Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Some physics reading and two records

 A few weeks ago, looking to make some inroads into the shelves of unread books around our house, I picked up Faster than the Speed of Light by João Magueijo. Published around 2003, this is a non-fiction, popular science account of a family of theories called VSL. These are theoretical models in which the speed of light is allowed to vary, particularly in the early universe, and for reasons that help resolve some of the nagging puzzles in canonical Big Bang cosmology, such as the "horizon" and "flatness" problems. I remembered the splash of publicity around the book at the time it came amount, perhaps helped by the fact that the book's author, one of the co-discoverers of VSL,  was unafraid of badmouthing the scientific establishment, from university administrators to the academic traditions of peer review. The book is appropriately grouchy and full of grievances and name-calling, unusually so for a publication by a (then young) scientist still fully embedded in the field. 

But once he gets beyond the score-settling, it's actually a pretty lucid and well-organised introduction to VSL. First of all we have to be walked through a couple of areas, though. There's a good, entry-level discussion of Special Relativity (SR) done with thought experiments involving fields of cows, for the most part, and then a quick grounding in standard Big Bang cosmology as it now stands - or did in 2003, taking in inflation and its various spin-off theories, before going on to show how VSL might make some of the outstanding problems evaporate. To be clear, this isn't about FTL in the science fictional sense, so the title is largely misleading; it's about epochs in the universe when the speed of light might have been much, much higher than it is now, allowing widely separated regions to be in causal contact in ways that can't be reconciled with the good old slow speed of light as we now measure it. But nothing ever moves faster than light at any given epoch. The exception to this is discussed only briefly, in the context of cosmic strings, where it's said that the speed of light might get faster the closer you get to one of these strings, allowing the possibility of very rapid travel without (to a high approximation) any time dilation. Obviously, I'd have liked more on this.

Not being any kind of insider in either theoretical physics or cosmology, I wasn't in a position to judge how well VSL has endured in the intervening seventeen years, but it does at least come up in the context of paper abstracts, so I presume there is still some mileage in the idea. However, it fairly obviously hasn't become the dominant theory either.

One thing Faster than the Speed of Light barely contains is any mathematics. There's an old sentiment, probably apocryphal, that every equation put into a popular science book halves the audience. But while I could take or leave VSL itself, the recapitulation of SR did make me want to re-engage my brain cells with a more mathematically grounded treatment, the sort of thing I had to understand at undergraduate level.

I then turned to a book I'd picked up relatively recently, which was volume three in the "Theoretical Minimum" series by Leonard Susskind and co-authors. Volume 3 covers SR and classical field mechanics. Susskind is a lecturer in physics, but also one of the architects of string theory. His recent popular status, though, draws on a series of courses he ran for educated non-physicists, including a fair bit of mathematics, and which led to Youtube videos and then this series of books.The treatment of SR is exactly what I wanted, in that it's careful and lucid, starting at absolute first principles, and then walking you through the arguments step by step, until you get to the juicy bits like time dilation, length contraction and such head-scratchers as the barn-pole paradox. What I really liked about the approach of Susskind and his collaborator, in this case Art Friedman, is that they didn't start from the usual thought experiments that one tends to encounter in entry-level derivations of SR. These often involve such things as pulses of light being bounced between mirrors on railway cars - all perfectly good but I appreciated a somewhat different angle of attack this time, even if it arrived at the same place. Ultimately, following Susskind and Friedman's discussion, one arrives at a derivation of E=mc^2, and it's hugely satisfying to reach this minor summit in modern physics, and feel that one vaguely followed all the steps on the way.

Once I started pushing into the second part of the book, dealing in field mechanics, I felt myself to be on much less solid ground. This is no fault of the authors. But SR was something I studied at undergraduate level, retained an enthusiasm for, and have revisited from time to time since. Even though it was good to be reacquainted with the derivations, it was more a case of re-training old mental muscles than having to develop a completely new set. Once the book began to steer into the foundations of field theory, involving Lagrangians and Hamiltonians, I knew I had to do some backtracking. To be fair, the authors are clear on this: at various points in the book, it advises refreshing concepts from the first volume before proceeding. I had indeed perused the first volume - but some while ago, and evidently not deeply enough.

Volume one was initially published as just "The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Start Doing Physics", by Susskind and George Hrabovsky, but it's since been retitled as Classical Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum. Mine was the earlier edition, but as far as I'm aware the contents are unchanged. Suitably chastened by my bruising encounter with the concepts needed for the second half of Volume three, I'm now reworking my way through the first book. It begins with stuff that will be familiar to anyone who's studied physics or mathematics at (the very least) undergraduate level, and probably high-school/sixth form as well, such as coordinate spaces, vectors, vector algebra, differential and integral calculus, partial derivatives, and so on. None of this was etched firmly in my brain to the point where I'd have been confident to wade in without a textbook, but it was all stuff I'd known once, even if very little of it was applicable to the sort of work I actually did as a jobbing scientist. However, it was good to be reacquainted.

Now I am forging into the parts which gave me trouble in Vol 3 - Lagrangians, Hamiltonians, Euler-Lagrange equations and so on - and I must confess that I don't honestly remember whether I was taught any of this material at degree level. I suppose I must have been, but after thirty two years it's hard to be sure. Our standard year-one mechanics textbook was Kleppner and Kolenkow, which is still in print, and which I considered one of the few academic books worth hanging onto in later life. But a quick glance at the index reveals nothing on Lagranges, Hessian matrixes etc. So perhaps this will all be new, and exciting. Who knows.

I've said nothing about the second volume in the Susskind series, by the way, because I don't yet own it. The second book covers Quantum Mechanics. However, having reaffirmed my enthusiasm for the first and second titles, I've now tracked down a matching hardcover of the second, and which is on its way to me.

Speaking of textbooks, and keeping them or throwing them away - how's that for a segue - Deep Six Textbook is the first track on the first album by Let's Eat Grandma, an avant pop/synth pop/sludge pop (take your pick) group originating in Norwich and which consists of two schoolfriends, Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth. They were fifteen when they recorded the first album, I Gemini, and followed it up in 2018 with I'm All Ears, by which time they were long past it at nineteen. I bought the first album a couple of years ago, and liked it very much, recognising an abundance of weird ideas and off-the-wall originality. The second album, I'm sorry to say, didn't quite grab me the way I'd hoped it would. On first listen, it sounded like a maturation of the approaches on the first record, without quite going anywhere surprising. I played it once or twice, then let it gather dust. How wrong I was, though. When I actually did what I should have done, and gave the album the time and attention it deserved, it left me floored. Insidious, is how I'd describe it: one of those recordings that doesn't give up its treasures too readily, but gradually sinks hooks into your subconscious, until you begin to doubt that any other music will ever sound interesting again. Let's Eat Grandma really are remarkable, and without burdening Walton and Hollingworth with impossible expectations, I can't wait to hear where they go next.















Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Support the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity

My sister, who is an all-round cool person, is doing a marathon(in installments) for the Royal Marsden. Cancer has been hitting close to home for both of us in recent years, so it's a cause extremely dear to our hearts and one well worth supporting. No one should feel in the least bit pressured, but if you do feel like sending a pound or two in Tracy's direction, it would be greatly appreciated.

My sister has had an interesting career trajectory. After many years service in nursing, she retrained to become ... a maths teacher. Not many people do that, and I'm proud of her.

https://marsdenmarathon.blackbaud-sites.com/fundraising/my-marsden-marathon1185


Friday, 28 August 2020

Essa Hansen Q&A and an interview

 Just a quick note that you can replay the online discussion with Essa Hansen by going to this link:


https://www.crowdcast.io/e/reynolds-hansen-aug2020

There were a few intermittent glitches with audio and sound but by and large I think it went well and we both enjoyed it.

I also wanted to mention an interview I did a couple of weeks ago with the Middletown public library's science fiction book club, kindly made possible by John Grayshaw.

You can either go directly to the group's Facebook page, and then scroll down until you reach my interview as posted on the 20th of August (sorry, I don't do Facebook, so that's as helpful as I can be):

https://www.facebook.com/groups/sciencefictionbookclub/

Or jump to a complete list of interviews, here:

https://middletownpubliclib.org/science-fiction-author-interviews/


Friday, 21 August 2020

Q&A with Essa Hansen

 Essa Hansen is a new writer with an exciting, imaginative debut novel, a weird and vividly-realised far future space opera entitled Nophek Gloss. I'll be in my kitchen in Wales in the gathering gloom of a late August evening, probably with rain lashing against the windows, while Essa will be somewhere considerably earlier and sunnier, in California.

We'll be talking about SF and taking your questions, so if you have a chance, please come along and join us at this Orbit-sponsored event, and I'm sure we'll have a fun discussion.


Join science fiction authors Alastair Reynolds and

next Wednesday August 26th for a conversation about their books, cinematic space travel, and cool spaceships! This #OrbitLIVE event starts at 12pm PDT/3pm EDT/8pm BST. Register here: ow.ly/unOY50B1ULY

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Previously published titles returning to print in the US via Orbit

 For the last few years my publisher in the United States has been Orbit. As the arrangements with my previous publisher lapse, Orbit have been reacquiring the titles and making plans to bring them out with new covers (and in the case of one, the revised title that was applied to the UK edition a little while ago).

Here are some of the new versions:


In so far as possible, the remaining titles will follow a similar design. 

Orbit have done an excellent job guiding new readers into my works, with a page full of suggestions which you can find via the following link:

https://www.orbitbooks.net/reading-order-alastair-reynolds/

From that page, you can click on individual titles and see purchase options for physical and ebook editions.

I'm grateful to the readers I already have in North America, and I hope these new versions will either help them fill holes in their collections, or guide new readers my way. Thank you to all who have been with me on the journey so far.

Al

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Reconvene panel on A.I.

All being well, I'll be taking part in a virtual panel as part of Reconvene, on saturday August 15th:


The twitter announcement for this event reads:

Has AI failed us or have we failed AI? Let's delve into the discussion w. Martha Wells (), Ted Chiang, Alastair Reynolds, Karl Schroeder () & R.W.W. Greene (). #reconvenesff #scifi #AI

Which my brain can't help but read as "Has Al failed us?" And I'm thinking - well. c'mon, give me a chance, we haven't even had the panel yet...

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Another gratuitous frog


I'm quite enjoying a bit of late-evening frog photography. There's a window of about 10 minutes around dusk between the frogs emerging, and my autofocus not being able to work due to the low light levels. Flash penetrates beneath the water level quite nicely, since all I could (just about) see of this fellow was the top of his head.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

On writing

In an earlier comment, Hristo Naydenov asked:

I don't wanna be a nuisance, but as someone who wants to write sci-fi, I find it quite difficult to figure out how to start. Maybe the foundation doesn't have to be a truly original concept, but the development that follows has to be. Where did you get your inspiration from? How do you start writing something so amazing? Do you start off based on a single, simple idea, and build as you go, or do you have a big outline that depicts everything that you plan for the book as a summary which you then follow with details?

With apologies for the self-aggrandizement implicit in quoting that remark, there is something worth addressing here. I've been asked similar questions in interviews over the years, and I imagine I've given reasonably consistent responses, but since such things tend to be ephemeral, there's no harm in returning to the subject.

I'm currently working on my seventeenth solo novel for Gollancz and will soon make a start on my eighteenth. I've also written a collaborative novel with Stephen Baxter, and a Doctor Who novel for BBC books. One or two of my novellas, such as Slow Bullets, are approaching the length of short novels. There are also two unpublished novels that I wrote in my teens. That's easily twenty novels, each of which was (at the very minimum) around half a year''s work, and some which took considerably longer than that. I do feel, then, that I have some demonstrable experience in the business of writing novels. Over the twenty-odd years that I've been writing to contract, too, one might have assumed that I'd have narrowed down the process to something that I could repeat with confidence, a formula for work which allows me to build a novel to a schedule and a budget, where the latter is measured in the amount of creative energy that can be reasonably dedicated to the task over a given period, knowing that one intends to write more novels in the future. The truth, though, is that much of the act of creating a novel still feels essentially mysterious and unpredictable to me, and I still enter into each enterprise with trepidation. Over those two decades or so, I've convinced myself that I can, for the most part, finish novels within an agreed interval, and that somewhere along the line my subconscious will furnish a few story elements that were not in mind at the outset. But the generative process still feels a little like jumping out of an aeroplane, knowing that the ground is six to nine months away, and that one or more parachutes will probably open before I get there. But I don't know that for certain: it's just a level of reassurance built up from experience, but which I know could be easily undermined.

Writing circles like to stuff authors into immutable categories: plotters and pantsers. The categories are more or less self-evident. Plotters do all the structural work up front, mapping the book out in fairly high resolution before committing a word to the page. Pantsers ("seat of the pants") just go for it, and see where the journey takes them. I don't think any writer is wholly one or the other, though. I'm certainly not. I've given both approaches a try, at either extreme, and there are merits in both. But over time I've satisfied myself that I need a middle ground: some sense of an outline, while erring on the sketchy side, and a lot of scope for narrative diversions and surprises along the way.

Over those twenty or so books, I've written several that were based on detailed structural plans, with chapter by chapter outlines. Redemption Ark was one, On The Steel Breeze another. Other books, such as Pushing Ice and The Prefect/Aurora Rising had a reasonably detailed outline, though not to the extent of the aforementioned. Chasm City, Elysium Fire, House of Suns, and several others, were written with the barest outline, just the vague shape of a novel in mind as I started out. To me, there are good things and less good things about all those books, but it doesn't feel to me as if the highly planned ones are necessarily superior to the others, although I may have started them with more confidence. But in the instances where I did start with a detailed plan, there always came a point where I had to deviate from it, sometimes quite abruptly. My feeling here is that novels are fractal, and the devil is in the details. No matter how well I seem to work out the story mechanics ahead of time, when I actually get down to the nitty-gritty of getting it onto the page, I find pitfalls that were always there, waiting to trip me up, and for which the detailed outline provided only a false confidence.

What do I mean by that? I think the problems are always on the level of motivation. In an outline, you can write "they agree to go to Mary's house"  and you're done. But when you come to write it, you're faced with making that plot turn function in a way that the reader will accept as being seamless and plausible within the terms of the story you've already established. Why do they agree? Why Mary's house, and not Steve's? Why go today, and not next week? Resolving those possibilities is, I think, the kind of "hidden" work that is really what writers get paid for. If it's done convincingly, the reader doesn't notice the blood and sweat expended behind the scenes. In my experience (and it probably only proves that I don't go about outlining correctly) no amount of up-front work helps to smooth out these wrinkles ahead of time. In the books I mentioned above, where there was a detailed outline, the work would often grind to a halt for many days while I tried to work my way through what appeared to be an innocuous plot development. For me, the cost-benefit analysis was simple: weeks of planning don't buy me much of an advantage when I'm knee-deep in the novel. So over time I've backed off on the up-front labour and now prefer to proceed with only a rudimentary outline. This can vary from a few scribbled lines on a whiteboard, to a few paragraphs in a document, up to maybe a few thousand words in all. But I don't regard any of it as sacrosanct, and I almost welcome the point where the story breaks loose of the plan, because then I think I might have a chance of surprising myself, and perhaps the reader as well.

None of this gets us close to the inception of the novel, though. Where do they come from, these things? I could give many different answers, and all would be individually true for specific novels, and not generally untrue for any of them.


  1. A reaction against the last book, or the last few books. After finishing House of Suns, which had come on the heels of The Prefect and Pushing Ice, I knew I could not embark on another novel which had airlocks in it. That's why there are no spaceships in Terminal World, and in place of sterile space structures, there's a lot of planetary scenery and relatively rustic set-dressing
  2. A desire to explore a specific theme, necessitated by a novel. When I began Pushing Ice, I'd been thinking a lot about the tensions between our modern view of life in the cosmos (the Fermi paradox etc) and the traditional SF set-up of competing galactic cultures. The book's central idea is an attempt to square those two irreconcilables. I knew I could not tell the story I wanted to tell within the constraints of the Revelation Space universe, so it had to be a standalone book with a new universe.
  3. A visual image which demands that a story be built around it. I have an over-active visual imagination and I'm presented with set-pieces that nag at my imagination until a story begins to accrete around them. Occasionally, these images are triggered by music. In the case of the Poseidon's Children sequence, I saw a woman of African ancestry aboard a huge spacecraft, faced with a terrible, world-shattering decision. That scene, suitably evolved, didn't emerge until the second book but it was the genesis of the whole project, along with the emotional textures stimulated by a recording by the late Ugandan musician Geoffrey Oryema,
  4. Music (see above). I consume music avidly and it plays a central part in my creative process. The moods or images conjured by a song can be enough to generate a novel, and govern the aesthetic of the whole work. Century Rain was sparked by the emotions encountered while listening to a piece by Goldfrapp. House of Suns, among other influences, was written while listening repeatedly to the song Hayling, by FC Kahuna. You'll have heard it, even if you don't think you've heard it. For the new book, for what it's worth, I have been listening to Scott Walker's The Seventh Seal and Dead Can Dance's Black Sun, repeatedly. These songs were also on repeat while writing Absolution Gap.
There is more, and much more, that could be said, but hopefully these remarks will be of interest to some. If there's a takeaway, I'd suggest that all writers will eventually find the approach that works best for them, and if that's nothing like any other process, it doesn't matter. Categories (plotters, pantsers etc) will only get you so far and the aspirant writer should feel free to discard the advice of anyone (including me) who seems excessively confident in the correctness of their understanding of any part of the process of writing. They're almost certainly wrong.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Six spot burnet

A nice day-flying moth. Dyffryn Gardens, South Wales.


Monday, 13 July 2020

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Welcome, Fand

A multiplanet system of super-Earths orbiting the brightest red dwarf star GJ 887

(aka Lacaille 9352, location of Fand in the Revelation Space books).

For the last decade or so it's been obvious that there'll come a point (if it hasn't already happened) where our knowledge of exoplanets conflicts with the alien solar system worldbuilding in the RS series, which has its origins in stories written more than thirty years ago.

Given how little we ever expected to know about exoplanets when I started studying astronomy. I couldn't be happier about that.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Don't say we weren't warned

From a remarkable piece in The Guardian by Celina Ribeiro, which you can read here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/28/beyond-google-my-afternoon-trawling-trove-for-the-first-mentions-of-climate-change

"COAL CONSUMPTION AFFECT-
ING CLIMATE.
The furnaces of the world are now
burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of
coal a year. When this is burned,
uniting with oxygen, it adds about
7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide
to the atmosphere yearly. This tends
to make the air a more effective blan-
ket for the earth and to raise its
temperature. The effect may be con-
siderable in a few centuries."

I thought Hawkwind were doing well to reference global warming on their 1979 album PXR-5,
but this article appeared in nineteen fucking twelve.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Two online things and Jeremy

Here in lockdown (we're still in it in Wales) I've done more than the usual number of online interviews and appearances. Each has been enjoyable; each a privilege, each has probably had me scrambling around at the last minute in a sweaty tizz trying to get something to work which definitely worked the last time I tried it. A particular and much treasured highlight was snapping the clip on my webcam 30 minutes before I was due to go live. Thank goodness for superglue and duct tape.

The first of these links is to a podcast interview on the "Daniel and Jorge explain the universe" show, which you can find here.

(Full link: https://www.iheart.com/podcast/105-daniel-and-jorge-explain-t-29862087/?keyid%5B0%5D=Daniel%20and%20Jorge%20Explain%20the%20Universe&keyid%5B1%5D=The%20SF%20Universe%20of%20Alastair%20Reynolds%20%22Revenger%22&sc=podcast_widget )

On this hour-long show I was imterviewed by Daniel Whiteson, himself a physicist, about the ins and outs of the Revenger universe. The first half of the podcast consists of Daniel and Jorge talking through the setup of my future solar system, while my interview comes in the second half. Thank you both for such an enjoyable discussion.

The second event I'd like to mention is a joint Q&A chat I did with Adrian Tchaikovsky, in which we took a series of questions posted by readers and answered them on the fly. That was great fun and I'd like to thank Adrian and our Orbit colleagues (including Angela Man) for setting it up and helping it go smoothly, as well as all who followed and/or posted questions. I'm just sorry we weren't able to get to them all, but time was against us.

There's a video playback of our conversation here, also about an hour long:

https://www.crowdcast.io/e/reynolds-tchaikovsky-jun2020


Finally, last year I dug out a couple of ponds next to my writing room. I've been really, really hoping I'd get frogs and a few weeks ago I was rewarded with my first sighting. Now, thanks to careful observations, we've established that there are at least three (three!) frogs in my ponds.

This is Jeremy:



Say hello to Jeremy.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Hands off

From The Guardian:

The family of Tom Petty has issued a formal cease and desist letter to the Donald Trump campaign over its use of his song I Won’t Back Down at a rally in Tulsa on 20 June.

Full story:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jun/21/tom-petty-estate-issues-cease-and-desist-over-trump-use-of-song

I loved Tom Petty's recordings and was shocked and saddened when he died. He was an astonishing songwriter and performer, but he also had time for his fans. When I was on Twitter, one of my most treasured responses was a "thanks!" from the man himself, for some comment I'd made about his music. It made my day (my week, even), but I've no doubt that it was merely one of thousands of typically kind responses.

Tom Petty's music continues to shine, and will be listened to long after Trump is (at best) a footnote.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Q&A with Adrian Tchaikovsky - back on June 24th

The postponed event mentioned in previous posts is now back on for June 24th.

If it's of interest, register here:

https://www.crowdcast.io/e/reynolds-tchaikovsky-jun2020/register

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Event postponed

In view of events in the United States, it's been decided (in my view very sensibly) to postpone the online Q&A with Adrian and me until a later date, hopefully not too far into June or July.

In the meantime - and bollocks to anyone who mentions virtue signalling - black lives matter.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Orbit live event with Adrian Tchaikovsky (now postponed - see above)

In a couple of days I'll be doing a joint live event with the excellent Adrian Tchaikovsky, author of Clarke award winning novel Children of Time.

Per the press release:

"Join science fiction authors Alastair Reynolds and Adrian Tchaikovsky (
) next Wednesday June 3 for a conversation about their books, space travel, and giant spiders. Plus, a live Q&A!"


Register here:


I hope to see and interact with some of you on Wednesday.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Just testing

It's of no real importance to me whether or not Cummings resigns. It might be a symbolic victory but I don't doubt for a second that DC would remain in some position of influence, even if it was mediated through unofficial back-channels. What is far more important is the bringing down of this government of smirking incompetents, typified by Michael Gove's preposterous assertion (via his LBC interview this morning) that he too has been known to take a drive in his car to test out his eyesight.

But even the slippery Gove couldn't style that one out, and wisely stopped digging. Presumably this attempted defence is derived from the same flawless logic that Basil Fawlty has been known to apply to walls:


Sunday, 24 May 2020

Events

I'm very glad indeed that Boris Johnson made a recovery from Covid-19, because I still hold out some hope that the fucker will be held accountable.

As you were.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Bat tales

Here in Wales, lockdown continues - our devolved government has, along with Scotland and Northern Ireland, taken a more cautious approach than Westminster to relaxing the restrictions, and I think wisely so.

Through all this, I've been fortunate to be in a position of self-employment where my day-to-day routine hasn't been greatly affected by Covid-19. My daily routine remains about the same. I'm not at my most productive, and I'm conscious of that, but I'm getting things done slowly but surely. Where things have changed is that the lockdown has eroded the familiar landmarks which define the week, and which to a degree set my tempo for working. It must be said that this is an exceedingly minor inconvenience set against financial worries, issues of mental health, domestic strains and so on which many have experienced, and continue to do so. I am very lucky to be a writer, even luckier to be able to spend lockdown surrounded by countryside.

Have there been positives to the lockdown period? Judging by the newspaper articles I read, many people have reported a growing sense of re-engagement with the natural world; hardly surprising given that for once we can start to hear birds and mammals ahove the perpetual drone of cars and aeroplanes. The night skies have often been clear, too: coincidence or not that that I saw the Milky Way very clearly a few weeks ago, something hardly ever possible from our house before? Some of us will have probably read more books, or finished more jigsaws, than we might ordinarily have. For my wife and I, there's been a surprising twist, partly occasioned by lockdown, but it's a story that actually began a few weeks earlier.

We found a bat:



It had got into our house (we presumed) when some windows were left open for airing, and then ended up confined. How long it had been there before we found it was uncertain, but whatever the case the bat was weak and underweight. Following handling guidelines from the Bat Conservation Trust, the little chap was caught (not difficult since he was all but immobile) and safeguarded for transport. After making contact with the nearest suitable rescue facility, the Gower Bird Hospital near Swansea, we made what would turn out to be our last trip out of town.

I can't praise the staff at the Gower Bird Hospital highly enough. They took in the bat and carried out an immediate assessment, identifying him as a male soprano pipistrelle weighing just a bit over 3 grams. The plan then was to give him a chance to recover some weight and strength, and then - ideally - bring him back to our area for release. That all changed with the lockdown, though, and after some consideration (and given that there was a well-established population of pipistrelles near the hospital) the decision was taken to release him there, where he was expected to integrate well with the locals. It took quite a few weeks for him to be strong enough to fly.

I suppose I'd always had a distant admiration for bats, without knowing much more than that there were several species in the UK, and that some of these populations were endangered - much the same story for anyone with an interest in any particular class of wildlife. Given the chance, I'll happily go out around twilight and watch a bat or two, but until lately it had never really been with anything other than a passing interest.

 A second bat-related event then followed a short way into the lockdown - call it the tipping point, if you will. At around 3pm on a warm, breezy day we spied a bat circling endlessly over and around a stretch of wooded road that is normally busy, but had now become pleasingly free of traffic. I'd certainly never seen a bat in the middle of the afternoon, anywhere in the world, and this one was not just active but spectacularly easy to observe, with coloration and shape being very prominent against the blue skies. All this chimed with reports I'd read in the paper about wildlife beginning to recolonise urban and semi-urban spaces in the wake of the lockdown, and adopting unusual (to us) behaviour patterns. I wonder if there was more to it than that, though. Some trees had recently been felled by Network Rail so perhaps the bat's usual habitat had been disturbed. Or perhaps, the bat was just happy to be able to loop around and around a bit of shady territory that must be a good insect trap and which is normally too hectic for good hunting?

Whatever the case, this second bat encounter started pushing me toward more active observation of the bats in our area, so my wife and I began to get into the habit of sitting outside around dusk and observing the activity - if there was any. It turns out that bats don't come out and play like clockwork - who knew? Well, bat people probably. In the meantime there was still much to enjoy such as regular close encounters with a tawny owl, who has developed a fondness for our chimney.



To take my bat interest up a notch, though, I decided to invest in a bat detector. I'd been aware of such devices but not how they functioned or what the possibilities were. After doing some research, we settled on a superheterodyne detector - basically the entry-level type of detector and the easiest to use for a complete beginner.

Following a link on the Bat Conservation Trust's website, I purchased my detector from Wildcare:

https://www.wildcare.co.uk/bat-conservation-trust.html

This is what you get:



The package includes the detector, which is a simple but well constructed and intuitive device, an instruction leaflet, some batteries, and a very handy laminated guide to bat identification, including vocalisations and frequency ranges. Wildcare make a donation to the trust with each detector purchase. My package arrived very promptly and with luck we were able to detect bats the first time we tried it. Had we gone out a few nights later, it would have been a different story, as the colder, windier weather seemed to deter activity quite sharply.

Now it helped that we already knew we likely had a population of soprano pipistrelles near us, because I'm still no good at bat identification other than very crude estimates of size. This type of detector requires the user to dial in a frequency based on the expected bat species, which you then search around until you pick up clicks and squelches, helpfully shifted into the human auditory range. But it's possible that you could miss some bats completely if you're searching a long way from their preferred band. There are more sophisticated types of detector that get around this, but the superheterodyne type gives you the immediate gratification of bat noises, and for me that's more than enough to be getting on with. The joy of locking onto a bat and beginning to experience its sound world is not to be underestimated: it's like taking out earplugs and hearing birdsong for the first time. This goes on all around us and we're mostly oblivious to it.

I found myself a little interested in the history behind the science of bat echolocation, which in turn took me to Wikipedia (where else) and the story of Robert Galambos, who was also an early pioneer in auditory brainstem and cochlear implants:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Galambos

I have now joined the Bat Conservation Trust and look forward to finding where this new interest will lead. Bats have been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, so let's hear it for these fascinating creatures.

https://www.bats.org.uk/












Wednesday, 6 May 2020

A Super Lockdown Supermarionation Superconversation in 5...4...3


Over the course of a couple of weeks, I chatted with my old friend and occasional collaborator Stephen Baxter about our mutual affection for the TV series and films of Gerry Anderson. If you haven't the slightest interest in puppets, toys, comics, and 1960s children's entertainment, there probably isn't very much point reading on. If, however, you share our enthusiasm, or are at least sympathetic to it, you may find something to enjoy in the following. My very grateful thanks to Steve for taking part.





AR: It was Gerry Anderson’s birthday a couple of days ago (he’d have been 91) so given that we’ve both watched Thunderbird Six recently -and have a shared enthusiasm for his shows – I thought it would be fun to talk about the film, as well as the puppet series more generally. Perhaps we could start by covering our introductions to the worlds of GA? I know you go back at least as far as Stingray, the series which preceded Thunderbirds – was that the first exposure to Supermarionation for you, or are we looking at the even earlier shows like Fireball XL-5, Supercar and so on? Any really early memories of the shows or even the merchandise surrounding them?

SB: As it happens I was born on the day Anderson’s first show was first broadcast,  The Adventures of Twizzle. An omen! But the first show I remember properly was Fireball, which was launched when I was nearly 5. Supercar was around but as repeats, I  guess.  Fireball was the one. It wasn’t the stories that struck me I think as much as the background world. The fantastic huge ship, and it looked huge thanks to good effects work, luxurious inside – Professor Matic  lived on it,  and how I envied him! And this was no fantasy, we were given one-century-ahead dates, 2062 and so on. Authentic SF, and I was lost forever.



Merchandise, yeah, we can discuss the comics, but I did have a couple of annuals,  and a Steve Zodiac string puppet – and a fab XL5 that you could shoot up into the air and let it parachute back to Earth. All gone now,  though I bought back the annuals a few years ago – but couldn’t afford the toys!

AR: Thunderbirds is the earliest Anderson show I remember seeing on TV, but then only one or two episodes. As you and I will remember, TV scheduling was much more regional in the sixties and seventies than it is today, and I spent my early years in Cornwall, where they never seemed to show Thunderbirds. We got Joe 90, and later UFO, but none of the other Supermarionation shows. I do remember seeing an episode of Thunderbirds at my grandmothers in Wales, when we were visiting – I think the one with Monte Carlo (“The Man from MI5”) – but the vast majority of the episodes I never saw until much later in the 70s. By then I’d only really seen the films. Thunderbirds Are Go was aired on TV somewhere around the mid-70s (I thought it was great!) and then Thunderbird Six was shown over one Christmas when I’m guessing I’d have been around ten. Prior to that, all I really knew about Thunderbirds was what I’d gleaned from the merchandise. I had an illustrated, hardcover book – not an annual, but a single self-contained story. All the characters were drawn to normal proportions so it was a bit of a shock when I saw the puppets! They were much weirder looking than the Joe 90 characters. I’m not sure if I ever had any of the Thunderbirds-specific Dinky toys: TB2 (and 4) and FAB1 although I did have the UFO (and later Space:1999) models. As for the earlier shows, I only knew about them from pictures in annuals and so on, although Stingray was later shown in re-runs and I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it greatly if it had been on when I was younger. I think that was one of the first British TV series to be filmed in colour.

Some Thunderbirds craft drawn by Al. Why is there more than one Mole? No idea.


SB: It’s interesting how a few years difference in age makes such a difference to how we apprehend stuff. Reminds me of my discovery of the Beatles. I was 12 when they broke up, so I’d known the singles, but didn’t hear the albums until my teens,  when they had already split. It’s  different knowing this was from the past,  there will be no more.  I think some would say Thunderbirds was Anderson’s peak, with the fabulous visual invention, a heartwarming premise – a family dedicated to helping people, in a utopian future! – and  before Anderson,  whose real ambition was to direct live action, lost his way in trying to achieve realism in the puppets. When all he achieved was to make them stiff and eerie. Paul McAuley once said Anderson was an idiot savant who didn’t know what he was best at. The other theory about which show is the ‘best’ is that it’s the one that aired when you were about seven! So did you see Joe 90 live?

Joe 90's Jet Car, presented to Al during his visit to Japan in 2012.


AR: No, probably not until a year or two after its original run. But it felt live enough at the time. I had the Dinky version of the jetcar, which I thought was fantastic. Decades later, when I attended Halcon in Japan, the convention very kindly presented me with a small model of the same vehicle, knowing my affection for it. I agree with you that GA wasn’t playing to his strengths as he tried to make the move into live-action, first with the stiffer puppets, then actual actors, but again it does go back to that thing of whichever show you first saw. Incidentally I was a little put off by the puppets to begin with, something to do with the way their mouths worked, but before long I was won round by the model work, which (in all GA’s shows) was so far ahead of anything else on TV at the time. Joe 90 has the best title music, in my view. The guitar on that is played by Vic Flick, who did the Bond theme! Real secret agent credibility. It was a staple of the Northern Soul clubs, too. I never saw, or had any recollection of, The Secret Service. GA was going off in some weird directions at the end of the sixties. Do you remember Stripey The Magic Mini, from the Candy & Andy photostrip in TV21?

You’re right about the sense of it all already belonging in the past, though. The peak of Thunderbirds mania was long past by the time I became aware of the series, but there were still toys, annuals and books to be found, as well as older boys who’d seen it all at the time. I think on balance I’d have to agree that Thunderbirds is the best series, overall. The utopianism of the set-up, the family structure, and bringing in Lady Penelope and Parker as significant characters – and the music!

SB: It was all very different then, even if you were watching the first run shows. I mean you saw it once, no catchup , no DVD, no recording. .. of course the series would be repeated later and I  think cumulatively you got to know the episodes that way. But not at the time! So the comics, books etc were v important to support the shows, even at the time. In Anderson’s glory days the key comic  was the wonderful TV 21 and a year later the equally lush Lady Penelope. You had full colour photogravure production, artists hired from the Eagle, and stories and features that knitted the whole thing into a consistent 100 years ahead future. In the first year especially you had editor Alan Fennell  (also a script writer for Anderson ) deliberately creating crossovers between the shows. So Lady Penelope goes to a Paris previously devastated by Stingray sea monsters. And Steve Zodiac, handling an alien assassination, gets help from Penelope and Troy Tempest. The conceit was it was a newspaper from the future, dated accordingly.

I was hooked age 7 and remain so.

In fact though, the shows themselves were dated 100 years ahead, they were somewhat different futures, and they tended to get more conservative. .. so XL5 was interstellar,  but Zero X was the first mission to Mars. The more creative fans have tried to fit it all together. .. so maybe XL5 used a Zero X drive to reach interstellar wormholes,  or some such...

A typical issue of TV21.


Candy and Andy was actually in a comic called Candy, aimed at littler kids, in the peak years when it seemed Anderson could do not wrong!  Didn’t last, and nor did the peak years...

The horror that was Candy & Andy


AR: The fact that the shows were only on once, and you couldn’t be sure of seeing them again, made them very intense viewing experiences! I tried to memorise or draw the vehicles as the episodes were playing, so that I could make them in Lego afterwards. I did a drawing of Skyship right after seeing Thunderbird Six, which I still have somewhere. Which might ease us into a discussion of the films in general, and that one in particular. The films were both huge flops, of course, for reasons that now seem obvious, but if you’re a committed fan there’s still much to enjoy in them. TB6 is clearly a better film than Thunderbirds Are Go, but for my money it’s not quite as exciting – nothing can beat the Zero-X, which goes wrong not once but twice! My favorite GA vehicle, by the way, and the one I still most covet. And Barry Gray’s Zero-X march is sublime, quite wonderfully stirring and exciting. But Thunderbirds Are Go has this problem that once the Mars mission is on its way, there’s nothing for International Rescue to do until it comes back, so you get weird but charming filler like the Cliff Richard dream sequence. At least with TB6 the sense of peril is there most of the time. One thing I didn’t realise until now was that they’d more or less shot all the Captain Scarlet episodes before they did TB6. Can you imagine the marketing? Come and see the sequel to a film you didn’t watch, based on a series that’s already been cancelled! Now wonder they stayed away in droves.

Al's first attempt at drawing the Zero-X, done from memory after watching Thunderbirds Are Go.


SB: we should talk more about  the Anderson era model making, SFX,  and their legacy. But my own theory about the films is that they weren’t adult friendly enough. My parents  didn’t want to sit through 90 minutes of puppets, there was nothing in it to appeal to them! Compare the Jungle Book, out about the same time,  which my mother did take us to see at the Wavertree Cinerama. Great music, good humour, and in jokes for the grown ups, such as the Beatles vultures. (And we kids loved it.)  And in 68 my dad took us to see 2001, which baffled the 10 year old me, I think, let alone my younger siblings! ( But we all responded to the music. And it did stick in my head; I do remember thinking,  a decade later, that the opening scene of Star Wars was the most impressive movie moment I had seen since 2001...) So my parents weren’t averse to kids’ movies or sf,  it was those darn puppets. And probably if they had gone once,  never again...

AR: I think the films were pitched at an audience that didn’t exist: too unengaging for adults, not gripping enough for kids. I think I may have seen the Jungle Book in the cinema as well! I didn’t see 2001 until the mid-seventies, but it was in the cinema, back out again for a theatrical release as tended to happen in those days (and I’m sure it had never been on television at that point). I was pretty baffled as well. I’d read the book, and a fair bit of Clarke short fiction by that point, but tonally the film was nothing like my expectations. I think because the ships and props had a Gerry Anderson sort of look to them, I was expecting something more in keeping with Space:1999 or UFO, lots of explosions and lasers, but of course the film couldn’t be further from that, and it left me cold and bewildered. I’ve a different view of it now, of course. You’re right about the legacy of the model work and SFX; there was nothing else to touch it, and for the most part it all still looks good now. You can see why Derek Meddings was brought onto the James Bond films, after showing what he could do on the small screen. I recently watched the first series of Space:1999 on remastered DVDs and the effects work is still impressive, as are the props and sets, all of which look solid and believable. I used to wonder why the BBC’s effects work was so inferior, not realising that there were such things as budgets and time schedules, and the model makers and technicians were probably just as talented, but just had a lot less to work with. But going back to the puppets thing … yes, all a bit much to ask for really! You can understand why GA felt he needed to get away from them, even though it all came full circle back to puppets in the end. 

Essential reading for the GA completist.

Always keep the receipt.


When I’m watching Thunderbirds now, though, I’m struck by things I never noticed as a kid, just clever little touches in the puppetwork, little glances and reactions that are so well done and a real testament to the skill of the puppeteers. Have you seen the short film that Jamie Anderson’s done for the new Firestorm series he wants to make, based on a concept of Gerry’s? It’s very well done. The puppets are wire-operated from underneath, and they can make them run! The look of them is much closer to Stingray or Thunderbirds than the later marionettes, but at the same time the whole thing looks modern and futuristic. I hope it becomes a full series. Sign me up!

Skyship One from Thunderbird Six


SB:Seconded, your remarks about the brilliant model work. Writing this in the middle of the lockdown, and yes we are comfort watching old Bonds, where as you say you have Meddings working on Live and Let Die, and also later Steve Begg on the Daniel Craig movies – he worked with Anderson later,  on Terrahawks onwards I think. So Anderson’s legacy in that regard spanned decades. And some of the models were magnificent weren’t they? As you noted, the Thunderbirds movies were both predicated on the wrecking of magnificent new craft,  Zero X and the Skyship. The latter featuring in a worse movie, but what a design. They just went crazy with it, the fabulous interiors – the Games Room, a lounge with huge playing cards covering the walls, etc. And latterly I appreciated the engineering consistency  (give or take the odd anti gravity engine!) You can get rough visual scales of the machines by comparisons with FAB 1, etc., and they do make sense, and are consistent with stuff given in the annuals, etc. You got a sense of the great mass of the machines by the slowness with which TB2, say, cautiously landed – or the long launch sequence of Fireball XL5. It took a lot of push to move that mass down that ramp! That’s one trick the makers of the new Thunderbirds Are Go have missed I think, the craft flit about like paper planes....

A second go at the Zero-X - this time after borrowing a friend's TV21 annual.


AR: One thing I like in the new series is the turbulence around TB1 as it goes supersonic! But there’s always going to be a sense of mass and solidity with the older approach. Skyship’s quite a weird concept, isn’t it? It’s introduced as an airship, in that nightmarish scene where we see into the mouths of all the executives laughing at Brains, but then it turns out to use anti-gravity for lift, instead of hydrogen or helium. If the antigravity devices make its weigh less than that of the air it displaces, does it still count as an airship, but just with an unusual lifting medium? Quite an interesting bit of design thinking, anyway. And you’re right – the interiors are beautifully conceived. Just a pity it ends up impaling itself on a radio antenna right over a missile base! One thing I thought was very well done were the twilight shots of Skyship, with that dusky light playing over it – gorgeously staged and evoking the romantic image of the airship very nicely. The whole thing’s done with such love and affection it’s a pity the film doesn’t quite come off as a whole. As a child I was very disappointed in the fact that it didn’t end up introducing a new Thunderbird craft, as the title implies. Sorry, but a puny little Tiger Moth’s just not going to cut it. Not that I’ve anything against Tiger Moths … and doesn’t that end sequence, with Penelope, Parker etc on the plane, go on for absolutely ages? It’s well filmed, integrating live action, radio control and model work, but it doesn’t half overstay its welcome. And poor old Parker ends up being the butt of the joke at the end, again. Incidentally, when I was in school, a boy told me that one of his relatives had worked on Thunderbirds and the reason they stopped making it was because Parker had “seized up”. I believed that for years.

SB: at this point I ought to fess up to my Anderson fandom.  This goes back to browsing in a library and serendipitously finding a book on vintage British TV. ... with a  chapter on Anderson,  and a couple of TV21 cover images. This was about 2000 I think, and pow, with those covers I  was right back  to 1965. Imagery always very evocative,  isn’t it? I soon found out that the only way to see those comics again was collecting.... the British Library holds the Eagle, for instance,  but not TV21 despite the huge numbers it sold . And Fanderson, the main fan group, had no copies either. So, dealers and eBay!  You know how it is, I became a micro dealer myself as I ended up selling swaps.... went on a posh auction site to get number one, with free gift. .. got them all in the end, plus some related stuff,  specials,  annuals etc. Hadn’t seen this stuff since I  had to chuck out my childhood copies decades earlier. Nowadays there are good quality reprint collections you can buy, but you have to have the whole experience, the peripheral strips (including a glorious Daleks strip) and ‘news’ features from 2065. And from that I got quite heavily involved in Fanderson...l contributed features, some original fiction... and I got to meet Gerry himself once. Am proud to be a Friend of Fanderson,  free subscription! I see myself as a sf fan generally (as well as a pro),  but this is where I have focused my fannish energies, I guess. And a reflection of its importance for me generally. My single proudest moment: when Anderson himself asked me, through Fanderson, for data on TV21 sales! Second proudest, having letters published in TV21 back in the day...

AR: Fantastic stuff, Steve. TV21 must have been around in my childhood but I don’t have any clear memories of reading a copy, which is rather a shame. I might follow you into the rabbit hole of ebay! I can relate to what you say about fandom and fannish activity. I’ve never really felt myself to be an SF “fan” in the traditional sense; my relationship with SF in its written forms is far too complicated and conflicted for that. But I’m unreservedly a fan of Anderson, the good and the bad! It’s just that primal joy of seeing the Century 21 logo/animation and knowing the next half hour or so was going to be good, as well as all sorts of coveting of Dinky toys, annuals, etc. That’s why I can still watch stuff that’s not all that brilliant on many levels, like Space:1999, and still get some bizarre enjoyment out of it. 

A Space:1999 scene done by Al.probably after seeing the episode "Earthbound", which aired in December 1975.

I never met Gerry, but if I had, I’d just want to express an enormous gratitude for adding a dab of colour and futuristic excitement to my childhood. I suppose, having watched all of the shows that particularly interest me, and some of them many times, what I return to is the music (I’m sure that Barry Gray will be remembered as one of the great popular composers) and a desire to own versions of the models. Particular highlights: going into Dan Evans, a long-gone department store in Barry and seeing a promotional poster for Dinky’s model of the Eagle, advertised a good year before the series aired. And then following the build-up to Space: 1999 in the pages of Speed & Power, and then – my crowning glory – winning a space quiz in S&P for which the prize was a Dinky Eagle – and I’ve still got it! 


Al's two Eagles: a 45 year old Dinky version, and a 24 inch half-scale studio model. He still owns the Dinky version he won in the competition, but it's the white-bodied freighter version, in a box somewhere.

But I always wanted a bigger one. Airfix bought out a kit for an Eagle in 1976 and I made that (along with the Hawk, which only appeared in one episode) but the one I had to have was a half-scale replica (24 inches instead of 48) of the studio model, which I finished last year. The day Gerry died, I started an Angel Interceptor by way of a personal tribute and this year I completed a Fireflash. As mentioned, the one I really hanker after is the Zero-X. As far as I can tell there have been five different models since the 1960s. There’s a battery powered toy, two injection-moulded kits (one small and quite readily available, and the other large and very, very rare), a die-cast model and a large but expensive resin kit which will set you back about 400 pounds before you’ve even built it. Not a bad showing for a model from a flop film! Perhaps there’ll be a new lease of life now that the Zero-X has made a return of sorts in the new series.

Fireflash - elevate port wing!

SB: Ooh, lots of interesting threads in there. Including fandom ... what it means to be a fan, what it is you do with the material – as opposed to, as you say, the way you in your case approached the written material. But, models! I don’t think I ever  had a self assembly Anderson model, Airfix style... a couple were pop together plastic moulds, a big TB2 and TB1.  I did do some modelling but mostly ‘mundane’ stuff, a couple of cars. .. some ace space kits including an Apollo LM and a Saturn V! But, truth be told, I  was never very practical and never did that stuff very well. I did make a Meccano Cloudbase! My own design. Later as an adult I bought myself some great stuff,  including a fine desk top XL5... and the 1990s Dinky toys: two for the nephews and one for me.... I do remember how hard it was to find TB2 then, until we found a stack in a motorway service station.... Later I met the Fanderson true fen, including those who made quite fantastic recreations of the craft, characters, even striking scene. As a kid I drew rather than modelled I think, and that was a way to appreciate the beauty of,  say, Stingray. ..  And before you ask, yep I bought the toys from Thunderbirds Are Go, the recent reboot. All for research purposes of course....

AR: Strictly research, yes. I do like the new designs from the reboot, they’re close enough to the originals to look respectful, but with modern touches that give them a bit of contemporary plausibility. One thing I like – and I admit I haven’t watched all the series yet – is that they’ve found a lot more for TB3 to do, and in that one instance I think the new design is superior to the old. The designs of the craft have worn well, I think, because Gerry had that background in the RAF and knew when something looked right. Did you know that Trapped in the Sky was inspired by a memory he had of seeing a Mosquito trying to land with undercarriage damage? Really though it’s amazing how contemporary  most of those sixties designs still look. I suppose that says more about the lack of development in aviation and aerospace in the fifty-odd years since the various series, although there’s no doubt that the designers and model makers knew how to make something look both believable and exciting. 

Angel Interceptor from Captain Scarlet - still the only GA craft to have an Ash song named after it.


Do you have a favorite scene involving one of the Thunderbird craft? For me it’s the bit when TB2 gets shot down! The bit when the captain fires the missiles, and then gets the call from HQ that the unidentified craft is a “Thunderbird machine of the International Rescue organisation” – gets me every time! And the crash sequence is very well done. And then we learn a bit about how the Thunderbirds are made and repaired, using components from many different aircraft manufacturers, so that no one company will realise who they’re supplying. Great episode! (Rushes off to check which episode that was.)

SB: I think I  will offer an off beam answer to that, but looking back to fan writing. ... The Dr Who tie in novel The Indestructible Man (Simon Messingham,  BBC, 2004) is a kind of mash up of Who with the Anderverse, with names changed or parodied... the ‘Mysteron’ war is recently over,  with much public  resentment about the secrecy. The Doctor is arrested because they think his regeneration is Mysteronisation! Versions of Black and Scarlet,  unable to die, battle on like charismatic zombies.  And with high tech out of fashion , one of the ‘Sharon’ brothers  (geddit ) landed TB2 in a rainforest and is acting as a doctor to the locals. It’s that image of TB2, the last pod open beneath it, the whole wreathed in vines and battered by rain, but still fulfilling its mission.. .

So not fan writing (as I have committed myself) but a sort of respectful exploration. Not so respectful were the Anderson references in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with a series of disastrous spacecraft each named for the way its predecessor was destroyed.  So Pancake XL4 was destroyed in  a fireball. ...!

AR: Ah, with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (that made me laugh, by the way!) we’re veering dangerously close to another of my youthful obsessions, which is the art of Kevin O’Neill. And that in turn makes of think of another Thunderbirds pastiche, the comic strip Ro-Busters, which originated In Starlord in 1978 and then passed to 2000AD. Instead of International Rescue and Jeff Tracy, it’s a rescue organisation operated by robots, and run by “Mr 10 Per Cent”, because only a tenth of him is still humanoid. The initial format was very similar, though: there’d be a high-tech disaster of the week, with the robots (all with different designs and capabilities) swooping in for the rescue. It worked because the robots were given memorable designs and personalities and the whole thing was fantastically well drawn. Their main vehicle was a very Gerry Anderson-like craft and the whole thing was set 100 years in the future. Going back a little further, I remember the strip SOS International which ran in Speed & Power for a while, which I remember rather enjoying at the time. It was less fanciful than Thunderbirds, set near enough to the present day, but the format was broadly similar. It’s hardly surprising there’s still mileage in the concept. I notice, incidentally, that among all the discussions about the series, the Supermationation films, the newer animation and the various homages, we’ve tactfully avoided saying anything at all about the 2004 movie. What a let down! I’ve mostly blanked it from memory, but I wonder if it’s still as terrible as it seemed at the time. Talk about not grasping the point of the franchise.

SB: Yes, we ought to talk about TBAG, and that 2004 movie... in which commander Riker,  having crashed the Enterprise, crashes International Rescue! You’re right I think, they looked for a Hollywood story within the overall premise, and missed the point of the franchise.  And clearly it didn’t have legs,  no sequels. I remember Anderson saying he hated it. But, looking for good points. ... we saw it in the cinema with families and kids, and it held their attention. The adults too, enough in jokes etc to hold the attention. I  thought the craft were well enough done, and the sight of TB2 coming to the rescue brought a lump to the throat. Maybe it was a necessary step towards the decent modernisation that is TBAG.  And... it had a corking closing track by Busted, cue lots of little kids jumping up and down singing Thunderbirds Are Go! Imprinted for life,  like their older siblings in the 1990s.

AR: Fair enough! Good call on the Busted song, by the way. I’d missed that. I just had a look at the Youtube comments under the video and it’s full of people expressing immense fondness and nostalgia for a film and soundtrack they experienced all the way back in 2004! So you might be onto something there.



By and large (moving onto the new animations) I think TBAG is a very successful updating, and I guess it must be going well or they wouldn’t keep making it. I found the scheduling very odd, it was difficult to keep track of, almost as if they were trying to bury it, and at some point I realised I’d missed most of season two so didn’t bother pursuing it. But I got some DVDs of it for Christmas so now I’m catching up again. I like the fundamentally forward-looking and optimistic tone of the series, very much in keeping with GA’s vision, and the set designs and machines all look good. I can’t easily tell what’s model work and what’s CGI, which I think shows how well it’s all integrated. The storylines are fast moving and necessarily simple, but there’s still an intelligence behind it. It’s probably closer in pace to the original conception of Thunderbirds, before Lew Grade insisted that GA make the episodes longer.

SB: Yep, I would endorse all you say about TBAG. They clearly stuck to the basic premise.  Even though there were plenty of climate-crisis type settings as the boys dealt with accidents in waste reclamation sites and the like, basically their version of the 2060s was, just like the 1960s precursor,  hopeful, a world at peace more or less, a positive place.  Give or take the Hood and other master criminals!  A future you would want to live in, and a hopeful vision for the present day 7 year olds, as the Anderson future was for us back in the 1960s. Making a pleasant changed from too common  dystopian visions.  As you say the modelling and CGI worked very well, the craft were true to the originals – but I did like the upgraded TB5, a very modern hub of smartness. And also plenty of nods and winks for we oldsters, lots of refs to the originals – the Tracy boys watching Stingray on TV! The scheduling always seemed odd but I think it spanned 5 years of broadcasts, in chunks. Sadly however I  don’t think it ever had the resonance of the 1960s original. But I do remember a parent of 5 year olds,  about the time of the 2004 movie, saying that kids came out of Star Wars whacking each other with light sabres,  while after Thunderbirds they came out saving people. Maybe you can’t have a better legacy than that!