Thursday, 29 July 2021

Zero X

Occasionally I post pictures of sci-fi modelling on this blog, which I presume to be of interest to at best one or two readers. If it's not your bag, please avert your eyes now.

Anyway, for those still with me, the Zero X!

This splendidly impractical spacecraft appeared in Thunderbirds Are Go, the 1966 film which was both the first Thunderbirds film and the first full-length feature from Gerry Anderson's studio. The film was a terrible flop, but it's fondly remembered by many, and I count myself in that number. Although I hadn't seen much of the original TV series (it was rarely shown on the ITV regions where we used to live) I had the toys and annuals, so I was well acquainted with the characters and vehicles. The film came onto television in the mid-seventies, which is when I first saw it, and I certainly found it entertaining. Granted, the plot is a bit rubbish, with the Tracy brothers having almost nothing to do until the last quarter of an hour of the film, and there's a charming but dull dream interlude in the middle, but the Barry Gray music is top notch and the effects and sets still look brilliant.

The main star of the show is the Zero X ship, of which two prototypes are shown, both ending in disaster! The first one crashes into the sea shortly after take-off (cheers, The Hood), and the second one takes out an entire city after coming back from Mars with a malfunction that wasn't even The Hood's fault! Great stuff! I think it says a lot about the genius of Derek Meddings, the effects supervisor, that his designs still look exciting and futuristic nearly sixty years on.

The film had such an effect on me that I immediately wanted to make a Lego model of the Zero X and crash it into stuff over and over again. However, in the absence of video recorders and pause buttons, all I could do was attempt to remember what it looked like after the film had finished. 

I drew a felt-tip pen sketch of it from memory:

Could be worse, but it's not right in all sorts of details. However, luck was in as some while later I was able to borrow a friend's TV21 annual and there was a photo of the Zero X I could copy at my leisure:

Not too bad given the alternatives, I feel. I did build the Lego ones, and enjoyed smashing them into things, but there was still an itch that needed scratching...

Fast-forward 45 odd years, the felt-tip pens have long since dried up, but I still wanted a Zero X. Yes, some things just won't be denied. Although the design has proven popular with Japanese toy and model makers over the years, the options are still a bit limited. From what I could gather, the two most accessible routes to a Zero X were a ready-made die-cast model made by Aoshima, or a very small plastic kit made by Imai. There have also been one or two battery-operated toys from the sixties which seem to be more on the "toy" end of the spectrum, with enormous Monster Truck wheels, and maybe one other 1960s or early 70s kit long out of production which might just be a figment of my imagination. The only other option that I could see, besides scratchbuilding, was a fairly pricey offering from the 1990s that made into a 25-26 inch long model, also made by Imai, and advertised as a resin kit. 

I dithered over this for about a year before deciding to take a punt on it, but it was with a measure of uncertainty as I couldn't get a very clear idea of what the components were like, how it fitted together, or what it would look like when finished. No one on the internet seemed to have made one either. However, I felt that neither the Aoshima model nor the small Imai one would give me the "big" Zero X kick I needed.

Here's what the Imai box looked like when it arrived:

It was a tatty box but the parts and decals were all in perfect condition and nothing was missing, broken or distorted in any way. For a kit made about 30 years ago, that's good news.

The first shock was how simple the kit was. There were so few parts that I could just about build the thing there and then while boiling the kettle. In fact all I did for this picture was place the pieces together, with no glue involved at any point:

The second observation was that the kit was designed to be made into a one-piece model, with no provision for any detachable bits. In the film, in a triumph of Derek Meddings' effects work, the Zero X is assembled on the apron before taking off, and then various bits come off it during flight, before reattaching as it comes back to Earth. The kit doesn't allow for the Mars Excursion Vehicle to come off, nor the streamlined nose-cone, and the wings are clearly designed to be glued permanently in place. That's fine for a Zero X flying through the atmosphere, as in the shot at the top of this page, but it misses a lot of the bonkers fun of the original concept. I therefore decided that I would try and modify my kit to make the bits fully (if not easily) detachable. This turned out to be no simple job...

First things first, though and I decided to tackle the tail as a starting point, then work forward.

The tail consisted of just four very simple parts. A great deal of model filler had to be used to smooth out the joints between the components. There was very little detail of any kind on the castings, so I scribed in some extra lines using film stills as a rough guide, but not being too critical about it. One thing that helps in this regard is that there were two filming miniatures used, and they don't quite agree in a number of details. I took the view that so long as my Zero X didn't look terribly different from either of these models, it would be fine enough for my purposes. 

Now, the kit was described as resin, but once I'd got a good look at it, I began to think it was actually made from some kind of very high density polystyrene foam. The parts are all solid, but once I sanded off the grey top layer (some kind of primer, I think) then a cellular structure began to show through, just like sheets of insulation foam. In terms of detail, I also opened out the air-intakes and added some extra refinement using plastic sheet around the openings. I later discovered some metal castings in the box that probably would have been fine if I'd used them.

The next step was to mate the tail section to the boxy main fuselage:

Soo far so good, but a big problem was about to rear its head. In the meantime, I'd filled, sanded and re-inscribed much of the panel detail on the fuselage part. This was a waste of time as it would all need to be done again because of the lurking problem - it pays to think ahead!

Here's the snag:

Just to the left of the leftmost hole in the top, the fuselage widens out to a different profile. Unfortunately, this is totally wrong. On the filming model, the profile is a constant boxy form until it widens out just before the bit that tucks in near the front:

Although the wrong bit is mostly concealed under the forward wing, and therefore doesn't look too jarring with the wing on, I felt it was worth correcting. By this point, I'd reasoned that I was only ever going to make one of these, so I might as well do as good a job on it as possible, within a reasonable span of time.

The way to solve the profile problem was to file the solid moulding back to the right shape along its length, but this - while simple in principle - turned out to be immensely tedious and time-consuming, and it took many, many goes before I got the profile where I wanted it to be. Once that was done, all the panel detail had be marked out and carefully re-inscribed.

I could then move onto some other issues. The first point of business was to arrange for the wings to be detachable. I sunk small nuts into the body, one for each wing, enabling the wings to be screwed on and off from above and below. I also milled a wide groove into the model at the narrowest point, where I wanted to insert some embossed plastic sheet to improve the detailing.

That addressed, it was time to deal with the two bits that should come off at the front, the Martian Excursion Vehicle (MEV) and the nose-cone.

Two problems here: the first is that the front of the MEV isn't modelled at all in the kit; there's just a stubby bit of material which is meant to disappear once the heavy nose-cone casting is fixed in place. Secondly, the nose-cone needs to be made hollow so that it can slip over the MEV as in the film.

The first job was mark off the point where the MEV attaches to the main fuselage, and - deep breath - saw through in order to separate one bit of the casting from another. This was done very carefully using a hacksaw, as a mistake at this point could in principle have scuppered the whole model. All went well, though, and once I'd made the cut, I tidied it up by gluing and trimming a sheet of plastic to the rear part to provide a nice smooth mating surface.

In order to allow the two parts to be rejoined, I followed a similar approach to the wings. Two small nuts were embedded in the back of the MEV, and then a pair of screws could be fed through from the narrow bit, where there are two rocket exhausts on the studio model. We've jumped ahead slightly here, by the way, as the MEV has also had a scratchbuilt front added to it.

Incidentally, I can't help wondering if this joining method is the very reason for that narrowed bit on the fuselage. The studio model must have needed a means of easily attaching and detaching the MEV, and putting screws through the rocket exhausts seems like a reasonable approach. However, in order to get a screwdriver roughly in line with the screws, there needs to be a bit where the hull tapers in, just as it does on the model.

The front of the MEV needed to be built up from plastic card. using photos as a reference. I eyeballed the various angles and slopes and while they might not be quite right, I think they're acceptable in context. Once I was satisfied with the basic shape, after a lot of filling and sanding, I marked off the window positions (the ones I could see) and drilled them out, followed by much careful dressing with files.

This was my main reference shot for  the MEV, shown during the bit where it attaches onto the main ship.

It was then time to deal with the nosecone. This turned out to be not too bad a job as the plastic/resin stuff was quite strong even when a lot of it had been milled out. It was a very laborious job, though, which involved hours and hours of test-fitting. In this shot, I've begun clearing out the necessary space inside the cone but there was a lot more to go.

The next problem to be faced was how to get the nosecone to fit on and off easily without resorting to screws. In the end I embedded a magnet in the cockpit roof of the MEV, and a piece of steel plate in the top bit of the cone. This worked far better than I'd anticipated and the cone snaps in and out of position very satisfyingly even though it's still extremely heavy. The model can be tilted into a near vertical dive before gravity overcomes the strength of the magnet, so it's fine for just displaying.

General tidying-up and detailing took place on all the parts, and then I was ready to begin painting. My first thought was to use some metallic blue paint I'd bought years ago to touch up a scratch on my Telecaster. I'd only gone a little way with this, though, before it immediately became clear that it was much too dark. The film models look different in various shots but never quite as dark as mine was heading, so I stopped and had a rethink. It was off to Halfords next, where I picked up a couple of cans of Audi metallic blue spray paint. The colour looked great on the can,  a sort of pleasing mid-blue, and was an improvement, but the finished model still came out a bit too dark:

I was happy with the durability of the sprayed finish, though, and none of the other blue car shades looked any more promising. In order to knock it back to a slightly lighter shade, then, I oversprayed a very dilute mix of silver and thinners. The effect isn't obvious in these shots but you'll just have to trust me that the lightened shade looks much better in certain lights:

The blue is still a little too far into the warm end of the spectrum but it'll have to do. The main thing is that virtually any shade is going to look wrong relative to one or other of the stills, so you just have to go with something that looks right-enough.

It was then onto the decals and detail painting, seen below at an intermediate stage of the work:

Now onto one of the other headaches with the kit. As supplied, it doesn't come with anywhere near enough wheels to model the ship with undercarriage down, which is why it's resting on a film canister in the above shot and tupperware below. In addition, the number 1 wing would need its ends folded down, as per the take-off sequences in the film. Personally, I'd like to model it like that, but that will mean sourcing many, many more suitable wheels, as well as making further modifications to include the missing undercarriage wells. That's something I'd hope to consider in the future, but for now it's modelled in the flight condition we only see very briefly in the film before The Hood's dastardly exploits cause it to crash into the sea! 

I've now completed most of the painting and decaling (still a few tiny touch-up jobs to do) so I thought I'd take a few more shots for the sake of this write-up, hopefully showing what a fantastic design Derek Meddings and his modelmakers came up with all those years ago.

I think it fair to say that I've been waiting most of my life to own this model. I'm considerably pleased to have finished the build and be able to admire the sleek lines of this iconic if unwieldy design from any angle I like. As mentioned, there is more that can be done to it, but it'll do for the time being.

Incidentally, how big is meant to be? I don't think there's a conclusive answer. The kit is marketed at 1/600th scale, which would make the Zero X more than 1200 feet long! That's about the size of the Empire State Building tipped on its size. No, way too big, if you go by the sizes of those cars in the production stills. But on the other hand, when TB2 has to come underneath it, it makes TB2 look tiny. My guess is that they had models made to a couple of different sizes but weren't that bothered about strict consistency between different shots and different sequences in the film. However we cut it, though, it's clearly very, very big, and that'll do for me.

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Another online event with Adrian

I'm very happy to be doing another online chat with Adrian Tchaikovsky. Come along and join us if you are able, and find out about our new books.

Register here:



Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Space tourism, Amazon entanglements and journeys with Justin

 I've been following recent developments in space tourism with a sort of guarded interest, impressed by the technical achievements (even sub-orbital flight is difficult) but less persuaded by the billionaire gold-rush behind it all. It's not the timeline I wanted to be on, but it's the one we've got. 

Of the three major commercial players, it's fairly obviously the case that Space X (which hasn't yet done any space tourism) is much further along in terms of offering reliable access to orbit, which in turn benefits satellite infrastructure, human settlement (the ISS and beyond) and even space science and exploration. I presume Blue Origin will catch up in that capacity given time, but I'm not sure that Virgin Galactic's model could ever be scaled-up in that sense, and perhaps Branson isn't chasing that market anyway. As Chris Hadfield alluded to during the coverage of the Virgin hop last week, the mission profile isn't all that different to what was being done with the X-15, sixty-odd years ago. Impressive, still, but perhaps something of a technological dead-end given the enormous disparity in energy requirements between a sub-orbital lob and orbit itself. It's not always understood that circling the Earth doesn't just mean getting above the Karman line - it also means going sideways really, really fast - and that's the hard part. Still, given a choice between not going into space, and popping up above the atmosphere for a few minutes of weightlessness, I'd still take the latter like a shot.

Bezos deserves credit for offering a seat to Wally Funk, a beautiful gesture. Good PR undoubtedly but i don't doubt it was heartfelt. I'm not a tremendous fan of the business activities that have made him rich, though. As is the case with many writers, Amazon sales are a part of my income - a part I'd miss if they were absent. That also includes royalties from affiliates like Audible. On the professional side of my life, not being an idiot, nor wishing to shoot myself in the foot, I deal with Amazon as I must. I don't decry anyone who makes use of their services, either. I used to, and I still own (and occasionally use) a Kindle. On the customer side of the equation, I always found the experience of buying from Amazon to be perfectly streamlined and painless, and I never had any problems. Equally, as a consumer, I long ago made the decision to use other services where I could. This isn't so much anti-Amazon as trying to support a more diverse ecosystem of suppliers. I buy my books from Waterstones or independent retailers, while almost all my music purchases go through HMV, of which Cardiff still has a very good store. Other stuff, I just get it as and when I can, even if that means paying more and waiting longer. I don't mind.

The problem with Amazon, though, is that it's almost impossible not to deal with it. A few weeks ago I was chatting to my mate Marc. Marc's a former punk who still plays bass (electric and upright) on the Cardiff gigging scene. We often talk about music and Marc was keen to tell me of a new piece of gear he'd heard about. The only problem was, he couldn't remember what it was called. It's a kind of amp, he said, but when you play into it, it starts jamming along with you! This sounded pretty rad but I had to wait for Marc to rack his brains and come up with the product name. This he duly did, sending me a text a few days later. The item in question is called a Spark and its made by Positive Grid (I got this the wrong way around earlier). It's basically a smart speaker/practise amp in one, and it works with an app that enables all sorts of cool functions, including - but far from limited to - the jamming thing. I did some research and convinced myself that a Spark would be a good addition to my gear, so I ordered one. The prices on offer were very good, but rather than go through the palaver of importing one from the States, I looked around for UK suppliers, deliberately avoiding the easy option of using Amazon. You can see where this is going, I imagine. I got the amp a few days later, but it arrived via Amazon, in an Amazon box. It turns out I'd really only been ordering it from a third party who presumably did their business via Amazon, but none of that was apparent at the point of purchase. Obviously it wouldn't bother most people but if you've gone out of your way to spend your money elsewhere, it does rankle somewhat.

Anyway, how is the Spark? It's pretty damned excellent. I plugged in my Strat to begin with, and I was immediately impressed by the tone and the complete lack of hum. When I set up my guitars in my office, there's an awful lot of EM noise coming from computer hard drives, fans, and so on, but rigging up the Spark in the kitchen was a revelation. As was the tone control. Using the app, one can browse an enormous "tone cloud" and dial in tone settings at a single touch. I quickly found a really nice Gilmore tone that sounded great despite my hamfisted attempts at Comfortably Numb. There's also a great feature where you can ask the amp (or more properly the app) to do a chord analysis on any given song. It will then play back the song with the chords indicated, and you just play along as best you can. The rest of it, including the jamming function, I've really only begun to scratch the surface of, but the rave reviews and sales of the product do indeed seem to be justified. Here's a link if you're interested, and check out the lovely retro-design:

Positive Grid

But a cool amp is only going to get you so far, so what of learning the guitar itself? As mentioned elsewhere, I had a steady guitar tutor for about ten years, but he selfishly decided to get married and move away for work, so for the last couple of years I've been on my own. I tried a guitar class at my local adult education centre (pre-Covid, so I don't know whether it's still going) but the scheduling didn't quite work for me, so - as friendly as the group was - I dropped out after a couple of months. Since then I've been largely relying on self-directed learning, aided by books, CDs and the occasional Youtube video. Concerning the latter, I quickly realised that a lot of the most useful tutorials that kept coming up were by the same guy - an online guitar personality called Justin Guitar (aka Justin Sandercoe). I then clicked that he was the same Justin who had a column in one of the guitar mags I pick up from time to time. I really can't say enough about how good this guy is, and what a generous model he's adopted for his tutorials. You can watch a huge amount of it on YouTube, but for the full structured experience, it's worth going to his website, signing up, and accessing the various course modules he's developed. The amazing thing is that it's free. You can donate, if you wish, or buy "Justin" merch, and there are some areas like access to TAB sheets where he has to cover royalties, but a vast amount of it is just there for the taking. Clearly he's worked out a business model that functions for him (having more than a million subscribers won't hurt) but that shouldn't detract from the essential generosity of the enterprise as a whole. His books are good, too - I've started working through a couple of them - and they're as breezily informative and helpful as the videos. So, hats off to hat-wearer Justin, and I look forward to my continuing journey, wherever it takes me.

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Bat Tales # 2

 As mentioned last year, we took an interest in bat detection:

This interest has continued through 2021 but bat sightings in and around our house have been noticeably scarcer, for some reason. The near-nightly displays by soprano pipistrelles simply haven't been replicated to the same degree, and when we do catch sight of a bat, there hasn't generally been the same pattern of intense vocalisation, presumably because the bats aren't as active in hunting.

However, on the plus side,  we did successfully identify a "normal" (ie non-soprano) pipistrelle and tonight our diligence was rewarded by a clear identification of a serotine bat, a first for us. Doubtless they've always been around but a combination of size (large) and vocalisation range eliminated all other common possibilities. That's three species we've now identified with the bat detector.

From wikipedia, we learn that "the name serotine is derived from the Latin serotinus, which means 'evening'."

How lovely is that.

Monday, 5 July 2021

Monday, 28 June 2021

Tuesday, 22 June 2021



Good article in today's Guardian on Joni Mitchell's incomparable Blue, which is fifty years old.

I've mentioned it before, but digging into a Joni Mitchell boxset has been one of the great musical adventures of my life. So much genius, and yet more to discover.

Monday, 21 June 2021

Monday, 14 June 2021

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

You can't have too many.

Make of this what you will - I'm still not quite sure what to make of it myself - but while sniffing around the web I discovered this rather beautiful guitar from the Chapman range:

Now, objectively that's a nice-looking instrument, with an absolutely gorgeous finish to the body. True, I've got a thing about blue (or blue-ish) guitars, but that's just me. What snagged my attention was the name given to the scheme:

Chapman Guitars have updated the ML1 Pro Modern formula to make it one of their best looking, sounding, and feeling guitars to date! Loaded with Seymour Duncan Sentient and Pegasus humbuckers, the ML1 Pro can produce powerful yet versatile tones and the ash top with Zima Blue finish gives it a eye-catching aesthetic. Add to this the roasted maple neck, Macassar ebony fingerboard, and rolled edges for a smooth playing experience.

Now it could be a coincidence of name, but if you Google "Zima Blue" (not that I've ever done that except for research purposes) the first link that comes up which isn't to do with either my story or the Netflix adaptation is three pages down and to do with this guitar. Then it's back to stuff to do with the adaptation. The guitar is from Chapman's 2020 range - the animation came out at the start of 2019.

I must admit I'll be enormously tickled if there is a connection. I've reached out to Chapman to see if they can confirm it, so I'll just have to wait and see what - if anything - they say. In any case I think we can all agree that it's a rather lovely thing in its own right.

Picture and description from Andertons:

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Revelation Space read-along, and the greatness of Ed Kuepper

 I should have mentioned this sooner, since we're already into the dregs of May, but some of you might be interested in joining Media Death Cult's summer-long reading program of my RS novels and stories.

The idea is that, at some point in the next few months, Moid will record an in-person Q&A session with me relating to the read-through. The whole thing looks like great fun and I'm grateful for the enthusiasm and interest, especially in the run-up to Inhibitor Phase coming out.

In completely unrelated fashion, I've been on a bit of an Ed Kuepper binge these last few days. Now for a minor digression: in 1989 I went to Australia for the first time, as part of a telescope campaign. It was an enormously exciting trip, and a long one too, since I remained on in Sydney for a week or so after the observations. A friend from Newcastle University who'd been on the same astronomy course as me was spending his post-graduation year seeing the world, and he happened to be sharing a house in Lane Cove, in the suburbs of North Sydney. I had the use of a spare room and sleeping bag and little to do but explore Sydney, go out drinking in the evenings, and lounge around listening to records during the day. One of my pal's housemates had a great collection of Aussie and NZ vinyl, and I ended up coming home with some tapes and recommendations that served me very well over the coming years. One day I took the ferry to Manley and ended up haunting a record shop, leafing through racks of unfamiliar acts and artists, until I came across an album that intrigued me enough to pull it out and examine the sleeve. The album was "Rooms of the Magnificent" by Ed Kuepper, about whom I knew nothing.

But I really liked the cover. Here's a personal theory: there are great records with bad covers, but no bad covers with good (or great) covers. Some great records get mismarketed because no one understands them or knows what to do with them, but everyone knows a turkey when they've got it, and no one spends money or creative energy on a record that will tank. With some reliability, then, you can generally assume that any record with a decent cover will be worth the risk of purchase, even if you've heard nothing on it and know nothing of the artist. This maxim has never let me down - more than that, it's also led to some extraordinary fortuitous discoveries.

That said, I didn't buy the Ed  Kuepper record. Spending money was tight - I only had what I'd carried with me on the trip - but more importantly, I don't think I was all that keen on trying to get a piece of vinyl back home unscathed, especially as my return trip involved a stopover in Hong Kong.

Ed Kuepper didn't come back into my life for many years, by which time I'd lost any recollection of the artist associated with that record. I picked up on a song of his on a nineties compilation, and on the strength of that I bought his album Serene Machine. I suppose it was only then that I started digging into his back catalogue (hard to find in Europe) and recognised that I'd nearly got into him all that while ago. Such are missed opportunities. However, better late than never, and eventually I managed to pick up a CD of "Rooms of the Magnificent", his second solo-album. By then I knew that Kuepper had been in Aussie punk outfit The Saints, who appeared on Top of the Pops in 1977, and were an influence on Mark E Smith:

That's Kuepper on guitar. Nearly a decade later, he was on his own and putting our barnstorming, propulsive post-punk rockers like the phenomenal second track from "Rooms of the Magnificent", complete with enjoyably low-fi video.

Check the effortless, tossed-off magnificence of the solo just after 1.40 - honestly one of my favorite moments in music. This is my personal fave but there isn't a bad track on "Rooms..." or indeed on any of the albums I own, which admittedly only scrape the surface of his output. They're all different, mind - about the only thing they have in common is his voice and a commitment to music.

Kuepper's still going strong, albeit not with any plans for more recording - see this recent interview in the Australian edition of The Guardian.

Keupper's remarks about having lots of material that hasn't been recorded (the album being a "dead format") reminded me of a comment made by Al Stewart at a (just) pre-Covid concert in Cardiff, that he was still writing prolifically, but couldn't see himself putting out any more albums. Not necessarily sad times for the artist, if they can still get out there and perform, but definitely sad for the listener.

Wednesday, 19 May 2021


 Here's another shot of the frog, caught today in an uncharacteristic burst of sunshine:

I was pleased to compare it with this picture taken in July 2020:

Undoubtedly the same frog. Well done, old chap, on seeing out the winter.

Tuesday, 18 May 2021


 This isn't the first one I've seen in the pond this year, but it's the first one that's let me get close enough to take a picture. In any case, a real treat for the day.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

New collection from Subterranean Press

 As mentioned here and there in the comments, Subterranean Press will be publishing a new collection from me in October, entitled Belladonna Nights and Other Stories.

Here's the very fine cover by Marc Simonetti:

The collection is my fourth, not counting the "best of" and is slanted toward more recent material, with the majority of the stories dating to the last ten years or so.

The contents are:

  • Introduction: Winter Did Come
  • Belladonna Nights
  • Different Seas
  • For the Ages
  • Visiting Hours
  • Holdfast
  • The Lobby
  • A Map of Mercury
  • Magic Bone Woman
  • Providence
  • Wrecking Party
  • Sixteen Questions for Kamala Chatterjee
  • Death’s Door
  • A Murmuration
  • Open and Shut
  • Plague Music
  • Night Passage
  • Story Notes

The book includes an entirely new (and fairly long) Revelation Space story, "Plague Music", as well as two previously uncollected RS tales, "Open and Shut" and "Night Passage". The title piece, which happens to be one of my personal favorites of my recent output, is a story taking place in the House of Suns universe. Other stories touch on ornithology, digital security, skateboarding and the perils to be had on the high-seas of the future.

I'm really delighted with this collection and enormously grateful to Sub Press for their continued support and enthusiasm for my work. And of course, thanks is due to the editors, publishers, readers and critics who support the vital micro-ecology of short fiction in science fiction.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Ten scientists are racing

 Over at Concatenation, Jonathan Cowie very kindly invited me to select a list of my favorite scientists born in the twentieth century. I found that it was easy to come up with two or three but much harder to come up with ten. Jonathan was very patient with me in the time it took to make and submit my selection, but it's now done and should you so wish you can read it here:

Be sure to check out the rest of the recent content on the always excellent Concatenation website.

Thursday, 8 April 2021


 This excellent bird book was a family favorite in the 1970s. I believe it was purchased on a holiday in Barmouth, North Wales.

It came back to me after a recent bereavement and I remembered that I had logged many bird sightings in the Bridgend and Barry area between 1977 and 1978. I had not seen a siskin, though, and since I did happen to see a beautiful pair of siskins yesterday, I thought I might as well add an another entry:

And here is a siskin - not the one I saw yesterday, but another sighting today, about 40 miles away:

Monday, 29 March 2021

Truly these are the last days.

 Robert Fripp in a beard playing a ZZ Top cover.

(Toyah and Robert's Sunday Lunch videos have been one of the few bearable things about 2020/21. Thank you both!)

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

We've been landing on Mars for a long time.

 The Mars Perseverance rover...

is as far from Viking...

As Viking is from the 1931 Schneider Trophy seaplane:

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Happy Birthday to me.

 A lovely present (an "ES-335 figured" Epiphone) from my wife:

Wednesday, 24 February 2021


 I'd like to thank all who left kind comments following the news from January. Although it's been a difficult time for the family, rest assured I'm moving forward again and busy on several fronts.

My editor got back to me with comments on Inhibitor Phase well before Christmas, but with everything going on (it really wasn't a great time) I was unable to make serious progress on the rewrites until early this year. However, I've now turned them in, and I'm expecting to get the second set of queries back in a couple of weeks. The idea is that I turn them around by the end of March, which should allow for an August publication. Obviously that's a bit later than some of the dates you may have seen, but (as I'm sure will be understood) it's really nobody's fault, just the unavoidable consequence of a difficult period.

In the meantime I'm working on a new book, which as usual I'll say little or nothing about until it's near completion. It's not connected to anything else I've done, although it is science fiction and has elements of first contact, Big Dumb Object about it - but with what I hope is a somewhat novel approach.

Earlier this month I did a few Zoom panels as part of a virtual "Boskone" (the Boston-area SF convention that happens around this time of the year) and I enjoyed them tremendously. I don't think they're going to be archived, though. More generally I've had a lot of fun doing online events through 2020, and I imagine that sort of thing will continue for some considerable way into 2021. I'm doing something for Gollancz/Orbit in a week or two, then another session for my friends at the International Space University in Strasbourg later in March, and doubtless more opportunities will come up as we progress into the sunlit uplands of spring.

I mentioned Raised by Wolves a few posts ago, but what else have we been enjoying? I'm not sure "enjoy" is quite the word for something as gut-wrenching as Russell T Davies's AIDS-themed drama It's a Sin, but what a phenomenal piece of television it was, beautifully crafted and acted, and moving to a conclusion that was both brutal and life-affirming. Good stuff. We've also been keeping up with Sky Witness's Transplant, which is one of the better medical dramas I've seen in recent years. Unlike House or The Good Doctor (both shows I've enjoyed) Bash, the surgeon protagonist of Transplant isn't a high-functioning genius sociopath or an autistic savant; he's just a skilled, empathetic trauma doctor trying to make the best of use of his gifts after fleeing Syria. At least so far, he's not allowed to practise surgery due to difficulties in retrieving medical certificates from his former university, so he's depicted in a mostly diagnostic function. Along the way Bash has to look after his younger sister, deal with eviction, and do what he can to help a fellow refugee fallen on difficult times. It's well scripted, well acted and - although it obviously cuts corners to tell the medical stories in the frame of a single episode - at least feels realistically drawn. I'm glad to hear there'll be a second season. Other than that, we're late to the Nicola Walker/Sanjeev Bhaskar forensic crime drama Unforgotten, but we're catching up with the last season before the new one airs on ITV. Bhaskar for Doctor Who, anyone?

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Lower Dens - Ondine

 I heard this song on a plane a few years ago. I was so smitten with it that I bought the album before flying home, and I've not regretted it. I was listening to it again today on my running mix and thought it worth a mention, as you don't see much being said about Lower Dens. 

Here's an excellent live version of Ondine:

Monday, 8 February 2021

The Motels

 I like to think that I have a pretty exhaustive knowledge of punk, post-punk and new wave, but inevitably my perceptions are filtered through the fact of living in the UK during the late 70s and early 80s. Every now and then it's nice to be blindsided by a completely amazing piece of music - even a group - that somehow managed never to come to my attention.

Such is the case with The Motels. I don't think I'd ever heard of them, let alone heard anything by then. Then Bruce Springsteen (who I think we can all agree is a man of discerning taste) goes and plays this on this Radio 2 show, and it's quite wonderful. From what I can gather it was a minor hit in the States in 1983, but I don't remember ever hearing it on the radio in Britain. Everything about this is just crystalline pop perfection.

Thanks, Broooooooce.

Thursday, 4 February 2021

Mountaintop Removal - Lissie

 This is about as good as it gets.

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Put a monkey on it

Late in life I have discovered a surprising if relatively useless superpower: the ability to guess the identity of the celebrities on ITV's The Masked Singer.

So far in the current season, I correctly identified (by vocal stylings or clues):

Sophie Ellis Bextor

Martine McCutcheon

John Thomson

Lenny Henry

On that basis, I am unwisely going to stick my neck out and make a prediction. I think John Barrowman is one of the remaining celebs.

Saturday, 30 January 2021


 A minor update. Although things have been difficult the last few months, writing's continued in dribs and drabs. After delivering Inhibitor Phase, I switched over to a story that had I'd been working on during the summer, and that was duly completed. It's a long-ish novelette set in the Revelation Space universe, but otherwise unrelated to the just-finished novel. The story's got a title - "Plague Music" - and a home, but about the latter I'll say no more for the time being.

With that done, I returned to the first raft of editorial rewrites on Inhibitor Phase, and that's kept me busy for most of January. That'll be off my desk in a few days, at least for the time being, and then I plan to dive into another novel, for which I've been doing a lot of mental planning since the summer. This next one will be a standalone title, unrelated to anything I've done. After that - if the creek don't rise, etc - my intention is to write another "Dreyfus emergency", but that's getting rather ahead of myself.

A few days ago I watched the final episode of the first season of "Raised by Wolves", and I'm still not quite sure what to make of the thing as a whole. It's a science fiction series from HBO, with Ridley Scott as executive producer (and also director of the first two episodes). Although it's not (seemingly) connected to any of Scott's filmic productions, it certainly isn't afraid to play with the tropes. The planetary locations are as bleak as anything in Alien, Prometheus or Alien Covenant, and the androids that figure prominently in the narrative seem to run on the same milk-as-blood biotechnology as Ash or Bishop, such that they bleed white fluid when injured. Questions of sentience and morality around the androids also bring to mind Bladerunner, and that film is also evoked in the flashback scenes of a crowded, devastated Earth, in which colonists struggle to secure a place on an ark that will carry them to an offworld colony. Later in the series (spoiler ahead) there's a plotline involving an implanted alien organism in one of the characters, which proceeds to a suitably horrific birth.

Beyond that, though, it's its own thing, and very much unlike a great deal of TV science fiction. There are no familiar actors in it, but all the cast are credible in their (sometime weird) roles, with the androids in particular played very convincingly. Shot for the most part in subdued light and bleak hues, it has the virtue of rarely looking like anything but itself, and some of the worldbuilding choices are interesting and weird, even if it's not yet clear whether they're the result of deep, if unorthodox science-fictional thinking, or just a case of throwing a lot crazy shit into the mix and seeing what happens.

It's set somewhere around 2145, in the aftermath of a religious war on Earth - or rather a war between religious Sun-worshipping "Mithraists", and their atheist opponents. The Mithraists seems to be ones with access to very high technology. They're the ones who've built the androids and the interstellar ark. To complicate things, though, the other side is capable of capturing and reprogramming androids to suit their own rival colonisation effort. Both parties are engaged in an attempt gain control of a planet in the Kepler 22 system. The Mithraist ark is huge but slow, whereas the atheists can get a smaller vehicle there sooner. It's an interesting premise.

(That in itself doesn't make a lot of sense - Kepler 22 is 620 light years away, and there are numerous closer exoplanet candidates. But Kepler 22 was in the news because of its multi-planet system, which is presumably why the writers have latched onto it. Whatever.)

It gets weirder than the above would suggest, though. One of the androids is a superweapon - a "Necromancer". When she ("Mother" - another Scott touch) puts in a pair of special eyes, she transforms from a humanoid-looking form to a metallic figure that can fly (and levitate objects around her) and project some kind of terrifying sonic death ray just by screaming. She's impressively scary. But what it is with the eyes? Why does she need them to effect this transformation? It's the sort of bat-shit worldbuilding that I can't quite figure out for now. See also: the Mithraists have (it would appear) not only the capability to manufacture these fearful Necromancers, but also highly-advanced gravity-defying spacecraft. But their anti-personnel weaponry consists of nothing more than souped-up revolvers and machine guns. When one of their own androids turns against them, their bullets prove totally defenseless.

But I'm in, at least. The series ends with some intriguing hints about the next part of the story, and I look forward to seeing where it goes. If it all turns out to be completely crackers, as I suspect it may, at least it looks good.

Other than the above, my wife and I recently binged the entire first four seasons of Last Tango in Halifax (we'd seen the fifth) and once again I'm convinced that Sally Wainwright must be one of the best writers working in television right now; just a joy to see such brilliantly realised characters, and the travails she puts them through. She's also behind the excellent Happy Valley, one of the best police dramas of recent years.

In books, I spent the run up to Christmas doing something I never thought I'd do: reading Christie. But I felt like I'd seen enough of her adaptations on television and in the cinema that I wanted to see how she works on the page: how she draws character, works misdirection and so on. Twenty years ago you wouldn't have caught me dead reading Christie but we all change. For now, taking a break from detective fiction, I'm reading M John Harrison's fine The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, which is as good as you'd expect and fully deserving of the plaudits its gained.

In music, I've been starved of new stuff because of lockdown (I'm still a stickler for record shops and physical product, I'm afraid), but I've been greatly enjoying one of the few original purchases I nade in 2020: Hayley Williams' Petals for Armor. She sounds as if she should be Welsh, but she's actually the American singer out of Paramore. Her solo album is a ridiculously catchy, inventive piece of work - underpinned by some phenomenal bass work - and it's made me keen to dig into her catalogue with the main band.

That's it for now. Please keep keeping safe and see you all on the other side of this.


Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Thanks, Mum.

 I lost my mother a couple of days ago. There is probably never a good time to have a loved one pass away from lung cancer (I lost my dad to cancer as well, eleven years ago) but having it happen during a pandemic added an extra layer of distress to the whole thing. Due to Covid restrictions, my sister and I couldn't be with our mum during the last weeks of her life, and when Mum tested positive for the virus, even her partner was only permitted a single final visit. Our experience, harrowing as it's been, is only one of many that will have played out very similarly over the last year, in hospitals, hospices and care homes up and down the country.

I need hardly say that my mother will be missed, but I wanted to add that she had been enormously supportive of my writing efforts, right from the start. My mum divorced in 1982. She had very little money to scrape together - just keeping a Volkswagen Beetle on the road was enough of a struggle - but still she found enough to pay for someone to type up a copy (with a carbon duplicate) of my first handwritten manuscript. That was before I learned to type for myself. Seeing my words in cold hard print was confirmation of two things: one that the book itself was probably no good, but secondly that there were bits of it that were encouraging enough to make me think that perhaps I could be a writer after all. And so I kept going, writing short stories, learning about the magazine market, and eventually starting another novel, which was a little better than the first.

I can't say that I wouldn't have become a writer without that jolt of encouragement, but who knows. It certainly played a part. So if at some point you have enjoyed something of mine, please lift a glass to my mother, who was there right at the start.

Thursday, 7 January 2021