Click on any headline to view the full article...

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.

Cowboy Jess

Reviewed by Philip Reeve

I have to declare an interest here: Cowboy Jess is dedicated to my son Sam, and Geraldine McCaughrean is one of my all-time favourite authors (I doubt that I would have ever got around to writing my own novels at all if I hadn't read Fire's Astonishment and Vainglory).

She is best known for her magnificent children's novels, which include The White Darkness, A Little Lower Than The Angels, Plundering paradise, Stop The Train and, most recently, Pull Out All The Stops, and she also finds time to operate a secondary career as a re-teller of myths, legends and literary classics.

Cowboy Jess and its sequel, Cowboy Jess Saddles Up, fit neatly between these two strands.  Short books, aimed at a slightly younger age-group than the full length novels, and packed with what the children's book world calls 'boy appeal', they revisit the American west of Stop The Train in stories of almost mythic simplicity.  The Wild West backdrop is sketched in convincingly, and the landscapes are wonderful, but historical accuracy isn't an issue here: this is the legendary West of John Ford movies and schoolyard games of cowboys and injuns: Cowboy Jess himself might as well be Theseus, or King Arthur.  He is discovered on page one as a baby, curled up asleep in a coonskin hat between the wheel tracks where a wagon train has passed.  His upbringing by the kindly folks of a newly-founded frontier town is dealt with briskly in the first few pages, and pretty soon he's old enough  to sign on as a cowboy at the local ranch.  The problems which face him are quickly overcome by bravery, good nature and quick thinking, and in the course of the first book he captures a horse thief, saves the stage-coach from bandits and befriends a Lakota girl, Sweet Rain.

He also acquires a magnificent black horse named Destiny, who reminded me slightly of the old Champion, the Wonder Horse TV shows, which were still being repeated on Saturday mornings when I was Sam's age.  I can't remember much about them now except for the theme tune ("Champierrrnnnnnnnnn, the Wonder Horse...") and the fact that the excitement promised by the title sequence (all indians, stage-coaches and galloping horses) was never really delivered by the show itself.  The Cowboy Jess books avoid this pitfall with carefree ease; they are all indians, stagecoaches and galloping horses.   For older readers they may not have the same depth or scope of Geraldine McCaughrean's longer books, (and clearly aren't meant to) but they are still well worth reading, if only so that we can marvel at her nimble storytelling and the brilliance of her language (at one point, when dawn breaks after a night on the range, she describes a band of light appearing along the horizon 'as if the sky was lifting its hat to a lady').  For boys and girls who love adventure they are just about perfect.  Order them now and encourage a bit of half term/summer holiday reading.

Cowboy Jess and Cowboy Jess saddles Up are both published by Orion, RRP £4.99

Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks

Review by Philip Reeve.

Last year I reviewed Those Magnificent Men, Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon's brilliant little play about Alcock and Brown, which used the story of those pioneer aviators to explore history, the nature of fame, and the recent trend for using real-life figures as the basis for plays which explore history and the nature of fame.  Their latest work, Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks, which premiered on Wednesday night as part of the Brighton Festival, takes a similar approach.  With two small chairs and two large actors, it recreates the period from 1972 to 1988 when British Saturday afternoon TV schedules were dominated by scenes like this...

In some ways Big Daddy... is even more ambitious that its predecessor.  Actors Ross Gurney-Randall and David Mounfield don't just portray Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, but an immense supporting cast of lesser wrestlers, managers, and TV executives; there are even walk-on parts for Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra and Princess Margaret.  This constant switching from one role to another, one accent to the next, must be hard work for the actors, and would be hard work for the audience too if the writing were not so accomplished.  As it is, the characters are always careful to remind us who they are, to keep up to speed on what they're doing and what's happening in the wider world of wrestling at each particular moment.  It's all as funny as we've come to expect from Mitchell and Nixon, but it's never just funny: they have a deep sympathy for the people they write about.  Ross Gurney Randall's Big Daddy is particularly impressive; reluctant at first, then half believing his own publicity; his unease at having to visit the bedsides of dying children as part of his brother's publicity schemes, and his grief and guilt about the death of an opponent, are exceptionally well-drawn; he's almost a tragic figure (albeit a 26 stone tragic figure in a spangly leotard).

Our narrator for much of the evening, and the ring-master who holds all the disparate strands together, is Max Crabtree, Big Daddy's brother and manager.  He's played winningly by David Mounfield as a cheapskate north-country Machiavelli who dreams of "owning the whole of wrestling".  "I'll be your Virgil in this Dante's Inferno," he tells us as the show begins, and goes on to set the tone for much of what follows; "That's not the kind of reference I'd make in real life, but this is a play and I'm a sort of semi-fictional character, so I think we can get away with it..."

Stingy, scheming and manipulative, Crabtree could be easily be the play's villain, but he's too well-drawn, too fully rounded to be just a heel.  That role is reserved for Greg Dyke, best known nowadays as a dodgy Director General of the BBC, but who cut his teeth on London Weekend Television's World of Sport programme, and was responsible for taking wrestling off TV.  Portrayed by Ross Gurney-Randall as a venomous cockney psychopath, he embodies one of the show's themes; the shift of power from the north in the 1970s to the London 'barrow boys' who dominated the 1980s.  The tussles between Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks are the visual and comic highlights of the piece, but the real battle comes in the scene where Dyke and Max Crabtree confront one another; a high-stakes bout with the future of wrestling as the prize.

We know who won in the end, of course.  The London elite who run British TV didn't like wrestling and didn't want to show it, and without TV it withered.  It's not something you hear much about these days. Nostalgic TV shows and newspaper articles are forever exhuming the pop-culture detritus of the 1970s, but they tend to focus on things which middle-class North Londoners approve of, not these embarrassing pantomime gladiators whose fanbase was always in the provinces.  As well as giving us a laugh, this well-researched play is drawing attention to an odd little corner of our culture that has been not so much forgotten as deliberately suppressed.

That said, the eagerness with which the Brighton Festival audience joined in Big Daddy's signature chant of, "Easy!  Easy!" suggests that fond memories of wrestling survive even among hip urban types in the south east.  When it tours the north, Giant Haystack's final soliloquy, in which he predicts that 'Wrestling will be back!" is going to bring the house down.

A tour of Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks is planned for later in the year, and I shall post details both here and on my own blog when the dates are confirmed.

One is now Hitched...

By the Bee's Royal Correspondent, Andrew Gorton.

“Are you following the Royal Wedding today?” I asked the Scottish manager of my Norfolk village shop when I popped in on the day of the event. 

“Why should I celebrate a family that raped and pillaged my family and forced them out of their country?” he replied, less than half-jokingly. “I've spoken with family in the Highlands, and their kids are not having a day off school there.”

This has probably been the only passionate, albeit negative, reaction to the Royal Wedding I have encountered so far. The prevailing attitude has seemed to be one of sublime indifference. (When I expressed my own less-than-lukewarm attitude on Facebook, it got several 'Likes.') Everybody is glad for the day off, but that appears to be the extent of their enthusiasm. On the other hand, I hope Wills and Kate have better fortune in married life than Diana had. I think some lessons from that marriage have been well marked for this one. Hopefully there will be no conspiracy theories surrounding this marriage, now or in the future. I'm fairly certain that Charlie is not planning to bump off his new daughter-in-law at some point in the next few years. Personally, I'm surprised there isn't a theory that says Diana and Dodi faked their own deaths and are living anonymously in South America with Shergar and Lord Lucan, or something. I am half-tempted to try and circulate that one, to see how many people buy it.

Across the pond, the Americans seem far more fascinated and enthused by the Royal Family than us Brits. (Certainly many of them seem to believe the “Diana was murdered” theory.) Considering that their nation was born as a result of successful revolution against the British Monarchy, it seems rather an odd attitude to have, exactly the opposite side of the coin to my Scottish acquaintance. Maybe it is the fact that the Scots failed in their uprising where the Americans succeeded that explains the difference? I'm not sure. Certainly the Scottish clans suffered more at the hands of the English kings than the American colonists.

In my opinion, the modern Royal Family are just another aspect of celebrity culture, but with more pomp and tradition. I am inclined to view this wedding as no different, really, than any other  celebrity wedding, although with slightly more gravitas. There are certainly the screaming crowds and an overemphasis on what everybody is wearing, and inane waffle from news commentators.  To be fair on the other hand, none of the Royals, with the possible exception of Kate, sought nor possibly desire their status in the public eye. I could sympathise with Prince Harry when he was pulled from front-line duty in Afghanistan. It must be frustrating not being able to do the job you wanted to to, and had undergone rigorous training for, just because of who your parents are. Also, watching films like The Kings Speech does humanise them for me.

Watching bits of the event today on the telly, I am sure it was not always like this for the royals. I have a picture in my head of the Saxons marching off to fight the Battle of Hastings to hysterical public adulation, with vapid commentary on Armour by Ralph de Lauren, and speculation on whether Harold is going bald under his Jeffrey of Portman Helmet. Then, a few days later, tabloid hysteria of this new bloke, William the Conqueror's questionable taste in interior decoration or something. 

It is possible history may go full circle and the Royals will become more than just figureheads, but it is unlikely. I am sometimes prone to the cynical belief that this is pretty much a Bread-and -Circuses event, but in the end, I am sure it is a harmless and much needed diversion from an otherwise grim couple of years. 

A Conversation with Mark Robson

If you've attended a UK secondary school during the past ten years there's a high likelihood that you've met Mark Robson, author of rip-roaring fantasy adventures and a tireless and inspiring teacher and speaker to schools and book-groups.  He started out publishing his own books (the high fantasy Darkweaver Legacy quartet) before Simon and Schuster picked up his Imperial sequence set in the same world.  Then came the Dragon Orb quartet, about teenage dragon-riders in another fantasy world, who occasionally fly through a dimensional rift into our own circa 1918, resulting in some smashing dragons-vs-triplane action over the Western Front.  

His latest, The Devil's Triangle is the first of a trilogy about the Bermuda Triangle, the area of sea between Florida and Bermuda where bats and aircraft are supposed to go missing more frequently than they do over other large patches of sea...  In Mark's story the disapearees find themselves on a parallel Earth where mammals never caught on and the dominant species are a race of highly evolved velociraptor types.

Philip Reeve: Like Roald Dahl and Captain W.E Johns, you've made the leap from RAF pilot to children's author.  How did that come about?

Mark Robson: It was a strange chance that set me writing.  I was down in the Falkland Islands on detachment in July 1996 and the weather that year was particularly bad.  We were getting 80mph winds with heavy snow that was actually getting through the roofing and settling in the corridors!  There was no way we could fly in those conditions and I got very irritable as I hate being idle.  I annoyed my navigator so much with my grumpiness that one morning he snapped at me, “For goodness’ sake, Mark!  Do something useful.  Go write a book, or something!”

What he really said was a bit more colourful than that, but it would be inappropriate to repeat the actual language here!  I’ve always loved a challenge and having always been a prolific reader, I’d often thought It would have been great if the character had done this, or if the author had twisted the story in a different way here. Why not write a book?  All I needed was paper, a pencil and some time… all of which were available in abundance.  I told Arnie (the Navigator) that I would write the first chapter to a book and if he liked it, I would write the rest.  I’ve never looked back. 

Philip Reeve: The Bermuda Triangle seems to have gone a bit quiet lately.  When I was a lad it was never off the telly in one form or another.  I remember an American sci-fi show called 'Fantastic Journey' which involved Roddy McDowell trying to escape from it, and there was even a Bermuda Triangle song by Barry Manilow.  I quite liked reading about it, because it was a nice long way away and so not as scary as aliens, who one always suspected might land in the back garden at any moment.  I'm intrigued to know what prompted you to write about it.  Is it an interest of yours, or just a handy way to get your characters into the raptor world?

Mark Robson: It appears there is still a remarkable amount of interest in the Bermuda Triangle, though if you ask most young people where it is, they don’t actually know.  They simply have a vague notion of it as a mysterious place where boats and aircraft disappear.  I was amazed when I started putting bits on my blog about some of the more famous mysteries just how rapidly the hits on my website increased.  Folk remain fascinated by the aura of mystery that surrounds the area.

My original intention was to write a follow-up series to Dragon Orb utilising the Bermuda Triangle, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt the setting offered the chance for me to attempt having contemporary characters enter a fantasy style adventure through it.  What I didn’t realise was how much of a change this would require to my writing process – having so much real world action.  My publishers loved the idea and commissioned it, but when it came to writing the first book, I found it terrifying.  It felt like learning to write from scratch all over again.  All the things I could get away with in my previous books because I was writing in an imaginary world now had to be correct.  I found my research time for the silliest little things became hugely distracting to the writing process.

There are many websites and books, (most a bit dated now, but a few newer ones) devoted to the mysteries surrounding the region.  The sensationalists will tell you that the effects are as active as ever.  I’m not so sure about that.  However, it was fascinating doing the research in the Florida Keys.  Whenever I asked anyone about it in interview while they were in a work related place, they all said it was a load of hokum.  Get the same sort of people in a bar in the evening and their stories are very different.  Apparently ‘everyone’ knows that Atlantis is on the seabed near the Bahamas and that there are weird magnetic anomalies in the area, to say nothing of all the UFOs and USOs (Unidentified Submarine Objects).  To be honest, my own experiences flying through the region as a military pilot were very mundane, but there do seem to have been a remarkable number of interesting incidents in the area, so who knows?  Maybe there is something strange happening out there. 

Philip Reeve:  The raptor civilisation's energy source in the book is ingenious - heating the earth's mantle to increase its magnetic field - and sounds convincing to me.  But it's starting to go wrong, with catastrophic climatic effects.  Is that intended as a parable about our own world?  I sometimes worry that all the new technologies we sci-fi writers suggest are in the process of ruining the world: it makes for a more interesting story if they go wrong, but are we giving children the idea that technology is a bad thing, and that they should be pessimistic about the future?

Mark Robson: I must thank science fiction writer and occasional editor of New Scientist magazine, Ian Watson, for that idea.  My conversation with him would have sounded bizarre to anyone listening in.  It went something like this:

Me: Hi, Ian.  Mark Robson here.  I wonder if you could help me.  I’ve got a bit of a problem.  I need to increase the earth’s magnetic field by several factors.  How can I do it?


Ian: Mark!  Ah, yes.  Interesting.  Well, the obvious solution would be to bring the moon closer… but that might prove a bit tricky!  (I’m thinking Yeah, obvious!  Silly me!  Why didn’t I think of that?)  I suppose you could detonate a mass of directed nuclear charges on the far side and try to shunt it a bit nearer, but I’m not convinced that would work and the splatter would be terribly messy.  Even if you did manage it, the side-effects would be horrific. 

Me:  Ah!  So not possible then.

Ian:  Well… of course, you know the earth works like a dynamo. 

Me: Yes, I vaguely remember something about that from my ‘A’ Level Physics days.

Ian:  OK, well the earth’s magnetic field is caused by the friction of the magma flowing around the earth’s iron core.  If you could speed up the flow, the friction would increase and so would the strength of the magnetic field.  Hmmm… how could we speed up the magma flow?  Make it less viscous.  Heat it, perhaps… hmm… that’s a lot of magma to heat…

And thus began the raptor’s cunning plan of pumping their nuclear waste into the earth’s core over a number of centuries, gradually producing the stronger field.  In theory, doing this might produce the effect I describe, though probably not at the magnitude I have it in the story. 

Yes, the inadvertent ecological disaster is intended as a parable.  The dangers of ignoring the warning signs of an impending global catastrophe are pretty self-evident, and there’s a certain degree of tongue-in-cheek parallel to the human race’s general attitude to global warming.  However, I’m trying to avoid it becoming too preachy in the story and I certainly don’t want to give children the impression that all technology is bad.  Personally I’m something of an optimist and feel that mankind is so adaptive that we will continue to find ways to overcome the problems we seem to be creating for ourselves.

The political situation in the raptor society also comes to the fore in the second book.  The rulers there are rather like a military junta who control their society with an iron fist.  While the general raptor populace are willing to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to the causes of their environmental changes, one particular decision by their leaders in Book 2 will spark a very violent revolution.

Philip Reeve:  Do you do a lot of world building before you start a book, or does it come together as you write?  Do you plan your characters, or do they just grow?

I must confess that I don’t do anywhere near enough world building before I begin and that nearly always comes back to haunt me as I get further into a story.  I do try to get to know my characters a little before I launch into a story with them, but again, I should probably do more.  I have found with each series of books I’ve written that it takes until the end of the first book for me to feel like I know them properly.  Even then they surprise me sometimes.

Philip Reeve: What's next?

Mark Robson: Book 2 of the trilogy, Eye of the Storm, is well underway.  I’m just over half way through the first draft and hope to complete it in time for a pre-Christmas launch.  In this book the reader will learn that the crossing points between worlds are not limited entirely to the Bermuda Triangle region and that many other famous mysterious disappearances were actually caused by random storms in other parts of the world.  We find Amelia Earhart’s grandson has invented a new breed of flying machine, giving raptors the power of flight.  It also appears that Glenn Miller and Lord Lucan were victims of the effect!

What I’d love to do is set the real world element of the third (and final) book off the coast of Japan in the area Charles Berlitz dubbed “The Devil’s Sea” – another area of water with a similar reputation to the Bermuda Triangle.  This would, of course, require another research trip… one of the great things about setting a story in the real world!

Beyond this trilogy, I’m not sure.  I’ve got outlines for about another 10 books of various types, and ideas for a lot more.  Having recently gained my black belt in Tae Kwon Do, I’d quite like to try writing a modern martial arts story – the Karate Kid meets Jackie Chan in Grange Hill sort of thing.  I think that would be a lot of fun to do. 

Philip Reeve:  Thank you Mark.  Take it away, Barry!*

*And leave it there.