Archive for April, 2012


Good Mondays, all! Come in, come in.

I’ve made a pledge to myself to get my blog updated on a far more regular basis, so I’m going to try and place something on the site every weekday. Normally that will be some interesting scrap from my journalistic history, but every so often, always on a Monday, I’ve decided to post short stories until I run out of them, and then I might write some more. As I go along, I’ll also be adding them to the  “short story” section of the “fiction” menu up the top there also, so they are easy to find. If you like them, there are some more by me for sale at the Robot Trading Company, for your ebook of choice.

First is “Outside”, a horror tale.  Originally written for our short story group in 2009, “Outside” was eventually rewritten and published in the late, great Colin Harvey’s Wessex-themed anthology Dark Spires in 2010. I very much enjoyed our back and forth email conversation that shepherded this story to its current form, and I was very shocked to hear of his early death in 2011.

Dark Spires is still available from Wizard’s Tower publications as an ebook, for £2.99.

Outside

A man sits in a dark room. He is wearing a heavy coat and two sweaters and fingerless gloves. His hair is lank. His beard is into its second week of growth. His clothes are dirty. The slow whir of a ballpoint pen across paper is the only sound in the room. A bottle of whisky stands, half empty and open, close to hand, its glass is smeared and greasy. The occasional bang from outside or a scrape across the roof makes him look up once or twice. His breath plumes a little quicker in the candlelight, but he does not reach for his gun. Instead, he waits then continues to write, stopping from time to time to rub the biro between his palms, or to blow upon his naked fingertips. Otherwise he is absorbed in his task. This is what he has to say:

“This is hard for me. But I have to do something. Sitting around in the dark, it makes being alone worse. I’ve been here ten days now since it happened. I don’t know what to call it. There’s a lot I don’t know. I doubt anyone will ever read this, but it might help me get things straight if I get it down. If you’re out there, if there’s anyone left after this, perhaps it will help you. If not, it will help me, talking to myself is better than talking to no one at all.

“This is my day. The first thing I do, every day, is to check the seals: the doors, the windows, the chimney, round the soil pipe leading from the toilet in Maisie‘s bathroom into the outside. I found a gap there a week ago. One of the hagfish was trying to get in. I spotted it wriggling about on the floor, but I was lucky. It had not got all the way through. I was able to beat it to death with the shotgun butt. Saving ammunition – that and I did not want a hole in the bathroom floor. I still have standards.” He swigs directly from the bottle, bares his teeth at the burn.

“I think I get ahead of myself. I am not used to writing in longhand. I forget the basics of my trade. Important detail first, then the who, the what, the where. I might redraft this, I might not. I only have two pens, and precious little paper, and I will not find more. I do not want to go outside.

“First: me. I am, or was Joe Stevens. I was a journalist, nothing fancy – the Swinhill Examiner, a local paper, one of the last of a dying breed. In fact, nearly dead. Two months before all this happened it cut its staff and went from daily to weekly; if you know the business, you know what that means. Not enough ads for carpets and second hand caravans to make it pay. Not enough readers interested in school quizzes and bakers making novelty biscuits. We were the last in Wiltshire, but the internet got us in the end, just like it got everyone else, the way the computers got the printers and the layout men before. One man doing ten men’s jobs. Too much, too much.” He stops, he is digressing. He must be concise.

“Secondly, the hagfish are not hagfish. I pray to God they are gone from your world, whoever you might be, as quickly as they came into mine.

“Dead whales. They fall into the ocean and lie there in the deep blackness, slowly rotting, whalefall they call it, fed on by things that never see the light. Hagfish are the most revolting of all; long slimy bodies, rudimentary eyes.

“These things, the things that are eating the world, they look like hagfish so I call them that. Except for the fins… not fins, too primitive.” He pauses to think, waiting for a word. “Cilia, I think, that is the name, near the front, though they do not use these to move, at least, not in the air. Perhaps in their native environment? They are horrible, horrible creatures. They make me shudder to look at them. That one I saw in the bathroom, it must have found a crack in the mortar outside. Maybe the plumber had been a cowboy,” a scratch, a scribble, his sentence is destroyed, unfair, he thinks, unfair. At least he was working. At least he wasn’t on the scrounge. “They only need a tiny hole. The sun and rain on cement will eventually give you that. They have no bones, not any that I have seen, and can flatten themselves out. The ridiculous thing is, tape stops them, it does not have to be strong, it is unfeasibly flimsy, if you think about it.

“I do not like to think about it.

“I plugged the gap with paper and glue and tape after I killed it.

“I can hear them now, wriggling all over the building. I have blocked out the windows with cardboard. I do not think they are aware that I am here, and I want it to remain that way. I cannot abide to look at their black bodies pressing on the glass, the teeth-ringed holes they have for mouths working against the window fittings.

“Most of the windows here are uPVC, with rubber seals, plastic yellow with age. Ten years, that’s how long they last. You’ll get a century from wood. Nothing lasts these days, nothing. If you lock off the vent at the top of the window there are no gaps for them to get in. This place has a flat roof. Nowhere for them to creep between the slates or up under the eaves. It is sealed with tar. It is insane how many holes there are in most houses. Just boxes to hide the dirt we squat on. I know that now.

“It is not a house. Here, where I am now. It is a flat over a shop, strictly three flats over three shops. Maisie, Beryl and Enid I call them, names of aunts, long dead. I’ve knocked holes through into the other two. The flats, I mean, not the shops. I will try and be clear. You would not know I had worked on a paper for all my life before it happened. But my nerves are shot, I am tired and cold and alone and I have not slept for four days. For all I know I am the last man alive. Forgive me.

“I will tell you about the shop. I planned this for a while, from the moment I first saw the hagfish. That’s when I started thinking about it. These places have been empty for months, condemned to make way for the new development, a new development on top of a new development that swept away the town I knew. Nothing lasts, concrete boxes stained with rain and piss. It was brick before, part of the railway workers’ village, torn down on a whim after Beeching did for the railways.  Lonely, empty, vandalised. Only kids came up here before the end, to destroy. They are almost as bad as the hagfish, they deserve each other. You could dig out my reports in the library. I have been writing about it for years, before ASBOs and victimhood for hooligans; when there was work, when there were houses, it wasn’t so bad. It would have only got worse, if it weren’t for them. It makes me so mad, but it really is quite boring. I defy you to read through a whole article without feeling your eyelids droop. Imagine how I felt, then, sitting in council chambers either too hot or too cold, listening to pompous old men waste their breath. Droning on, debating nothing, rubber stamping. But still I wrote about them, for twenty years I did.” He stops, and stares at the paper for a long time. When he starts again, he writes more slowly, his anger filling the pages with mechanical efficiency.

“I thought I would cover Beirut or Africa, but the big break never came. My whole professional life was factory closures, shopping developments, planning meetings, on piss all pay. I wanted to bring the news to the people. I should have done something else. For all that, now I have lived through these interesting times,” he smiles at this employment of his small stock of knowledge. “I am not sure I would have wanted to report on such a story as the end of the world.” He laughs again. It seems ludicrous to him. He bites it back.

“All the buildings round here are empty, and where there are few people, there are fewer of the hagfish. The flat roofs helped me choose, they’re safe, they can’t get in, but the end shop was the deciding factor. It was a food shop, one of those little places, a Happy Shopper type affair, but less grand, if you can believe it. They left all the fridges behind, big things. I snuck in a generator, a quiet one so the hagfish would not notice, and filled them, all while the things came in greater numbers. Until, last week, there were so many, I brought Tara and Michelle here. I had to trick them, they were blind, they insisted to the end that they could not see them. But now…”

He stops, and closes his eyes, and rubs at them, tears threaten. He abandons the sentence, turns a page, and starts again.

“I could live here for a very long time, and never need to go outside. I do not want to go outside. I have broken a hole into the shop from the end flat. I do not go down there often. Not unless I need supplies.

“The other two, a Post Office and a launderette, I go in rarely, then only to make sure the seals are good.

“I have lost my train of thought again. uPVC – all of it except the door at the bottom of the stairs, to the outside, which is wooden. I am almost sure they cannot get round that, but I am taking no chances. All it takes is tape. Michelle did not believe me, neither did Tara, she always agrees with her mother. But it works, none got in, not…”

Another pause. Another page.

“Gaps under the eaves, the airbricks – that took a while to work out, I had to watch the hagfish for three weeks. I think most people would not have taken these things into account, but I did. Builders and surveyors and DIY enthusiasts might know this. Maybe they are alive too. Good luck to them.

“My secret: I saw the things first, three months ago; one or two, drifting through the air, wriggling as if they were swimming in it. Not long after they turned on the Atacama particle accelerator. Maybe that has something to do with it? Sub-atomic particles, gluons and quarks, spinning out so fast. Maybe this shrapnel made a hole between here and where they come from? They can squeeze in through the smallest of holes. Maybe it’s sunspots, or global warming, or a fucking supernova blasting holes in space and time,” he stops. He won’t let his fingers run the pen over the words. They try. He wins, this time. He breathes hard, shuddering, at war with himself. He thinks about a drink. He takes one. “I don’t know. There is a lot I don’t know.” He underlines ‘don’t’.

“What I do know was there was the smell in the air, dry and dusty, a cast to the light, like the green before a storm, only this was different, a bruised purple like old blood. That was after my job went, the day the suits told us, before I saw them, I thought nothing of that light, that smell, until I did. When they came, I thought: Ribbons drifting in the sky. Then I saw what they really were. Like hagfish in the water, tying knots in themselves, tumbling to the ground. I watched them drift toward houses, toward offices. I saw them squirm across the walls then slip inside. They can squeeze in through the smallest of holes.” He realizes he is repeating himself. He re-reads, but does not scratch anything out. “I am sorry. I am tired.

“I did not say anything. No-one else seemed to notice. I did not want them to think me mad. I was a coward, and now it is too late.”

There are sounds, then, outside. Slapping, like rubber soles on concrete. The creatures, he is sure, against the building. Thumping on glass; then something breaking. The man, Joe, lays his pen down. He has another pull of the whisky. He takes up the shotgun leaning against the table. He goes from room to room in Maisie, checking the windows. He climbs through the holes he has smashed through plasterboard and brittle concrete blocks into Beryl and Enid either side. He curses quietly as he bashes his head on the ragged gap to Enid. Each room he enters he finds clear, but this works against him, for each room eliminated increases the chances that the next has been compromised. His hands are sweating by the time he gets to the room where Michelle and Tara lie. It doesn’t feel right to go in, feels like he is trespassing. He does not like what is inside. He does not like to think about it.

There is a lock on the door. He regrets that.

A memory chases itself across his mind when he touches the key: his wife Michelle shouting, her fingers plucking at tape, her hands on the window handle. The gun. A circle of ruin.

He has to be sure. He squeezes his eyes shut before turning the doorknob. There is nothing there, the windows are as he left them, plywood taped over broken panes. He ignores the shapes under the duvet and walks out. The cold keeps the smell to a minimum.

He goes out of Enid’s front door, down the communal stairway, to check the street entrance. Then from room to room in every flat again to check the seals, running his finger round the tape and pressing it down hard. He does this four times, wipes his fingers upon his coat, up, down, up, down, then does it four more times again. He swears as he does so, cursing his hands, they refuse to obey his commands.

Reluctantly he heads to the living room in Beryl. He unpicks the duct tape pinning a square of carpet over the hole he has cut through the floor. He snatches up a torch and shines a weak circle of light into the store below. It picks out no movement. He sits back and sucks in a long breath. He will have to go downstairs. He does not like to think about downstairs. It takes a while for him to be ready.

Later, it might be night, he does not know, he writes again.

“It is the noise. That is what I cannot stand. The endless rustling, I can hear them against the roof, the scrape of their fixed teeth against the tarpaper. But it is not the worst. Today I had to go downstairs. Today I had to go into Michelle and Tara’s room.” He writes over ‘worst’, over and over in the same spot, boring a hole through the paper. It is hard for him to stop. He manages, eventually.

“Today, I had to go downstairs. There were noises outside, then a bang, I had to see. I do not like it.  There is no way to block out the big window. I tried carpet, but it is too heavy and the tape will not hold it. There is nothing between me and them but a sheet of glass. They press against it, writhing like worms. They are so thick it is hard to tell if it is night or day, or if there is still a difference. Seeing them makes the noise worse. It gets into your head and makes your skin crawl. They had damaged the window, there was a spider web of cracks. I do not know how they did it. They are so weak tape stops them!” He underlines tape repeatedly.  “I think they suspect someone is in here. I was careful, I do not think they saw me. Their sight is poor, and they cannot smell me through the glass. But they have a new trick. Through the window, I could hear people, swearing, high-pitched and laughing like boys, then shouting as I began my repairs, then many, many voices, jumbled up into one.” He does not write that Tara’s scream underpinned it all. Thinking of it brings the noise back. He slaps at his temple with the heel of his hand until it goes away. After a time, he writes again. “They did not trick me, and it soon stopped. It cannot be people. Nothing could live out there, nothing but them. They have learned to use our voices. I had better be more vigilant.

“Thankfully, the glass had held. I patched it up with tape, lots of tape, and left quickly. I am not sure it is safe to go back in there. I got all the food I could. The generator is nearly out of petrol in any case. Tonight I will have a little feast. Better be careful I do not gas myself; I blocked the chimney; nowhere for the carbon monoxide to go as I cook. I am not a fool.”

The days pass, he writes little more. His frozen food, cooked on a small camping stove, takes a while to dwindle in the cold, but it goes. All he has left are his cans – canned soup, canned fish, canned fruit. When he eats, he eats them cold. When he does not eat, he drinks. He does not eat often. Every so often he checks the carpet over Enid’s hole leading into the shop. He does not lift it, unsure if the window will have held, unsure if they have got in. He moves slowly, but hurries past the room where Michelle and Tara lie. He keeps his eyes fixed firmly on the carpet. He hates the pattern. He hates the carpets in all three flats. They are all different, but all the same. Old lady carpets of blocky acanthus. Each flat has a spot where an electric fire has discoloured the artificial fibres a sorry yellow. They are flats that in happy times smelt of Sara Lee and pink wafers and grandchildren and shopworn joy, but always underneath it was the stench of piss and lavender and loneliness. He can smell it now.

He rouses himself when he thinks this. He has a theory.

“The door and widows have become numbing to the touch, ice has started to form in the corners of the glass. Whether that is the hagfish or what has happened to the world I do not know. I do not know much, do I? But I do know this: These things are attracted by emotion. I became sure of it the day I saw four wriggling round a crying woman. They looped over one another, like they were fighting. They sniffed around her, over her hair, up her skirt. Disgusting. Then one fixed itself to her face and hung there, pulsing. She did not seem to notice, did not even look like she felt it at all, even as it sucked the life out of her. But I could clearly see her eyes sink, her flesh wither, and she did not know,” he underlines this repeatedly, again wearing the paper thin. “She was a corpse, but she kept on going, brown and creaking, for twenty yards, as if nothing had happened. I could not stop watching, I had to keep looking. I could not do anything. Such power they have, to kill and move the dead! Then she collapsed, only then did others notice she was not breathing.

“There was the man that was angry. Flabby. He had seven on him. His trousers fell off with his fat, and he still he walked. The creatures drifted away. The paramedic said heart attack. He could not see the brown husk they left behind, he could not see what had truly happened. How do they stop people seeing what I see?

“The window, dirty. I counted forty there or so. There was a bear in the window. A child’s room? God knows what they wanted there. I do not like to think about it.

“Perhaps I made a mistake. These are sad flats, death flats. I think the creatures can smell it, that is why they cluster round the windows. Idiot, Joe, fucking idiot.

“Staying warm is getting hard. I had to stuff up the chimneys. They are all gas flues, anyway, and there is no gas now. I did think about ripping one of the fires out and lighting some of the furniture that was left behind. The hagfish do not like fire, but I would have to keep it going all the time, and I would soon run out of wood to burn, and then I would be in danger. So I wear more clothes. There are blankets in the room where Michelle and Tara are, but I do not go in there. I do not like to. My hands are so cold it is hard to grip the pen, and I stink. I would kill for a hot shower, I would. I mean it. I would use my gun.

“It is funny. Look at me, complaining. But maybe my life would have been like this often if I had have got that job in ‘88. My big chance, but I blew it. Too sharp, too pushy. I wanted it once, the adventure. That is what they all say, bringing the news to the people, seeing new places, but I think we can all be honest now,” he laughs at the irony of his statement, “and say that what they really want is the acclaim. All you fucking budding John Simpsons and Orla Guerrins. You just want someone to notice you and kiss your arse, you do not give a fuck about the news. I did. I did. Well, let me tell you, perhaps this will penetrate your thick skulls, blast the celebrity lust from your minds: for most it is going to be £9,000 a year reporting on retarded groundskeepers having a new mower bought for them by the rotary club. For twenty years, and then they fire you and your wife will despise you. How could they do that? Seven days of news. Twenty years of work. All gone, like the engine shops  I remember when you could leave your door unlocked, when the smell of hot oil and steam and unwashed men made ripe with proper labour hung in the air. All gone, all the industry and the hope and the happiness, swept up and thrown out with the rubbish, internet and crummy shopping arcades in its place, selling cheap shit to fat morons hooked on bad TV. Bread and circuses! How could you? They always think they know best, men with fancy degrees and big ideas. Tear down the streets, throw up some flats, shut the factories then fuck off to your Georgian mansions while the rest of us burst with burger fat and despair.” He stops, lest he break his pen. He waits until his fingers unclench themselves.

“My dad, he lived and worked and laughed and died here. What’s there now, where I sat at his knee? A fucking roundabout on a roundabout on a roundabout, a Next squats on our old allotment. And then my job went too, cut along with six days worth of news. Go look for fame, I hope you fucking enjoy it.”

He is angry. His theory begins to dog him. He thinks of how he feels. He does not feel good. He feels guilt. He worries they will smell it. He worries they will guess he is inside. He stops writing, and sleeps.

Later.

“Things have become worse. The voices come more often. They are out there now. They call me to come out. They pretend to be my friends, they pretend to be police, they pretend they want to help me. They are my mother and my father and my poor dear Tara. That nearly had me. I was going to go outside, but I lifted a corner of card and there was nothing out there but them, black on the window. There are more of them now, and they move the faster. They know I am in here. They are excited. I tried to hide, but they have found me. They will not trick me. I will not go outside. I will die in here, but they will not get me.

“Yesterday was Christmas. I set up a few decorations, lit more candles. I tried to sing but it sounded intrusive, wrong, so I stopped. I said a prayer instead, for Michelle and Tara. It would have been Tara’s tenth Christmas. She was looking forward to it so much. I love you. I am sorry.”

“Merry Christmas,” he writes, then writes no more.

The voices call and call again. He screws up his eyes, underneath the babble of voices known and unknown projected by the hagfish, underneath the rising-falling-rising of Tara’s scream, someone shouts, voice amplified. They tell him it will be all right, they tell him to come outside.

He sits, shaking, unsure of what to do. He drains a third-bottle of whisky in three mouthfuls, sets it down amid the other empties cluttering the desk. It was always a problem for him, the drink. Too many long lunches, too many late nights.

The voice comes again, beseeching him.

He makes a decision, picks up his gun, and leaves the room. He goes out of the flat, out of its front door, and down the stairs. The stairwell is dark, the windows, thin glass in steel frames thick with paint, are blocked with tape. Tape on tape on tape. Try as he might, he cannot wipe away the memory of the things outside, no matter what he lays over the glass. He looks at the windows. Like the town, like the developers, like time, he thinks, they can’t wipe away entirely what was there before. The shells of the engine sheds still stand. The street names are the same, will always be the same. There will always be traces. It comforts him, briefly, it comforts him.

He reaches the door. He runs his hand down it, just the once. Today, his hands are his own.

Outside, the door muffled voices cry. He can barely understand them. The other voices have become a roar. The hagfish are agitated. He strains to hear. The new voices call for him to come out, slowly, to leave his gun behind.

Outside, there is a banging on the door.

He reaches out for the handle, his other arm moving without volition, taking the gun away from him to the speckled composite floor.

He stops. It is what they want. Them. Without the gun, without the door, he will be defenceless, nothing to keep their rings of hooked teeth from rasping the flesh from his bones, sucking him dry.

There is a hissing noise, something cracks into the window, it breaks the glass but cannot penetrate the tape.

The tape always stops them.

He steps back, shaking his head, feet tapping one on the other: heel to toe, heel to toe, four times. Four times is the magic number.

The door vibrates to the impact of something against it. Again. The planks he has nailed over it judder. Tape springs free round the edges, letting in small draughts.

They are trying to get in.

He raises the gun, sets the stock to his shoulder, points it at the door.

Outside, they are waiting for him.

Outside, they say, come outside.

He does not want to go outside.


I wrote this piece for SFX last year, where I picked out four stories by JRR Tolkien that could make good films. Do you agree or disagree with my selection? Let me know!

Middle-earth at the Movies

With the Hobbit on the way, it’s high time to look at other tales from Tolkien’s legendarium that might make top filmic fun.

Within the broader sweep of Middle-earth there are dozens of stories, and there’s some cracking potential films in there. The juicy stuff comes from The Silmarillion, released posthumously by JRR’s son Christopher, with a little bit of help from Guy Gavriel Kay. This mythic cycle covers the first Dark Lord Morgoth’s endless attempts to seize control of creation, his eventual downfall, and Sauron taking up his reins. It might seem like a good idea to film the lot, but The Silmarillion covers thousands of years, has hundreds of characters, and the movie would be like, well, decades long. Better to be picky, eh?

Beren and Luthien

The pitch: Middle-earth’s greatest love story

Time: The First Age

Location: Doriath and Angband

Hooks: Love! Big dogs! Fatherly disapproval! Amputation by wolf bite!

The plot: Remember that bit in The Fellowship of the Ring, where sad-eyed Aragorn sings a song in the marshes? This is that ballad.  Beren the man falls in love with elf Lúthien. Her father Thingol is having none of this and says they can only marry if Beren accomplishes the impossible and steals back one of the Silmarils, holy jewels taken by the Dark Lord.

What’s in it for Weta: Beren and Lúthien’s journey to Angband has echoes of Frodo and Sam creeping into Mordor, only Angband is scarier. Morgoth himself puts in an appearance, while the hunt for Carcharoth the giant wolf at the climax would be thrilling.

What’s in it for us: A big dose of lurve, and there’s a happy ending as Beren and Lúthien are resurrected to live together. Aww.

The Children of Húrin

The pitch: Romeo and Juliet, with dragons. And incest.

Time: The First Age

Location: All over Beleriand

Hooks: Amnesia! Curses! Brotherly loving! Dragons! Petty Dwarves!

The plot: Morgoth catches the human hero Hurin. The Dark Lord curses his children, Túrin and Níniel, and forces Húrin to watch them suffer.

What’s in it for Weta: Battles with hordes of Orcs, before Túrin meets Glaurung the dragon in single combat, besting the beastie with cunning and trickery.

What’s in it for us: As this fragmentary story was finessed into a brilliant novel by Christopher Tolkien in 2007, it’s probably the most screen-ready. It’s truly tragic, with Túrin’s curse dooming all who aid him, and him unknowingly marrying his amnesiac sister. Then it’s suicides all round. Sad.

The War of Wrath

The pitch: The greatest war of all time

Time: The very end of the First Age

Location: Beleriand

Hooks: Demons! Gods! War! Apocalypse!

The plot: Elves and men band up to finish off the evil Morgoth once and for all.

What’s in it for Weta: This apocalyptic smackdown at the climax of the First Age makes that spat over the One Ring look like a children’s squabble. Think Smaug will be cool? What about Ancalagon the Black, the father of all winged dragons, who is so huge that when he’s downed he flattens a mountain? He leads an entire squadron of winged fire drakes into battle with hero Eärendil’s magical flying ship. The land battles dwarf anything in The Lord of the Rings, as the Valar (Tolkien’s angels) themselves stride the land and fight dozens of Balrogs.

What’s in it for us: An awesome spectacle, and a bittersweet victory. All of Beleriand is laid waste and sunk under the sea. Look at the map in The Lord of The Rings. See those mountains by the coast past The Shire? There used to be a whole lot more west of that. Then there’s Morgoth’s defeat. His feet are cut off, his iron crown hammered into a collar, he’s bound by a magical chain and shut out of creation for all time. Satisfying.

The Fall of Numenor

The pitch: The drowning of Atlantis, plus Elves

Time: The Second Age

Location: Númenor

Hooks: Envy! Betrayal! Human Sacrifice! The world remade! God gets angry!

The plot: The greatest human civilisation of all is brought low by the lies of Sauron.

What’s in it for Weta: There’s a titanic struggle at the beginning, where the lords of Numenor sail to Middle-earth to capture Sauron. Later, there’s evil king Ar-pharazon’s massive invasion fleet, and the biggest tsunami in fiction.

What’s in it for us: A fantastic tale as the island nation of Númenor descends into evil, all because they envy the immortality of the Elves. Watch as a noble people turn their back on creator god Ilúvatar and his Valar to worship the outcast Morgoth. Sauron in this is Grima Wormtongue on divine steroids, while the anger of Ilúvatar when Ar-pharazôn attempts to invade the holy Undying Lands is cinematic wrath-of-god at its most terrifying. It also sets us up for the The Lord of The Rings, with survivors like Isildur and Elendil establishing the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. They play their part in the first downfall of Sauron, bits of which we’ve already seen on the screen. Neat.


I wrote this piece for SFX 134, (I think). By 2005, I had known Robert for several years. I first met him at Euroctocon in Dublin in October, 1997. He and I got on very well and have remained good friends ever since. Rankin is one of life’s singular gentlemen. I have never met anyone quite like him. He is, if anything, even more bizarre than his characters., while the stories he tells in person are all the more astounding for being (mostly) true. I treasure the rare occasions we get to sit down, drink beer and, as he puts it in his Londony way, “talk toot”.

Robert Rankin

Rankin is a teller of tall tales who comes from a long line of tall tale tellers. Few could be taller than his latest book, The Brightonomicon. It takes a cue from New Age movements who saw a zodiac engraved into the earth about Glastonbury and applies the idea to a streetmap of Brighton. Not just any old Zodiac has the author discovered, but one of truly Rankin-esque proportions. Armed with a felt tip Rankin set to, tracing out his new cosmology on B-roads; no Gemini or Taurus here, but the Nazca-like lines of the Hound of the Hangletons and the Woodingdeane Chameleon. There are twelve in all, and each has a story, a case, attached to it which must be solved by old favourite Hugo Rune and his new teenage sidekick, Rizla.

“I wanted a reason for each of them to be there, you also wonder where these names come from – why is Hangletons called Hangletons? We have these dangerous areas, like Whitehawk and Moulsecoomb. So, in the book, Moulsecoomb is inhabited by a pirate captain called Moulsecoomb, who stills comes out and attack the pier from time to time.”

Of course, these dangers of the genteel town, jewel of the south coast and home of the exotic pavilion are imagined…

“Er, no,” interrupts  Rankin, “You don’t want to go to those areas with anything less than a tank.”

And that is his power. Rankin so effortlessly mocks our world that it’s difficult to see which parts are pure fiction and which are not. Indeed, sometimes you suspect he makes none of it up, and is privy to a portal to some alternate reality where backchat is the highest of arts. You get the feeling of reverse dramatic irony – here it is not we the audience who know more, but that his character Hugo Rune knows everything.

Rankin is fascinated by magic, so it is no surprise that Rune owes much to that infamous wizard, Aleister Crowley, whose self-portrait hangs in Rankin’s hall. But, when you look closer, there’s a lot of Rankin in there too. Rune is the master of the scam, a man who pronounces, “I offer the world my genius, all I expect is that it cover my expenses.” Rankin himself is as much raconteur as writer. We could discuss some of his escapades here, would it not bring certain agencies of the crown upon his head. His true, if no less astounding, tales include that of the Blue Peter badge, or the strange case of the cash machines, a story he regaled many an audience with until a kindly policeman took him to one side and asked, gently, that he desist.

“Rune’s not based on me,” counters Rankin. “He is a mix of my father and Crowley. He knew Crowley, actually,” he says. “He met him in the war. My father didn’t fight – using the famed Rankin common sense he thought to himself: ‘I’ll get myself a nice reserved occupation – fireman should do it.’ Which meant standing in the middle of the blitz holding a hosepipe!” he laughs. “Anyway, he met Crowley in a pub in 1943 or ’44. My father didn’t believe in the magic, but he did think Crowley was the greatest poet of the 20th century. So he cultivated him by buying him lots of drinks. I remember my dad pointing out Crowley on the Sergeant Pepper’s album cover and saying ‘I know him.’ Then he told me he had a couple of first editions signed by the man himself. I was amazed. Of course, my mum, the fundamentalist Christian, had burnt them as Crowley was, after all, the Great Beast. I was gutted.”

Maybe there is more of Rankin Jnr in Rune than he suspects. Or perhaps there have been a long line of Rankins behaving like Runes. He is the fourth Robert Fleming Rankin – a connection to Alexander Fleming now lost to history and, like his father, his life has been full of cameos of unusual people (he went to art college with Freddie Mercury, for example). He’s done many bizarre things, such as convincing the inhabitants of Brentford a Griffin lived there, but he seems as oblivious to how unusual this track is as he is of the genuine reverence with which his fans hold him, fans whose numbers are growing. Rankin was ecstatic to see his previous book, The Witches of Chiswick, advertised in a railway station and, and has begun to force open the American market. Full of tall tales he may be, but you could never accuse him of boastfulness, however, you don’t get posters in Paddington if you’re small fry, old chap.

In true generous style, Rankin has one last thing to say. “That’s the best picture of me that I have ever had taken” he says of his portrait to the left [not included here, sorry folks]. “And I’d like to say thank you to the man who let us use his carousel. Beautiful it was, built in 1888. He even stopped it for us, whereas the pier wanted to charge us £150 to take our shot there. So thank you, and sod the pier.”


I wrote this piece in 2006. It appeared in SFX 146‘s Time Machine. Like most people of my rapidly aging generation, I began my gaming career playing D&D.

I interviewed Gygax once. Like a lot of Americans involved in fantasy, Gygax was bearded, large and voluble, but possessed a level of interest in others that made his bluffness charming rather than irksome. A very nice man.

Time Machine – Dungeons & Dragons

You enter a rough stone corridor. It looks unsafe, and the wall runs with moisture. Ahead of you is poorly made, if stout, wooden door. Approaching warily, you hear a series of muffled scraping noises and a low growl. What do you do?

If you’re one those who has played Dungeons & Dragons then this kind of statement will be familiar to you. If it isn’t then that’s exactly the kind of dilemma those odd spods with the funny shaped dice used to face, usually weekly, while you were off partying.

Actually, the perception of RPG’s as the domain of the uber-nerd is just one of several misconceptions about the game ­– in reality D&D is no special interest, saddo passtime, but the vanguard of a great gaming revolution that ushered in an age of mass-market wargames, collectible card games and computer gaming – all of which are now multi-million pound industries. Not so nerdy now, eh?

But despite this legacy, D&D the game has had a rocky history. At the height of its popularity, every school had a D&D group (as did many other institutions. “At one time every nuclear submarine had a D&D group,” co-creator David Arneson said in one interview), but then it virtually disappeared off the cultural map. Lawsuits and debt litter its history, and it came to find itself almost destroyed by the industry it created. The story of D&D is almost as hair-raising as an encounter with a Level 19 Gold Dragon in a bad mood.

Dungeons & Dragons was the brainchild of gaming buddies Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Gygax had long been associated with various groups and magazines, including Guidon, a wargames mail-order company. Gygax published various games through Guidon, including 1969’s Chainmail. Written in concert with Jeff Perren, Chainmail allowed players to stage small-scale battles in the Dark Ages. It was not an RPG, but a traditional wargame. However, when Gygax started to add magic and monsters, and Arneson ran a Chainmail game involving a castle sewer (underground adventures are a D&D signature) Dungeons & Dragons slowly began to come to life…

In 1971, Arneson and Gygax completed the first true incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons. But they had difficulty finding a distributor – their earlier publishers thought that the game’s referee or “Dungeon Master” would be so busy running the game he would never have any fun, so it wouldn’t work. Gygax, however, had more faith in their creation, and he and set up Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), with childhood gaming chum Don Kaye. In 1974, with funding from Brian Blume, another old-gaming buddy, they launched D&D’s first edition. The 1000 hand-assembled copies sold out in under a year.

The game was a curious grab bag of ideas. Chainmail and its child were heavily influenced by the models that were available to Gygax and his friends. Back then, there were no large firms making fantasy models, so Gygax and co relied on plastic historical figures. Fine for one’s warriors, but for the monsters the gamers turned to cheap Chinese toys – poly-bagged selections of badly executed dinosaurs and weird flights of fancy. This magpie nature had serious repercussions, as the eager proto-roleplayers also included rules for monsters and creatures from the likes of Michael Moorcock, HP Lovecraft and JRR Tolkien’s works. Lawsuits and quiet words inevitably followed, with the result that various beasties, deities and demons were struck from later editions of the game.

Kaye passed away in 1975, leading to the dissolution of TSR. Gygax then set up TSR Hobbies, Inc, to continue the publication of the game. This was initially on his own, but by the mid-seventies Brian Blume and his son Kevin had a two-thirds controlling interest, something that was to eventually lead to Gygax losing control over his creation…

But for the next few years, D&D was to go from strength to strengh. A more complicated version of the game, named Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, was released in 1978. This was a huge hit, and became the model for the many copycat games that were to follow. But it was not without its problems. It was beast of a gaming system, requiring multiple books and a maths degree to play. It also unwisely split D&D into two streams, upping production costs and dividing its audience, a problem that was not to be rectified until years later. Finally, AD&D also precipitated a falling out between Gygax and Arneson in 1979. The two went to court over who owned what of their joint creation. Though the dispute was settled by 1981, it was but the first of many business disputes to hit TSR.

And if arguments over Mammon weren’t bad enough, God soon got in on the act. A series of suicides, murders and a missing persons case were all erroneously blamed on the game, and the powerful Christian far tight roundly condemned it as, well, here’s what Christian Life Ministries had to say about Dungeons & Dragons: “Instead of a game [it] is a teaching on demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, Satan worship, gambling, Jungian psychology, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and many more teachings, brought to you in living colour direct from the pit of hell!!!” Hallelujah.

Gygax appeared on 60 Minutes to discuss the charges, only to have his answers edited and rearranged, or so he maintains. His complaints to the show after his interview was aired went unanswered.

“There here wasn’t a shred of evidence or veracity in any of those claims,” Gygax said recently. “One of the mothers of the children who had committed suicide said the only reason that her son didn’t kill himself sooner was because he enjoyed playing Dungeons & Dragons and that this was all just a cock-and-bull story.”

D&D was demonised. At the height of the hysteria, the TV movie Mazes and Monsters (1982) came out. This told the story of one youth (played by a very young Tom Hanks) driven mad by gaming. The game in the film may have been called Mazes and Monsters, but everyone knew what they were really talking about. The controversy rumbled on for years, leading TSR to excise references to many of the more dread powers of hell from the second edition of the game, published in 1989.

Despite all this, nothing seemed to dent TSR’s armour, and it began to explore other opportunities for D&D, with Gygax heading off to Hollywood to tout the property. It was a hard slog. Mineral-water quaffing entertainment execs were not easily won over by the mid-western hobbyist. But he persevered, and in 1983 the cartoon Dungeons & Dragons was broadcast on CBS. The Dragonlance novels followed in 1984. These too, were a massive success and transformed TSR into a major player in the booming fantasy publishing market.

However, back at base trouble was brewing. TSR had accrued debts in excess of $15 million, and Gygax discovered his partners had tried to put the firm up for sale. He forced one partner, Kevin Blume, from office, but the problems didn’t stop there. Another court battle ensued as Gygax struggled to retain control, but the law found against him, and he sold his controlling interest in 1985.

After Gygax’s departure, a number of proprietory worlds were developed, and licenses acquired – Marvel Superheroes, Conan and Indiana Jones amongst them; and new gaming avenues, such as card-based play, explored.

But the company’s fortunes could not last. As the decade began to wind down, dozens of games jostled for custom in a crowded market. Worse, RPGs were getting more and more complicated, fewer kids were getting involved, and the average age of gamers increased. With no new blood coming in, revenues dropped, and many companies went under or sold off their RPG properties.

TSR survived, albeit with a smaller, increasingly niche audience, soldiering on through the 90s, until, stuck deep in debt, it was bought out by Magic: The Gathering creators Wizards of the Coast in 1997. WoC was in turn purchased by Hasbro, who consolidated it with other gaming properties to create a gaming division operating under the Wizards tradename.

This marked something of a new start for D&D. A new edition – version 3 – of the rules was created in 2000. This scrapped the division between AD&D and D&D, creating one game. It dispensed with many the different dice the game used, settling upon the 20-sided variety. Gygax, who has undergone a change in thinking over the years, maintains the system is too complicated and damages group co-operation by focussing too much on power-play. Nevertheless, it has proven to be popular, and Wizards have wisely decided to make the system free for all games publishers to use, breaking down walls in the RPG community and generating fat loads of advertising for D&D.

Now, though the game will never be as big as it once was, Wizards estimate that around three million people a month play the game in the US alone. It appears the adventure of D&D will run for some time to come…

A D12 of D&D

Roll your twelve-sided dice to generate a random Wandering D&D Fact!

  1. The game was penned under the uninspiring title of “The Fantasy Game”.
  2. Gary’s surname (his parents were German) is pronounced “Guy-gax”, not “Guy-jax”, as many a poorly informed wannabe wizard would have it.
  3. The name “Dungeons & Dragons” was, according to popular legend, suggested by Gygax’s wife.
  4. Gary Gygax also created GenCon, now the world’s largest gaming convention, and launched Dragon magazine.
  5. Fantasy movie  Krull (1983) went under the name Dungeons & Dragons for part of its developmental cycle, despite having nothing to do with the game.
  6. Though Gygax originally started to put fantasy elements into Chainmail, it was D&D co-creator David Arneson who first restricted players to one model each in his games, establishing the link between player and character.
  7. The game has a magic system where the wizard must memorise spells. Once he has spoken them and set them off, he forgets them. This was directly inspired by the Dying Earth novels of Jack Vance.
  8. Although the term “Hobbit” was removed from the game to stop infringing on JRR Tolkien’s rights, the term “Halfling” remains.
  9. D&D had no setting when originally launched, instead it provided gamers with hundreds of monsters, demons and beasts with which one could create one’s own world. Many of these were drawn from mythology. Tiamat, the multi-headed dragon in the cartoon and game, for example, is a Babylonian deity which represented the salt ocean, symbolic of chaos.
  10. D&D has sold more than 20 million copies, and generated more than $1 billion in revenue.
  11. Many potential RPGers now play online Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying games. The biggest, World of Warcraft, has six million gamers. A D&D MMPORG was launched last year.
  12. Gygax is not a big fan of Tolkien, finding his books dull. The works of Jack Vance, Robert E Howard and Fritz Leiber have had far more influence on the game.

D&D on the screen

Not so well done, cavalier

 D&D has had many brushes with the silver and small screens. Not all of them positive. There of course was the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon show, which ran for three years and 27 episodes, but we had to wait until 2000 for a real Dungeons & Dragons movie, and then wished we hadn’t. A diabolical mess that featured a bored looking Jeremy Irons (paying for renovations of his Irish castle), that forgettable dude who played Jimmy Olsen in Lois and Clark, Thora Birch, Richard O’Brien and hod-loads of crap CGI, it was closer to the game but further from quality than the cartoon. This is a crying shame, as it was director Courtney Solomon’s life-long ambition to make a D&D movie. He acquired the rights to make the film in 1990 aged just 19 and spent 10 years putting together the money. All for nothing, because it really is awful.

There was a sequel in 2005. Don’t ever see it if you have even one iota of self-respect.


This post represents the continuation of my never-ending quest to get as much of my old journalism online as I can. Unfortunately, that means nothing before 2004, as I was denied permission for that, but there is still so much to come yet! This feature was originally published in SFX 140, in that magazine’s regular “Time Machine” slot, in 2005.

Time Machine: Buck Rogers

Buck Rogers – all white teeth, innuendo-laden badinage, fey robots and tight jumpsuits. That’s what the name means to most of us, remembering as we do the low-brow, high-camp 1980s series from the vast stables of Glen A Larson, whence many a wonky nag and almost thoroughbred SF TV show came trotting onto our screens. The show followed Larson’s “fire and forget” approach to producing, appearing with much fanfare and running for a mere one and a half seasons before sinking into a quagmire of high mediocrity, becoming a something that today seems laughably bad. But Buck Rogers was once much more than this, entrancing several generations of Americans in magazines, comic books, radio and screen, and the sad whimper that his last hurrah endured does a great disservice to his legend.

Anthony Rogers first appeared in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories magazine. Penned by Philip Francis Nowlan, the tale was entitled “Armageddon – 2149″. It was a clever piece of science fiction that had the forces of the future waging war on one another with a variety of military inventions that have since become commonplace – infrared ray guns for night fighting, jet planes, bazookas, paralysis rays and more, though Buck’s flight-endowing jumping belt is still sadly unavailable. The famed Hugo Gernsback, at the time editor of Amazing Stories, firmly stated of the tale: “We have rarely printed a story in this magazine that for scientific interest as well as suspense could hold its own with this particular story. We prophesy that this story will become more valuable as the years go by. It certainly holds a number of interesting prophecies, many of which, no doubt, will come true.”

Buster Crabbe plays it straight.

His prophesy was a good one. Soon after the story’s publication, newspaper mogul John Flint Dille commissioned Nowlan to create a comic strip featuring the adventures of the hero. Entitled Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the strip began its run on January 7th 1929. It was to be a phenomenal success, running in over 400 newspapers simultaneously at the height of its success.

Many of the Buck staples are present in the original stories. Buck Rogers, an ex-WWI American fighter pilot, is a surveyor in Pennsylvania who gets trapped in a cave-in and is put into suspended animation by a strange radioactive gas. When he awakes 500 years in the future, the heroic Buck becomes a pilot once more, a secret agent and head of the Rocket Rangers. He lives in a futuristic city of “metalloglass” full of marvellous devices. His enemy is Killer Kane, an evil Mongol who is trying to dominate the world, and his ally Ardala. Buck’s cohorts are the genius Dr Huer, Wilma and her younger brother, Buddy.

By 1932, when the spin-off radio serial was launched, Buck memorabilia crammed the bedrooms of American boys. Hundreds of thousands of people tuned in to listen to the adventures of the space hero four times a week, whose gadgets and gizmos were simulated on the airwaves by the clever use of power tools (his psychic disintegration ray was an electric razor, for example). Buck Rogers was, in all ways, a household name.

In 1939 Buster Crabbe, who had played Buck’s imitator Flash Gordon, donned the robe of the time-displaced adventurer for a cinema serial. This Buck’s origin stepped up the science fiction wow-factor – he­ is flying a dirigible with his colleague Buddy (changed from his earlier role as Wilma’s brother) when they go down over the Artic. The ship is carrying an experimental gas, Nirvano (a shameless piece of McGuffin pinched by ITV’s poor 1999 drama The Last Train). The pair are instructed to inhale the gas in order to preserve their lives. Of course, when they wake up, they’re not in early 20th century Kansas any more, so to speak. This serial – of the kind that ran before the main feature in the days before televison – had Buck and Buddy revived in 2440. Killer Kane is again the villain, this time at the head of a band of super-gangsters which rule the Earth. Buck joins the freedom fighters, and, in a complicated plot, seeks aid from the planet Saturn. The 12-parter was recycled endlessly, being cut together for a 1953 film release, Planet Outlaws and edited again for television in 1953 in the shape of Destination Saturn. It even ran in the ’70s and ’80s on British TV. Though virtually indistinguishable from the Flash Gordon serial, it was far more polished than other SF offerings of the time, and had a kind of muscular vitality the ’80s version lacked. The wiry Buster Crabbe, an athelete, was a world away from the toothy avuncularity of Gerard.

The TV show that followed in 1950 was, by all accounts, a disappointment, though it is difficult to gauge as there are reputedly no copies of this long-forgotten piece of TV history. It was only the second ever TV SF show after all (the first being Captain Video and His Video Rangers), and the signature elements of Buck Roger’s universe, the constant action and clever gadgets, were severely hampered by the static, live nature of television.

The TV show finished in 1951, and Buck went into a slow decline. Nowlan had long left the comic strip behind, and it lost much of its power. Though it ran until 1967, it was confined to but a few newspapers. “Buck Rogers”, once a commonplace synonym for all that was futuristic in the speech of Americans, became a derogatory phrase applied with the same level of disdain as someone might have said “Doctor Who monster” ten years ago.

There was no Buck for 12 years, until maverick producer Glen A Larson got his hands on the property, launching a new

What science fiction needs is more comedy robots.

Buck onto an unsuspecting public in 1979. Many of the main elements of the story remained wholly intact, but the concept was retooled for the age of disco. “The original space man! The ultimate trip! Buck Rogers swings back to earth and lays it on the 25th Century!” screamed the jive-talking tagline. But disco was not the only innovation since Buck had last entertained the masses – feminism had come along in the meantime and grabbed the world by the proverbials. In response to this, Deering was promoted to Colonel, (though the character was always in need of rescuing and actress Erin Grey had to a) Dye her hair blonde and b) prance about in a shiny catsuit – feminism was yet to be fully integrated into the popular consciousness) and had an arch relationship with Buck with more than a hint of “mother knows best” to it. Ardala too was given preminence over Killler Kane, who was reduced from emperor of the world to henchman. She was now a sexually bored yet ultimately dangerous Princess, daughter of King Draco, evil overlord of one of Earth’s antagonistic ex-colonies. Again, empowered as actress Pamela Hensly was, Ardala was required to prance around in a whole range of adolescent-bothering outfits. Not that this upset Gerard, who had the pair of these lovely, self-determining chicks fighting over him in the show.

“All those beautiful women were one of the reasons I had such a good time doing it! It was in my contract ‘scantily women only’. We were kind of kinky, a little ahead of our time,” He told SFX in a 1999 interview.

Originally intended as a pilot for a TV show, Buck Rogers went on general theatrical release in the US where it tapped into the public’s fondness for the character, grossing vast amounts of cash.

“The figures are burned into my mind,” Gerard told us, figures tripping off his tongue as he recounted his glory hour. “It took 35 million in one month, before being removed from screens because it had been pre-sold to cable. It was one of Top 5 grossing pictures in 1979. In the opening weekend alone it took 12 million dollars, and this was three dollars a ticket at the time.”

(These big figures, predictably, prompted the third re-release of the old Universal Buster Crabbe serial).

Feminism's advent had a minimal impact on the new Buck Rogers. The last Wilma might have been a capable colonel, but men were encouraged to look at her tightly clad backside.

Unsubtle flirting aside, this Buck was a different man. Though he was known to floor the odd Tigerman with a well-aimed punch, he was also a caring, sharing gentleman. The series writer’s bible said of him “As a character Buck Rogers outwardly presents a flip, sardonic, devil-may-care guy, and an adventurous spirit. Beneath this facade is a serious and caring man who is alone. For all of the marvels of the 25th century, Buck Rogers is cut off from everyone he loved or cared about.”

And what marvels! Actually, no. The keyword with Buck Rogers’ 80s incarnation is ‘fun’, and that in the lightest sense. Behind the recycled, unused Battlestar Galactica concepts (another Larson show) and Ralph McQuarrie spaceships, the stories suffered from the curse of syndication – the need for the series to be shown in any order at all cut out any character development or story progression, with many narrative inconsistencies between episodes. The future looked like a bad nightclub furnished by early Ikea, so soulless and plastic that when Buck paints faces on his furniture many viewers must have empathised. But the show illustrated one important social shift – the idea of relentless social progress through science had taken a beating, and it was often Buck’s knowledge of the old ways that got him out of scrapes. This aside, the show relied heavily on comedy, particularly from Twiki, Buck’s mentally deficient midget robot sidekick, and this did not make for the gut-wrenching tale of one man lost across the centuries. Even when the film tried to capture this aspect of Buck’s character, when he sneaks out of New Chicago to his ex-girlfriend’s grave, it slips into pathos.

Worse was to come. Glen A Larson had become little more than a name in the credits once the film had aired, and, as much of a magpie as he was when it came to other’s ideas (Gerard affectionately called him a “bandit”)  the TV series lacked his screwball creative energy, and Gerard allegedly argued with the chief writers on the project. Then came the second series…

Where the first series was goofy but fun, the second was risible. Buck joins the crew of the Searcher, a spaceship commissioned to search out “the lost tribes of man”. The first series’ bible made much of Earth’s relationships with her former colonies, though these were never satisfactorily explored, but this level of plagiarism from Battlestar Galactica, was too much. The second season retrod old western and Star Trek plots. Mel Blanc, the cartoon genius who had voiced Twiki in the first series, was replaced by Bob Elyea for much of the second series, to fans’ mystification and outrage, and the little bot’s limelight was stolen by Krichton, an awful robot who owed much of its ancestry to a standard lamp. Buck wasn’t the only anachronistic throwback on board either, a bemused Wilfred Hyde White was wheeled onto the show to stammer and dither his way through awful lines, in a cardigan! Not very sci-fi. Gerard rages against this new direction.

“Our new producer John Mantley had no idea, one of his ideas was to replace Mel. A complete rip off of Star Trek was another. We ditched all those classic characters – Ardala, Killer Kane, the Tigermen. I was saying ‘Look, I’d really like Buck to stay on Earth. Why would he want to leave? He’s been gone for 500 years. The man needs to look around for a while, not go flying off again. John Mantley did not know what he was doing. He did the last part of Gunsmoke. To hear him tell it he reigned during the headier days of Gunsmoke, but he simply presided over the demise of that and the demise of Buck Rogers. He actually bragged about the fact he ripped off one of his Gunsmoke scripts for the Hawk episode. He actually bragged about it, he thought it was really funny that he cast Barbara Luna in both roles – she was the Indian princess and she was Hawk’s wife. The thing is, to actually laugh about it, to have so little respect for the audience, as to say, fuck ‘em”

The audience got the message, and deserted the show in droves. It was canned. Buck disappeared from the popular awareness, only an RPG, published in the late eighties, keeping his memory alive.

But his tale is perennial one, that of a man out of place, in a new world that presents many opportunities as much as it makes him yearn for that which he has lost. With TV SF reaching new levels of sophistication, perhaps it is time for some enterprising producer to take up the torch of Buck Rogers, and carry it once more to light the darkness of the future for us all.

Buck Facts

  • Buck has been played by Matt Crowley, Curtis Arnall, Carl Frank and John Larkin (radio series); Buster Crabbe (cinema serial); Kem Dibbs and Robert Pasteme (’50s TV show) and Gil Gerard (’80s TV show)
  •  Buck is a nickname, the character’s real is Anthony Rogers
  •  Buck has been put into suspended animation by radioactive gas in a cave, experimental gas in an airship, and by being frozen in deep space when his probe is lost
  • In the ’80s version, Buck’s Deep Space Probe, Ranger 3, was modelled on the space shuttle. The series introductory narrative explains it was launched in 1987. In reality, there were no shuttle launches in that year because of the prior year’s Challenger disaster
  • Gil Gerard worked with Glen A Larson once before. Larson’s band, “The Four Preps”, played at Gerard’s college. Gerard’s band supported them
  •  Gerard was originally going to be a teacher before deciding to take up acting
  •  Buster Crabbe appeared in the 80s episode “Planet of the Slave Girls”.
  •  The first Buck story, Armageddon-2143, appeared in the same issue of Amazing Stories as the first part of EE Doc’ Smith’s “The Skylark of Space”.
  •  Though they are often seen as contemporaries, Buck Rogers came before, and inspired, Flash Gordon
  •  At his peak, Buck commanded the loyalty of thousands of fans. The Radio serial had several giveaways with it. The first of which, a map of the planets, had 125,000 requests. A later offering of a space helmet could only be gained by sending in seals from Cocomalt cans, the show’s sponsor, even so 140,000 of these pieces of tin were sent in, and this was during the Great Depression.

Find out everything there is to know about Buck Rogers at the excellent www.buck-rogers.com


Today Champion of Mars is out in the US! Hooray! Americans can buy it here. We Brits and other assorted Euro-types have to wait until May 10th. Oh well. Whet your appetites with the free sample, or head over to Solaris Books for more information.

There are two interviews with me online about it now, one at the Solaris Editor’s Blog, the other at SFX. They’re about the same book, so I do repeat myself a little, but about halfway through they diverge and I talk about Richards and Klein, writing spin-off fiction and other highly captivating subjects. Really, you’ll be captivated.

I’m not doing much at the moment. I had a flappy piece of cartilage removed from my knee last week and so will be out of action for some time. I can’t walk or move about at all. It’s very frustrating, and it’s made me think on how people with real mobility problems must feel. Worst of all, I have had to send Doctor Magnus away to the kennels until I recover enough to walk him. He’s a teenage pain in the backside at the moment, but I was welling up as I booked him in.

So, to take my mind off it, I submitted a short story today (expect to see it here when it is inevitably rejected) and  I’ve put a whole load of reviews up, including one of Lavie Tidhar’s early novella, An Occupation of Angels, where I make some comments on the perils of reviewing books of colleagues and friends. There are many others too, head on up to the drop down menus at the top. All these reviews date from my slightly angrier period (I’m always frigging angry, but I used to be more angry), so you may notice a change in tone to the later ones.

Until later.