Secrets of the Seawigs


                                                                                                        Photo by Blast

Following on from our pre-publication party (see previous post), here's a short film by MB Films in which sarah McIntyre and I discuss Oliver and the Seawigs, how we came to write it, and how we work together.

Oliver and the Seawigs - Meet the creators from MB Films on Vimeo.

And Sarah has done a fantastic blog about how she built the six foot high, Marie Antoinette-style wig which she was wearing at the party on Wednesday.  Next time your small daughter (or son) wants to go the school dressed as a princess for World Book Day,  just buy a huge quantity of clingfilm and click this link.

Oliver and the Seawigs

Oliver and the Seawigs won't be officially published until September 4th, but the publicity shenanigans have already begun. Our lovely publishers, Oxford University Press, threw a spectacular pre-publication party on the Golden Hinde in London this week, and you can find a full report by my illustrator and co-author Sarah McIntyre over on her blog. It may feature scenes of me playing the ukelele and wearing sneakers and a t-shirt (new book, new look).  It also features the news that Oliver and the Seawigs will be published in the USA next year!

And here's a trailer that's been produced for the book by MB Films, featuring some of Sarah's artwork.

Oliver and the Seawigs - Trailer from MB Films on Vimeo.

To mark the actual publication of Seawigs there will be ANOTHER party - well, more of an EVENT really, at Daunt's Books in Marylebone, London. We'll be reading from the book, sarah will be drawing, and I daresay we'll be singing our Sea Monkey song again (I might even have learned the chords by then).

Admission is free, but places are limited, so if you'd like to come, you'll need to book a ticket. Here are the details:

BristolCon 2013

BristolCon, the South West's premier science fiction & fantasy convention, will be taking place on the 26th October this year, and I've been invited to be one of the Guests of Honour. I'm not sure quite what my schedule will be yet, but I'll definitely be doing an event about my work, and probably sitting on some panel discussions too, and just hanging around meeting people. I have a busy autumn of events planned, but they're all about Oliver and the Seawigs, so this will be a chance to talk about my older books, my recent brush with the Whoniverse, and anything else you fancy, really.  I'll post details of my full schedule when I have them.

If you've never been, BristolCon is well worth a visit. It's grown from a small, afternoon event to a fully fledged one day convention, with 250 people attending in 2012, and presumably more expected this year. The programme is designed to allow people from south and central England and south Wales to attend without having to stay overnight, although 'more bar-centered activities' carry on late into the evening for locals and those of us who will be stopping over. (And if you do plan to stop over, there's plenty more to do and see in Bristol, one of my favourite cities.)

I've been to two BristolCons now and thoroughly enjoyed the friendly atmosphere and the chance to meet all sorts of interesting and talented people. The other Guests of Honour this year are author Storm Constantine and comics artist Mark Buckingham, but there will be loads of other writers and artists there too: here's a list of those who have already booked. There will be events and discussions throughout the day, and also an art show and a dealers' room.

Sadly, it looks as if the Gromits which are currently decorating Bristol will be all gone by October...

                                                                 Photo: BristolCon

Membership is £20 if you sign up before October 25th, or £25 on the door. All the details are on the BristolCon website, and you can also get updates via Facebook  and Twitter. Hope to see you there!

Pacific Rim


There are some people who just aren't going to like Pacific Rim, so before I jot down down my own thoughts about it, let's try a little multiple-choice quiz to weed them so they don't waste their time reading this.

1) Can you imagine that an interdimensional rift could open in the bed of the Pacific Ocean and start spewing out skyscraper-sized alien monsters with an insatiable desire to trample seaside cities flat?

a) No.

b) Yes, that sounds entirely plausible! Please tell me more!

2) What do you think that the best way to defend ourselves against such beasties would be?

a) Wallop them with a few cruise missiles as soon as they stick their pointy heads out of the briny.

b) Build gigantic humanoid fighting machines called 'jaegers' and fight them mano a mano.

If you answered a) to either of those questons this may not be the film for you. But if you can suspend your disbelief long enough to answer b) to both, it is a lot of fun. And it helps you to suspend said disbelief by being very beautifully made - everyone is raving about the special effects, but the set and costume designs are terrific, too. There are all sorts of little 1940s touches in the jaeger pilot's off-duty outfits (and the jaegers themselves are shown being assembled by Rosie the Riveter) but the retro feel is nicely muted, and combined with a lot of sleek-but-battered hi-tech stuff. The script starts well, too. The pre-credits sequence (which is so long that I forgot there hadn't been any credits and was quite surprised when the title came up) is a masterclass in concise world building, throwing up a succession of rapid images of battles and their aftermaths, TV news footage and chat show clips, which jigsaw together to form a brief history of the 'Kaiju War'

This opening chapter also features a lovely shot where one of the jaegers pauses on its way into battle to scoop a fishing boat out of harm's way before wading in to duff up the finny denizens. It curls its massive hand under the trawler in exactly the same way that a small child might lift a toy boat out of the bathwater, and I think it signals how this film wants us to approach it - as cheerful, fighty make-believe.

Unfortunately, it then promptly bogs down in a quagmire of clichés. Of course, giant robots vs sea monsters is itself a cliche, resurrected from loads of Japanese monster movies, but that's fine, that's what the film is selling and what I went to see. What I wasn't really up for is all the dreary character development stuff - bland alpha-male rivals locking antlers, and will-she-won't-she pseudo tension about whether Rinko Kikuchi will become Charlie Hunnam's co-pilot when we all know she will because we saw her co-piloting away like a good 'un on the posters in the foyer.

Meanwhile, potentially interesting characters like the Chinese and Russian jaeger crews are reduced to the level of extras who don't even warrant a close up, let alone any dialogue. There's much talk about humanity burying its differences, and the pan-Pacific nature of the action makes it look as if this film is a multicultural cut above the traditional Hollywood alien invasion movie (which concentrates only on the USA, with a cutaway to Big Ben getting lasered up if we're lucky) but the difference is mainly in the set-dressing: with the exception of Rinko Kikuchi, the characters are all Americans, Australians or Brits. (The massive jaeger base in Hong Kong harbour where most of the film takes place seems to have no Chinese people among its senior staff at all. )

There are other wobbles, too. One of the creatures spreads some hitherto-unmentioned wings at one point and soars into the sky, making a nonsense of the authorities' coastal defence wall and talk of safe zones inland: I assumed it must be some new and game-changing mutation, but no one on-screen ever commented on it (that I heard).  And there's a silly and pointless attempt to link the kaiju to dinosaurs, which brought even my easily-suspended disbelief crashing to the ground.

There's also no getting around the sense that once you've seen one giant robot fighting a giant monster you've basically seen them all*. When Pacific Rim started it reminded me of the first Star Wars film: made completely out of stuff you'd seen before, but done with such skill and enthusiasm that it felt new minted. But Star Wars had a variety of action scenes to keep it going, building from gun battles and sword fights to spaceship skirmishes and massed fighter battles. Pacific Rim has to keep riffing on one basic image.

That said, the battles in the streets of Hong Kong are nicely staged (there's a lovely little bit of visual punctuation involving a seagull and a harbourside bollard in one of them). There are some good performances from Idris Elba and Ron Perlman (looking so like Tom Waits that he automatically qualifies as my second choice for the new Doctor Who) and an eccentric turn from Burn Gorman as a dotty British scientist apparently channelling Patrick Moore (and somehow helping to anchor dotty American scientist Charlie Day just the right side of irritating).  And there are some glorious slums built around the bones of slain kaiju, and an eerie sequence with scavengers in ramshackle protective suits wandering about inside one of the dead monsters. And there are kaiju skin parasites, and black market aquaria full of harvested kaiju organs... to be honest, I was far more interested by these shady, seedy subcultures growing up in the shadow of the monstrous invasions than I was in the gung ho military stuff. But I guess that's because I'm not twelve (clichés aren't really a problem if you've never seen them before), and also one reason why I don't get to make blockbuster movies.

And as blockbuster movies go - as big, silly entertainment in a nice cool cinema on a hot afternoon - Pacific Rim is really very good. It's way better than Star Trek (the only other big live-action movie I've seen this summer). It isn't about superheroes. It isn't a remake, or a reboot. It isn't pretentious. It shows distinct signs of intelligence and a working sense of humour. I enjoyed it while I was watching it (apart from the yawny Top Gun stuff), and it was only really when I sat down to write about it that I noticed the flaws I've mentioned. It's just a pity that it couldn't lift its giant mechanical feet a little bit further out of the mires of cliché.

My favourite scene didn't involve any monsters or robots at all. It was this one; a Hong Kong helipad in grey light and pouring rain; Rinko Kikuchi in a black coat with a big black umbrella.  I found the screenshot below from a blog called Piling Piling Pelikula, whose Pacific Rim review has a more positive take on the film's characterisation, and more knowledge than I do of the films it pays homage to: it's worth a read.

*I wonder where this image of hero-as-puppeteer controlling a superhuman body comes from, incidentally? It seems very much the trope of our times - it's in Avatar, Iron Man, Real Steel, Surrogates, Neil Blomkamp's new one Elysium and doubtless loads of other things I've not come across/can't think of off the top of my head. Is it an analogy for computer gaming? I don't recall it being among my childhood fantasies.

All images © warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures. 

'Widdershins' - Moorland Mythic Arts in Moretonhampstead

Moretonhampstead is a little town on the eastern edge of Dartmoor. It's not far from where I live, but we seldom have a reason to go there, so yesterday was the first time I'd visited Green Hill Arts, a former primary school which has been turned into artists' studios and a very nice exhibition space.  What drew me there was their new exhibition 'Widdershins', featuring paintings, drawings and sculptures on mythic and mystical themes by some of the artists based in or around the nearby town of Chagford, whose most famous members are Brian Froud and Alan Lee.

How I would have loved this exhibition when I was fourteen!  Back then, Froud and Lee were my heroes, but I never got a chance to see any of their original artwork - I just had to pore over their illustrations in books like Faeries, which they illustrated together in 1979.

Nowadays I would usually run a mile to avoid the sort of people who insist on spelling 'fairy' with an 'e', and Froud seems to have abandoned forever the quirky and beautifully observed landscape backgrounds and strange, foreshortened spaces which were what I always liked best about his work. But it's still good to see some of his pictures up close, including this 'Green Man', (above) which is also used as the exhibition poster.

Wendy Froud, his wife, makes what are basically dolls: troll dolls, faery dolls (definitely faeries with an 'e').  She makes them wonderfully well, but unfortunately I feel about dolls the same way that many people feel about clowns - Eugh, they're so creepy, with their little beady eyes and their winsome, waxy faces! RUN AWAY! Still, she has one piece in this show that I did like very much - a 'wood troll' with gnarled stick-like hands and a bunch of actual sticks sprouting from its back. It could have stepped out of one of her husband's paintings from the '70s, and it's clearly a relative of the mystics in the film The Dark Crystal, which Brian Froud designed and Wendy Froud worked on.

Alan Lee is in New Zealand at present, busy with the Hobbit films, but he's well represented here, with a couple of pencil drawings and the painting of the sleeping Smaug from the illustrated edition of The Hobbit , as well as one of Fangorn Forest from The Lord of the Rings. There's also a piece of his concept art from the LOTR movies - a loose pencil sketch of Eowyn vs the Nazgul, the battlefield suggested with old-masterish skill and economy by wiry, wandering pencil lines.  And there's one of his pictures from Faeries too, done in his older, tighter style, and a cover illustration for an anthology called Hist Whist which I think I can remember being fascinated by (and trying to copy) before I even knew who he was.

His daughter, Virginia Lee, seems to have inherited some of his talent: there's a rather beautiful little relief plaque here of a scene from The Fellowship of the Ring (below, though a photo doesn't really do it justice). My favourites were two of her pastel drawings; imaginary landscapes in which stone angels' wings and carvings of the Tinners' Hares take the place of the stone circles which crown some Dartmoor hilltops.

And it was particularly nice to see some pictures by David Wyatt (with whom I was lucky enough to work on the Larklight trilogy) hanging here among the Frouds and Lees.  His pictures have similar qualities to theirs, while being entirely his own: beautifully drawn, full of invention and visual humour, and steeped in the landscape and atmosphere of Dartmoor.  I've pinched the image below from his excellent blog.

Widdershins continues at Green Hill Arts until 10th August. In addition to the artists I've mentioned there is also work by Terri Windling, Rima Staines, Hazel Brown (whose little boxes of miniature objects have something of the genuine weirdness of 19th Century fairy art), Neil Wilkinson Cave, and Paul Kidby. And Green Hill are running a tie-in programme of events and workshops, too.  If you are in Devon, or planning to visit during the summer, this is well worth a look.

Details on the Green Hill Arts website or Facebook page.