Monday, October 19, 2015

Disturbing kids TV - The Singing Ringing Tree

This article originally appeared in Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -

I've blogged before about the disturbing children's television that you don't see much of any more, probably because the makers would get sued. Shows like The Owl Service and Timeslip.

But there are other examples, and one that was pretty surreal at the time was The Singing Ringing Tree. This was an East German movie of a fairy tale that was serialised for television in the UK. It was disturbing for a number of reasons, but mainly because of the evil, magical dwarf who did lots of horrible things to the various animals trapped in his walled garden and seemed to delight in torturing the princess - who he turns ugly - and the prince - who he turns into a bad news bear.

I remember being particularly distressed when the dwarf created a blizzard that trapped a magical horse and the princess had to dig the horse out using a clam shell stuck on the end of a broom handle. Yes, you read that right.

The whole show pretty much freaked my young self out, and I obviously wasn't the only one: a BBC Radio Times readers' poll in 2004 voted The Singing Ringing Tree the 20th spookiest TV show ever.

You can get an idea of this weird piece of television history here -

Monday, October 12, 2015

Big Brother is Nudging You

This article originally appeared in the 'Science vs Politics Fight Club' section of Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -

We’re all used (and some may say inured) to companies trying to subtly influence us and the decisions we make. Internet algorithms mercilessly track our keystrokes and ‘just happen’ to drop relevant adverts into our Facebook stream. Amazon recommends reads based on titles we’ve bought or just browsed, and shows like The Gruen Report provide an inkling of just how much megacorps are putting into prodding us to consume their products.

And now the government is at it. In 2010, UK Prime Minister David Cameron set up the ‘Nudge Unit’, charged with a mission to improve public services and save money. The unit was so successful, it’s role has now greatly expanded – and in an interesting move, as of February 2014, it became a private company jointly owned by the UK’s Cabinet Office, NESTA an ’innovation charity’ and the unit’s own employees.

The unit uses behavioural science to subtly encourage people to ‘do the right thing’, like eating healthier food. And it’s proved very successful. The NSW Government set up its own Nudge Unit where trials indicated they could save $11 million in public hospital costs and $4 million in more prompt payment of parking fines.

Language is everything and ‘nudges’, of course, sound like innocuous things. But is it really that harmless? Any application of science can be used for good or ill. Nuclear fusion can destroy or power a city. Readers of SF can easily see the dangers. The ‘newspeak’ of Orwell’s 1984 was perhaps the ultimate form of mass manipulation, constraining vocabulary to the point where users were unable to express certain concepts, or the meanings behind those concepts were twisted beyond recognition. And you can look at any number of SF stories where behavioural science has in effect been weaponised and unleashed on a helpless public. Behavioural science isn’t immune to abuse and, as David Halpern of the UK Nudge Unit says, ‘the question of who nudges the nudgers is one that will need … all of us to decide’.

Find out more about UK Behavioural Insights Team at

Science: one | Politics: one.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Mythmaker Blog Tour - Interview with Marianne De Pierres

Marianne De Pierres's latest book Mythmaker is the second in her Peacemaker series, featuring Ranger Virgin Jackson and Nate Sixkiller. I really enjoyed the first book and you can read my review of it on the Newtown Review of Books.

In Mythmaker...
Virgin’s in a tight spot. A murder rap hangs over her head and isn’t likely to go away unless she agrees to work for an organisation called GJIC with Nate Sixkiller as her immediate boss. Being blackmailed is one thing, discovering that her mother is both alive and the President of GJIC is quite another. Then there’s the escalation of Mythos sightings, and the bounty on her head. Oddly, the strange and dangerous Hamish Burns is the only one she can rely on. Virgin’s life gets… untidy.
I caught up with Marianne and asked her a few questions about the book what's next.

Keith - The ending of Peacemaker opened up Virgin Jackson's world to a whole range of new possibilities. No spoilers, but can you say anything about what Virgin will be up to in Mythmaker, and how her relationship with Nate Sixkiller develops?
Marianne - Mythmaker develops the fantastical side of the story, and we begin to learn more about the Mythos and their intentions. Nate and Virgin continue to get to know each other better and Virgin’s prickly disposition is somewhat softened by Nate’s integrity and events that are happening with her best friend Caro. Virgin also makes contact with her estranged brother, and he features in a key role in the second volume. Surprisingly though, it’s Hamish who gets a lot of air time. He kept nudging his way back in as I was writing because he intrigues Virgin so much, and me as well. Lastly, Virgin’s deceptive ex-partner, Heart, bumps heads with her a few more times. The pace is intense.
K - They say the characters in a book are all alter-egos of the author. What do you identify with most strongly in Virgin and is there anything she does that you wouldn't even consider in a pink fit?
M - Well, I hope I’m not as anti-social as she is, but I do relate to her love of the land and her suspicion toward people she senses are duplicitous. I most certainly am NOT so nearly courageous or hard-nosed as her though, and for the record, I don’t have a disincarnate or see visions!

K - Peacemaker has already spawned a graphic novel and a you have a Spotify soundtrack for the book. Did these additional elements play into how your imagination expanded the story into subsequent books?
M - These companion works help build the richness of the world in my mind. I think there’s often a presumption that spin offs from a single project are driven by the notion of  'cashing in' but for most creative people, they’re just another excuse to stay in the wonderful fictional worlds that they’ve created. There’s a fictional feedback loop that occurs when you expand across platforms, which makes the worlds and the characters stronger, more realistic, and more engaging. Anything to avoid the real world, eh?
K - What's up next for MDP?
M - I’m working on the next Tara Sharp (#4) novel, which will be out next year from Twelfth Planet Press. It will be great to see the series finally released internationally. And after that my next project is the novel I’m writing as part of my studies into feminist SF. It keeps changing form, but it’s currently got the working title of The Once and Future Past. It’s SF, with a touch of historical fiction and some other elements. Not quite alternate history, but something close to it. Think of Ash by Mary Gentle but framed by a late 21st Century dystopia.

Thanks, Marianne. Mythmaker is published by Angry Robot Books and it's available everywhere. You can find purchase links at the Angry Robot website. And for more about Marianne, head over to

Friday, October 9, 2015

Review - Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review originally appeared on The Newtown Review of Books (

Station Eleven is a book that will defy your expectations. It may be set on an Earth where 99 per cent of the population has been killed by a virulent influenza, but it doesn’t focus on the inexorable dissolution of the human spirit, or the death of kindness in hard times. It’s not something you need to gird your emotional loins in order to read. It’s not The Road. Ultimately it’s a book about finding peace, and if you approach it with an open heart, you will be rewarded.

The Station Eleven of the title is a graphic novel created by Miranda Carroll, one of the ex-wives of Arthur Leander, a famous actor whose death on stage during a performance of King Lear opens the novel and acts as a linchpin for the story as it projects backward to look at his successes, his marriages, his failures and regrets, and forward past the end of civilisation. In Miranda’s story, Station Eleven is a space station that fled Earth during an alien attack and Dr Eleven is its captain:

The station’s artificial sky was damaged in the war, however, so on Station Eleven’s surface it is always twilight or night. There was also damage to a number of vital systems involving Station Eleven’s ocean levels, and the only land remaining is a series of islands that once were mountaintops.

There has been a schism. There are people who, after fifteen years of perpetual twilight, long only to go home, to return to Earth and beg for amnesty, to take their chances under alien rule. They live in the Undersea, an interlinked network of vast fallout shelters under Station Eleven’s oceans. There are three hundred of them now. In the scene Miranda’s presently sketching, Dr Eleven is on a boat with his mentor Captain Lonagan.

Dr Eleven: These are perilous waters. We’re passing over an Undersea gate.

Captain Lonagan: You should try to understand them. (The next panel is a close-up of his face.) All they want is to see the sunlight again. Can you blame them?

Past the worst of the plague and 20 years after Leander’s death, a group of players who call themselves the ‘Travelling Orchestra’ move from small town to small town putting on concerts and Shakespeare plays.

Rather than the dog-eat-dog existence you might expect from watching shows like The Walking Dead, here is a post-apocalyptic world that allows for beauty and art because, as one of the Orchestra’s wagons proclaims on its canvas side, ‘Survival is Insufficient’. It’s a comforting thought, but Station Eleven is not a ‘cosy apocalypse’ either. The landscape is still dangerous, and each of the Orchestra’s members has lived through terrible times and some have done terrible things to survive. Kirsten, who was a child actor in the same production of Lear, can’t remember the year after she fled from plague-affected Toronto and survived hand-to-mouth with her brother, and she considers that a blessing.

One town the Orchestra visits is now under control of a ‘prophet’ who has some decidedly uncivilised ideas, and the group leaves quickly, looking to join up with other members who had stopped at the town on their last trip in order to have a baby, and who now are worryingly missing. But due to actions beyond their control, the Orchestra is pursued by the Prophet’s men, who start to pick them off under cover of night as they try to flee to the relative safety of the Museum of Civilisation, which is run by Clark, a friend of the dead Leander:

Towards the end of his second decade in the airport, Clark was thinking about how lucky he’d been. Not just the mere fact of survival, which was of course remarkable in and of itself, but to have seen one world end and another begin. And not just to have seen the remembered splendours of the former world, the space shuttles and the electrical grid and amplified guitars, the computer that could be held in the palm of a hand and the high-speed trains between cities, but to have lived among those wonders for so long. To have dwelt in that spectacular world for fifty-one years of his life. Sometimes he lay awake in Concourse B of the Severn City Airport and thought, ‘I was there,’ and the thought pierced him through with an admixture of sadness and exhilaration.

The parallels between the yearnings of the people of the Undersea and Clark’s feelings about the Museum are clear: you can’t go home. All you can do is choose how you will live in whatever place you find yourself.

Station Eleven is incredibly well written and well-structured. There’s action and dramatic tension but also space for quiet moments of reflection, all of which produces a compelling meditation on how people react to the apocalypse: those who are stuck in the past and wish to return to it, those who are broken by it and those who see it not as an end, but a new beginning, who choose not to lose their humanity. The emotional effect of the novel reminded me very much of James Bradley’s Clade, another novel with a grim mid- and post-apocalyptic setting, but one which also admits some hope, some lightness, which I think is a very important element to hold on to.

One of the functions of speculative fiction is to project the possible and let it play out within the framework of story in an almost instructive way. ‘Here,’ it says, ‘is what things may be like. Look and learn.’ Unrelentingly grim apocalyptic stories offer little in the way of instruction other than convincing us that when the end comes through climate change, SARS, war or unavoidable meteor impact, life will be horrible, brutish and short. But books like Clade and Station Eleven admit that humans are not inherently evil and if things do go bad, holding on to our humanity is not a weakness, it’s a strength.

View all my reviews

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Memory Bank - Out of The Unknown

This article originally appeared in  Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -

'Get Off My Cloud'
A young boy is terrified to go to sleep because he’s plagued by nightmares. His dad comfort’s him at bedtime and puts a framed photograph of a Smith and Wesson revolver on his bedroom wall, telling him he can use it if the monsters come. Finally lulled to sleep a dalek appears in the boy’s bedroom shrieking for his extermination. The boy leaps up, grabs the ‘photographic gun’ from the frame and shoots the dalek dead. Fast forward a few decades and the boy, now grown up, is preparing to be thrust into the dreamworld of a science fiction author who has lapsed into a coma.

That’s the first few minutes of the Out of the Unknown episode ‘Get Off My Cloud’. You can’t watch it anymore, because some years after the series ended, the BBC wiped quite a few of the tapes and in fact there isn’t even a complete shooting script left for ‘Get Off My Cloud’. I only know how that episode played out because I watched it when it was first broadcast in 1969. I was seven years old and it left a lasting impression.

Out of the Unknown was a gem of a series, adapting stories by well-known authors such as Isaac Asimov, John Wyndham, Frederick Pohl, JG Ballard, Kate Wilhelm and Ray Bradbury as well as generating original scripted adult science fiction, all in the heady ‘experimental’ days of broadcast television. You can get a feel for the show by watching the YouTube trailer ( for the British Film Institute’s DVD compilation of the remaining episodes. And if you really feel tempted, the DVDs are available on Amazon  -

I’m not sharing mine…