Friday, November 25, 2011

In The Mouth Of The Whale, Chapter 4

I've just posted Chapter 4 of my forthcoming novel to the web site  If you're late to the game,why not catch up with Chapters 1, 2 and 3 first?  Special bonus: a podcast of my short story 'Little Lost Robot.'

Currently listening to: Leon Redbone's 'Mr. Jelly Roll Baker'
Currently reading: Christopher Priest's The Islanders.
Currently writing: the long epilogue of the next novel.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


The conjunction of 'family-friendly' and '3-D' is not auspicious, even if the film in question is directed by Martin Scorsese. But from the first shot, a kind of reverse of the famous flying scene in Peter Pan, with the viewpoint swooping over the crowded and crooked roofs of a snowy, early 1930s Paris, ducking under the eaves of the arched roof of a train terminus, and closing in on the eye of a boy peering through a chink in a clock face at the bustling life from which he, like the hunchback of Notre Dame, is excluded, Hugo establishes itself as a triumphant and lovingly crafted work imbued with Scorsese's passion for film and film history.

The boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), is an orphan.  After his clockmaker father (Jude Law) died in a fire, Hugo fell into the care of his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone), and after his uncle disappeared he continued the work of maintaining the many clocks in the station.  He lives in the wainscot world of the station's clock towers and hidden passages, snatching food from stalls and shops because he can't cash his uncle's salary cheques, avoiding the attention of the station's inspector, played by Sasha Baron Cohen as if Peter Cook was impersonating the child-snatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  Hugo's only link with his dead father is a complex automaton found in disrepair in a museum storeroom.  Hugo has been stealing the cogs and ratchets he needs to bring the automaton back to life from the station's toy shop; the irascible owner, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), catches him red-handed and confiscates his precious notebook containing vital sketches and plans, and the clockwork of the plot is set in motion.

Hugo enlists the help of Papa George's goddaughter, Isabelle (Cloe Grace Moretz) to retrieve the notebook; Isabelle is more than willing because she wants a real-life version of the adventures in the books she loves. When he discovers that she wears around her neck the heart-shaped key that's necessary to make the automaton work, Hugo is finally able to set the machine in motion.  It draws a picture of an iconic moment in an old film Hugo's father described to him, and the pair become detectives into the life of Papa Georges.  And it's here, as they delve into cinema history, that the film really comes to life. Moments from the great silent films spin around them; a film historian recalls a visit to the studio of a pioneering film maker, whose methods and techniques are recreated in loving detail (with a entirely apt cameo by Scorsese).  The film maker is Papa Georges, of course, who has renounced his past after he was forced to sell his celluloid archive to a chemical firm, which melted them down to make moulded heels for women's shoes; the two children conspire to bring about his return to the public eye, a task that's complicated, as you might expect (but not exactly as you might expect) by the attentions of the station's inspector.

Adapted from Brian Selznick's book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it's the kind of old-fashioned tale in which clues are found in libraries, the mission is not to save the world but to bring the past back to life, and the only villain is time. Its CGI and 3-D effects serve the story and contribute to the intricately furnished station set rather than punctuate the narrative with crude thrusts of shock and awe.  There's plenty of steam, there are dizzy plunges and pursuits through the cogs and escarpments of huge clocks, and there's also the automaton. Does Hugo's fantastical embroidery of a real-life story (because the story of the film pioneer who disappeared, and (like many of his 'lost' films) was found again, is true) contain enough steampunk flourishes to win it a Hugo?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Lynn Margulis

Before I became a full-time writer, I worked as a scientist and university lecturer.  Most of my research investigated the symbiotic relationships between animals and single-celled algae: how the sizes of populations of algae within animal cells were regulated, movement of photosynthetically-fixed carbon from algae to host animal, movement of ammonium and amino acids from host animal to algae, and so on.  My chief research organism was green hydra, a common freshwater polyp that conveniently reproduces asexually by budding off new animals, so that uniform cloned populations can be grown in the laboratory (the image at the head of this piece is of a single green hydra digestive cell, with its population of symbiotic Chlorella algae clustered at the base of the cell), but I also worked on sea anemones and reef-forming corals.

I'm reminded of this by news of the death of Professor Lynn Margulis, who was one of the prominent workers in the symbiosis field.  She was a friend and research associate of my Ph.D supervisor, Professor Sir David Smith, and I met her not only when she visited his labs, but at conferences in the UK and abroad.  She was always a whirlwind of energy, promoting her ideas and probing everyone else's with intense acuity.  She had forged a career at a time when women were in a minority in the sciences, and for years championed the highly unfashionable idea that mitochondria (the energy-generating organelles found in almost every cell of eukaryotic organisms) and plant chloroplasts (the organelles where photosynthesis takes place) had once been independent organisms that had established a symbiotic relationship with the ancestors of animals and of plants.  This theory of symbiogenesis had been first advanced by K. S. Mereschkovsky and Ivan Wallin in the 1920s, but had passed into obscurity.  Lynn Margulis dusted it down and supported it with evidence that pointed to the residual bacterial characteristics of the two types of organelles, and their possession of small amounts of DNA.  That the symbiotic origin of both mitochondria and chloroplasts is now widely accepted is due almost entirely to Lynn Margulis's dogged and tireless work.

She advanced the idea that flagellae in animal cells were the remnants of bacterial symbionts with rather less success (one problem is that the whip-like flagellae don't possess any DNA), and her efforts to expand the idea that the central driver of evolution was symbiotic acquisition of new DNA rather than mutation of nuclear DNA likewise has not meet with much success.  But she was also an early promotor of James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, published papers in the then unfashionable field of exobiology, and her symbiogenesis theory is a cornerstone of the idea that symbiosis and other forms of cooperation have made important contributions to the evolution of life on Earth. I admired her hugely. Ava atque vale.

Monday, November 21, 2011

In The Mouth Of The Whale, Chapter 3

Chapter 3 of In The Mouth of the Whale is now available here.  The previous two chapters are here, and here. The next chapter will be posted on Friday 25th November.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

An Analogy

Came to me while I was watching Hearts of Darkness. At its best, science fiction's portrayal of the future is similar to the portrayal of the Viet Nam war in Apocalypse Now.
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