Arthur C Clarke laid to rest

While I was off the air last week we lost Sir Arthur C Clarke, one of the few authors to cross out of his genre to become a cultural icon recognised by millions, including those who never picked up a science fiction book in their life. Sadly he passed away at the age of 90 just weeks before the annual Arthur C Clarke awards are due to be announced. I’ve been reading Arthur’s books and short tales since before my voice broke; basically I have been picking up books of his for over thirty of my forty years on Planet Earth and apart from some wonderfully imaginative fiction (which still usually remained grounded in some real science) I think the quality I most loved in his work over the decades was the optimism. Here was a man born as the slaughter of the War to End All Wars was being fought and who played his part working in radar in the war that came after that, who saw the many atrocities that marked the last century and yet still his stories had this optimism, this belief not that the future would turn out alright but that we could make it better if we tried, if we really wanted to make it that way, to evolve our minds and our morality both. While darker edged fiction often satisfies me more dramatically I need that does of hope and optimism sometimes.

And like many best writers his books made me want to go and read more books; I’d read the story then need to investigate some of the actual science which was used in the tale (my favourite reading is always the book which makes me want to read more, learn more; good books are like brain cells, they work best when creating more links). Reading his collection of non fiction essays a few years back, Greetings, Carbon-based Lifeforms, was also fascinating – because of the reputation he earned worldwide Arthur met just about everyone, from hanging out with Ginsberg at the Hotel Chelsea to presidents and kings, working with Kubrick of course and even during the animosity of the Cold War he was so respected by both superpowers he was one of the few men who shook hands with both Soviet cosmonauts and NASA astronauts. Its not been the best of recent weeks for book people – we just lost Arthur, Terry Pratchett is facing the spectre of Alzheimer’s, Steve Gerber left us… At least we always have the books. Sadly we’re all mortal, but the printed word, that magical, alchemical fusion of human imagination, paper, ink and technology is immortal.

Arthur’s final interview, recorded for IEEE Spectrum in January from his hospital bed, can be found online here. I leave you with Clarke’s Laws:

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

You know, of the three I think I am most fond of the second; I like to think the impossible rarely remains impossible forever. Perhaps some of his optimism has rubbed off on my cynical mind over the years… The people of Sri Lanka, where this Somerset-born lad had made his home for decades, showed their respect for their adopted son with a national moment’s silence to coincide with the funeral service. His gravestone will read “Here lies Arthur C Clarke. He never grew up and did not stop growing,” in line with his own wishes. I’ve met a lot of brilliant science fiction writers over my career in books (including two of this year’s Arthur C Clarke Awards nominees), but I never met Arthur. And yet I feel as if I have known him most of my life and I’m going to miss him, especially that wonderful human quality of hope he always seemed to summon forth.

Terry Pratchett has bad news

Awful news from Terry Pratchett confirming on Paul Kidby’s Discworld News that he is suffering from early on-set Alzheimer’s. Terry’s not just one of the biggest (and most consistently enjoyable, smart and funny) fantasy authors, he’s one of those rare bestsellers who appeals way beyond the genre, making him one of the most popular writers on our wee planet. I’ve seen lines of fans at Terry’s signings stretch round the store, out the doors, down the street and round the block; I’ve also seen him sit there and sign for each one of those folks and chat to each of them too, occasionally taking a moment to rest his wrist in some iced water then start signing more books. As Cory Doctorow notes in Boing Boing though, Terry is employing his humour, trying to stay positive and encouraging readers to do the same:

” I would have liked to keep this one quiet for a little while, but because of upcoming conventions and of course the need to keep my publishers informed, it seems to me unfair to withhold the news. I have been diagnosed with a very rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s, which lay behind this year’s phantom “stroke”.

We are taking it fairly philosophically down here and possibly with a mild optimism. For now work is continuing on the completion of Nation and the basic notes are already being laid down for Unseen Academicals. All other things being equal, I expect to meet most current and, as far as possible, future commitments but will discuss things with the various organisers. Frankly, I would prefer it if people kept things cheerful, because I think there’s time for at least a few more books yet :o)

PS I would just like to draw attention to everyone reading the above that this should be interpreted as ‘I am not dead’. I will, of course, be dead at some future point, as will everybody else. For me, this maybe further off than you think – it’s too soon to tell. I know it’s a very human thing to say “Is there anything I can do”, but in this case I would only entertain offers from very high-end experts in brain chemistry.”

Happy birthday to the Book Group

I just realised today that this month’s meeting of the Edinburgh SF Book Group will mark the fourth birthday. My former colleague Alex and I thought it up back in the summer of 2003 and decided a good start date would be after the busy circus of the Festival left town, so we opted for September. And for our initial discussion it seemed fitting to pick a debut novel, so we opted for one of the best debuts novels of recent SF by one of our favourite writers, Glasgow-based Richard Morgan, the Philip K Dick award-winning Altered Carbon (which also introduced Richard’s character Takeshi Kovacs and also made headlines when it was the subject of a large film rights deal via Joel Silver. I remember the Guardian running an article on that and unable to reach Richard who was on holiday at the time they nicely pilfered quotes from our interview on the Alien Online without asking or crediting the site).

The book group has gone on over those four years, surviving the debacle of the Bloggergate nonsense between me and my former employers at the Bookstore Who Shall Not Be Named (where it had driven sales of backlist titles and boosted the company’s profile, but no more – that’s their loss) and trying to find a new regular venue after that. We’ve got a good core of different folks who come regularly and we’ve had more folks join us since then. We take turn about getting to choose books for the month which means we get a good, diverse range of material.

We’ve taken in graphic novels like the Sandman, classic SF from Alfred Bester and HG Wells, contemporary political SF like Ken MacLeod, horror from James Herbert, fantasy like the Lies of Locke Lamora and also more mainstream material with touches of SF like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Michel Faber’s Under the Skin (which the literati can read, safe in the knowledge that they aren’t really part of that ‘SF nonsense’, they’re literature). Ursula le Guin has rubbed shoulders with Margaret Atwood, Charles Burns, Aldous Huxley, James Lovegrove, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jeff VanderMeer, Sheri S Tepper, Neal Stephenson and Robert Louis Stevenson among many others. Because each of us gets to take a turn picking a book we get exposed to more diverse material and so more to discuss, more to think about, more to enjoy. One of the few pleasures better than reading a good book is being able to share it with others and talk about it. And if that also means enjoying some trips to the pub too, so much the better (since there is a very welcome social aspect to the group too).

We started with an author who now lives in Glasgow and this fourth anniversary month sees us discussing a recent novel from an Edinburgh-based scribe, Charlie Stross as we discuss his novel Glasshouse. In a lovely bit of coincidence Glasshouse won the Prometheus award (given by the Libertarian SF group) last week just after it was picked for our September meeting, so congrats to Charlie. We normally meet on the last Tuesday of the month in Henderson’s on Hanover Street and anyone is welcome to come along – meeting details usually go up on the Book Group blog.

Edinburgh from the air

At the weekend I did something I haven’t done since I was a about seven years old – I climbed the 287 winding steps of the Scott Monument to the uppermost viewing gallery. Built to honour the memory of the famous Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott this great neo-Gothic rocket of Binny sandstone was completed in 1844; designed by George Meikle Kemp. Kemp was the son of a shepherd in the Pentland Hills, reputedly inspired from his rural existence as a boy by a visit to Roslyn Castle and Roslyn Chapel. He seemed to have a knack for the fine arts, but it was an an unknown he entered the public competition to design a memorial to Scott; in fact for the first round he used a pen name rather than his own humble name which at that time had no great reputation, so when his design was ultimately chosen he went from being a respected but not well-known draughtsman and designer to being responsible for one of the major iconic landmarks of the capital of Scotland, an area now designated as a UN World Heritage Site.

Sadly poor old George did not live to enjoy the fruits of his studies and labours; early in 1844, several months before the Monument was completed, he fell into the canal at Fountainbridge, not far from where I live, and was drowned. Citizens of the city lined the streets for his funeral procession as his casket was led to Saint Cuthbert’s kirkyard, in the shadow of the Castle and in sight of his construction.

It was very odd to be back at a spot you hadn’t been to in decades; last time I went up those stairs was with my mum and dad as a wee boy. One thing that was noticeably different was that the spiral stone staircase seemed a lot smaller and much, much narrower than it was a lad. One way up and one way down, so if you are going one way and other folks coming down the other it is a bit of a problem. The higher you go the more the spire narrows and so does the staircase. On the final segment from the mid gallery to the upper one the staircase becomes very, very narrow; the heavy stone walls are scraping my shoulders and I need to duck as the roof is lower. Hemmed in by dark stone blocks you could swear you are deep inside the lowest dungeon, which is a strange feeling when you know that you are almost 200 feet in the air.

The viewing platforms become smaller too as you ascend. The first one is relatively wide, with a tall, narrow room in the centre with beautiful stained glass windows and carved wood which includes the names of Watty’s books carved into the decorations; many scores of feet beneath this is a similarly proportioned, but far plainer chamber, deep beneath the earth, between the massive stone pillars of the Monument which one guide claims go down almost 40 feet into the bedrock (our 19th century ancestors built to last). Up, up and up to the next level, wind blowing through the arrow slit windows of the stone stairwell (no escalator here, kids, you walk 200 feet into the air by foot) and a smaller gallery to look out from, all the time surrounded by dozens of sculptures, large and small, of characters from Scott’s many books. That final, tight, narrow climb and out onto a tiny upper gallery barely wide enough for one person.

Wind streaking past you, carrying the sound of the bagpipe player at the gates to Princes Street Gardens up to you even 200 feet above him. I don’t suffer from vertigo but leaning over the top still makes my stomach do a wee twirl; 200 feet may not sound much in our age of high-rise buildings but for the mid 19th century it must have seemed staggering. Since there is a limit on how tall a building can be in the centre of Edinburgh to preserve the brilliant skyline the Monument remains towering above most of its neighbours. Right across the road from it the Victorian splendour of Jenners Department Store, the original facade covered in carvings and sculptures. I’ve admired some of the Caryatid statues on the building many times but how odd to see a building I pass every day, a large and tall building, from above, looking down onto it. Raise your eyes up and the view leads you across the Georgian splendour of the New Town to the River Forth and the hills of Fife on the far side, upriver the great iron shape of the Forth Bridge looms out of the haze.

Walk round, the wind stinging your eyes, trying not to hit your knees against the stone rail in the narrow walkway. There’s the expensive grandeur of the Balmoral Hotel, North Bridge striding across the valley between New Town and Old Town past the old Scotsman building; in the background the distinctive modern dome of the Dynamic Earth, the new Parliament next to it, Holyrood Palace and rearing above it the great volcanic rock of Arthur’s Seat, nature’s way of pointing out She’s even better at this monumental architecture than humans are. The skyline of the Old Town with its tall, narrow old buildings and church spires, with the Pentland Hills visible beyond the city, the white marks of the dry ski slope standing out against the grass. And then turn your head past there, past the expensive homes of Ramsay Gardens and there you go, the Castle. I just don’t get tired of that view, but how cool to see it from the top of the Monument again after all these years.


One of my friends phoned me this morning to tell me to check out the Glasgow-published Herald. There was an article expanding upon a join letter attacking Waterstone’s over-reaction to my blog sent in by Ken MacLeod, A L Kennedy, Iain Banks and Neil Davidson.

I was unaware of this happening – Ken had hinted that there was some form of joint letter by authors in the works, but this was a (pleasant) surprise. I’ve had so many folk from around our little, wired planet offering support and it is still incredibly uplifting to see something like this; to know that people will take some of their own time to help someone else. I feel humbled and uplifted at the same time and very, very grateful.

Online writing collaboration

I am indebted to Matthew for pointing me to the interesting collaboration between to excellent SF writers, our local lad Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow (who Alex has been praising). Cory and Charlie are collaborating to draft a tale on a web blog, so the virtual community can actually watch the tale come together, be altered, re-drafted and worked as it happens. I thought this was a wonderful idea and a hi-tech version of Harlan Ellison sitting in a bookstore window writing tales while people watched or tossed him ideas (kind of whose Short Story is it Anyway?), then I read Chalrie’s page and see him say pretty much the same thing :-). Sounds like a great idea and an interesting use of internet technology. I haven’t read Cory’s new book, but it is high on my list (thanks Alex) while Charlie’s work is excellent and I hope more folk in the UK get too read more of it soon.