazzi, which again takes place in Bristol,  a documentary maker is hired by powerful players of a MMORPG to infiltrate the game and and secure incriminating footage of a rival faction.  In the third story, Havana Augmented, two young Cubans hack illegally downloaded VR games into new and startling forms.  Each story is short (the whole book runs to 102 pages), but they have a power that is missing from many much longer works, and they linger in the memory.

Personally, I liked Paparazzi the least, but that's because I've never really played a computer game, and find it hard to visualise immersive VR environments or understand their appeal; it's still a perfectly good story.  I preferred 3Cube, busy replacing the advertisements of tomorrow with his own haunting artworks, and the young heroes of Havana Augmented, who hack and soup up their Virtual Reality robo-warriors as skillfully as the previous generation of Cubans augmented their 1950s American automobiles.  There are some exhilarating moments as their massive, digital 'mechs' do battle in the streets of Havana. Indeed, all the stories capture the excitement of the technology that is coming our way.  But, while they are far too subtle to be called 'Dystopian', these are not upbeat visions of the future.  Dystopian stories are basically escapism, smashing up the real world with all its complex problems and replacing which one which ostensibly worse, but usually far simpler.  The stories in Paintwork build on the far scarier notion that the future will be just like the present only more so.  Each is about a talented young person who is trapped or tricked by the corporate interests which control their world - interests which have little use for them, or for their skills.  The technology of tomorrow is, all-too believably, used purely in the service of selling us stuff , like the 'spex' which everyone in the world of Paintwork wears, allowing them to see the virtual reality adverts and logos plastered all over it.   When the hero of Paparazzi is asked to meet someone at Starbucks he he just blinks at the Google Earth logo at the bottom of her virtual invitation and his spex show him a trail of football-sized coffee beans hanging in the air, leading up Bristol's Park Street to where, "High in the sunny Bristol sky he could see a ten metre high latte hanging like a hot air balloon, the huge green arrow suspended from its underside pointing down at the store's location."

Of course, Google are actually testing VR specs as I write this.  Paintwork is built around technological developments so imminent that in a few more years I suspect we'll all have them: we'll all be following trails of virtual coffee beans into the future.  Tim Maughan's achievement is to take these dawning possibilities and spin them into pacy, cynical, neo-noir short stories.  I hope he's got a novel in the works.

Philip Reeve

Here's a link to Amazon's page for the paper version of Paintwork.  They also have the Kindle version.  Or you can buy it as an e-book from Smashwords.

(I notice on the Smashwords site it says that 'This book contains content considered unsuitable for young readers 17 and under,' so You Have Been Warned... but I'm not sure what that content is. There are some four-letter words among the dialogue, but nothing you couldn't overhear in the average primary school playground. It strikes me as a book that a lot of teenagers would enjoy.)

The 'Hip, cutting-edge cyberpunk with a techno-rave attitude' quote comes from Gareth L. Powell

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat

This is probably the most original cover I've seen on a children's book in recent years, and, happily enough, it's wrapped around one of the most original children's books I've ever read.

Dave Shelton is already familiar to readers of the DFC and The Phoenix Comic as the creator of the ongoing canine-noir detective series Good Dog, Bad Dog and several fine stand-alone strips. A Boy and a Bear in a Boat contains a number of his beautiful illustrations, but it's his first story in prose, and it's a remarkably assured debut.

This is not a book where very much happens.  The title pretty much says it all.  There is this Boy.  And this Bear.  And they're in this Boat.  That's pretty much it.  Where have they come from? Where are they going? We never find out.  Why? Again, we are never told.  The Bear is the captain of the boat, but his slightly pompous confidence in his own navigational skills seems misplaced; they are quickly lost, and the only map on board is the one on the cover - a pretty unhelpful expanse of plain blue sea.

Of course, events do punctuate the voyage.  There are storms (beautifully illustrated storms, at that). A landing upon an abandoned, drifting ship.  A sea monster.  And a very funny sandwich.  It's all described in clear, spare language, and in precise detail: reading it aloud to Sam, I almost wondered if it had started out as an idea for an animated movie. It's a bit like watching a cartoon in your head.

Sam (who's 10) enjoyed it largely for its humour.  There are plenty of good slapstick sequences, and the loveable but often incompetent Bear appealed to him, as did the Boy's resourcefulness, and the growing friendship between the two.  He thought it was a funny book, and he's right.  But reading it as an adult, I sensed something darker going on.  Where has this boy come from?  He has a family; they are mentioned from time to time.  Why has he had to leave them?  What is this voyage he is setting out on?  And at the end - and I don't think is a spoiler - there really isn't an end: boy and bear sail on hopefully towards the next horizon and the next, but the reader senses that they will never arrive, and that their futile journey will go on for ever.

Are they, I began to wonder, dead?  The set-up is instantly reminiscent of  Charon the ferryman rowing the spirits of the departed across the Styx and Acheron.  Is the boy in Limbo, or some Existentialist afterlife?  Is it just a funny story about a boy and a bear in a boat, or is the whole thing an absurd parable about the meaninglessness of life in a Godless universe?

The book drops few hints.  It's extraordinarily self-disciplined, resisting any temptation to expand the world of the story beyond its three basic elements.  In some ways, it's powerfully depressing.  But only for grown-ups.  And in a good way!  Read it, and see for yourself.

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is published by David Fickling Books, and is available at good bookshops, or HERE.

Knit The City

Knitting, as the old song has it*; what is it good for?  Absolutely nothing!

I was forced to knit as a small child at school.  I embarked on a scarf (or was it a sock?) but after a few rows it went all wonky and I cast aside my yarn and needles in disgust, feeling that I'd been taught a valuable lesson; knitting is rubbish, and if you want a scarf you should go to a shop and buy one that someone else has knitted: they knit so that we don't have to.

How different it could all have been if only Knit The City had been available in the craft classes of my youth.  It makes knitting look fun and exciting, and it's written by a masked guerilla knitter, so it would probably have gone down really well with the mainly Trotskyite primary school teachers of the early '70s.

Knit the City records the exploits of a group of 'yarnstormers', devoted to the art of 'enhancing a public place or object with graffitti knitting'.  The first examples featured in the book are simple-looking stripey tubes, much like the leg-warmers of yesteryear, which appear mysteriously on lamp-posts, sign-post poles and bicycle cross-bars, each adorned with a tag bearing Deadly Knitshade's evocative logo:

Plarchie and friend.
As more yarnstormers arrive to swell the ranks of DK's woolly posse the knits become more complex and ambitious.  In a tunnel beneath Waterloo station a knitted spider lurks in its knitted web, surrounded by struggling knitted captives.  The rusty gates of the deserted Strand Station disgorge a host of knitted ghouls on Hallowe'en.  Deep in the Natural History Museum strange woolly specimens appear; a knitted Slender Snipe Eel, some knitted squid, and a gigantic orange kraken knitted out of supermarket carrier bags, Squidius knittius giganticus plasticus, or Plarchie for short.

A herd of hand-made sheep hurries along the handrail of London Bridge, and knitted cherubim with carefully-positioned felt fig-leaves hang around at Piccadilly Circus on Valentine's Day.  In Parliament Square, a whole phone box gets the yarnstorm treatment.

The yarnstormer's adventures are all retold here in a winning and whimsical style, with plenty of full-colour photographs.  It's like a coffee table book for people with really small coffee tables, and would make an excellent present for anyone who likes knitting or graffitti, or knitting and graffitti, or public art that isn't all about Meaningful Stuff , or who just fancies a chuckle.  At the back there are step-by step step guides to knitting your own squid and sheep, but if it's actual knitting patterns you're after you should probably also look at Stitch London, by Deadly Knitshade's close friend and confidante Lauren O'Farrell, which is equally well-illustrated but heavier on the knit-on-purl-one stuff and will teach you how to knit traditional British bobbies, Big Ben, and Her Majesty The Queen, plus corgis.  (Alan Titchmarsh liked it too, but don't let that put you off.)

Knitting will never look the same again.

Philip Reeve

Knit the City is published by Summersdale and you can buy it HERE.  Go on.  You know you want to.

* I may not be recalling the lyrics with perfect accuracy, but I'm sure it was something along these lines.

Cyber Circus

I don't suppose I would ever have read Kim Lakin-Smith's Cyber Circus if I hadn't met its lovely author at BristolCon this autumn, because I had seen it described here and there as 'Steampunk', and assumed it would be yet more alternate-Victoriana japes, of which I've read (and written) enough.  Actually it's something far richer and rarer.

According to the subtitle at the start of Chapter One, Cyber Circus is set in 1937 in a place called Sore Earth.  That date, and the fact that the Sore Earthers' agricultural boo-boos have reduced their topsoil to dust, suggests that the story evolved out of reflections on the Dustbowl (a suggestion confirmed by the earlier short story Black Sunday, reprinted at the back of this volume), while the book's vision of carnival life carries faint echoes of Tod Brownings Freaks and Daniel P Mannix's Memoirs of a Sword Swallower.  But there any connection with our reality ends.  This is not any 1937 we recognise, and Sore Earth isn't some parallel Oklahoma but a fully fledged fantasy world with its own loosely-sketched geography, history and fauna. Above it cruises 'Cyber Circus', a bizarre, bio-engineered, living dirigible carrying a strange crew of mutants and outcasts.  The towns at which they stop to stage their shows have a whiff of the wild west about them - scabby mining outposts ruled by violent men and inhabited by the sort of people who'd have been kicked out of Deadwood for being too scruffy and sweary.  Several different nations are mentioned, all unfamiliar.  As far as I could tell, Sore Earth could be another planet, albeit one with retro fashion-sense.  At times, with its cast of whores, misfits and former soldiers the thing it resembled most was a darker-hearted Firefly.

Kim Lakin-Smith's prose is both stripped-down and florid, shot through with gnarly hard-boiled dialogue and vivid imagery.  It takes a little getting used to, but it's well worth the effort.  I admired the uncompromising freakishness of her freaks - the bioluminescent heroine and the hero with his cybernetic eye are quite ordinary compared to the pig man, the feral wolf girl and the scuttler children - and the empathy she makes us feel for them, strange and ugly as they might seem at first meeting.  She has the courage, too, to make her characters unlikeable - spiky, ill-tempered, selfish, cowardly - and yet still sympathetic.  The story moves fast and takes some curious twists and turns on its way to a dramatic final showdown.

So Cyber Circus is definitely some kind of 'punk': violent, grungy, transgressive and bristling with attitude.  Compared with it, most Steampunk that I've read needs to be reclassified as 'Steam-Easy-Listening' or Steam-Middle-of-the-Road'.  But actually trying to pin down books like this to a particular sub-genre is just geeky stamp-collecting: Steampunk?  Deiselpunk? New Weird? Who cares?  There are only two kinds of Sci-Fi/Fantasy books: good and bad.  Cyber Circus is one of the good ones.

Philip Reeve.

Cyber Circus is published by Newcon Press, price £9.99 pb, and is available from their website.

You can meet Kim Lakin-Smith (and me!) in person at the Kitschies 'Steampunk Christmas' event on the 8th December at Blackwell's Bookshop, Charing Cross Road, London.


Nelson is a new comics anthology from Blank Slate Books, in which 54 leading UK comics artists come together to tell one 250 page story, following a character called Nell Baker from her birth in 1968 to the present day. Each artist gets to write and draw one four page chapter, telling the events of a single day in a particular year, and gradually building up not only the story of Nell's life but a portrait of Britain over the last 43 years.  The story is basically social realist, but the styles of artwork vary widely...

Although the book is based on an original idea by Rob Davies (and co-edited by him and Woodrow Phoenix) the individual artists seem to have been pretty much responsible for the events described in each segment.  This makes the tone very changeable, one minute funny, the next sad, sometimes just downright puzzling.  Things that look as if they're going to be important plot elements in one chapter are ignored in the next, but may surface again ten or twenty years on.  And this is A Good Thing, because it makes Nelson feel like a real life, packed with random moments, odd encounters and curious coincidences.

Rob Davies

Inevitably, as with any anthology, there were some contributors whose work appealed to me more than others, but that's just a matter of personal taste.  I really liked John McNaught's almost wordless 3 pages, filling us in on what Nell's absent dad is up to in 1993, and also the way that Simon Gane, in the 1992 chapter, picks up and runs with something that Sarah McIntyre left hanging way back in 1973. Gary Northfield and Jamie Smart bring a lovely sense of fun and anarchy to Nell's pre-school years.

Jamie Smart
The period detail is nicely handled: here and there historical events intrude into the story (the moon landing, the miners' strike of '84) but mostly it's the background details of clothes, cars, adverts etc which anchor each episode in its particular year.  I'm only two years older than Nell, and the depictions of the '70s and '80s rang true to me.  (Interestingly there's no mention of the Falklands War, nor of the Great Storm of 1987, which used to be a regular feature in stories about the '80s, standing for the collapse of Thatcherism and all sorts of Important Stuff.)

Ellen Lindner
As the story moves towards the present day, however, the treatment of real events becomes less subtle and moments of historical importance start to barge their way into the foreground.  (9/11!  The London Tube Bombings!  The Great Icelandic Volcano Sneeze!) I don't think that's a reflection on the people who wrote and drew the later chapters, but rather a sign of how difficult it is to write about the present and the recent past.  The '70s and '80s are far enough away now that we can see what they were about, but it's sometimes hard to make out more recent years through the thickets of headlines.

Simon Gane
There's also a slight tendency to miserablism in the later chapters.  The young Nell is a comics fan (Luke Pearson's chapter includes a lovely panel of her gazing at a rack filled with all the comics of my childhood, the Dandy, the Beano, The Victor, the Beezer, Krazy, Battle...) and as she comes of age and  heads off to art college I started to think that we were seeing the coming-of-age story of a comics artist.  But things don't work out for Nell; real life gets in the way, and her ambitions seem to fade away.  It's odd that when you bring together 54 of this country's most talented and hard working artists, all of whom have succeeded in making a name for themselves in comics, they end up telling a story of artistic failure.  It smacks of the bleak worldview that runs through a lot of British movies and high-end TV dramas , and I suspect it comes from a feeling that in order to be thought Serious a story needs to be A Bit Depressing.

Not too depressing in this case, though, because the lively drawings and ever-changing styles are always a treat, and when one author takes the story in a glum direction there's usually another along shortly who'll have something funny or heartwarming happen instead.  And some of the darker elements, like one character's descent into homelessness, are handled very well; sad and thought provoking without being mawkish or preachy.

At the end Rob Davies, who penned the first chapter, takes over again to deliver a wry ending which doesn't trouble itself with the big events of 2011 but concentrates instead on the stuff that's really important; friendship; family; memory.  It all adds up to a fantastic communal achievement, and deserves to be widely read.

Nelson costs £18.99 (or £24.99 for the de-luxe hardback edition) and should be available wherever good comics are sold, or direct from Blank Slate.  All profits go to Shelter, the Housing and Homelessness charity.  (I should probably point out that it's not suitable for children.)

'The Recollection'

By Philip Reeve

I loved Science Fiction when I was a teenager, and sometimes since I've gone looking for books that would recapture that Sense o' Wonder from the stories I read then.  Having been away from the genre (at least in its written form) for the best part of thirty years, however, it's difficult to know where to start.  I sometimes get the feeling that I fancy reading a good, old-fashioned, planet-hopping Space Opera, but when I look in the bookshops I'm confronted with books that are a) twice the length of Anna Karenina, b) episodes in on-going series, c) based on aspects of physics so arcane that I can't begin to understand them or d) all of the above.  I tend to start such books with enthusiasm, then lose interest around a third of the way in and skip to the end (still, they're better than all the fat fantasy novels people have recommended to me recently; I don't even skip to the end of those, just abandon them half-read in hotel rooms).

Anyway, you can imagine my cries of delight when I came home from BristolCon with a copy of The Recollection by Gareth L Powell and discovered that it's exactly the sort of book which got me reading SF in the first place. It has more planets, spaceships and mind-stretching Sci-Fi concepts than you could shake a stick at, it's a stand-alone story, and it's only 300 pages long.

Unusually for a tale of galaxy-spanning space brouhaha, it begins in Bethnal Green, where down-on-his-luck artist and gambler Ed Rico is being threatened with violence by some of the people he owes money to.  Within a few pages, however, strangeness intrudes into the story, in the form of mysterious arches which begin to appear all over the world.  They are portals to who-knows-where, and Ed's brother Verne vanishes through one of them, conveniently situated on the down escalator at Holborn tube station.

Following him through a series of such arches, Ed and his sister-in-law find themselves travelling across a series of alien worlds, eventually arriving in a future where humanity has spread across space using technology back-engineered from the arches themselves.  His story interweaves with that of space pilot Kat Abdulov, whose rusty starship, the Ameline, has much in common with the Millennium Falcon, the Serenity and that one in M John Harrison's The Centauri Device whose name I forget.

In fact, M John Harrison is the author I was most often reminded of while reading The Recollection.  The way the story moves between modern London and far future space echoes Harrison's Light, Gareth L Powell's spaceports, like Harrison's, are dingy and litter-strewn, and like Mr Harrison, he has a way with names: Strauli Quay, the Bubble Belt, Vertebrae Beach...  (There's also a chapter called Ragged-Ass Drive Signature, surely a prog-rock album waiting to happen.)  But M John Harrison novels, while reliably brilliant, are intellectually dense and fill the reader with a draining sense of ennui (I was out of sorts for weeks after I finished Nova Swing).  The Recollection is more upbeat, and although a terrible threat to the universe eventually arrives to link the two halves of the story, the book's overall feeling is one of optimism and well-crafted fun.

On the whole I preferred the first half of the book to the second, but I don't really mean that as a criticism: I almost always prefer beginnings to endings.  The final chapters reveal the characters' destinies and explain some of the book's mysteries, but I do hate destinies, and mysteries are much more fun than explanations.  In the end, though, I was left wanting more, which is probably the best thing you can say about a story, and a nice change from all those fat novels I mentioned earlier, which left me wanting less.   The Recollection leaves room for sequels, and if there is one I shall read it, but Mr Powell has already announced his next novel with Solaris, and it doesn't appear to be connected to this one.  That's good, I think, and the sign of an author with ideas to spare.  On the cover of  The Recollection Paul Cornell predicts that 'Gareth Powell is going to be a major voice in SF'.  I suspect he's right.

The Recollection is published by Solaris Books, and is available from all the usual places, including  Or download it from the Rebellion store.

Agatha Parrot and the Floating Head

The Bee has had a long old summer break, mostly because I couldn't find anything much I wanted to write about.  But I can't not review Agatha Parrot and the Floating Head, can I?  It's the first in a new series by Kjartan Poskitt (although according to the title page it's actually by A. Parrot herself, and Poskitt has just 'typed it out neatly'.)

Naturally this isn't going to be a very objective review, since I've been working with Kjartan on his Murderous Maths and Urgum the Axeman books for years, and I think he's a genius.  So if you want objectivity you'll have to beetle off to Amazon or somewhere and see what people are saying about it there  - but oh, look - they love it too!

Format-wise, Agatha Parrot is reminiscent of Andy Stanton's superb Mr Gum series: there's just a small chunk of text on each page (which makes it an appealing book for reluctant readers as well as everybody else.)  There's another similarity to Mr Gum: both series are illustrated by David Tazzyman, whose spindly, deceptively child-like drawings add greatly to the fun.  Poskitt's humour is subtler than Andy Stanton's, though, and there's no magical malarkey involved; Agatha's adventures may be a tad unlikely, but they belong firmly in the Real World.  

The story is simple and packed with good jokes, and I won't spoil it by going into details.  It doesn't matter too much anyway, since what really makes the book special is Agatha's first-person narration; bubbly, excitable, packed with odd asides and dodgy grammar.  I'm old enough to be reminded (in the best possible way) of Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans's Molesworth books, but Poskitt is the father of four daughters and I'm sure Agatha's voice comes largely from his first-hand knowledge of the workings of small girls' minds. (Woo!  Go Poskitt!  WE LOVE POSKITT!)

Unusually, perhaps, this is a book about girls that boys will be happy to read as well.  My son is nine and doesn't much like girls or books, but he whizzed through Agatha Parrot, enjoyed it thoroughly, and wants to know if there will be more.

I'm happy to say that there will: the next one is called Agatha Parrot and the Mushroom Boy and will be  out in February 2012.

(Small round of applause for Poskitt clap clap all right don't overdo it.)

Here's Kjartan Poskitt posing with Sarah McIntyre at the Edinburgh Festival.
(He's the one on the left. )  Read more on Sarah's BLOG,
which is where I swiped the photo from...

Agatha Parrot and the Floating Head is published by Egmont Books.

A Conversation with Toby Frost

Ten Thousand Cheers for the Internet!  Now when we find new authors whose books we enjoy, we needn't just sit patiently waiting for them to write the next one: oh no, we track them down on Facebook and bombard them with impertinent questions*.  By way of example, Philip Reeve has been talking to Toby Frost, author of the Space Captain Smith series of sci-fi comedies.

*Not that I mind if you want to track me down on Facebook - in fact, I encourage it. PR.. 

PR:  Since my own books are marketed to children, and half the people reading this may be school librarians, I ought to kick off by pointing out that the Space Captain Smith series aren't childrens books; they contain sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, and also a great many references and in-jokes which will probably whip straight over the heads of the Youth of Today.  I noticed nods to dozens of influences I remember from my own teenage years, from Blade Runner and Alien to Kate Bush, Kenneth Williams and JG Ballard (and what a supergroup they would have made!) I think I even spotted a line from Excalibur.  Can I take it that you did your growing up in the seventies and eighties too? 

TF: Yes, I was born in the late seventies, so that’s where a lot of the references come from. Good work spotting Excalibur, by the way. I love that film. 

PR:  I think I owe my whole career to it: it led me to all the other versions of King Arthur, to Tennyson and Eliot, the Pre-Raphaelites, the symbolists - it's what I had instead of university!  I saw it so many times when it was released that I think the whole screenplay is engraved line-for-line on my memory.   Anyway, how did you come to write Space Captain Smith?

TF:  Smith wasn’t my first novel, but it’s the first I got published. It was actually a diversion I wrote while writing some longer stories (serious ones!) set in a fantasy world inspired by Leonardo’s drawings, a sort of clockwork Renaissance. One day I happened to be talking to a friend who was reading HG Wells. We got joking about the idea of Victorians conquering the moon and demanding gin from its baffled inhabitants, and it all went (downhill) from there. Smith slowly changed from a set of sketches to a full novel, and then I had this idea about tea... Finding a publisher is, unless you’re immensely lucky and writing about vampires, very difficult. I actually sent my manuscript to Myrmidon, my publishers, before I entered a competition in The Telegraph to send in the first 1000 words of a novel. I got to the last 50 entries, which helped my application to Myrmidon very much. Basically, anything you can point to that shows you know your stuff helps. How did you get published?

PR:  A similar process, I suppose.  I tinkered around with various versions of Mortal Engines all through the 1990s, and sent it off to lots of literary agents who weren't remotely interested.  Then I showed it to Scholastic, for whom I'd done some illustration work. One of their editors, Liz Cross, liked it, and encouraged me to re-write it as a children's novel.  Were there any other writers who were particular influences on the development of your style?

TF:  Whenever people ask me about my comedic influences I tend to mention George Orwell and Raymond Chandler. Perhaps not the best joke-tellers, but they both perfected the difficult trick of saying very intelligent things in an unaffected way that packs all the more weight for its simplicity (actually, now I think about it, their styles both get parodied in the novels, along with H P Lovecraft).  I’ve always liked comedy that can say stupid things cleverly, or be clever about stupid things, and I always think Blackadder is a great example of that. There’s one episode where they’re being pursued by a mad bishop who wields a red-hot poker, and suddenly Percy starts to quote Richard II by Shakespeare. Then Blackadder childishly insults him and makes a joke about poo. Great stuff!

PR: Personally, I have a slight aversion to double entendres and blue jokes.  I think it goes back to my early teens when the only TV in the house was in the living room and I had to endure the awful frosty disapproval of my mum if I was watching Not The Nine O'Clock News or Kenny Everett and they got a bit risqué.  I'm sensing you have no such qualms?

TF: As far as jokes are concerned I’ve cut about two out of my drafts for being too vulgar and tasteless (and a fair few more for being too rubbish). I didn’t consider child-friendliness when I wrote the novels: I always saw them as 12+ in terms of cinema ratings, and probably 13-15 or so reading-age wise. But it depends how you define bad taste: vulgarity of the farts-and-burping sort doesn’t both me too much, where as mocking the afflicted is cheap. For all their crassness, cowardice, promiscuity and homicidal mania, the main characters are a pretty decent bunch. When it comes down to it, they’re alright. Even Carveth isn’t really cowardly – she’s just sane. Not that I’d hold them up as role models as such...

PR:  Most 'Steampunk' books which deal with the British Empire seem to do so in order to denounce it, but your books seem more Ealing Comedy than Steampunk, and your future British Space Empire is basically benign, championing freedom and the common man against totalitarian foes.  It's also full of odd little affectionate details of British life like Airfix kits and branches of Debenhams.   Do you hanker for a return to decency, tea-drinking and stiff upper lips? 

TF: As regards the (First!) British Empire, and its portrayal, I agree that it inevitably casts a long shadow. I really had a choice as to whether to make the Imperialists evil and callous or just a bit silly, and I felt that the former had been done to death and would make the books too sour to be the jolly, Biggles-style adventures that they are. Also I think it’s more interesting to talk about imperialists who sincerely believe they are doing good: that attitude permeates the space empire, even down to the fact that Smith’s huge revolver is called a Civiliser. That to me is far more interesting than a simple “Empires are evil” statement – and has more potential for comedy. Of course, it helps that the Ghasts and Yull are infinitely worse than the people they want to replace. Pretty much anything is better than being ruled by (ie murdered by) Number 1 or the Greater Galactic Happiness and Friendship Collective. And anyway, you can’t really rule people like Suruk with a rod of iron. They’d just take it off you and bash you with it.

Do I hanker for a return for tea, decency and stiff upper lips? Yes, although not a literal return with everything that entails . Although the past has always been worse than the present for almost everyone, it’s hard not to feel that something hasn’t been lost along the way – an idea of how we ought to be more than something we actually were. Sometimes I wonder if we don’t indulge ourselves too much in public, or that we put up with too much nonsense from people who like sounding off (unlike this particular rant. I’m much less of a reactionary than I probably sound). Anyway, I think there is something quite distinct about being British, a positive set of values beyond just a rather woolly sense of tolerance. I’ve certainly heard steampunks talk about trying to reclaim those values, chief among them politeness. Good on them!

I think one of the main problems with steampunk is that it can actually be difficult to find new things to say. If you’re not careful, you can end up shuffling a very small pack of cards until it all feels a bit like Cluedo: this time round it’s Charles Babbage versus Captain Nemo, and on the next shuffle, Holmes and Grace Darling will be fighting the Martians (both of which I’d happily read. Especially the latter). I like steampunk very much, but I think it needs to be approached carefully to avoid being defined out of existence. It’s actually one of the things I like most about Mortal Engines: although the setting is totally original, that crucial steampunk sense of home-made, one-off technology is still there.

PR:  Ooh, I'd definitely read the Grace Darling one: I had quite a major crush on her when I was about seven ( they did her life story on Blue Peter).  And I know exactly what you mean about Steampunk - although actually it seems to have become such a vague term that I don't really think it means much any more.  I was relieved at how un-steampunk Smith is.  I also thought the characters were unusually well-rounded for a comic novel.  Where did Smith, Carveth, and Suruk the Slayer spring from?

TF:  I always wanted the Smith books to be properly worked-out: that the world, however bizarre, would have its own logic and wouldn’t be just slapstick. While I like all the jokes, of course, I also intended the stories to stand as novels in their own right. I think that’s why I tried to make the characters rounded, and also why there is actual death. I also think it gives the stories a bit more weight. The main characters are in part parodies of stereotypes (explorer, noble warrior etc) and are foils for one another, but I always wanted them to be more developed than that. Sending them on adventures with each other makes them round each other out, too. Strange as it sounds, given that he’s a headhunting, war-obsessed alien monster, I wanted Suruk’s homecoming in Didcot to be a little poignant as well as absurd. In a funny way you find you owe it to your characters. (Please tell me I’m not alone in this!)

PR: I don't think you are!  Suruk is an utterly likeable character, despite the whole head-hunting alien monster thing.  And I found the friendship between him and Smith (and him and Carveth, in a way) to be oddly touching.  I think that's what makes the books, for me, ultimately more satisfying than things like Blackadder, where all the characters are basically villains or idiots.  They are also war stories, and despite all the comedy there is a very convincing sense of danger in the combat scenes  - Carveth's fear at going into battle is very well portrayed.  Do you have a 'serious' adventure story waiting to be written?

TF: I do have a serious novel: it’s an almost complete redraft of the clockwork Renaissance story, and I’m very proud of it. Basically, it’s a revenge drama about a woman returning to a city to kill a gangster who left her for dead. However, the gangster is now a wealthy merchant, and things become more complicated as, in her quest for revenge, the heroine is drawn into the efforts of various feuding nobles to seize the throne and ends up almost as a power in her own right. I loved writing it, but it’s proved hard to find a publisher as yet. It’s got the makings of a trilogy, but I’ll clear the first hurdle of getting the first story published before anything like that!

PR:  Good luck, and thanks very much for doing this interview!

You can find more about Toby and his books at

Space Captain Smith

By Toby Frost
Reviewed by Philip Reeve

Most of the books which the Bee has recommended recently have been aimed at children, so please note that Toby Frost's Space Captain Smith isn't, containing as it does industrial quantities of smut and innuendo.

Space Captain Smith is set in the 25th Century in a region of space dominated by the 'Great Powers' of Earth, including a revived British Empire keen to export cricket, tea and fair play to the farthest reaches of the galaxy.  This suggests that the book will be wedged firmly in the 'Steampunk' cul-de-sac,  an impression which is strengthened by Angelo Rinaldi's splendid cover artwork, itself a spoof of the current UK covers for George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series .

In fact I was surprised by how un-Steampunk Space Captain Smith is: it's true that Smith wears a red tunic, carries a service revolver and prides himself on his well-waxed moustache, but the cultural references are mostly contemporary (his ship's android pilot rather worryingly consults a Haynes manual before take-off) and Smith's muddleheaded but basically decent form of Englishness seems more 1950s than Nineteenth Century.  The technology is purest sci-fi, with no actual steam involved, although Smith's ship suffers from a bent cam-shaft at one point.  The story is also dotted with parodies of movies like Blade Runner, The Matrix and A Clockwork Orange, further diluting the Steampunk aesthetic.  (This is a Good Thing: I like my Steampunk diluted to almost homeopathic levels these days.)

The plot is brisk and workmanlike: Isambard Smith (who isn't a Flashman-style cad at all, but a rather dim, well-meaning, upper class twit) is sent to fetch a woman named Rhianna Mitchell from the hippy-ish space habitat of New Francisco, which is under threat from the fascist ant-men of the Ghast Empire.  His ramshackle spacecraft the John Pym is piloted by runaway android Polly Carveth, and also along for the ride is Smith's old friend Suruk the Slayer, a Predator-like alien warrior obsessed with collecting skulls and much given to saying things like, "Moons have passed since last we met, battles fought and enemies fallen.  At the bridge of Anrag I took fifteen heads..."  How he became Smith's friend is never explained, but it's lucky for us that he did, since his cheerful psychopathy makes him the book's  most memorable character, and the source of many of its best jokes.

The three central characters are all likeable and well-drawn, so it doesn't matter that everyone else is basically a charicature.  The planets which our heroes visit all seem to have been terraformed according to national stereotype; there's a gloomy post-Russian world full of rotting concrete tower blocks, and a Dixieland bayou planet ruled by 'The Republic of Eden', which basically represents all the things Brits hate about the U.S - religious fundamentalism, gung-ho military types and fat people in pastel leisure suits. (There is a rival 'United Free States of America' which remains off-stage in this book - presumably they stand for Rock'n'Roll, Seinfeld and HBO dramas.)  New Francisco is full of health food shops and meditation groups, while British-ruled planets tend to have names like Didcot and New Dorchester.  There's also a planet of cyberpunks who dress like characters from The Matrix (one lady is described as 'wearing tight shiny things, as if hit by bin-liners in a wind-tunnel') and a rainy world modelled on Blade Runner ("Go to a Different Off-World Colony!" suggests the advertising blimp drifting over the mean streets).

These brief movie parodies are all jolly enough in a Mad Magazine way, but I found them a bit obvious; Toby Frost's own world was more interesting, and I wanted to get back to it.  I far preferred the subtler references ("Aliens could look like anything," says a character who has obviously watched Star Trek, "They might look just like us except for some extra bits on their heads...")

 I was also a bit put off by the almost ceaseless innuendo.  I know that the double entendre is part of a long tradition in British comedy, from Max Miller and saucy seaside postcards through the Carry On films and TV shows like 'Allo 'Allo, but, let's be honest, all those things were rubbish.  Sexual innuendo was only ever funny because it had a shock value in a society where sex itself could not be mentioned.  We no longer live in such a society, so lines about 'being taken up the bayou' etc. etc. are just a lazy substitute for humour; the empty husks of gags our grandparents might have sniggered at.  There are times when Space Captain Smith swerves dangerously close to becoming a sort of Carry On Stainless Steel Rat.

Humour is always a hit-and-miss affair, however, and Toby Frost's jokes work far more often than they fail.  He's often very funny, and, more importantly, he can write.  His book is at its best when it stops frantically referencing other things and is just itself: the action scenes in particular are surprisingly gripping and well handled, and the universe he has created, for all its deliberate silliness, has a certain hand-made logic of its own.

Space Captain Smith probably won't change your life, but it's not meant to.  It delivers some good gags wrapped up in a story that will keep you turning the pages, and it might brighten up a wet weekend, or while away a train journey: I'm always pleased to find a book that does that.  There are already two sequels, God Emperor of Didcot and Wrath of the Lemming Men, and I shall be ordering both of them as soon as I've posted this.  Three cheers for the British Space Empire!

Toby Frost's Space Captain Smith website, including some downloadable short stories, is here.