Travelling at the speed of light…

This gorgeous video shows you the journey of a photon from the sun (well, the surface of the sun, I imagine – the journey from core to surface of the sun takes far, far, far longer), out into the solar system and all the way past the inner, rocky worlds until it reaches mighty Jupiter, king of the planets, all taken in real time. The speed of light is fast – the fastest thing we know of (so far, not counting possible existence of supralight particles). So fast, as one writer observed, that most civilisations take millennia to realise light even travels at all. But when you move out into the vast distances of space even the speed of light seems tardy by comparison. It’s some eight minutes and twenty seconds just to reach us on Earth, and we’re only the third rock from the sun. “Riding Light” takes us out beyond the terrestrial worlds – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Earth – then on, avoiding the tumbling asteroid belt, until it reaches magnificent Jupiter, some forty five minutes later:

Riding Light from Alphonse Swinehart on Vimeo.

Edinburgh from orbit

Tim Peake tweeted a shot today of my gorgeous Edinburgh taken from orbital space – and astonishingly on a clear day instead of one wreathed in clouds! For those unfamiliar with Scottish geography, follow the mighty Firth of Forth along the river, (on the far left you can see the lines of the new bridge being built as well as the older road bridge and the iconic Victorian rail bridge (it’s distinctive red colour obvious even from this distance).

time peake edinburgh from space station

Follow the river along on the south (lower half of the pic) , along almost to the far right, and you can see the squarish blue block of harbour water at Leith Docks. The vast geological bulk of Arthur’s Seat, the great extinct volcano which rises up above the city around the Royal Park and Palace of Holyrood is clear on the far mid-right, and similarly the Castle on its large, imposing volcanic mount is clear. Stunningly beautiful. I wish Tim had said he was taking a picture tho, I would have leaned out my window and waved up to him…

All the world’s a stage…

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

Four hundred years to the day since William Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil, a popular playwright in his own time, he may well have been just a footnote in literary history like so many others, and yet, partly due to the posthumously published First Folio collection in 1623, put together by his friends so that Will’s work would not be forgotten after his death. Could any of them have imagined that these would become part of the absolute canon of world literature, told and retold endlessly across the centuries, adapted to new mediums and new ages…

shakespeare folio portrait martin droeshout

(the portrait of Shakespeare from the First Folio, by Martin Droeshout)

How many ages hence,
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” Julius Caesar

Four hundred years on and Shakespeare’s works still suffuse not only the cultural heritage of Britain but, appropriately, given the name of his famous theatre, the Globe, so many lines entering the popular language, used even by those who have no idea they are quoting from the Bard. They’ve been adapted again and again into new media that Will could never have dreamed of, from radio productions beamed into our homes through the ether like some magic by Prospero to the glories of the silver screen, and re-interpreting his works and life as inspiration for new tales – witness Neil Gaiman’s remarkable use of Shakespeare several times in his magnificent Sandman comics, both the plays and the man and also looking at the act of artistic creation, the cost of crafting stories (using the medium of stories to examine stories…). I’ve been a bookseller for more than two decades, a reader all my life, and I know full well that of the many stories published each year some can go on to become hugely popular, bestsellers as we’d call them today, and yet ten or twenty years later even those bestselling writers can slip into out of print obscurity.

sandman_gaiman_vess_shakespeare_prospero

(One of the Shakespeare elements of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, from on of my favourite plays, The Tempest, Prospero and Miranda, artwork by the incomparable Charles Vess)

Save for a precious  fraction of all the authors who have ever been published – the Jane Austens, the Charles Dickens, the Cervantes, the Borges, the Walter Scotts, eternal Homer of course, Mark Twain. These remain in print, always re-read, across the world, loved and admired and passed on to other generations, translated into languages Shakespeare would never have heard uttered, read again even in nations which didn’t exist when Shakespeare walked the streets of Stratford. As Gaiman has Dream tell his version of Shakespeare, there are some stories which are simply forever, which will always need to be retold as long as human tells stories – and storytelling is in the very blood of humanity, we’ve been doing it since we sat around fires telling oral ballads and drawing on cave walls. Times change, but people are people and the best stories say something about our nature, about what it is to be human, and that makes them forever pertinent to any age. And of course they’re also just bloody good stories to enjoy!

Masked wrestlers! Monsters! Tequila! Hellboy in Mexico!

Hellboy in Mexico,

Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, Mick McMahon, Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba, Dave Stewart,

Dark Horse

hellboy_in_mexico_mignola_corben_mcmahon_moon_ba_dark_horse_cover-628x972

We’re still partway through the Hellboy in Hell story arc at the moment in the main, ongoing HB series, but Mike Mignola has been leavening those tales of poor old Red being dead and wandering the afterlife with some stories set in Hellboy’s early career with the likes of the Hellboy and the BPRD 1953 (see here for review) and now this enormously fun Hellboy in Mexico collection of short stories, which sees Mignola collaborating with some fantastic talent – Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon, Richard Corben and Mick McMahon (with the redoubtable Dave Stewart on colouring duties once more). I think many of us would consider those names alone worthy of the price of admittance.

Here we have a young Hellboy in the year 1956, and a lost period in his life, which as Mignola notes in his introduction (as with most of the other Hellboy short story collections Mike does introductions to each of the stories which I’ve always found almost as much fun as the stories themselves), started almost by accident when a few years ago he drew a sketch of Hellboy with some masked wrestlers and the caption “Palenque, Mexico, June 2, 1956”. This left an enticing door open for Mignola to return at some point to his creation and a “forgotten” era in his history, when Hellboy and a couple of other BPRD operatives were sent to Mexico to investigate a rash of supernatural disturbances and monsters. In fact there’s such a mess of monstrous events that his companions can’t take it and leave, but Hellboy stays behind. But the events take a toll on this young, rasher, less experienced Hellboy and he essentially vanished from the BPRD’s radar for five months (slight shades of Ambrose Bierce). He himself claims not to recall much of what happened – traumatic events mixed with far too much drinking. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to remember it…

hellboy_in_mexico_mignola_corben_dark_horse-628x966

(Richard Corben’s excellent art illustrates Hellboy and his trio of masked wrestling monster hunters)

One event in particular is a painful memory for Hellboy, introduced by a later BPRD mission to Mexico in the 1980s with Abe Sapien. Awaiting pick up they find some shelter from the sun in a small, ruined, lonely church. On one wall, among the ruined religious artefacts Abe spots old photographs tacked to the wall – one curling picture is indeed that one of Hellboy with the masked wrestlers, and naturally he asks HB about it, and so we start on these five “lost” months of his younger life. The three masked wrestlers in the 1950s photograph were three brothers, travelling the small town wrestling circuit until they are granted a vision in a church, that they are to help fight this plague of supernatural monsters. Hellboy teams up with them, fighting monsters by day, drinking tequila, singing and dancing in tavernas by night, until inevitably this catches up with them. After one night’s post beast-hunting drinking session, their luck turns sour, and in this world of damned creatures spewed up by the Pit and ancient Mesoamerican mythological monsters there are worse things than being killed…

hellboy_in_mexico_mignola_moon_dark_horse-628x971

(The Coffin Man – complete with demonic donkey! – art by Fabio Moon)

As this is a collection of short stories (as many of the best Hellboy books have been over the years), I don’t want to get into the actual stories too much as it is way to easy to accidentally let slip a potential spoiler. But I will say this whole collection has a terrific atmosphere to it, partly reflective – a glimpse of a younger, less seasoned Hellboy learning both adventure but also consequences the hard way – partly though it is just a terrific excuse for a series of adventurous romps, filling in a part of Hellboy’s life we’ve not seen before. And of course there is a huge amount of fun in seeing Hellboy teamed up with masked Mexican wrestlers battling vampiric beings, old Aztec gods and others, with many nods to the local mythology and also to the rich pop-cultural seam of horror films from the region.

hellboy_in_mexico_mignola_mcmahon_dark_horse-628x945

(“Hellboy Gets Married” – too much drink, some music, a pretty face and it’s easy for a young lad to go astray… Art by the brilliant Mick McMahon)

It’s an absolute delight, and with Richard Corben, Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon and Mick McMahon as artistic collaborators it’s as great a visual as it is a narrative pleasure, while Mignola’s trademark introductions before each story add nicely to the appreciation of them.

Saw Music on a Spring Evening

Walking home from work the other evening, after weeks of pretty yucky weather we’ve had several days of glorious spring, gorgeous golden light over Edinburgh as I was walking home in the evening. I just got my new camera back from the repair shop the day before (after a couple of years of waiting to be able to buy it what happens? Freak accident just a couple of months after I got it, water bottle burst in my bag. Argh) and with such nice light I thought I’d try it out on the walk home. I heard wonderfully weird music that sounded familiar and indeed it was – as I passed the Adam Smith monument near Mercat Cross I found Edgar Guerreiro playing his musical saw, the delightfully eerie sounds drifting out over the Royal Mile.

saw music on a spring evening 02

I’ve seen “The Saw Man” a few times on the Royal Mile, but more usually during the Festival in the summer, so was nice surprise to see him playing the Mile at this time of year. I put a few shekels in his collection box and since he was rather handily facing right towards the evening sun I had great natural light to take a couple of portrait pics.

saw music on a spring evening 03

Chester Brown returns with Jesus Wept Over the Feet of Jesus

Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus,

Chester Brown,

Drawn & Quarterly

mary_wept_over_feet_jesus_chester_brown_drawn_quarterly_cover-580x1024

Chester Brown has to be one of our more uniquely interesting comickers, tackling sensitive – indeed even controversial for some – subject matter with a deft hand, an open mind and a strong element of respect and sensitivity. And tackling Biblical topics is an area likely to generate debate and, I would imagine, controversy, especially when the subtitle is “Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible” (some people just can’t deal with those concepts, and sadly those are the sort of people who could most benefit from reading and thinking about some of the issues raised). Those of us who have enjoyed Chester’s frank and thoughtful work such as Paying For It, which looked at the world of sex workers and those who go to them, will not be at all surprised to find that here he is considering elements of sexuality and gender issues and perception and where they fit into the general human condition.

mary_wept_over_feet_jesus_chester_brown_drawn_quarterly_02-557x1024

And again Brown tackles what could very easily be exploitative material in lesser hands with his customary dexterity and thoughtfulness. Indeed throughout this entire book there is a genuine impression of Brown looking at some of the issues he raises and considering them, not just taking the standard interpretations of Gospel material, but presenting a selection of example tales – Cain and Abel, the Talents, Job Bathsheba, Ruth and more – allowing the reader to absorb them and start forming their own impressions, then, in an expansive Notes section going into far more detail about why he selected those tales and what his own reading has lead him to think about what lesson they really are trying to convey. And I have to say that I often found this latter part even more fascinating than the comic adaptation of the Biblical stories.

mary_wept_over_feet_jesus_chester_brown_drawn_quarterly_01-557x1024

That is no slight on Brown’s comicking ability, by the way – I love his style; the deceptively simple, mostly four-panel layout and the way he retains a cartoonish look but still packs a huge amount of expression into his characters’ face, making them much more relatable and believable and human. And of course those fascinating Notes wouldn’t make much sense without the context he prepares first with the actual comic strips. But it is clear from the Notes how much thought and study has gone into which tales Brown has chosen here to illuminate his chosen topics of obedience, morality, responsibility, gender roles, sex and prostitution. The Notes have extensive bibliographic references to the source books he has drawn from for inspiration, including, to his credit, some that he doesn’t necessarily agree with, but includes their reasoning and argument, which adds balance but also again prompts the reader to think more about their own assumptions, which is never a bad thing.

mary_wept_over_feet_jesus_chester_brown_drawn_quarterly_04-557x1024

(the parable of the Talents)

mary_wept_over_feet_jesus_chester_brown_drawn_quarterly_03-557x1024

I’ve little time for religion myself – my interest in it isn’t theological or a matter of faith, but  pretty much the same as the interest I’ve always had in the stories of the Olympian gods, or Norse pantheon, or the gods of the Mayans or Aztecs.  I’m more fascinated by what the worship of these beings and the stories constructed around them to explain what they are and why they do what they do says about human nature and our attempts to explain the world around us, and also to try and codify a coherent shared structure of beliefs and rules that can help shape and bind a society (for both good and ill). And of course quite often some of these are also just pretty interesting stories – the best of them, like many other good stories of all types, still holding relevance to today. The gender issues raised here are especially still of much relevance to our modern society, and you’d think by 2016 it shouldn’t be (come on, two thousand years later!), but sadly yes, it is and so it’s a good thing authors like Brown are highlighting them again, reminding us we’ve still a long way to go in improving ourselves and how we deal with others. Going back to a time when women were almost just property, where they had to rely on “a good match”, it’s not that far off from some of what you pick up on millennia later in the likes of Jane Austen (not so much the stories, but the position of women, the restricted choices they have to make in a hugely paternalistic society) and other writing from the Modern age.

I often disagreed with both the mainstream and Brown’s own conclusions about the meanings behind some of the stories – as with a lot of religious discussion it is easy to get tied into mental knots attempting to explain the reasoning behind the actions of some (to me totally imaginary) sky-daddy figure, when to me it seemed that, as with the likes of the Olympians, it’s better to just never trust the reasoning by any god because deities seem to change their fickle minds rather too often and then blame poor mortals for any mistakes. But cynical as I am I was still deeply fascinated by the reasoning Brown showed here, and the underlying theme of compassion he clearly has, and found that after reading his fascinating Notes section that I had to go back over each of the strips again several times, feeling as if I was looking at them from a slightly different angle, and that, my friends, is a real gift to a reader, not to convert you to the author’s point of view (and to be fair I doubt that was his intent anyway), but to share with the reader various viewpoints and competing ideas and allowing them to open different perspectives in the reader.

The Last Man on the Moon

The Last Man on the Moon,

Directed by Mark Craig,

Featuring Eugene Cernan, Alan Bean, Dick Gordon, Jim Lovell

last_man_on_the_moon_film_poster

That whole time, that’s the time I call ‘sitting on God’s front porch.”

Those are the words of Gene Cernan, naval aviator, engineer and NASA astronaut, on his three days on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17. The last of the spectacular lunar Apollo missions. Gene was, quite literally, the last man on the Moon. Astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, they’re a select cadre, a group who even now, more than fifty years after the first manned space flight by Gagarin, are composed of only a tiny group of people, the few who have flown above the clouds, above the very air we breathe, to enter space, to float around our glowingly blue world and see it as no-one else in the history of the world could have before space flight.

But among that select group the trailblazers of that first era of manned space flight stand out – Gagarin, Glenn, Shepherd, Leonov. These men really did go where no-one has gone before. Spaceflight is incredibly dangerous – you ride into orbit at vast velocity atop what is basically a carefully controlled series of explosions with a thousand things that can go wrong, to enter an environment Earthbound life was never meant to survive in, where a small mistake or fault can lead to death. And in the first years it was all entirely new – nobody even knew for sure if humans could live in space, could you even eat and digest while weightless in your orbiting capsule? Would cosmic rays kill you or fry your electronics leaving you adrift before you could do anything? Could you survive re-entry?

last_man_on_the_moon_film_cernan_apollo_spacesuit

(Above: Cernan poses for an official portrait in his spacesuit; below: Cerna in a less formal pose with his young daughter)

last_man_on_the_moon_film_cernan_apollo_spacesuit_with_tracy

Cernan was there right in the earliest days, one of those elite pilots recruited for the astronaut corps, starting with the Gemini programme, and this film draws principally on his autobiography. Cernan starts as the reserve crewmember but after an awful flying accident to the main crew he is moved up to  the mission – rather mixed feelings, to say the least, getting his dream tickets, a chance to soar into space, but getting that first chance because his friend and fellow flyer died tragically. And that part covering the early years of Cernan’s life at NASA , sets the tone for this entire film – this isn’t just about those first astronauts, about the setbacks and the triumphs. Those have been documented many times – deservedly – but here we have a much more personal and importantly a much more emotional film. This is still about those gloriously heady days, pushing to be the first to reach the Moon, but it is just as much about the emotional and psychological cost for the astronauts and their families.

If you think going to the Moon is hard, you ought to try staying home” – Cernan’s wife on hearing of a flight mishap during Apollo 10.

Cernan, to his credit, does not try to paint himself or his fellow Apollo astronauts who take part in this film as the simple, heroic figures history likes to portray. Which is not to downplay in any way the risks they faced, the amazing science and engineering it involved, the boundaries they pushed, the new frontier they charted. It was heroic. And like most things heroic it is too easy to forget behind those stories there is just a normal person – doing the extraordinary, to be sure, but still a person, like any of us. A person with loved ones around them who have to share that dream with them, who also have to sacrifice, who suffer emotionally. Not just the obvious worry over whether husband/dad/brother will come home safely. We’ve all seen those prim, seemingly serene NASA wives of the period watching the mission on TV with their kids and projecting the expected image of pride and confidence when really they were terrified of what could happen, but would never show it in front of the camera.

Cernan pulls no punches on that front – he comments that in many ways the astronauts were quite simply selfish; oriented totally on their goal, the mission, the training. Meanwhile real life was rolling on and it was the wives who had to make sure the kids were looked after, got to school on time, the bills were paid, household chores and repairs were done. Wives essentially had largely absentee husbands, children absentee fathers; they couldn’t stop training or being focused on the mission, there were only a few flight slots and only the best of the best would get that chance. And so they sacrificed – on the job, Cernan paying his dues flying Gemini then Apollo 10, the last flight before Armstrong’s historic landing, so close he could almost touch the Moon but knowing that first landing was not to be his (his respect for Neil shines through any disappointment at that). And it was a vital part of proving they could get men there and fly home, critical to the success of Apollo 11. As Cernan notes of those preparatory missions – “Not many people remember Apollo 10, but I do. And I’ll tell you someone else who did – Neil Armstrong.”

The Last Man on the Moon -Trailer from Mark Stewart Productions on Vimeo.

And later he gets his ultimate reward – and what a reward, what the calls his “personal moment of reckoning”, command of Apollo 17. With cutbacks looming after several successive lunar missions, it will be the final one leaving some who trained and were ready for their mission to never reach that goal. Where Armstrong and Aldarin have a short time on the surface the later missions had several days and the remarkable Lunar Rover, a hi-tech, Space-Age dune buddy for the Moon, so they could travel further and explore more, pick up more diverse samples to study back on Earth. And in an incredibly touching moment Cernan recounts how he parked the Lunar Rover for the last time, a little away from the landing module (LEM) so it could remotely film their take off.

last_man_on_the_moon_film_cernan_on_moon

(Cernan on the Moon, by the Lunar Rover, the red commander’s stripes marking this out as his suit; below, the view from the trip round the Moon, the Apollo missions the very first time any human being had been far enough away to see the entire disc of our world, and to to share that image with all of us. We’ve grown up knowing what our entire globe looks like hanging in space, something all the thousands of generations before the late 60s never got to see)

last_man_on_the_moon_film_earth_from_apollo

And as he dismounted to walk back to the ship for the final time he paused. And there in the ancient, dusty surface of the Moon he wrote his young daughter’s initials. Which, like Armstrong’s footprints will, in that airless vacuum, essentially remain there forever. As far from home as any humans have ever been, sacrificed so much home and family life to be there, to land on the Moon, and suddenly all he can think of is home and his wee girl. It’s beautifully touching. If any future mission – and who knew back then that almost four decades on we’d still not have returned – lands and visit the Rover, those initials will still be there.

Walking up the ladder was probably one of the most memorable moments for me, because I looked down at my footprints and I knew I wasn’t coming this way again. Why were we here, what did it mean? I looked over my shoulder: there’s the Earth, there’s reality, there’s home. I wanted to press the freeze button, I wanted to stop time, I really wanted to reach out, take it in my hand, stick it in my spacesuit and bring it home to show to everybody, this is what it looks like, this is what it feels like.”

And the last man to walk on a surface not of our Earth climbed the ladder to the LEM and Apollo 17 headed home. But it still wasn’t over, not really. Hard to recall now, but the early astronauts were global figures, international celebrities in a way the preening media darlings of today could never dream of, with tens of thousands lining routes to wave to them on visit. From Gagarin through to the Apollo crews, they travelled the world – presidents, celebrities, scientists, millions of ordinary people, all wanted to see them, to hear them speak, the glare of media followed them, and as Cernan’s then wife notes it becomes too much. They sacrificed for years for his training and the mission, and now it is over, but still they are in the spotlight – when do they get to be a regular family, have an ordinary life again? Too much for many – some sixty percent of the Apollo astronauts, including Cernan, would end up divorced due to the stresses and strains. The physical return to Plane Earth was relatively gentle, a splashdown in the ocean, but the emotional and psychological effects of having to come back to Planet Earth, to real, daily life, was far bumpier.

last_man_on_the_moon_film_cernan_apollo_spacesuit_in_LEM

(tired and covered in Lunar dust – making history can be dirty)

This emotional core is absolutely central to director Craig’s film here, and it gives a much more satisfyingly rounded and human insight into some of the most remarkable moments in recent human history, and those who made them happen. He doesn’t stint on the astonishing nature of the Moon missions or the glories of Apollo – period film, both NASA and family home movies and photos, all create visuals for both the missions and the families dealing with the effects of training for those historic flights, while some very well-done CG effects are added to the visuals, giving us a view we otherwise simply couldn’t have. But he balances this constantly with what it cost in terms of emotional and family life to do what they did.

And there are some wonderfully emotional scenes from the present day – Cernan returning to the Cape, to the old Apollo launch pad. It looks like the sort of thing any good film-maker would shoot – the subject returning to the scene of their greatest triumphs, where it all happened, where the roar of the awesomely powerful Saturn V rockets lifted men not just into space but all the way to the Moon and back. Except towards the end it is clear Cernan has not entirely enjoyed this stroll down memory lane, looking at the now empty, unused Apollo launch areas and thinking that he really doesn’t like seeing it like this, that perhaps he should not have come back to see it this way.

last_man_on_the_moon_film_cernan_launch_pad

(Cernan as he is today, re-visiting the Apollo launch pad, where world-changing history was made, now all silent – a bittersweet moment for the astronaut)

And in another immensely touching scene we see Cernan visit the Johnson Space Center, Houston. And there is the capsule from Apollo 17, from that defining, historic mission, the peak of his astronaut career. And it’s a museum piece, viewed by school children not born until decades after he flew in it. He looks at the capsule, still showing the raging fires of re-entry on the shell, and the dummy astronauts inside. Did we really do it, he muses, did we really reach out and do what humans have dreamed of forever, to touch the Moon? What was it all about? How do young people today see this item in a museum and the old man standing by it, looking just like anyone’s grandfather (and indeed he is). Was it all a dream? Did he really once fly in that small spaceship? What will people in another forty years or a hundred or a thousand think looking back at the Apollo days?

I’ve been in love with the idea of spaceflight since I was a very small boy, born at the height of the Space Age; I’ve read and watched so much of the history of those times and those world-changing events. Despite all the documentaries I’ve watched, the books I’ve read, this film still stood out, largely because of that very emotional core, giving a hugely satisfying new insight into those remarkable Apollo days, the human side to the heroic giants who rode fire into the heavens. For fellow space geeks like me this is essential viewing, but for those who just enjoy seeing epic history being presented at a very human level, this is also a remarkable film.

The Last Man on the Moon opens in the UK on April 8th, and there is a special screening with live link up for a Q&A with Gene Cernan on April 11th in many cinemas around the country.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: the Imitation Game explores the life of the astonishing Alan Turing

The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded,

Jim Ottaviani, Leland Purvis,

Abrams Comicarts

imitation_game_turing_graphic_biography_Ottaviani_purivs_abrams_cover1

I’ve long been fascinated with the life and work of Alan Turing, the remarkable British mathematician and boffin (and if anyone deserves the affectionate old British label “boffin”, surely it’s Turing), the ideas, far ahead of his time and the technology available to him, spilling out of that unusual mind like a brilliant river of thought that most of us would struggle to stay afloat in, let alone navigate that river. Ideas which changed the world, although for many long decades some of that astonishing work would be concealed under the Official Secrets Act, wartime work not to be discussed. And it wasn’t; from the eccentric academics with their erratic, lateral-thinking brains tackling seemingly impossible problems to the legions of women who sweated over the operations at Bletchley Park, they kept their mouths closed. Some, like Turing, would go to their graves long before the nature of their work was revealed, the role it played in saving the nation – and arguably the free world – from the dark tyranny of the Nazi onslaught.

And as if helping save the world was not enough, also using those desperate times to push the envelope, advancing ideas and new technologies which would otherwise have taken years or decades more, birthing the proper digital programmable computer (in hastily erected sheds in wartime Britain of all places). Birthing the technological creations which would take us from the Industrial Age into the Information Age, a revolution we’re all mostly still running to catch up with, an idea which, like Gutenberg’s movable type printing press before it was an idea which would branch off into so many other areas, influencing every aspect of our lives, from everyday things like train travel or making a phone call to the exotic, like launching satellites or creating new ways of peering into our bodies to create new treatments. And some of those first ideas come from a young, eccentric and awkward, but brilliant, lad, ideas which may have remained only theories and academic papers and perhaps the odd bit of mechanical or electronic tinkering, if the budget allowed, until the war came.

imitation_game_turing_graphic_biography_Ottaviani_purivs_abrams_021

Ottaviani (who previously brought us a wonderful biography on the great Feynman) and Purvis break this look at Turing’s life and mind into three main parts, starting with his youth – school and college days, home life – then answering the call of duty during the dark days of the Second World War for secret work at the (now rightly famous) Bletchley Park, the desperate, frantic attempts to find ways into the supposedly unbreakable Enigma codes, and then his post-war life, able to show his OBE for services to “king and country” but not to ever tell what that remarkable work actually was. And of course, for those of us already familiar with Turing (I’ve admired him since I sat programming my first home computers, way back in the days when you had to learn programming to make them do anything, long, long before apps and swipes) that last act is a tragic one (potential spoiler alert for those not familiar with that history).

It would have been very easy to focus entirely on those Bletchley Park years, and indeed the material from that period would easily have filled the book. But to Ottaviani Purvis’ great credit they want to show the person, not just the historical figure, and it greatly enriches the book by taking in his younger years first. The awkward lad with a brilliant brain that seems to grasp hugely complex problems easily and solve most of them just in his head (where the rest of us would fill entire journals working on the problem for years and still be scratching our heads), and yet to whom many of the normal everyday social interactional skills were a mystery (these days it’s hard not to imagine Jim Parsons’ wonderful portrayal of Dr Sheldon Cooper when noticing these quirks).

But there are still warm, social connections there despite his awkwardness, from family, from a few select friends, including Chris Morcom, a young, intelligent friend who accepts him as he is, and who other biographers have speculated about – was he perhaps young Turing’s first crush as he realised he preferred men to women? Here that isn’t exactly downplayed, but neither is it highlighted, instead, rather nicely focusing on their friendship and shared interests, sadly doomed to end all to early as Morcom died very young (the scenes following that are both sad and very touching, showing Turing the man, not just a brilliant brain, but a person with feelings).

imitiation_game_alan_turing_decoded_ottaviani_purvis_abrams_01

Some of the book follows Turing himself, showing him at school, college, being invited to America to Princeton where he is in the company of the likes of Von Neumman, Alonzo Church (even Einstein was there during this period), then into the wartime work and realising some of his ideas about “universal machines” could be used to help crack these Nazi cyphers, first by mechanical means (the famous “bombes” rotating and clacking away by the hundred, staffed by service woman often working in their undies due to the heat of the machinery) then (with the brilliant electronic engineering of the GPO’s Tommy Flowers) an actual electronic, digital computer, the first such in world history (although as it was a state secret for decades afterwards textbooks would give that honour to American scientists. Again those who worked on it kept their lips sealed about their much earlier efforts).

At many other points the book deviates from this approach, instead bringing in people who knew him, friends, colleagues, his mother, even his wartime fiance (who accepted even though she knew he was homosexual, because he liked her time with him), taking their turns in the interview chair, introducing parts of Turing’s life that they were involved in, as if in a documentary film. Again this very much helps personalise this story – it isn’t just about an odd but brilliant mind, it’s a person and the people who were around them. I also very much approved of the many nods to others from Bletchley, such as Dilly Knox or the “golden geese” (the servicewomen who worked there – as Churchill called the vital Bletchley decrypts, it was the goose which laid the golden eggs but never cackled. This was an era where one did one’s duties, all in it together, and did not talk about it. Most maintained that silence for decades until their work was declassified). The Bletchley segment is also something of a celebration of the “backroom boys”, the great British Boffin, the sort of chap with a brilliant mind solving amazing problems in time of need, and yet the sort who often forgets to tie his own shoelaces.

imitation_game_turing_graphic_biography_Ottaviani_purivs_abrams_041

And then there is that final act, the tragic act (again spoiler for those who are not familiar with this history and don’t want to know in advance of reading the book). The postwar work, struggling to get resources like they had during the war to continue his early computing work, and the nature of his homosexuality also coming out, no real, continuing romantic relationship, just the odd fling, giving an impression of sadness and loneliness, also of frustration at work he can’t advance as much as he wants. And finally the fling which lands him before the judicial system, because this was 1950s Britain and homosexuality wasn’t just frowned upon, it was actually illegal. His status and service saved him from prison, but cruelly he was put on a probation that included taking female hormones to “cure” him, causing him illness, weight gain and even developing breasts, provoking despair and depression and more isolation. Until this brilliant man, whose work had been absolutely pivotal to the survival of the entire nation, takes his own life with a poisoned apple (beautifully foreshadowed much earlier in the book as he and a college chum go to see the new Disney film, Snow White).

The disgrace of a man who had rendered such service to his country, to be treated so is shocking still, and the question that can never be answered echoes heavily over this last chapter – what else could have come from that brilliant mind? What other innovations would Turing have given to the fledgling computer industry? But despite this terribly sad ending this is not downbeat, this is a celebration of a remarkable man and an astonishing life. Purvis uses some wonderful visual tricks to convey the processes of Turing’s mind – a scene showing the ticker tape for an early thought experiment machine flowing past him as he effortlessly walks on and his friends struggle to keep up with him was rather wonderful, likewise a fantasy scene with Turing talking with the brilliant Ada Lovelace – another innovator of the world we now live in – is beautifully depicted, and there are lovely little cameos, including a young officer from Naval Intelligence, Commander Ian Fleming (later to create the James Bond novels).

imitiation_game_alan_turing_decoded_ottaviani_purvis_abrams_02

It’s a beautifully told story, both for those of us with some familiarity with Turing and that historical period, and to those who are new to it, a reminder also of the enormous debt the present and future always owe to the past and those who came before us, and what they achieved, often in the face of adversity; it celebrates an amazing man and the people he worked with. In 2009 the British Prime Minister issued a posthumous apology to Turing for his judicial treatment, in 2013 the Queen officially granted a royal pardon. Computer scientists, cognitive psychologists and philosophers are still debating Turing’s thought experiments on advanced computing technology actually being able to develop into artificial intelligence, his importance and work are still taught in academia around the globe.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Cthulhu horror meets racial bigotry in the Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black Tom,

Victor Lavalle,

Tor

victor_lavalle_ballad_black_tom_tor_books_cover

In recent months top SF&F publishers Tor have bee putting out a series of rather tasty wee novellas covering fantasy, science fiction and, here, straying into Lovecraftian horror, and indeed urban horror, the sort that is generated as much by the more vicious, ignorant elements of humanity as it is by supernatural and magical threat. Charles Thomas Tester – Tommy Tester, the eponymous “Black Tom”, is a black man in early 20th century America; it may have been decades since Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration, but even in urban New York (let alone the Deep South), discrimination and intolerance is rampant, the Civil Rights movement and hard-won battles of the 60s are a long, long way away.

This is an era of know your place, and if you are a young man of colour then that’s even more important – keep to your “own areas” (such as Harlem), don’t get in the way of the white folks (especially the rich ones), and avoid the attention of the police. And given Tommy grafts a living from a mixture of playing a simple repertoire for busking in the street and from running slightly dodgy errands, which can take him outside his comfort zone of Harlem. And we see him early on running one of those errands, delivering a strange manuscript to a mysterious woman in a richer (and whiter) part of town, a book which may have esoteric learning in it, possibly dangerous knowledge. Despite keeping his head down and often adopting the servile and simple stance expected of him though, Tommy’s no idiot, he’s sharp, sharp enough to deliver the book and take his payment, but to ensure an important page is held back so that its knowledge can’t be fully used.

There’s a little hint of the John Constantine around Tommy, not so much a streetwise magus like Constantine, but a man who knows there is more about the world than just what most people see, and this knowledge and his esoteric errand-running bring him to the attention of a very wealthy man who asks him to play his music at a private party at his large house. And it is there that Tommy Tester learns that there is even more behind the everyday scenery of the stage we call the world than he suspected, and he thought he knew a bit. That there are other realms, and dark, ancient beings to whom human civilisation is but an ant hill. But living as a black man in that era of US history, being seen as unimportant, beneath notice almost, is something Tommy knows all too well, and his perspective on the ancient, dark beings is coloured (no pun intended) by how the simple fact of his own skin tone has seen him treated in his own society.

This is a superb read – Lavalle, even in the brief length of a novella, conjures up a superbly atmospheric story, both in terms of the atmosphere of dark, Lovecraftian dread and unease building throughout and also in the way he so wonderfully brings out a real feeling of New York in that period, the different areas with different ethnic cultures overlapping, each with their own ways and districts, and the realism of those streets – all now so changed, entire subcultures and communities moved and changed in the intervening decades – works perfectly as a contrast against the darker fantasy elements. And the aspects dealing with they way race, class and wealth  dictate how someone is treated – does the policeman respectfully raise his cap to you or does he wallop you over the head with impunity – and viewed have many parallels to modern society.

In a mere 149 pages Lavalle crafts an increasing air of menace an unreality lying just beyond the seemingly solid walls of our reality, just waiting to break in, and at the same time does what the best writers do, uses the fantasy to draw parallels to social problems of the present day. This is the first time I’ve read Lavalle, but I’ll be happy to pick up anything else by him after this.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Hazy sunset

hazy spring sunset 01

Crossing North Bridge recently, very hazy day – haar in the morning had almost hidden the summit of Arthur’s Seat and turned the Castle into a faint pencil on tracing paper outline, but the spring sunshine came out and burned it away. Then as dusk fell the mist returned off the Forth and along with some wispy clouds gave us this incredible diffused sunset turning the sky orange, pink, purple and copper, silhouetting the Castle, the spires and old buildings of Edinburgh. Only lasted a few precious moments, utterly ephemeral and yet so beautiful, stopped me and many others in our tracks, just pausing the commute home from work to drink in this magical scene. Things like this can just happen in this remarkable city, it’s another reason why I love living here.

hazy spring sunset 02