The Year in Pictures

'Tis the season when bloggers everywhere sit down to do a round-up of their favourite books, people, movies & moments of the Year Gone By.  Only I can't be bothered, so here's a montage of some of the more memorable bits of my year (or, at least, the ones that I have photos of)... 

......including: snow; America; Dublin; volcanoes; kidney stones; drawing; Powerscourt waterfall; reading The Lord of the Rings to Sam, re-reading Patrick O'Brian to myself; my favourite book, film*, DVD, and comic of the year, the Warhammer craze; the tractor craze; the arrival of Frodo; a visit from Jeremy; the Legend that is Sarah McIntyre.  And lots of snow.  And a couple of books what I wrote.

(The links above are almost all to old posts on this blog or The Solitary Bee, so unless you're a newcomer - in which case, Welcome! - you may have read them before.)

It's been a pretty good year on the whole, though frankly I could have done without the kidney stones and the volcano and I wish we could have kept our lovely and much-missed next-door neighbours, Sam, Tam and Ian.  

I hope you've all enjoyed 2010 too.  Here's hoping for a happy, peaceful, and prosperous New Year all round.

*Avatar scrapes in by default because it was the only one I saw at the cinema.

In The Bleak Midwinter...

Sarah in the snow.
It started to get seriously wintry again here in the middle of last week, with frosty winds making moan all over the place.  I stayed indoors on Tuesday and wrote a ghost story for a children's anthology to which I've been asked to contribute.  I don't usually enjoy writing short stories, nor do I much like ghost stories, but I thought it would be a good, wintry challenge, so I did 5,000 words about a haunted Dartmoor wood.  I remember being badly frightened by ghost stories which I read as a child, so I tried to make mine quite happy and comforting and I suppose it may not be scary enough for the yoof o'today: we'll have to see what the editor thinks.

On Thursday evening we were all supposed to be going to Dartington, where Sarah's choir were to be singing festive songs at the Cider Press Centre's late night shopping do, but when we got to the top of Widecombe Hill and saw the snow already laying we decided that not getting stuck in Dartington for an indefinite period was the better part of valour, and turned back.  By Friday morning there was quite a decent dusting - enough to ensure that the last day of school was cancelled - and more fell on Friday night, leaving us pretty well cut off.  There was no chance of driving anywhere, so we ended up missing the Leusdon panto for the first time since 1999: Boo!  It looks like being a dull week for Sam in the run up to Christmas, with no little friends to play with, but at the moment he's busy on his bedroom floor farm, where bales have to be delivered to his flock of home-made cotton-wool sheep: a good farmer thinks of his stock first in weather like this.

Meanwhile, naughty mice have started eating holes in the water pipes up in the loft; we were woken twice last week to find water dripping through Sam's bedroom ceiling, and I've been making many trips up the stepladder and through the tiny ceiling hatch to lay out trays of poison.  I've always had a fairly live-and-let-live attitude to mice in the loft before; they seemed to do no harm, and I assumed that being woken occasionally by odd scratchings and scamperings overhead was one of the joys of country life.  But a mouse that breakfasts on plastic water pipe might well decide that it fancies a bit of electrical cable for lunch, and then where would we be?  Seven snowy miles from the nearest fire station and awkwardly aware of it, that's where.

Anyway, winter does have its positive sides.  For one thing, when the daytime temperature drops below 4 degrees c, you're allowed extra biscuits, apparently.  For another, the sun shone all day yesterday and we walked down the deserted lanes for scrummy pork'n'apple baps at the Rugglestone Inn.  Frodo made the acquaintance of many interesting dogs, William Bell passed by in his John Deere much to Sam's delight, and Sarah took lovely pictures all the way.

Frodo loves the snow, and comes in from his expeditions to the garden looking like the Abominable Snow Poodle...

Last night there was a clear sky and a full moon.  The moonlight reflecting off the snow was so bright that it looked like one of those old films where they simulated night time by shooting in broad daylight and stopping down the exposure.  While I was reading Sam's bedtime story, Sarah went out into the garden and took photos of the house, the stars, and the frozen lake.

Wherever you are, I hope you're snug and warm!

(All photos by Sarah as usual - except the ones she's in, which are by me.)

A Letter from the Future...

A number of people have been taking issue with the things I said about e-books and the Death of the Novel  in my speech at QECC last week, and quite right too, because it was meant to get them thinking.  Anyway, one of those who took issue with it is Sarah McIntyre.  Yesterday I received this letter from the glamourous Vern & Lettuce hitmaker, which she claims to have mailed from the year 2056...

...well, I'm convinced.

Larklight Revisited

I often mention Mortal Engines on these pages, but I keep forgetting about Larklight.  Mortal Engines got a new lease of life when I started work on the prequels, so it's all still quite fresh in my mind, but I have no plans for any more Larklight books, and I tend not to think much about that world anymore; I've spent so much time since thinking up and writing other things that it's starting to feel like something someone else wrote.  But with the recent announcement that director Tomas Alfredson is going to be turning it into a movie (I've heard nothing official, but it's on the internets, so it must be true) I thought it might be nice to take another look at it, and see if I can remember what I was thinking when I wrote it.

The book began as a vague idea which I dreamed up in conversations with Val Brathwaite, the brilliant art editor at Bloomsbury.  I had no story, and no idea of what the setting or the style would be; I just knew that I wanted to do an illustrated adventure story, with a picture every few pages and a full-page one in every chapter.  At first I planned a fantasy - I had a particular illustrator in mind, and thought I could come up with a tale of magic and monsters which would suit his style.  But I thought and thought, and no story appeared.  Magic just didn't seem to be my thing.  Monsters, however, I definitely wanted to do.  One of the few rules I stuck to while writing the Mortal Engines quartet was that there were no monsters; there are no weird unearthly creatures in that future world, and certainly no non-human intelligences (unless you count the Stalkers, but even they were human once).  I rather fancied a chance to fill a book with fabulous beings, and over the years I'd even doodled a few, like this Friendly Crab.

'Nipper', by me.  All other images in this
post are by David Wyatt.
Anyway, I'd sort of promised Val a book, and my fantasy idea was going nowhere, so I went out one morning and walked along the River Dart to Dartmeet and back.  Along the way I turned over ideas in my mind, and decided that fantasy just wasn't for me.  Instead, I started to think about Victorian sci-fi.  When I was at school I had read Jules Verne, and I had loved HG Wells, particularly The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine.  In my early teens I'd been impressed by Christopher Priest's 1970s novel The Space Machine, which is a very witty and well-written mash-up of those two books.  It had inspired me to write some scientific romances of my own, including one in which Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson had to save the day when the Crystal Palace revealed itself to be a giant alien machine... (Yes, I know that Sherlock Holmes and the Great Exhibition come from opposite ends of the Victorian era, but I didn't know it then...).

I'd also tried my hand at the same genre more recently, because the earliest versions of Mortal Engines were pseudo-Victorian affairs, but I'd quickly found that an alternate 19th Century was far too arch a setting for the sort of book I wanted to write.  Why should anyone care about characters inhabiting a pastiche past?  The Future was the place for them.  But retro-Victoriana might work, I thought, for a comedy; something light and larky...  Groping in my memory for a few of the familiar building blocks of scientific romance, I quickly assembled the framework for a jokey Alt.Victorian space opera in which there would be room for friendly crabs and flying pigs and as many other odd creatures as my imagination could come up with.

Walking home along the banks of the Dart I started to picture a solar system which differed from our own in several important ways.  For one thing, life was everywhere; all the planets and moons and many of the asteroids were inhabited, and there were even fish-like creatures swimming in the vast seas of 'aether' which lie between the worlds.  For another, Sir Isaac Newton's experiments in alchemy had paid off big time back in the 1600s, allowing the Brits to develop space travel.  By the 1850s, when my story would be set, the British Empire would stretch from Venus to the moons of Jupiter.  And I began to imagine Larklight, a name which had been kicking around in my head for years, and which I now realised should belong to an ancient stately home hanging in space somewhere on the far side of the moon.

From there, my hero and heroine would set off on their adventures.  I didn't yet know who they were, but I knew that my hero would also be the narrator, since all good Nineteenth Century adventure yarns are told in the first person*, and as the world of Mortal Engines was filled to bursting with tough, brave, resourceful girls I decided that the heroine of this new book would be a complete contrast; a prim Victorian miss who would have fits of the vapours and need rescuing whenever danger threatened.  Myrtle seemed a good name for her; her brother, in a nod to King Arthur, became Art.   And their adventure must involve pirates, because everybody likes space pirates.  But because the tone was to be comic these couldn't be violent, dangerous, nasty, realistic pirates - in fact nothing need be realistic at all; this was a tale about Victorian space-travel, after all - so they must be not as black as they'd been painted; a rather harmless crew, in fact, led by a lad I initially called Jack Havelock, until a happy typing accident re-Christened him Jack Havock.  And while I didn't want to fill the story with eminent real-life Victorians (it seems pretty obvious to me that in a world where history had taken even a slightly different turn most of the people we have heard of would probably never have been born, let alone ended up in the same positions which they held in our world) Queen Victoria had to be on the throne, and I hoped to find a role for Sir Richard Burton, the most fascinating of all the great Victorian explorers and wearer of one of the weirdest beards in an era of weird beards.  (I'd already used him as inspiration for Valentine in Mortal Engines, but Valentine turned out to be not quite the ticket, so I thought I'd make Sir Richard a hero in this one, by way of an apology).

By the time I reached home again I had the world of Larklight more-or-less complete in my mind, and I wrote the first chapter that same afternoon.  After that it all flowed fairly easily: hoverhogs were introduced (my gift to the plush toy industry, I remember thinking at the time); Art and Myrtle were turfed out of Larklight by giant spiders who kidnapped their vague father; the pirates rescued them from the Potter Moth (a particularly ghastly monster, based on some horrific wasp whose life-cycle I'd once seen described on telly by That David Attenborough).  In keeping with the light-hearted tone I was careful not to kill any characters off, and halfway through I realised that even Art and Myrtle's late, lamented mother might not be quite as late as I'd thought when I began.  Finding her again, and discovering who and what she was, delivered the impetus that carried me on to the end of the story, where the Crystal Palace war machine I'd written of at school  got another outing at last.

So that was Larklight; a slight book, but fun to write, and just the project I needed as a sort of literary sorbet between the darker worlds of A Darkling Plain and Here Lies Arthur.   Looking back, I think it achieves what I set out to pretty well.  I'm told some people complain that it offers no critique of imperialism (stories set in the British Empire are expected to, it seems) but I think it actually does, albeit in an oblique way.  It's true that Art's faith in British pluck and justice is unshakeable, but I'd written one book about a lad coming to question the whole idea that underpins his society and I didn't want to write another.  (Besides, when I want to write seriously about the evils and follies of empire I will write about the actual Nineteenth Century, not a fantasy version.)  I still find Art and Myrtle funny, and I hope other readers do, too.

But it's clear that what really makes Larklight stand out is the fantastic artwork of David Wyatt, the illustrator whom Val Brathwaite suggested for the project.  From the start I'd been keen that the book should look like an artifact which has tumbled through some wormhole from the universe in which it's set, and I think David achieved that brief beautifully, filling every available space with his intricate, humorous, hugely detailed pen-and-ink drawings, and covering the endpapers with adverts for the things a Victorian space-farer might need, some ideas supplied by me, but many entirely his own.**  He also, along with Bloomsbury's web designers, created the beautiful and oft-imitated  Larklight website, which is one of the best things I've ever seen on the internet (I can say that without blushing, 'cos it was nothing to do with me.  Go and look at it, do: it has steam and piano music and such: do make sure you click on all the little switches, wheels and levers, and on the image of Myrtle to the left of the control panel).   It was an enormous pleasure to watch David's images of the Larklight world take shape.  In the two sequels, Starcross and Mothstorm I was able to work more closely with him, and in both those books there are whole scenes and characters which developed out of drawings I saw in his sketchbooks.

A page from David's sketchbook, featuring the first sighting of Professor Ferny, the 'Emancipated Shrub'.
Sadly 'The Speculative Clams' have yet to make it into print.
It would be nice to think that we might work in this way on future projects too, but I don't believe any of them will take us back to Larklight.  In the end the things that I built into that world right back at the start - the jokiness, the way that nobody ages or dies or really changes much - mean that there would be little point in setting a long-running series there: if I carried on I'd have to start breaking the rules; touching on more serious themes,  maybe killing people off: I think the Larklight world is far too whimsical to bear such emotional weight.  Also, I'm heartily sick now of steam engines and stovepipe hats: the over-used imagery of scientific romance doesn't speak to me in 2010 as it did in 1980.  Perhaps writing Larklight got it out of my system, or perhaps it was already fading by the time I took that stroll beside the Dart.  So Larklight is a kind of monument to a lost obsession; a cairn built out fragments of my childhood reading; my little parting salute to Mr. Wells and M. Verne: thank you, gentlemen, and goodnight.***

Larklight is available from All Good Booksellers, and also from Honest Jed Sidebotham's Used Penny Dreadful Emporium, Port Charlotte, Mars.

*I had originally intended Art's narration to sound as Victorian as possible, but even I could see that children might not want to fight their way through the labyrinths of Victorian sentences, and I doubt I'm clever enough to pastiche them properly anyway, so I settled for something chattier and more PG Wodehouse-y, figuring that in a world where our ancestors had space flight they might have developed simpler sentence-structure too. 

**Sadly, the current paperback editions have ditched the original covers in favour of something much more modern.  The illustrations are still by David, and as beautiful as you would expect, but the tone has been lost; they are trying to look like Anthony Horowitz-style spy stories, which I suspect sell rather better than tales of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space.

***Needless to say, if there is a Larklight movie and it makes a billion trillion dollars, I shall delete this post and get straight to work on volumes 4 through 12.

E-Bookalypse Now

Whenever someone gets in touch to ask me to do an event, I think of that joke in Father Ted where a TV producer 'phones our hero to ask if he'll appear on a religious affairs programme.  "You were the first person we thought of," says the producer - but on the wall of his office we can see a list of all the other priests he has asked; there are about twenty names on it, all crossed out, and at the bottom, in desperation, someone has added Father Ted Crilly???

Well, Robert Logan, the excellent librarian at Queen Elizabeth's Community College in Crediton, must have a list of authors with Philip Reeve??? at the bottom, because he asked me to go in yesterday and give a speech before the annual QECC Book Awards: a jolly affair in which six teams of students do a presentation about a recent book and their classmates get to vote for the one they best like the sound of.  I hate making speeches, so I thought I'd tell them Why Book Awards Are Rubbish And Books Are Doomed, in the hope that I won't get asked to do any more.  Here is a slightly titivated transcript of what I said.

I've always been in two minds about the whole idea of book awards.  It seems a pity that the best way we can find of honouring good books is to race them; choosing a bunch to form a shortlist, and then voting to discard all but one of those and declaring it The Winner.  That seems unfair to me.  You can't really compare one book with another.  The books on most shortlists are all trying to do different things; they probably all have something going for them, they may each mean a lot to someone; and when Book A wins, what does that tell us?  Nothing, really.  The people who like Book B and Book C and Book D are just as moved and inspired by them as other people are by book A.   All we know is that Book A is more popular, and that may just be be because it's easier, or more obvious, or less challenging.

So book awards are rubbish, let's all go home.

But wait...  There is one thing I like about book awards.  They do get people talking about  books.  They get people arguing for the books they love.  And I think that's more and more important.

Some of the books I loved when I was at school were written by Ray Bradbury.  His were some of the first stories I read where I could see that the writing was as important as the storytelling; half the pleasure of them was in the way he used words.  They helped turn me into a writer, and they helped turn me into a science fiction writer, because Ray Bradbury wrote pulp sci-fi adventures full of spindle-shaped silver rocket ships and horror stories as cosy and sinister as Hallowe'en lanterns.  He also wrote a famous novel of the future called Fahrenheit 451.

In the world of Fahrenheit 451 reading is banned.  Books are seen as dangerous.  They set people's imaginations working, and stories fill their heads with strange and unsettling ideas, so the government has forbidden them.  If the authorities find out that you are a secret reader, the fire brigade is sent round to burn your books - hence the title: 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper ignites (at least, Ray Bradbury thought it was; I think it's actually 450 degrees Celsius, but there you go, authors don't know everything, and Celsius 450 isn't nearly such a good title).  The hero starts out as a fireman, then becomes a secret reader, and at the end of the story he meets a kind of resistance movement, the Book People, each of whom has memorised a whole book in order to keep the stories alive.

Now a lot of people seem to think that the job of a science fiction writer is to predict the future.  It's not.  A good science fiction story isn't a window onto tomorrow; it's a mirror held up to the present day, in which we see a reflection of our own world distorted in ways which might help us to notice things more clearly.  Fahrenheit 451 may be set in the future, but it's about the 1950s when it was written: a time when people seemed to be turning away from reading to the easier pleasure of television, and when Communism in Eastern Europe and anti-Communism in the US meant that many books really were considered dangerous, and if you were caught reading the wrong ones the authorities could do far worse things to you than just burn your book collection.

But sometimes, almost by accident, science fiction does predict things, and I feel that in a strange way Fahrenheit 451 may be about to come true after all.

Books, you see, are on their way out.  They are obsolete technology.  In a very few years from now, when you want to read a book, you won't even think about going to a bookshop or library and collecting a bundle of printed sheets of paper.  You'll just download it from the internet to your Kindle, or your i-phone, or to some far cheaper, easier-to-use bit of kit that hasn't yet come on the market.  This is not science fiction: it's happening already; it's going to happen more and more, and when you have children of your own they will probably look at your books with as much bewilderment as my son feels when he looks at my old vinyl LPs and says, "What are these things?"

In the future we will burn books, not because we think they're dangerous, but because they have no value at all.

That's not necessarily a bad thing.  It's a problem for me because I like old-fashioned books, and make my living selling them.  But just as, in Fahrenheit 451, books survive in the memories of the Book People, books can survive quite happily as downloaded information on e-reader screens.  They are still the same words; still the same story; nothing that really matters has been lost.

Except, I don't think many people will want to read novels on screen.  Scrolling through these great chunks of text, 60, 70, 80,000 words long - that doesn't seem to me to be a very good use of the almost limitless potential of electronic media.  Also, reading a novel requires a type of intense, immersive concentration which is the complete opposite of what we are used to doing on the internet, where we skim lightly through things, following links easily from one subject to another.  I think these new reading devices will not just change the way people read, they'll change the things people want to read.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing, either.  The novel has had a good innings, and maybe its time new ways of reading evolved.  In the near future I think we'll see short stories coming back in a big way (which would please Ray Bradbury) but soon I expect to see whole new forms evolve; whole new ways of telling stories; interactive stories, crammed with images and sound effects, incidental music and hypertext links.  Of course, I can't imagine what these new forms will be, because I'm old and I'm still into books.  That's your job, and what an extraordinary and exciting new world you'll live in, where whole new ways of telling stories are waiting to be invented.

But what about the poor old novel?  Well, I don't believe that novels are going to die out entirely; they just won't be a form of mass entertainment any more.  They will end up like opera: not many new ones will be written, and only enthusiasts will care about them.  They'll be available to download, but not many people will bother.

And that is a bad thing, because I do think that novels matter, and writing matters, and the experience of reading a story in this form is different to any other way of experiencing it, because when you're reading you do so much of the work yourself.  When a writer describes a place or a character the words conjure up pictures in our minds, and for every one of us the pictures will be slightly different.  That's because we are the ones who make them; the author is just giving us the cues; guiding us through a world which we help to create.  In a film or a painting or a play or a computer game the storyteller gets to show you everything.  In a written story, the imagination of the reader (or listener) is as important as the imagination of the writer.

And that's why talking about books is important.  When your children or your grandchildren come across your dusty collection of old paperback novels and say "What are these things?" you'll need to be Book People, and explain to them why they're worth reading.  They probably won't come across books in any other way.  There won't be any bookshops.  There won't be any libraries.  Why would they download a book to read when they can just as easily download a film or a game or one of these new, interactive, high-tech new forms of storytelling that you lot are going to invent?

So it's going to be up to you.  The only way that they will get to experience the pleasure of reading a really good book is if you can talk to them about the books you love.

For the record, the QECC Book Award was won by Kevin Brooks's Killing God, which doesn't sound controversial at all, oh no.

Frost on the Moor

Usually when it's icy here we're trapped at home, but despite the cold this week it's been dry, and apart from a few dodgy patches the lane hasn't been too bad.  On Tuesday Sarah drove us to Haytor (which is only about five minutes away) and we walked from there past the abandoned, flooded (and currently frozen) quarry and down across the valley to Hound Tor.  The sky was clear and everything looked lovely, flocked with frost and sparkling in the sunshine.  We stopped for lunch among the low, mossy walls of the mediaeval village below Hound Tor, and I started doing my Drawing of the Day.

Before I could finish it a bank of freezing fog rolled in and the whole day changed.  Visibility was down to about ten feet, but there was still a hint of sunlight peeking through, so that the frosted rocks and thorn trees took on the appearance of a set from one of those studio-bound 1980s fantasy films like Legend or The Company of Wolves.  Except that the frost usually looks more convincing in movies.  I started doing another drawing while Sarah took these photos, but it didn't amount to much.

Climbing back towards Haytor along the path of the granite tramway we reached a place where we usually get damp feet, because a bog on the uphill side seeps across the path and runs on down.  Not any more; the trickling water had all frozen solid, forming a strange, rippled pavement of ice.   Sarah stopped to take this last picture, which captures the atmosphere rather well, I think...

All photos by Sarah Reeve.

Fun with Facebook

Just a quick word about the Philip Reeve 'Author' page on Facebook.  Several people have asked me why they can't leave messages and feedback there.  Well, that's because it has nothing to do with me! It was set up by Facebook, without any warning or consultation, for who knows what creepy reason?  (Presumably just to ensure that Facebook crops up whenever anybody Googles my name.)  I've tried to 'claim' the page by filling in a form to prove that 'I am an official representative of Philip Reeve', but nothing happens.  The information about me on the page is taken straight from Wikipedia: I have no way to update it.  I also have no way to respond to the 600-odd nice people who have taken the trouble to 'like' this page. If you want to get in touch with me on Facebook, THIS is the page you need.  

Or, of course, you can e-mail me by clicking on the Beemail button at the top of this blog, just above the coffee cup.

Oh Snow - Not Again!

To London on Tuesday last, to film a piece for next year's World Book Day website.  On the way I stopped off at Exmouth Community College where I talked to three great groups of pupils.  Most of them seemed to have read some of my books, those who hadn't at least seemed to know who I was, and they all had good and intelligent questions, which I did my best to answer.  There was a lot of excellent Reeve-related work on display around the library, and even a Mortal Engines cake.  ( I think I might make a cake in the form of one of my books my rider for future events.)  It was a really enjoyable day, and I'm hugely grateful to the staff at ECC, to Booktrust, who arranged it, and to Booktrust's Caroline Wright, who came all the way to Devon to look after me.

I reached London on Tuesday night, and hurried to Chez Gerard in Charlotte Street (posh, eh?) for dinner with Sarah McIntyre and her husband Stuart, which was lovely.  Sarah and I have both been reading Geraldine Mccaughrean's latest, Pull Out All The Stops, and Sarah's done a fabulous hand-written review in the Old West stylee which you can read on The Solitary Bee.  Why don't I think of doing elaborate copperplate reviews in letter form?  Well, probably because I'm not a memorably-bespectacled comics'n'illustration goddess, that's why.  It's very nice to know someone who is, though, and when I look back on 2010 in years to come I shall remember it as The Year I Met Sarah McIntyre.  Here's a doodle of her that I drew on the train home, hence the wobbly lines.

Doodling away, I left Paddington Station at around 4pm and arrived home ahead of the snow, which was lucky - the back-up plan would have involved me stopping overnight in Ashburton, buying walking boots and hiking home over the top this morning.  Happily that wasn't necessary, but it would have been if I'd been just a few hours later; we had a couple of inches of snow overnight, and when we tried to go out at lunch time the car ended up slithering sideways down the lane and had to be coaxed back up with many a shovel-load of grit.  I think we're probably Bonehill-bound until the thaw sets in.