Is Sci-Fi Still Literature’s Unacknowledged Offspring?

From left: Jonathan Kent, Charles Stross, Ann Vandermeer, Ken McLeod

From left: Jonathan Kent, Charles Stross, Ann Vandermeer, Ken McLeod

I found myself at WorldCon last month. I say found myself because although it had been on my radar (thanks to a tip off from someone more plugged into all things sci-fi and fantasy than I) I’d pitched the idea of a piece to the radio edition of the BBC’s Click! and had heard nothing back. So I rather let it slide.

However one Saturday in August I made my way up to town to interview Andy, a guy doing good things for charity, also as part of a piece for Click! which took me to the Excel (awful venue). And Lo! Well blow me if I didn’t find myself walking past WorldCon which happened to be in the same venue as the start of Andy’s charity race.

So being there with my recording kit, and being given to seeing coincidences as opportunities, I blagged a press pass for myself.

I have to say it was great fun and few things give me as much pleasure as interviewing authors. I’m fascinated by the process of writing. I write myself not just for a living but because it’s what I do. I write. It makes me happy.

I’m also very intrigued by sci fi. I read reams of the stuff in my teens much of it pretty awful. When sci fi was very good the publishing establishment would tend not to label it sci fi. When it was bad it would be offered up as fodder to the spotty and stupid (for thus I suspect consumers of sci fi were seen by publishers).

But could this be changing? It was a subject I explored with the Edinburgh-based writers Charles Stross and Ken McLeod and with an editor, Anne Vandermeer, who hails from the US.

Charles Stross, Ken McLeod, Anne Vandermeer at WorldCon London Aug 2014 by Jonathan Kent on Mixcloud

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Ten Books That Changed My Life

Hobbit_coverThe Facebook meme du jour is all about listing the ten books that changed your life. The fad has inevitably produced a backlash from people convinced that their dull and illiterate ‘friends’ couldn’t possibly have read half the weighty, intellectual tomes they’d claimed.

I think it’s an interesting exercise. It only becomes pointless if it’s turned into a chance to pull open your intellectual raincoat so unwitting passers-by get an unwanted opportunity to see how big your bookshelves are.

But books can change people. They can open our eyes to new ideas and new worlds and leave a profound impression. However when sat down to consider what my ten might be I realised two things.

Firstly most of the books that really made an impression did so when I was much younger. When you’re a blank page it’s that much easier for the words from another to end up on your own. Compared to books I read before the age of 18 I really struggle to think of many that have had as profound an effect since.

Secondly the books that made the biggest impression weren’t necessarily the best books I’ve read, indeed my list of my 10 favourite books would probably be substantially different. Timing is important. Read a mediocre book at a point in life when you’re looking for answers to the questions or issues it tackles and it may hit home much harder than a great book read at a less critical moment.

So my list tries to cleave as closely to the spirit of the question as possible. This isn’t a list that will impress many. That’s not the intention. But it might give anyone who is interested an insight into my formative influences.


  1. The Hobbit, J.R.R.Tolkein. I read The Hobbit when I was six. I read voraciously from a very early age and this was the first big book I read. It was that big I went back to much easier things thereafter. But I loved the story. A few years back I had an amusing conversation with a guy I worked with at a software company for which I did comms. He’s a bright bloke. Our minds work in different ways but he’d always give me a run for my money. It was pretty typical of him and spoke volumes about our relationship that I once mentioned to him, feeling a little self satisfied, that I’d read The Hobbit when I was six, and he came right back and said, a little insouciantly, ‘well I read Lord of the Rings when I was six.’ And I thought ‘well fuck you.’

The other thing it did was make me unduly anxious about Luca’s reading. We fought over his lack of progress when he was five and six. Hey, mea culpa, totally. I was being pretty stupid about it. However I solved it by telling him he could have a Wii U if he read the first Harry Potter book before he turned seven. He did…with a week to spare, and in the eight months since he’s read the next four and a half books in the series. Well that’ll teach me. Hopefully.


  1. Grimble/Grimble at Christmas, Clement Freud. I could equally have said ‘My Friend Mr Leakey by J.B.S. Haldane. Both these (the Grimble stories were in a slim single edition so I don’t really think of them as separate books) had a defining influence on my sense of humour. Both were written for children by polymaths; Freud being a restaurateur, broadcaster and politician, Haldane a mathematician and classicist who became a Fellow of the Royal Society and was honoured for his work in physiology, genetics and evolutionary biology. What they also had in common was a very, very silly sense of humour. The line I always remember from Grimble was about a Garibaldi (aka ‘squashed fly’) biscuit on which was written, in green ink ‘do not eat this biscuit because green ink is bad for you.’ My Friend Mr Leakey was actually written in the 1930s but has aged well, though references to collar studs might leave some feeling a bit bemused these days. There’s a lovely scene where Mr Leakey, a magician, helps a postman by turning a troublesome dog’s teeth to rubber. Now I write children’s books and to these two I owe my greatest debt. Curiously my agent, Ben, shares my appreciation for these two as does Neil Gaiman. Great minds and all… and both illustrated (the editions I had anyway) by Quentin Blake who drew childhood for anyone growing up in the 70s.


  1. The Illustrated Self Sufficiency, John Seymour. This was the self sufficiency bible of the ‘Good Life’ era. I didn’t read all that much of it, just dipped into it and dreamed. But the illustrations of how to manage a one acre plot and a five acre plot fired my dreams. I still fantasise about writing and living off the land.


  1. The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, et al., Douglas Adams. I don’t think any single radio programme has ever made such an impression on me as H2G2. I was eleven or twelve, I think, and hung onto the radio every time it was broadcast. The music still transports me right back. And for once the books not only lived up to but bettered their progenitor. Adams, once a member of the Pythons’ writing team, fused a wonderful sense of the absurd with a fascination for life’s big issues. His answer to the big unanswerables was to be silly – indeed expecting an answer to an unanswerable question is preposterous and Adams captured that beautifully. So why such a big impression? I suspect H2G2 set me off on my own quest for the outer bounds of the ridiculous and the profound.


  1. The Quest for Gaia, Kit Pedlar. This I read at sixteen and went vegetarian as a consequence. Pedlar’s case doesn’t centre on animal rights but on the unsustainability of feeding an increasingly crowded planet on meat given its resource intensiveness and environmental impact. If any book was responsible for my turning towards green thinking this was it.


  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig. I read this when I was in my late teens, if I remember right, into 60s counterculture, motorcycles and even philosophy. Consequently I signed up to study philosophy and theology at Oxford. I guess my real interest was in ethics and practical philosophy. Oxford’s main focus was impractical philosophy. Seriously people, even empiricists look both ways when they cross the road or they quickly become ex-empiricists because busses still exist even when they’re not observed. Not sure whether to hold Pirsig responsible for my decision to study philosophy, or not, but the book (and it’s not really such a great book) really did capture my teenage imagination.


This is where the list gets a bit harder. By the time I left university many of my ideas were fairly well formed. I’d spent three years studying Locke and Hume and Aristotle with oodles of New Testament theology thrown in. No one thing I read there made a huge mark.


  1. Hells Angels, Hunter S. Thompson. I could equally have said Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 or The Great Shark Hunt. I read these at university or shortly after and confirmed my inclination towards journalism. Thompson invented Gonzo – first person reportage where the writer is a protagonist and objectivity flies out of the window faster than you can say ‘pass me the drugs’. True objectivity in journalism is impossible. We may strive for it and strive hard. But when I was reporting from Malaysia I could not shelve my commitment to liberty, democracy and human rights, nor buy the government’s inference that these concepts were somehow different in an Asian context. Thompson simply dropped any pretence to anything other than total subjectivity and in doing so was uncompromisingly honest.


  1. Tales From The City, Armistead Maupin / Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins. By the time I turned thirty I realised I wanted to be a writer first and foremost and a musician second. Turning thirty gave me the impetus to sit down and write properly for the first time. The book I wrote almost got published but no cigar. I returned to it late last year after a gap of almost 17 years and the rewrite is almost done. But when I originally wrote it I sat down to re-read both Robbins and Maupin – Robbins for his freeform use of language (currently reading Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain which plays with language in a similarly unfettered manner and arguably in a much more powerfully elegant manner), Maupin for his command of dialogue which is both captivatingly natural and moves on the plot with apparent effortlessness, and both for their outrageous refusal to let truth be stranger than fiction and in their strangeness they somehow find truth. I recently picked up a Tom Robbins (Fierce Invalids…) and I have to say his ‘wildly original’ use of language seemed positively laboured and clunky at times. It may be that Jitterbug wouldn’t bear re-reading now, but then it gave me permission to write however I pleased.

white mughals

  1. White Mughals, William Dalrymple. I hate William Dalrymple. No one should be able to write as well at 23 as he did when he produced In Xanadu; literate and erudite without any apparent need to wear either his learning other than lightly. I so hope he had a good editor or he’s simply to damn good to be allowed to live in peace. Actually I don’t hate him at all. I think he’s a monstrously talented writer and researcher. White Mughals tells the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, British Resident at the court of Hyderabad and his affair with a local princess. It also tells the story of the British in India at a time when many Brits were becoming Indianised and the Indian courts Anglicised, and documents the end of that era with the growing racism at the heart of the East India Company. It’s a great book. I read it towards the end of five and a half years in Asia when I was conscious of becoming Asianised and it resonated strongly. But it also influenced my choice of name for Luca. I wanted to call him James Achilles. The ‘Achilles’ was sadly vetoed but he is James Alexander Lucas after James Achilles Kirkpatrick, a man with a foot in Asia and a foot in England, just like Luca.


  1. Tom Paine, a Political Life, John Keane. I read this about four or five years ago now. After a lifetime being interested in politics (I was already hooked by the age of ten… sad I know, but true) I finally found my political hero. I loved the Paine Keane introduced me to – flawed, self pitying, irascible, wont to pick fights for the hell of it (verbal rather than physical ones) but the most brilliant polemicist of his (and arguably any other) age. He wrote the three most widely read works of the 18th Century, helped spark a movement for independence in America, tried to remain principled as a participant in French revolutionary politics and was a deeply humane and idealistic man until the end. Consequently Paine’s thinking has shaped my own immeasurably.


So there you are – books that have changed me. I’ve read and enjoyed countless scores of others, some the kind that I could name drop I suppose, but enjoying a book and being changed by it are two very different things.

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Losing the last 3kg

Veg, fish, no oil, going into the oven

Veg, fish, no oil, going into the oven

September programme – losing 2-3kg


I suspect weight loss is rather more about diet than exercise.

Let me illustrate.

The recommended daily calorie intake for men is around 2500 and for women 2000 (obviously this does not take account of bodyweight).

Running at 6mph (about 10kmh) for 30 minutes burns around 360 Kcal if you weigh 72Kg, 275Kcal if you weigh 55Kg. The brain on its own consumes roughly 240Kcal every 24 hours

A two day a week ‘fast’ whereby men consume under 600Kcal each fasting day and women 500Kcal saves 3800Kcal and 3000Kcal respectively.

The average Briton consumes around 700g of sugar per week (100g per day – or 387 calories). In Germany that figure is around 95g per day – roughly the European average of 368Kcal per day.

400g sugar, 400g chocolate, 200g butter, 300ml double cream, 170g flour. Cake is not your friend if you're trying to lose the last 3 kilos

400g sugar, 400g chocolate, 200g butter, 300ml double cream, 170g flour. Cake is not your friend if you’re trying to lose the last 3 kilos

Cutting out sugar from one’s diet for four weeks removes a ridiculous 2.8kg of sugar from one’s diet but for my purposes I’ll calculate that as 2kg or 7,740KCal (so I’m counting sugar reduction for 5 days per week because it’s implicit in the fast and I’ll avoid double counting) .

Add in 3800 x 4 from fasting and you have a grand total of 22,940 calories cut. That’s the equivalent of jogging for 31.86 hours or 1 hour 8 minutes per day every day for 4 weeks if you’re a 72kg man. If you’re a 55kg woman and cut out sugar at 100g per day plus fasting you cut 19,740Kcal from your intake or the equivalent of 35 hours jogging at 6mph or just over 1 hour 15 minutes per day.

So my plan is to build exercise around sensible eating rather than vice versa.

Fasting days are fairly simple for me. I have porridge (25-30g porridge oats) with fruit in the morning. Blackberries are plentiful this time of year.

Lunch is a pile of steamed broccoli and carrots, plus peppers, onion, tomatoes and a piece of fish roasted in the over without fats.

Dinner is typically soup.

The point is that a whole head of broccoli (one I bought from the supermarket weighed in at around 350g) might only account for 80-85Kcal. You can eat a lot of veg if you pick the right stuff – ideally not potatoes for instance.

On non fasting days I’m planning to go for more proteinacious breakfasts; so eggs, beans etc rather than too much bread. I’m hoping to go to Billingsgate fish market in the next week or so to stock up. One meal a day (probably dinner in the evening) will be fish and a range of vegetables, but no potatoes. Lunch will be the one meal where I’m not going to worry too much about eating pasta or rice or bread. An alternative to fish would be chicken or a little fairly lean red meat – not for me though. Chickenses are my friends.

Exercise-wise I’ll join the gym for the month. That should allow me to expand the range of what I’m doing. However I don’t do cardiovascular workouts on fasting days because my norm is to do a Tabata high intensity routine on the rowing machine and if I have eaten lightly I get light headed. So I generally stick to planking, weights and crunches.

Good for dragons, bad for people...

Good for dragons, bad for people…

So I’m going to post my starting weight on September 1st and take it from there. A month without cake? I know, but I’ve done it before.

However there is a more profound point to this exercise. The way men are increasingly under pressure to look (and boy do we have it easy compared with women), with very low body fat of 10-12% so you get the sort of muscle definition beloved of Men’s Health models, strikes me as unsustainable.

I reckon I should be able to cut my body fat percentage fairly sharply if I stick to this routine. The point is however that I wouldn’t want to do this permanently. It’s just too much like hard work. I like food, I like the occasional bit of cake, I like the odd drink (I may have a glass or two of red wine per week but no beer)

Being healthy is about devising a way of life you can enjoy and stick with. If you find it all too much you’ll give up.

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Castle Mud Pie – re:ducks

IMG_5539Almost exactly two years ago I went to stay with my friend Alex, his wife Siobhan and their three children. They were building their own home from recycled materials and I spent three days throwing balls of cob (a mixture of sand, straw, peat, clay and water) up a ladder so Alex could top out the walls.

Two years on I returned to find that five have become six and a house that has become a home.

IMG_5572It’s still a project. The outside walls need a lime render. The inside walls need plastering. The partition walls upstairs haven’t been finished yet. The loo, such as it is, is just a bucket. We started work on a lean-to out the back that will provide space for a compost loo and a tool shed.

But there’s so much to love about this house.

IMG_5535Power comes from solar panels, a huge diesel genie, a big bank of retired fork-lift-truck batteries and an inverter. Water has to be conserved, but since when has that been such a bad idea?

IMG_5546The thing that struck me as most overwhelmingly right was that by building the walls from cob the house had a sense of having been there forever. There are no straight lines with the walls; they’re organic, and as such they echo the buildings our ancestors built where straight lines were very much secondary to throwing up a building that would provide shelter and stand both weather and the test of time.

IMG_5549But unlike historic cob-built houses this place takes the best of the modern world by incorporating large (reclaimed) doubled glazed windows that let in great splashes of light. It makes for a wonderfully human and uplifting living space.

IMG_5550What’s more is that the guys stuck to their budget. The whole place cost no more than £15K (That may even be €15K – I need to check).

It should give us all pause for thought – when so many of us are slaves to mortgages and terrified by ever rising property prices, the idea of breaking our chains and putting a roof over our heads to live free is compelling.

And that sense of freedom is pervasive. There are very few places where I feel able to relax so comprehensively. I could feel the tension start to drain out of me almost the moment I arrived. It’s incredibly quiet. The air is clear. The food was great – both tasty and energising (thanks Siobhan).

IMG_5775The other really striking thing was how well their children are doing. Having been home schooled and then sent to a local primary, both the older kids (ten and eight and a half) are back learning at home. However they seem to need very little guidance. Half the time they were buried in books, discovering the world for themselves. They simply find learning exciting. They were also busy turning out Harry Potter comics. It really made me question whether the glorified holding pens for children we call schools are more of a hindrance to learning than a help. Even with the distractions of videos and computer games (both regulated by their parents) the children seemed really self-motivated when it came to learning.

I think the key thing is that both parents have to be committed to this sort of choice. It’s not the easiest but, given the choice and the benefit of hindsight, it’s one I might have considered for Luca.


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A Post-Privacy Age?

Philip Zimmermann

Philip Zimmermann

One of the reasons I like going to the Hack in the Box conference is that I meet some phenomenally interesting people there.

This year was no exception with the conference being staged in Amsterdam’s old Bourse.

Some people doubtless see issues surrounding digital security as existing in something of a bubble, a bubble that perhaps pops when bank details or personal information gets taken from a corporate server.

However as the Snowden revelations demonstrated very clearly so much of our lives are now lived online that there is no clear divide between digital and physical security. Moreover while nation states and private organisations don’t have the capacity to break into a million homes or steam open the letters of a million people they’ve managed too automate snooping to an alarming degree so they can sift through emails, texts and calls and build up a picture of who we are, who our friends are and what our beliefs might be.

In defence of this outright mass violation of privacy we’re often presented with the notion that it’s for our own safety. Safety has been the stock explanation of many a totalitarian regime. It’s increasingly being deployed by democratic states as well.

But what can people do?

For a start they can se better encryption. Few people have a better perspective on the subject than Philip Zimmerman. Philip was responsible for PGP – Pretty Good Privacy launched in the early 90s and is now focused on voice privacy with his company Silent Circle.

I recorded two interviews with him while covering HitB for the BBC’s Click! programme. It didn’t fit into the pieces I’d been commissioned to do however he’s way too interesting a guy for these to go to waste.

Phil Zimmerman Part 1 by Jonathan Kent on Mixcloud

Phil Zimmerman Part 2 by Jonathan Kent on Mixcloud

Make of them what you will.

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Charity Begins in the Back Garden

IMG_2471One of the nice things about reporting is that it takes you places and introduces you to people that you might not otherwise meet.

So the other day I was down in Seaford on the Sussex coast West of Eastbourne to grab some audio for a piece I’m doing for Click! on the BBC World Service. It’s going to be about how social media is changing charitable giving.

It’s an interesting topic.

Geoff Stonebanks by Jonathan Kent on Mixcloud

Once upon a time giving to charity pretty much meant putting a cheque in the post, dropping a coin in a bucket or baking a cake for a sale at a local hall.

IMG_2472These days the nature of engagement with charities is changing.

This is probably most apparent with the under 35s. People are increasingly avoiding getting caught up with very hierarchical organisations in terms of joining up and being organised into things. Instead they’re far more focused on organising their own events, on ad hoc participation, or on the social aspect of fundraising; they want to have fun while raising money, they want to make new friends and they want subtly to enhance their standing with their own social circle. Call it personal brand building.

IMG_2476But it’s not just the under 35s who are picking up on these trends. Geoff Stonebanks has an award winning small garden behind his Seaford bungalow and he raises thousands of pounds every year for the cancer charity Macmillan. His garden is amazing; an example of just how much variety and colour you can squeeze into a small space. It wouldn’t work out here in my corner of the Weald. I go with wild and unkempt both from preference and because it’s the only way to handle this sort of environment. But Geoff’s garden is a labour of love and a reflection of his generosity.

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Women in Digital Security

katie jaya jenniferEvery once in a while I take time out to go to a hackers’ conference. You say hackers and people picture the cliché of the guy (and people do picture guys) dressed in black probably in their bedrooms and probably wearing a V for Vendetta mask.

There was a time when a hack was simply a work around. Hackers were people who experimented and tested and innovated, often on a kitchen-table level. It’s only more recently that the term has become synonymous in the popular mind with cyber vandalism.

I go because hackers are some of the most interesting, stimulating and thought provoking people I know.

The highlight this year was definitely getting three of the keynote speakers around a mic. Katie Moussouris was, until the day before I interviewed her, lead at Microsoft’s security response centre (she’s now joined HackerOne), Jennifer Steffens, CEO of IO Active and Jaya Baloo, CISO at KP telecom in the Netherlands.

The great thing about the show was that all the keynoters were women – a really good milestone in digital security and a great message not just for women in tech but for everybody.

And it was such fun interviewing them. There’s nothing I like better than the company of really smart people and these three are really good people to play catch-up with.

A cut down version of this appeared on Click! on the BBC World Service. I thought it would be fun to post the whole thing.

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