Category Archives: Blog

Why the Last Series of Dr Who was Badly Written, and Why it Matters

It’s not often that a TV show makes me angry, find but the last series of Doctor Who did. It made me really angry.

Why? Because it was badly written. Very badly written. I’ve read many articles to the contrary and, somewhat confusingly, I agree with them. How can that be?

Because I do agree that the writing for the series was superb, but I also think that some of the episodes with the best writing in them were also the worst written overall.

So where’s the contradiction? It lies in the writers’ almost total disregard for the science in the Science Fiction.

Does it matter? After all, this is a show that features a character who can travel in time. Time travel is impossible, surely that shows a complete disregard for science. Well, yes, but that’s not the problem. In Science Fiction you can have one impossible thing, you can maybe have two or three impossible things that you build your story around. That’s the nature of the genre, but there’s a caveat: you have to maintain internal consistency. If you accept your two or three impossible things and then continue to go trampling over the science just for the sake of the plot, then that’s just bad writing. Full stop. And that’s what happened in the last series of Dr Who.

Does it matter?

If you want to write SF, yes it does. If you care about SF, it does. Because this sort of bad writing cheapens what the rest of us SF writers are trying to do. It falls in with the received wisdom of the Literary Establishment that these things don’t really matter, that ignorance of Maths and Science is nothing to be ashamed of.

No one would dream of writing a detective show without consulting basic police procedure. I read somewhere that the BBC is always careful to make sure that the steam engines it includes in period dramas are correct because so many people write in to complain when they get it wrong. So why is it okay to ignore bad science? A dragon hatching and laying an egg straight away? Trees suddenly appearing to save us from a solar flare? These were well written episodes with bad explanations just tacked on. They could have been much better. Are the writers really going to claim failure of the imagination?

Yes, it’s nice that the BBC include this sort of drama in their mainstream schedules, it’s great that they throw money and actors at it to produce a quality product. But if they ignore the science, then they’re saying that it doesn’t matter, that when in it comes down to it, the S in SF doesn’t matter. It’s the only the F that counts.

Well, I think they’re wrong, and unlike some of the other reviewers, I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

Sometimes I Have No Opinion

Who says that Weetos are just for breakfast?

I have no idea. I’ve never heard anyone express an opinion on the right time to eat Weetos, one way or the other.

But advertisers love these sort of statements. They appeal to the rebel in people (hey, no one tells me when to eat my breakfast)!. More than that though, they make you part of the debate. Advertisers validate the thing they are trying to sell by tricking you into having an opinion on it one way or another; because once you have an opinion on something it becomes important. That’s why the adverts want you to believe that you have to either love or hate Marmite, they want you to believe that indifference is not an option.

Well, yes it is. Indifference can be a great thing. I have no opinion on many things. I haven’t got time to have an opinion on everything, because if I were to try it would stop me concentrating on the things that are really important.

This is the politician’s trick. Concentrate on the fact that it’s important to vote and you validate the people you are voting for, the politicians themselves. Keep telling people that they have to vote or the wrong party will get in, and they’ll forget to check if the right party has anything going for it.

The Internet is full of people with opinions, many of them keen to get you involved in their debates. That’s how they validate themselves. That’s how they promote themselves. They want to drag you into the argument, they’ll tell you that you have to be involved, that if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.

Well, no. You’ll just have to excuse my indifference.

Leave it to the Experts

You may have noticed that I’ve separated the blog from this website. As I maintain two static content websites (this one and my tech site: http://tonyballantyne.com/tech) it seemed appropriate to have a separate, dedicated blog. I’ve been looking at Ghost blogging, and I liked the philosophy behind it. I also like to support to open source, so I thought I’d give it a go.

I’ve only just resisted the temptation to write a theme for Ghost. I’ve looked at the documentation, I’ve downloaded a couple of themes and had a look around inside, but I’ve managed to summon the self control to say “no”.

It was difficult. I hand coded the first websites I published, I dabbled in Dreamweaver, I wrote my own WordPress themes… I’m really tempted to get under the bonnet of Ghost, but over the years I’ve come to realise that whatever I do will never be as good as something done by a proper designer – by which I mean someone with a flair for design. I’m a writer first and foremost. I like Ghost because it allows me to concentrate on what I’m good at. It’s the mark of the amateur to think they can do everything. It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect: the less you know, the more you think you know.

So, I’m sticking to writing for the moment, and I’m keeping the Ghost blog on the basic Casper theme. No comments, no menus – nothing but blogging and a real sense of freedom. I’ll wait for someone else to make it look good.

You can find out more about Ghost here: http://ghost.org

You can find my blog here: http://blog.tonyballantyne.com

It’s Time to Think Big Again: How to Develop as an Artist

There’s a tendency nowadays to view simple as good, to regard the stripped down as authentic. In music we’re still seeing a reaction to the 1970’s, to the overblown theatricals of prog rock, to the tendency to “big” sound in classical orchestras. Well, that was forty years ago today, and things have gone too far.

This was illustrated in an article I read today about the singer songwriter Ed Sheeran.

Last week, IoW boss John Giddings caused controversy when he said that the industry wasn’t nurturing enough newer acts to rise to the role of headliner, and that the pool of more established legacy acts that could be called on to top the bill was forever diminishing – adding that Ed Sheeran was ‘boring’ and that if he’s the future, ‘we’re all screwed’.

If I read the article correctly, John Giddings problem was Ed Sheeran’s habit of playing solo concerts, just him and a guitar.

I don’t know enough about Ed Sheeran to have an opinion on whether he’s boring or not, but John Giddings may have a point about the solos. I’m getting tired of hearing minimalistic sets on acoustic instruments. To my mind, stripped down instrumentation all too often reveals a failure of the imagination. Why? Because arranging is difficult. Writing many parts is harder than just writing for voice and guitar. Thinking of something original to do with a larger sound palette is hard, full stop. Yes, all too often a bigher band can also be used to hide a lack of content, but that’s not an excuse to try something new.

You might disagree with the above. I’m sure some of you have your fingers poised on the keys, ready to type what about JS Bach? What about Chopin? Well, good point. And if Ed Sheeran’s playing in his live act involves him adding to the range of guitar techniques due to his extended arpeggiations, if he is using the instrument to provide a counterpoint that highlights the inner harmonies of his music in unusual fashions, if what he’s doing is pushing back the boundaries then fair enough. Actually, better than fair enough. Hats off to the artist, we can all learn something from him.

But if he’s just singing along to the chords, then, no, that’s not enough, not anymore. I’ve heard enough of those sort of acts, I want something different. (I should add at this point I listened to Ed Sheeran whilst typing this. I was rather impressed, and I didn’t think him boring. I haven’t heard his live act, though.)

That doesn’t detract from my main point, though. If you want to develop as an artist., yes. keep it simple to start with. But there has to come a time when you do something more exciting, when you try to work on a larger scale. You’ve got to take the journey before you can return to your roots.

You’ve got to get out into the world and experiment before you bring it all back home.

What, exactly, is the Waters of Meribah About?

I was contacted by a college SF class, asking me about my short story The Waters of Meribah. In particular, they wanted to know, what did it mean? Here’s my reply…

My degree was in Mathematics. I’m fascinated by what can be mathematically proven and what can’t. I’m intrigued by the fact that maths reveals so much about the universe, and that leads me to wonder about the things that aren’t revealed. The things we simply can’t comprehend.

I’d been planning a story describing the gradual process of changing from human into the other when a friend of mine lent me a book. Inside it was a photocopy of the passage from The Waters of Meribah, being used as a bookmark. I don’t remember what the book was, but the bookmark captivated me. What really struck me about the passage was that Moses and Aaron’s reaction was quintessentially human: they questioned.

Now, a recurring theme in Science Fiction is our relationship with the alien. In my story I wanted to examine the totally alien, something so alien that humans couldn’t comprehend it. Something so alien that in order to understand it, we would have to stop being human.

I didn’t know the ending to the story when I began writing, but as it progressed, as Buddy Joe changed, I realized that what made something truly alien wasn’t a different body, or different emotions, it was something that struck at the heart of what it is to be human: to think, to reason, to question. If something is truly alien, it won’t think as we do. If the alien visits our world, we won’t be able to comprehend it,

If we are to understand the alien, if we are to gain a greater understanding, we have to do what Buddy Joe does at the end of the story. We have leave to our current minds behind in this world.

I’m not sure that the above answers any questions, I’m not sure it even answers mine. I suppose if the answers were clear cut, I wouldn’t have written the story, I’d have just done some maths instead…

Change

I’ve just changed the hosting for my websites. I’ve been meaning to do it for a couple of years now, but there are always other things to do.  Add to that the worry that there are so many services dependent upon the hosting provider its no surprise that I ended up staying where I was, paying over the odds for a declining service.

That’s the modern business model, get you tied down to so many different services you find it harder and harder to move. That’s why Apple and Google like to make themselves so indispensable to all the different parts of your life. That’s why people hate to move banks: they’re worried about the fuss of changing all their standing orders. Well, I moved banks in the mid 90’s, and once I’d done it I realised how easy it was to do it a second time. Once you become aware of how something works you become free to uproot and move somewhere better. People accept second best because they’re afraid to move on. They’re afraid because they don’t know how.

That’s my view, at least.

Vincent Deary writes far more convincingly on why people find it so difficult to change in his book How We Are (How to Live Trilogy 1).

Vincent Deary is a health psychologist, but don’t hold that against him. He’s written a quietly literary book that meanders through an impressive range of sources and references on just why people are creatures of habit. From urban planners to Terry Pratchett, from Primo Levi to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is a book packed full of small revelations that unite to form an oddly positive and refreshingly different perspective on what it is to be human.

As for the new webhosting… Well, so far it’s very, very good indeed. So good I’m thinking of giving them a mention on my tech site.

 

 

Why I Wrote Dream London

Some years ago I was standing outside Dobcross Brass Band club, just an hour before midnight. The dark hills rose up to touch the sky and then sky rose up forever. The sounds of brass bands faded in and out of hearing as the breeze stirred the warm June air…

I was there to watch my daughter march to the last competition of the Saddleworth Whit Friday Band contest. Around thirty children lined up in rows and, at the signal, began to march. This was their home town gig: the people of Dobcross applauded loudly as they marched away. The scene reminded me of other times that young people, not that much older then these, had marched away in uniform to the applause of villagers.

But I digress. That’s not why I wrote Dream London, although the event described above did inspire some of the final scenes in the book.

I could digress further and talk about Occupy London, of making the trip to visit the protesters camping outside St Paul’s Cathedral, back when people were still indignant about the Financial Crisis. I could talk about that but, like the brass bands, although the event inspired the plot of the book, it’s not the reason why I wrote the book.

The main reason that I wrote Dream London was that I wanted to make sense of something that had been living in my imagination for years. I had a place in my mind that was obviously inspired by my time living in London, but I didn’t understand what the place was. I’d imagined walking some of the streets, in my mind I’d spoken to some of the inhabitants. I’d even dreamed about visiting an abandoned church there, painted purple and decorated with stars. The trouble is, none of the things that I imagined made any sense,

I had a collection of scenes and impressions of another place, I had a plot of sorts and a disparate collection of characters but no story. This may sound like I’m being deliberately awkward, but I’m sure many other writers will have had the same experience: that of thinking you have a story, of trying to write a story, but for some reason not being able to. I kept abandoning drafts and turning to other projects, but I was frustrated.

And then it occurred to me that I didn’t know why I wanted to write the story. There has to be a reason for wanting to spend a year completing a novel, and I realised I didn’t know what that reason was. What was it about Dream London the made we want to write it?

And so I thought about it, and I realized that the thing that fascinated me about Dream London was Dream London itself. What fascinated me was the logic behind the place, because Dream London does have a logic, even if it is illogical. I’m a mathematician, that’s the way I think.

So I thought about the logic, I thought about what would exist in Dream London and what wouldn’t. I thought about how people would react to the city, because I believe that’s the key to a successful book: not trying to make the story fit your ideas, but rather letting the story arise from the reaction of the characters to their situation. Dream London fascinated me. Once I understood how it worked I would just have to turn the characters loose…

So I thought about how it worked and there it was, the book, ready to be written. An exercise in Dream Logic. All I needed was that last spark that would ignite the process. And then a friend told me the story that made everything crystalize, but I’ve written about that elsewhere…

Buy on Amazon UK    Read an Extract        Buy on Amazon US

Boring, but Very, Very Useful

The most boring talk I attended at Loncon3 was the one about Tax for Writers. It was also the most useful. HMRC were there to encourage writers to claim as much tax back as they could when filling in tax returns. The presenter (and okay, he wasn’t boring, he did a very good job) was at pains to point out this wouldn’t turn us into Starbucks or Amazon, it was simply the way the system works.

The best place to go to for help is here: http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/startingup/help-support.htm. I’ve been filling in tax returns for my writing for years now, but I still found some useful stuff there. I’d recommend any UK writer to take a look.

All the above is a huge misdirection, of course. Our overly complicated tax system is just a way to keep an excess of accountants in work, and to allow the rich and powerful to shirk their social responsibilities. If we were to simplify the tax system, a lot of very clever people would be freed to find useful employment, working for the betterment of humankind rather than simply to enrich themselves and their masters.

If you can figure out how to bring a simplified tax system about, I really hope you will do so. If not, you might as well try and get some money back out of the existing one.