My brother Steve is a Medical Doctor who is lucky enough to be invited now and again to lecture at the Medical School on the Caribbean island of Grenada. Coming home from one such trip last year, he was reading an Ian Watson story about a Rembrandt painting ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp‘ and had to stop part way through as the plane was landing. When he got home there was a stack of mail including several editions of the BMJ waiting. ‘Shall I finish the story or start on the BMJs?’ he thought and decided that the BMJs had to take priority. By a weird coincidence, the first one he opened had ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’ on the cover! This prompted him to Google Ian Watson and he subsequently emailed him the tale.
When we were kids, Steve used to read a lot of Science Fiction and pass the books on to my brother Dave and I. There was always a lot of Ian Watson novels and short story collections amongst them. I feel like I’ve always known his name. So when he sends back to Steve, not just a ‘Thank you for your kind words’ type email, but a long rambling letter about the nature of coincidence. We were all excited.
Steve had been writing a few Sci-Fi short stories and was encouraged by Ian to join a writers group that he himself attended. This process has got Steve writing more and lead to one of his short stories being published in Nature Magazine last year (you can download it here). Ian Whates who runs the group asked Ste if he could use one of his stories in an anthology called Subterfuge which was launched at this years ‘Newcon4’, a science Fiction convention put together by the two Ians. Ste’s published before but not for fiction. Ste, cousin Keith and I went along to Newcon 4 and had a ball!
Newcon 4 was two days of (mostly) serious debate about SF issues with panels of guests, amongst whom were Iain M Banks (lovely guy with a great sense of humour 25 years since the Wasp Factory!), Ken Macleod (loved by the audience), Storm Constantine (my new favourite Goth) and Paul Cornell (a true gent and writer of Dr Who, Fantastic 4, Robin Hood….etc.). Our Ste got to chair a couple of the panels – he’s very good at that sort of thing. One of the debates on the nature of Space Opera and I made the point that I don’t like the term as I don’t like Opera. In a Johnny Weissmuller film, Tarzan’s New York Adventure there’s a scene where he hears Opera on the radio. He turns to Jane and says “Woman. Sick!” and that’s they way I’ve always felt about Opera”.
One topic that came up was ‘Fan Fiction’ where fans use established characters to do their own stories/comics. It’s how Paul Cornell started (with Dr Who) and Una McCormack who wrote Star Trek stuff and eventually got to write for the real “Deep Space 9”. Storm Constantine encourages her fans to use her characters and puts it on her website, but insists the copyright is handed over to her before she does. This seemed a bit heavy handed to me until Ste told me later, that JK Rowling has a lawyer with her at book signings. When fans give her fan fiction the lawyer takes it off her straight away. If any of the ideas in the fan fiction, should end up in a future book by coincidence, when the fan attempts to sue her, she can prove that she didn’t read it.
I’ve been to the odd comic convention in my time, the first was at Centrepoint in Manchester about 30 years ago. I remember it mainly because I got a load of Marvel treasuries there (seeing the covers again brings back so many memories) and because they showed some sexy Hammer Horror films on a real cine projector. It was at that convention that my mates older brother chastised me for buying British Marvel comics – “They’ll never be worth anything, and they’re in black and white”. That they wouldn’t be valuable never bothered me, I bought them for the stories, but the fact that you could get them in colour….I’d never realised that! It was a point that came up in one of the intimate wee side room meetings at Newcon4, this one with Paul Cornell. He defended the Black and white comics Often the colour was terrible, you can appreciate the art better in black and white, thats why I like the essentials series. He also prefers John Besuma to Kirby and Ditko……heresey….but I do too!! I found it fascinating to talk on the demise of the thought bubble……that the first 3 episodes of Dr Who were written before Christopher Eccleston had been cast “People always think you write for actors but good actors can make scripts their own” and that he throws a party for the locals when something new of his is on the Telly. I want neighbours like Paul! He kindly signed a couple of comics for my son. When I told Matty (5 years old) I was going to meet the man who writes the Fantastic Four comic, he said “Wow, can you get me his action figure!” Sadly, no Cornell action figures were available……
In another of the side room sessions, Iain Banks chatted away about how he writes “I do it 9 to 5, otherwise you have no social life. I’ve learnt that if you wake up early with an idea, you have to get up and start writting it there and then, or you’ll lose it” He has a catalogue of sci fi sounding names for characters and places that he can call upon at any time.
All the guests were around to sign stuff late into the night. We got into deep conversation with Ian Watson and Storm Constantine about something or other (the real ale was kicking in by then). Storms friend had a New Model Army sweatshirt on and whilst I couldnt compete with the highbrow ideas that were flying around “My mate Tim plays 5-a-side with one of New Model Army” got me a few brownie points.
As if all this wasnt enough, Alan Moore turned up on the Sunday to introduce a talk between Iain and Ken. I was able to shake him by the hand later and all I could say was “I’m a great fan of your work, it’s a real pleasure to meet you” “Thats very kind of you to say so Bob” Huh! How does he know my name? Is it his magical powers showing through? No, he’s just read my name badge that I’d forgotten I was wearing.
He was SO NICE!!.I should’ve asked about his direction to artists when hes writing a comic or asked him to release his Ditko song as a single, or SOMETHING!but no I just grinned inanely and spent the rest of the day with a happy glow inside.
Me: Did you talk to him about Captain Britain?
Paul Cornell: No, he doesn’t read mainstream comics anymore
Me: If you’ve done a Captain Midlands, can’t you do a Capt North West?
Paul: Maybe Captain Salford?
Ian Watson got to borrow some of his hair!
The week end finished with an extremely funny game of ‘Just a SF-ing minute’. Ste got to be on the panel when someone dropped out and nearly won. The only person to talk for a full minute without hesitation, repetition or deviation was Paul Cornell on the subject of Sonic Screwdrivers – topped only when Ian Watson was interrupted – “Why?” “Ian Watson’s talking bollocks” to which Our Ste quipped “I’d pay good money to see Ian Watsons talking bollocks”..….
Roll on Newcon 5
Bob the Chiropodist