On location, Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona. A rare moment of getting to hold the kit for a photo op as the roof of the observatory is opened.
After 6 months in solitary academic confinement, and with The Book triumphantly written, the beginning of 2017 has seen me return to life beyond my study with renewed enthusiasm and vigour. I’ve spent the past few months steeped in the Martian imaginings of our greatest writers and scientists for a BBC Radio 4 documentary on mankind’s romance with the red planet, for which I had the great if exhausting pleasure of a weekend trip to Mars’ Earth analogue, Arizona. We visited Percival Lowell’s Flagstaff observatory to learn more about how it all began, and then descended to Phoenix to talk about where we are now, with contemporary Mars scientists at Arizona State University. There may also have been a morning spent barsooming around the Arizona desert – as close to Mars as I’m ever going to get – imagining encounters with magnificent and fearsome six-limbed Tharks. And if that sounds a little frivolous, I can assure you that it was actually very illuminating: standing on red rock, looking across the barren desert to the dust clouds on the distant horizon, it suddenly made sense why that landscape inspired the original literary visionary of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs – whose experiences on those plains and encounters with their native inhabitants shaped his Martian imaginings. The programme will be broadcast as part of Radio 4’s Martian Festival at the beginning of March – more details to follow.
I also had the pleasure this week of a stimulating hour’s conversation with SF writers Roz Kaveney and Aliette de Bodard for an episode of Radio 4’s Beyond Belief on religion and science fiction, which will be broadcast on Monday 13th March. And, to knock a little realism into me, next month I’ll start recording my new series of Literary Pursuits by investigating the story behind the story of E. M. Forster’s posthumously published Maurice. Fortunately, neither interplanetary nor transatlantic travel is necessary to get started on that investigation, since a treasure trove of Forster’s papers sits on my doorstep in King’s College Cambridge’s modern archives.
My academic work is top priority at the moment as I’ve gone into research lock-down in order to get my long-delayed second book drafted by Christmas. But it’s been a pleasure to treat myself to a break from the book to take part for the second year in BBC Radio 3’s Proms Extra events: live discussions that take place before the Prom and are then cut for broadcast during the interval of the evening’s concert. On Saturday 6th August 2016 I’ll be joining eminent science fiction novelist Stephen Baxter to talk with fellow New Generation Thinker Will Abberley about H. G. Wells and the lasting relevance of his work, especially The War of the Worlds. Then on Thursday 18th August I’ll be back in the presenter seat – a role I now enjoy even more than being a contributor – to interview the great Michael Pennington about what it’s like to perform Shakespeare and how the Bard himself portrayed the profession he knew best. All events are free and there’s one before every Prom, so plenty to choose from – if you can’t make it in person, both the Wells and the Pennington discussions will be available on Radio 3’s Arts and Ideas section of the BBCiplayer after broadcast. While you’re online, check out the new addition to the Proms season, fantastic comedian Vikki Stone‘s new behind the scenes podcast, Proms Unplucked.
On Location: Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire
The third and fourth episodes in my literary detective documentary series for BBC Radio 3 – Literary Pursuits – will be broadcast to bracket the Hay Festival at 6.45pm on Sunday 29th May and Sunday 5th June. Episode 3 investigates the story behind the posthumous publication of Jane Austen’s Persuasion whilst episode 4 travels to Dublin to unravel the mystery behind a singed proof copy of James Joyce’s Dubliners, dated 4 years before the book’s publication. In previous episodes I investigate Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. All the episodes in the series can be listened to on the Literary Pursuits page of the BBC iplayer and my thoughts on the series can be found here.
In March 2016 I was invited to give a talk to auditionees for this year’s AHRC and BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker scheme, the scheme that launched my career in broadcasting back in 2013. At the same time, I received an invitation to write a blog for the BBC Academy website on my experience of working in both academia and broadcasting. The result of the talk I gave to the NGT hopefuls is this blog on the challenges and rewards of what has turned out to be a most delicate balancing act.
Taking place at the Southbank Centre in London over the weekend of Saturday 30th and Sunday 31st May, the Web We Want festival dives into the wonderful world of the web with a packed weekend of technology, digital art, talks, exhibitions and creative workshops. I’ll be there on the Saturday chairing a panel on ‘When Science Fiction Becomes Reality: AI in the Digital Age‘. Organised by the ANXS Collective, who specialise in public engagement in Art and Science, the panel features scientist Professor Murray Shanahan, Professor of Cognitive Robotics in the Department of Computing at Imperial College London and recently scientific advisor to the film Ex_Machina, alongside artist and fellow SF-lover Richard Adams, and filmmaker Khalil Sullins. Khalil’s debut feature film, the sci-fi thriller Listening, was released in 2014 and has its international premiere at the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival after our Web We Want Panel – so why not make a weekend of it!
Tomorrow sees the start of the 34th Cambridge Film Festival, which is bringing me out of summer academic hibernation with a bang. It’s been running since 1977 with a brief break in the late 1990s which happened to fall over my undergraduate years at Cambridge, so it’s great to finally be able to experience the festival now, as both a film-goer and as a reviewer and Q&A host. Cambridge 105fm’s Bums on Seats will be hosting two radio specials this Saturday and next, where I’ll join Toby Miller and others to review some of the highlights of the festival. Take One magazine will be providing exclusive written coverage of the festival. My first review for them is of a film that was released in the same year the festival launched – The Glitterball is a self-deprecatingly comic children’s science fiction/Enid Blyton hybrid. For more reviews from me, and the other writers covering the festival, keep an eye on the Take One website. I’ll be posting my thoughts on a host of films from Woody Allen’s latest, Magic in the Moonlight, part of the opening night extravaganza, to the much more hard-hitting André Sanger’s Night Will Fall, taking in many others in between. I’ll also be hosting a Q&A with André Sanger and producer Sally Angel after the 6pm showing of Night Will Fall on Tuesday 2nd September. And the preceding evening I’ll be hosting a Q&A with Rowan Joffe (writer of the screenplay for 28 Weeks Later) and Stephen J Watson after the 9pm screening of Before I Go to Sleep – a film which stars Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth in what I can’t help but think of as 50 First Dates turned to the dark side.
It’s going to be a fantastic ten days of unadulterated cinematic indulgence – tune in or turn up where you can!
I’m delighted to announce that I’ve been selected as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker 2013! Keep an eye on my Radio page for updates on upcoming appearances on BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves.