Reeve's Festive Round-Up (Part 2)

Like most of the grown-ups I know, I don't really watch telly any more (although, because of the unique way that the BBC is funded*, I'm still expected to pay for it). The last time I did venture to switch on actual television I glimpsed something called Hole in the Wall, in which celebrities have to hurl themselves through a celebrity-shaped hole in a moving foam wall to avoid being pushed in a pond. For a long time I assumed that I had simply been hallucinating , but I've since spoken to other witnesses: this is actually a real programme. That's why I mostly choose to make my own telly, thanks to the miracle of DVD boxed-sets.

Recent favourites include Joss Whedon's Dollhouse (certificate 15), a sci-fi/spy drama by the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the only vampire story I've ever enjoyed) and the cruelly cancelled, much lamented Firefly. The Dollhouse in question is a sinister, top-secret institution which maintains a bevy of brain-wiped young people who can be uploaded with tailored personalities and rented out to the super-rich for various shady purposes. The first couple of episodes are slick and watchable without being particularly interesting, but just when you think that Dollhouse is going to turn out variations on the same formula each week, it suddenly starts to twist and turn and subvert itself, and people start talking like Joss Whedon characters (some of them are played by familiar faces from his other shows, which helps; Eliza Dushku from Buffy, Alan Tudyk from Firefly and Angel's Amy Acker, who I've sometimes thought would make a passable Hester Shaw, and who turns up here sporting a Disfiguring Scar - spooky!). It's cool, playful and slightly deranged, and beneath its all-American styling and Hollywood gloss there beats a heart very like those which animated great, loopy, British TV shows of the '60s like The Avengers and The Prisoner.

The second series of Madmen (also certificate 15) was actually shown on BBC4 at the start of the year, so I suppose I shouldn't really grumble about the licence fee. But they put it on way past my bedtime, and it's not worth replacing my long-broken DVD recorder just to record one programme, so I had to wait for the boxed set as usual. Anyway, it's magnificent; as stylish and glacially cool as the first series, and with slightly more plot. Unlike British TV drama, where the characters are always telling us how they feel about things, the writers of Madmen and other HBO series are careful to treat the audience as adults; they show us people doing things, and leave it to us to work out why they've done them and how they feel about it.

The children's TV I've glimpsed lately has offered nothing to compare to the wayward brilliance of The Secret Show, but young surrealists might enjoy the CBBC show Ooglies, which seems to be based on Andre Breton's dictum about Surrealism being the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an ironing board, only with the addition of some goggly eyes and a lot of slapstick violence, which is a big improvement. I particularly like the blender helicopter with its crew of incompetent paramedic cherries.

*By theft.

Reeve's Festive Round-Up (Part 1)

There's nothing much to write about at this time of year, with all work grinding to a halt under the weight of accumulated mince pies and chocolate biscuits, so I thought I'd do what proper journalists in posh newspapers do and fill space with a round-up of the cultural high points of 2009.

If the world of children's books were a Christmas tree, Geraldine McCaughrean would be the angel on the top, and her latest, The Death Defying Pepper Roux, is also one of her best. Set in France round about 1910, this is a funny and touching story about a boy who has been told by his horrible family that he is going to die on his fourteenth birthday. When the dreadful day arrives he runs away in the hope of escaping his fate, and finds a series of new identities for himself, helped and hindered by an eccentric cast of supporting characters. Like so many of GM's heroes he is a kind of holy fool, whose innocence both gets him into trouble and helps him to get out of it again. And like so many of her books this one can be read once for the story, with its page-turning cliff-hangers and reversals of fortune, and then again to savour the sheer brilliance of her writing.

I wasn't averse to reading 'girl's books' when I was a boy, but for some reason I never got around to Frances Hodgson Burnet's The Little Princess. But that didn't stop me enjoying Hilary McKay's new sequel to it, Waiting for Tomorrow, which as funny and charming a book as you could hope to curl up with on a winter's afternoon. It's set in the same tiny Edwardian girl's boarding school as the original, and weaves its story out of the friendships and frustrations of the pupils and staff, and also of the irrepressible Alice, a servant straight out of Ealing comedy. With its pink cover and all-girl cast it's unlikely to be read by many boys, but that's their loss; it's brilliant.

The best adult book I've read this year was, bizarrely, published by David Fickling Books, a children's specialist. Margot Lanagan long ago proved herself to be a great writer with her weird and deeply unsettling short stories, collected in volumes like White Time and Black Juice. Tender Morsels is, I believe, her first novel, and it's an astonishing tour-de-force, plaiting elements of folklore and fairy-tale into a story which covers two generations and moves between two different imaginary worlds. The closest comparison I can think of would be with Angela Carter, but that would be slightly unfair to Ms Lanagan, who is a far better writer with a far more vivid imagination. But be warned: if the flopsy bunnies of the children's book world allowed age-ranges to printed on books, this one would carry an 18+. I'm 43+ and I still found some of Tender Morsels almost too grim and horrific to read.

Tommorrow: Telly!

A Right Pair of Weirdos

Here are two very early pictures from the world of Mortal Engines, done in '89 or '90, around the time I started work on the earliest version. The rather gamin Hester already has her scar, but it still looks like a bit of a fashion accessory; it got worse and worse in later drafts, and the steam-powered machine gun proved too cumbersome! I like her tattered coat-tails, though.. I wonder what the keys were meant to open?

The WOME was a lot more steampunky at that early stage, hence Shrike's iron topper! He ended up considerably more robot-like.

Fresh Ice and Old Art...

Sam had me hunting through my dwindling stocks of art supplies for Scraperboard before breakfast yesterday. I couldn't find any, but did turn up this old painting which I did in 1988 or '89 - so long ago that it feels like someone else's work now, and I quite like it. I also came across some pictures I did of very early versions of Shrike and Hester from about the same time. I'll post those here as soon as I can find a way to fit them in the scanner (I worked big in those days).

To the panto last night, and one of the best Merrymakers' shows I've seen. Jay Jacoby, this year's producer, seems to run a happy ship, and the enthusiasm of the cast shone through. Evie Bowden, the musical director, is simply brilliant, and there were some great comic performances too; I particularly liked Nick Coaker as the Beast (see below), and Vicky Hanson's turn as the Panto Inspector. We emerged from the hall to find that the world had been replaced by a replica of itself made out of glass, and we had to take the long way home through Asburton and Bovey Tracey to avoid the un-gritted lanes. Today we are trapped at home, the drive and lane impassable with ice. It's as festive as anything, with sunlight glimmering on the frosty fields and the tors looking as if they've been dusted with icing sugar. Still, we must hope it thaws soon, or it will mean cornflakes for Christmas Dinner...

The Parting Glass

Later, Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of of the empty swimming pool...

I've reached an age where my heroes are dying. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised: many of the people whose work I fell in love with when I was in my childhood and teens were in their forties or fifties then, and now that I'm in my forties they have started to leave us one by one. Nigel Kneale, Edward Gorey, Oliver Postgate, Philippa Pearce, Andrew Wyeth... I didn't know any of them personally,* and each leaves behind a body of work which will live on long after them, but it's still sad to see these revered names cropping up in the obituary columns.

One of the things which I will remember 2009 for is that it was the last year in which I shared the planet with JG Ballard, the best writer ever to emerge from the cheap and cheerful ghetto of science fiction, and an influence on me since I first discovered his strange stories lurking among the more traditional rockets-and-rayguns fare in the sci-fi anthologies which I started reading in my early teens.

It might seem strange for a children's writer to claim Mr Ballard as an influence. His usual champions are angry young men and avant garde types, who rightly point to the brilliance of his disturbing experimental works like Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition. I certainly couldn't recommend those to the under-18s, but I think that some of his other work, particularly the short stories, has much to offer young readers, many of whom might be as intrigued as I once was to discover that sci-fi can be about more than people running about in corridors while things explode.**

To intelligent readers of 13 or so I'd suggest the Vermillion Sands stories, set in a bone-dry desert beach resort where houses go mad, clothes reflect their wearer's states of mind and airborne sculptors carve the clouds into floating portraits of a deranged movie queen. The Terminal Beach, with it's cut-up structure and strange, dreamlike imagery both baffled and fascinated me as a teenager, and there's an exciting and mischievous novella called 'The Ultimate City' in which a young man living in a peaceful, green and ditchwater-dull future eco-utopia runs away to explore the ruins of one of our cities and starts to recreate the dangerous pleasures of modern consumer society.

Of the novels, I think I'm right in saying that Hello America was originally conceived as a story for young adults.*** And his most famous book, Empire of the Sun, which fictionalises some of his boyhood experiences in a Japanese internment camp, looks unflinchingly at the brutality of war, the fragility of civilisation and the strange resilience of human beings - especially the young.

More than any other writer of the past fifty years, JG Ballard's work has come to define the world in which we live. With the increasing violence and depravity of popular culture, the weird spasms of mass grief at the death of micro-celebrities like Jade Goody, and above all the strange psychological landscapes to which the internet has granted us all access, real life often seems to be playing out much as Mr Ballard imagined in his stories of the '60s and '70s.

But above all, I admire JG Ballard, and would like to raise a parting glass to him, because he wrote things like this:

Kaldren returned to his seat and lay back quietly, his eyes gazing across the lines of exhibits. Half-asleep, periodically he leaned up and adjusted the flow of light through the shutter, thinking to himself, as he would do through the coming months, of Powers and his strange mandala, and of the seven and their journey to the white gardens of the moon, and the blue people who had come from Orion and spoken in poetry to them of ancient beautiful worlds beneath golden suns in the island galaxies, vanished for ever now in the myriad deaths of the cosmos.****

*I was lucky enough to be introduced to Philippa Pearce towards the end of her life, a strange and moving experience for someone who grew up on Tom's Midnight Garden and A Dog So Small.
**I should point out that my own brand of sci fi consists almost entirely of people running about in corridors while things explode. JGB, who was contemptuous of the fantasy end of the sci-fi spectrum, would have had no time for me at all.
***One reason why the characters in my Mortal Engines books have never visited 'the Dead Continent' is that I can't see how this tale of future explorers crossing an abandoned USA could be bettered.
****The passages in italics are the opening and closing sentences of JGB's 1960 short story The Voices of Time.

Whither the WOME?

Well, another decade nears its end, and for me, if for no one else, it's been the decade of Mortal Engines. Back in 1999 I hadn't published a single book; today, copies of the Mortal Engines quartet and Here Lies Arthur are being used to prop up wobbly tables all over the world. Now A Web of Air, my second book about Fever Crumb, is out of my hands, and off to have done to it all the things that need doing before it is published next spring. So this seems like a good time to ponder the future of the WOME*.

When I completed the original Mortal Engines quartet with A Darkling Plain a few years ago I assumed that that was it, and that any future books I wrote would have to be be set in new worlds or (gasp!) in the real one. And I do have several new projects under way, some historical, some fantasy. But in some strange way the WOME keeps drawing me back, reminding me that there are still stories waiting to be told about people, places and eras which were never mentioned in the first four books. Hence Fever Crumb, who lives at the very dawn of the civilisation whose final years were explored in the quartet.

I'm told that I've announced there are to be four books about Fever, but I think what I really said was that there will have to be at least four, so that they would balance the original quartet on an imaginary seesaw. As long as people keep reading them there's no reason why there shouldn't be fourteen. Or fourty. Or four hundr... well, I suppose I'll have to draw the line somewhere.

I never plan more than a few chapters ahead (because I can't be bothered to write a book if I know what the ending is) so I don't know what's going to happen to Fever. For all I know she might meet an untimely end when I sit down to write tomorrow, and new characters will have to carry on the saga. But it does occur to me that she's not quite human, and that her mother's people were unusually long-lived**. Not only that, she's choc full o' strange Stalker technology too. So it's possible that Fever might survive for a long time, and see the world she lives in slowly transformed by the rise of Traction, until it starts to resemble the one at the start of Mortal Engines.

There is also the possibility of expanding the WOME in other directions. I've been talking lately with David Wyatt about some ideas for a comic book based on the adventures of the young Anna Fang. This would be a huge task for him to illustrate, and an expensive venture for a publisher, so it may never come off, but it has made me consider the period immediately before Mortal Engines and whether there might not be a story or two to tell there. My only doubt about it is that it will have to involve airships, which I've always loved, but which have become so ubiquitous in children's and young adult fiction nowadays that I would hesitate to launch any more into the overcrowded skies. So until the current tide of steampunk starts to retreat, my visits to the WOME will have to concentrate on Fever's more primitive era.

Which is actually just fine by me, for there are many places for her to explore, and many people for her to meet. At the moment the travelling theatre she works on is carrying her toward the island-city of Mayda, home to mutant gulls, dotty sea-worshippers, good food, at least one murderer and the opening of A Web of Air...

She should arrive early next April.

*'World Of Mortal Engines', as any fule kno.
**It's something to do with their mitochondrial DNA , pseudo-science fans.

The hills are alive with the sound of Hill...

This weekend, amid the rain and wind, I had a visit from my oldest friend, Justin Hill, and his parents. I've known Justin since we started together at St Luke's Primary School in Brighton nearly forty years ago, and the best bits of my early teens were the times we spent making movies, or staying up all night painting pictures and wondering if we'd ever be allowed into art college. (Justin was hoping to be a Surrealist, while I was a sort of Lidl Brian Froud). Justin lives in Thailand now, so he's quite a rare visitor to these parts. You can see some of his photos at and his cartoons at The festive snowmen here are his; the latest addition to an ever-expanding snow-tribe. As for the unconvincingly-disguised Wilf (above, left) I remember Justin inventing him when we were at school. He now features on his own range of mugs, mouse-mats and other handily stocking-sized objects.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we start trying to write books about scientists and engineers and we're only feeble-minded arts graduates with no real grasp of how anything works. The first four Mortal Engines novels are full of scientific nonsense, but I guess it doesn't matter, since they're just fantasy adventures. But now Fever Crumb has come on the scene, and she's a stickler for scientific accuracy, which means I have to get things right. Luckily I have my Chief Scientific Advisor Kjartan Poskitt on hand to set me straight. He's just been reading the proofs of the new book, A Web of Air, and has spotted something wildly unlikely about the motor which powers Fever's prototype aeroplane. Kind man that he is, he's suggested some rewrites which should make sense of it. He even offered me some optional extra dialogue. ("Ey up, lad," said Fever, "'appen we've cracked it!" ) No wonder whole future civilisations worship him as a god.