Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Five Medical Memoirs

Recent reading included five autobiographical books with a common background in medicine. I found them all equally compelling and fascinating. Two of the authors are now deceased.























Full disclosure: I first encountered Paul Kalanithi's book as part of the reading for the 2016 Royal Society science book prize. Although the book wasn't one of those to make the final shortlist, I still found it to be a powerful and affecting piece of literature, not least because Kalanithi did not live to complete his own manuscript. On the basis of this book, he would have been a very gifted medical communicator, writing engagingly and lucidly about his chosen profession of neurosurgery. What makes the account striking and perhaps unique is that the still-young Kalanithi was himself diagnosed with lung cancer, the diagnosis, treatment and eventual outcome of which is treated with unflinching honesty. It's commonplace to talk about the courage of cancer patients, and perhaps not always helpful, but when Kalinithi eventually returns to the gruelling demands of neurosurgery, it's hard not to feel admiration at his mental and physical fortitude, knowing full well the likely progression of his disease. The book was eventually completed by his wife, Lucy Goddard Kalanithi.





















Henry Marsh is a brain surgeon who has achieved a modest degree of celebrity thanks to television appearances. His two memoirs, published over the last few years, document the ups and downs of his career and his transition - sometimes uneasy - to a life of somewhat discontented retirement. Along the way he works to assist neurosurgical colleagues in the Ukraine and Nepal, not always with entirely positive results. Throughout the memoirs, Marsh is tormented by difficult ethical considerations, constantly balancing the risks of surgery against the likely outcomes and the anticipated quality of life.























Near the end of the second book, Admissions, Marsh makes an impassioned case for right-to-die legislation. It makes for uncomfortable and challenging reading, but few professionals will have been confronted with the actualities of end-of-life care and mortality as often as a brain surgeon, and it is hard not to be swayed by Marsh's case.
























Westaby is a heart surgeon and a friend of Henry Marsh, and despite their rather different backgrounds, there's a distinct similarity of tone and surgical methodology running through the writings of both authors. They have each come up through the NHS in the last forty years; both bear witness to the triumphs and failures of that organisation; both seem at times to be righteously enraged by the slow accretion of bureaucracy and privatisation, choking and fragmenting the very institution they both served and loved. Both surgeons seem driven to form a personal, human connection with their patients, over-joyed when procedures work well, intensely saddened and troubled when the outcomes are not as positive. They are about as far from the image of the cold, detached physician as it is possible to imagine.
















I adored the writings of Oliver Sacks - I read almost all of his popular books  - but found this autobiography almost too painful to approach in the immediate aftermath of his death in 2015. After two years, I felt I could return to it, and it's a glorious capstone to his writings, candid and generous in equal parts. Sacks' life has always been a thread in his medical stories, and if you have read Uncle Tungsten, his earlier autobiographical account of his intense love of chemistry, you will pick up on a certain amount of common ground as Sacks relates his upbringing in a bustling, loving Jewish household in London, surrounded by encouraging parents, devoted aunts and uncles, bright siblings and an environment of intense intellectual stimulation. Sacks moved to North America to pursue his interests, and the early chapters of the book - illuminated by his long, discursive diary entries and letters home - are a colourful snapshot of a time now past, during which Sacks indulged his deep fascination with motor bikes and champion weightlifting, while finding his way in the gay communities of the early nineteen sixties. Along the way, we revisit the fascinating and tragic story of the post-encephelitic patients, recounted in the book Awakenings, and the Robin Williams film of the same name. Sacks was clearly impressed with Williams's depth of engagement in the part, achieving an chameleon-like mimicry of both the patients (thanks to visits to clinical facilities) and Sacks himself, whose mannerisms Williams began to imitate in an almost subconscious fashion. At the time of the film I assumed that Williams bore no resemblance to the real Sacks, but period photos put me right: the casting was uncanny.


Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Elysium Fire and a new title for The Prefect

I'm pleased to be able to announce that my next novel will have the title Elysium Fire. Actually the title has been out there for a little while courtesy of various online listings, but at least now I can confirm it (sometimes provisional titles do escape out into the wild) and also offer up the cover artwork, concerning which I'm very happy.


This is a direct sequel to 2007's The Prefect, and although it's been a decade since I completed the earlier novel, the action in this book begins only two years after the events of the first. Although it features the same settings, organisation and main characters of the first, it concerns itself with an entirely different story and is intended to function as a standalone book, requiring no prior knowledge of The Prefect.

While my editor and I were discussing title options for this new novel, none of which seemed to follow on organically from the first, I made the not entirely flippant suggestion that, given the chance, I would jump at the opportunity to retitle The Prefect. Although I still liked the book, over the ensuing decade I'd come to feel that it was one of my weaker titles and was particularly problematic from the standpoint of establishing the idea of the Panoply stories forming a sort of universe within a universe. So, once we had begun to settle on a title for the new book, thoughts turned to the possibility of a fresh identity for the older one, and after some deliberation this is the result:


Obviously I am keen that no one should mistake this for a new novel, so the intention at the moment is that the original title will feature prominently as part of the description on the rear cover (this will be a paperback reissue) while the front cover will have a removable sticker clearly identifying the nature of the book. Online descriptions will also strive to make it clear that this is not an original work, and I'll aim to get the word out at all opportunities between now and the re-issue. 




Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Summit Fever

John Meaney and I on the summit of Pen y Fan, the highest point in Southern Britain, June 2017.




Monday, 26 June 2017

Locus award for Revenger

Over the weekend I was delighted to hear that Revenger had won the Locus award for best YA novel. I'm extremely grateful to all who voted for it. This is my second Locus award (after last year's one for Slow Bullets) and it means an awful lot.

Because I had shortlisted entrants in a number of categories, it was suggested that I provide some words to be read out on the night. I've edited them slightly to reflect the eventual outcome, but this should be close to what transpired:

Thank you for this award - it means a huge amount to me. Twenty-odd years ago, when I'd barely
had anything published outside of Interzone, Locus was one of the first places to show any interest
in my work beyond the UK, and that validation had an enormous effect on my confidence as a writer,
encouraging me to keep going, and keep trying. I'm still going, and I'm still trying! Thank you all who
voted for Revenger and may I wish you all many more hours of good reading in the
years ahead, and enjoy the rest of the evening. I wish I could be there with you! 

Best wishes from Deepest Wales - Al.

Earlier in the year I had a long and enjoyable conversation with Liza from Locus about the exact category of Revenger, be it YA or otherwise. Liza felt it was YA, whereas (and I'm well aware this will sound like tedious hair-splitting) I'm more inclined to consider it an otherwise standard novel by me that just happened to be a little more YA-approachable, in that I hoped it might be a book that I could have read in my early/mid teens, exactly at the point when I was getting into Niven, Delany, James White, A Bertram Chandler and so on. But at the same time, at least when I was writing it, the book felt as challenging from a compositional point of view as any of my other novels. Where I did want it to mark a modest departure was in terms of concision and pace, in that I wanted to get into the thick of the action quickly and maintain a hectic momentum from that point onward. I also hoped to write a book that was somewhat shorter than its predecessors, drawing on the energy I felt I'd managed to tap into during the writing of the Doctor Who novel. Even so, it still managed to end up being 140,000 words long, which would have been considered a thick novel forty years ago. That wasn't just a one-off experiment for the purposes of Revenger, though, in that I also carried the same process through to the new Prefect novel, which - by the standards of the other book in the Revelation Space universe - is a relatively modest 160,000 words.

Anyway, I mention all this not to quibble with Locus for their award, which is deeply appreciated, but to indicate that I'm not inclined to be too dogmatic about novel categories. If you enjoyed Revenger, I hope that you enjoyed it on its own terms, and if you haven't been persuaded to pick it up because the YA association is off-putting, you might want to give it a go nonetheless.

Friday, 23 June 2017

One OK record


It's mildly astonishing that this record is now twenty years old. I bought it, if not on the day it came out, then certainly at the first immediate opportunity, on CD, from a record shop in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, which no longer exists. I think I played it about six times that day. I still think it's remarkably good. What I find surprising is not the length of time that has passed since its release, because - really - quite a lot of things have happened in those two decades - but how fresh and modern it still sounds, how engaged and forward-looking. How bright and exciting and adult. It's been said before but with this record Radiohead threw down a gauntlet which was never really picked up, at least not by any acts of similar commercial reach.

There was a lot of buzz around this record before it came out, a sense of keen anticipation. I think people instinctively knew that it was going to move the boundaries, and it did. I'd heard one track on a compilation CD some months previously, enough to whet the appetite - either Lucky or The Tourist, I can't remember which - but more than that I'd become a fan of the band via the first two albums, which I'd been exposed to via a home-made tape done for me by a friend. Yes, "tapes", they were a thing back then.

Music critics sometimes speak of bands and artists having "imperial phases" - a relatively brief window in a longer career in which they're simply untouchable on all levels. You could debate the inclusion of The Bends (it's very, very good) but for me this is the album that opened Radiohead's imperial phase, and it continued with Kid A and Amnesiac, both of which I regard as phenomenal, peerless records that define and bracket a particular moment in time around the millennium. Then came Hail to the Thief which I remember waiting for which great anticipation, and then not being quite so blown away as I'd hoped. After that came In Rainbows, which I greatly admired, and then The King of Limbs, which again I didn't rate quite so highly. Then, last year, they released A Moon Shaped Pool, which I think is fabulous. I mention these ups and downs not to belittle Radiohead, or suggest that they're past their best, but to reflect on their longevity and willingness to experiment, which I continue to find admirable and exciting. I must have written a great many thousands of words to their music over the last twenty years, so thanks, Thom, Johnny, Colin, Ed and Philip - and long may you run.




Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Two records

I made a few record purchases during a recent trip to London, and was struck by the similarity in sleeve design of these two albums, both of which I'd recommend:





Both records feature female vocalists, but other than that they're rather distinct. The record on the left is the fifth album by Swedish electronic group Little Dragon, while the record on the right is the debut album by London-based guitar group Pumarosa. The Little Dragon record contains no guitar parts at all, whereas the Pumarosa album is mostly guitar with the odd bit of sequencing or keyboard colour. I bought these albums in Fopp, near Covent Garden, and it was on a much earlier visit to the same shop that saw me buying Little Dragon's second album, Machine Dreams. I hadn't heard a note of the music, but the cover intrigued me and I've always found that to be a generally reliable guide to investigating and discovering worthwhile new music.

I adored Machine Dreams, and bought all the subsequent releases. I liked them so much that I even named a character in one of my stories after the singer, Yukimi. None of the subsequent albums have quite lit my fire as much as Machine Dreams, but there are many beautiful moments on all their records, and I admire Little Dragon for doing what they do, making music that sounds fresh and forward-looking, owing (other than the odd retro synth-sound) very little to the past. I've only given the new release, Season High, a single listen so far but I look forward to discovering its undoubted charms.

I came to the other record by more conventional means. I'd caught a performance by Pumarosa on BBC2's Jools Holland program and within a few bars knew instantly that they were going to be my new favorite thing. At that point I knew next to nothing about the group but I then spent a happy few years catching up with some of their songs on Youtube, and was pleased to discover than an album had just been released. Rather good it is too: exactly the kind of trancey, driving guitar rock that does it for me, alloyed to Isabel Munoz-Newsome's distinctive and swooningly theatrical singing approach, which won't be everyone's cup of tea, but works (in my view) very well in this musical setting. I've read comparisons between her voice and Siouxsie Sioux's, obviously no bad thing if you're of my generation, but that's only one point of reference. I also picked up a bassline that reminded me strongly of Simple Mind's Love Song, but then again, that's one of the most mesmerising basslines in the history of music, so again - no bad thing at all.

Here are the CDs themselves, by the way:



And I commend them both for your listening enjoyment.





Friday, 19 May 2017

Chris Cornell, 1964 - 2017

Scrolling through a small list of files, Sheng settled on some mid-period rock he’d copied over from Parry Boyce’s much larger music library. Some of the other miners mocked Parry’s tastes, but the way Sheng saw it, if you needed something to cut through the background drone of generators and pumps, there was not much out there to beat amped guitars, hammering drums and screaming vocals, no matter when it was recorded. It was driving music, for the ultimate drive.

‘Tommorow begat tomorrow…’ Sheng sang along, music filling his helmet like a derailing freight train. With the long cylinder of the lubricator nozzle unclipped, he pulled some mean guitar shapes like the secret ax hero he’d always imagined he could have been. He knew he looked ridiculous, making those moves in an ancient orange Orlan 19, bulked out with panniers, but his only audience was ancient alien machinery. Sheng considered it a reasonably safe bet that the ancient alien machinery had no particular opinion on the matter.

Sheng was not quite right in that assumption.

(from Pushing Ice)