Medieval Boobs

la-la-fg-empress-china-jpg-20150106Because I wrote a book about Empress Wu, the LA Times quotes me as an expert on medieval boobs. Because my life can’t get any more surreal.

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Primul împărat al Chinei

My book, The First Emperor of China, is now available in Romanian, which I am sure is a great relief to all of you. It’s been published by Editura All in Bucharest with a nicely understated cover and has already got a glowing review from the film website Filme Carti, which clearly appreciates my appendix on the First Emperor’s screen appearances. Since Editura All also translated my biography of Confucius, I can only hope they are now moving on to Empress Wu.

Survival of the Fittest

Out now in shops, my Doctor Who: Survival of the Fittest, for which I was asked to give Sylvester McCoy an unrepentant Nazi for a travelling companion. Herewith my 150 words from the liner notes:

My grandmother was convinced she’d been had. After gassing the nest and plugging up the holes, the exterminator returned a few days later to check on it. When he unplugged the entrance, a bunch of wasps flew out and away. But he assured us that the nest was dead, and that the fugitives were merely the last hatchlings, from post-apocalyptic eggs.

The idea of insect civilisation brings questions of its own. How would it operate? How would they feel about being born, already forced into incontrovertible specialisms? As her first act after hatching, a newborn bee queen will murder her twin sister in the neighbouring cocoon. Every insect must know its place. When Big Finish asked me to think on the implications of taking Klein’s ideology to logical conclusions, I drew on my childhood memories, and the concept of a group of creatures, born alone in the dark in the ruins of their world, then freed to fly away to an unknown fate. Where did they think they were going? Were they only following orders?

But there’s more; there always is. As with most scripts, there was a long process of pitching and repitching before everybody was happy with the ideas on the table. “Survival of the Fittest” was in my mind because at the time I was writing a book about Charles Darwin, and I was fascinated at the time with the pull exerted on early Darwinists by the eugenics movement, which, of course, fed into Nazism. I initially wanted to write something about the First Emperor of China, who really took fascism to its logical conclusion. He was raised by what was known in those days as Legalists, people who would do anything to get into power and anything to stay there. The legal system of his Qin dynasty included punitive maiming and institutionalised bribery, while many lower classes were reduced to super-specialised slaves, door-openers and power sources. Hence my original pitch, which was called The Hidden Offices, taking its name from the title of the First Emperor’s personnel division for disabled slaves.

But Big Finish wanted something interstellar and far-ranging, so instead I pitched the concept of a world high above the galactic plane, where the Milky Way itself spun “like a swastika in the sky.” My working title, in fact, was Swastika Night. There was some stuff in there about warp cores and gravity wells, too, and a malfunctioning drive that had marooned human colonists millions of light years away from a solar system large enough to truly support them, forced instead to struggle for lebensraum with indigenous insectoids.

I wanted insects because of the parallels between hive societies and a fascist regimes. But once I had insects, I was drawn inevitably to a recurring issue in my Doctor Who scripts: how does the TARDIS translation circuit actually work? If everything somebody says is translated fully, why do we hear accents? Are accents part of semantics, in which case should we hear stress in unstressed languages? What size of area does TARDIS translation affect? What happens when it’s gone? And in this case, what happens when communication is conducted by pheromones and scents? When creatures have no vocal chords, how would the TARDIS render their communication?

When I realised that there would be little scope for humour, sarcasm or untruths in a pheromone-based communication system, I had my story. And then it was down to producer David Richardson and director John Ainsworth to make all the actors play creatures that communicated by smell. Everybody likes a challenge.

"I have not told the half of what I saw."

Although they may be self-indulgent and self-regarding, I’ve really been enjoying everybody else’s round-ups of the ten years since the numbers rolled over from 19– to 20–. Herewith the last decade as it looks from here.

2000. In the first week of January, I discover that I am not going blind after all. Instead, the screen is dying on the laptop I have used since grad school. The purchase of a new desktop unit brings the internet into my home for the first time, and with it, an avalanche of Amazon parcels. Manga Max magazine is shut down in July, two days before I receive a Japan Festival Award for editing it. I write six episodes of Halcyon Sun, and briefly work on an IMAX movie project that falls at the first hurdle. Then, I’m hired to storyline and then co-script a console game that has been part-funded by a crazy arms manufacturer.

2001. The mad game is cancelled, apparently because of 9/11. By this time I am already working on another console project, writing three new “episodes” for a much-loved sci-fi franchise. It is only after the voices are all recorded, with the original cast, that the manufacturers decide to pull the plug. Something to do with the game being a stupid idea in the first place. All this gaming money gets funnelled into the Anime Encyclopedia, which eventually breaks even for me in 2007. I love working on that book so much that I look forward to getting out of bed every morning (a condition regularly repeated over the following years — I really do love my job). My first trip to America: Atlanta, for the book launch.

2002. Having superb fun working on the Dorama Encyclopedia. I am a presenter on the Sci Fi channel’s bizarre and mercifully forgotten Saiko Exciting, which first involves me reading the anime news, and later speed-translating and performing modern pop classics into Mandarin. I am offered the editorship of Newtype USA seven times, but decline because I have just got my dream job: a publisher has commissioned my obsession of many years, Pirate King. First DVD commentary, for Appleseed; I’ve since done many more for Manga Entertainment, Momentum Pictures, Artsmagic and ADV Films. Consultant on the first season of the TV series Japanorama. Film festivals in Italy and Norway.

2003. Working for a famous toy company on the “story” that will accompany their new line of toys. Fantastic fun, and very educational. Back to Japan for the first time in years, Kyoto and Tokyo; Dallas for another anime convention, and Turku, Finland. Writing the Highwaymen novelisation, and a whole rack of Big Finish scripts, including Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and Sympathy for the Devil. Start learning Finnish, because life’s not difficult enough.

2004. Sign a deal to write a book a year about China ahead of the Beijing Olympics. This year, Confucius: A Biography. Back to Atlanta for another anime convention. Buy half a flat in London.

2005. A Brief History of the Vikings presents a fantastic excuse to poke around old sagas for a few months. Present my History of Japanese Animation lecture series at the Worldcon in Scotland, and later sell it as a series of magazine articles. I also write a massive 12-part History of Manga for Neo magazine. Start writing the Manga Snapshot column, which is still running five years later. Publication, somewhat late, of my novel Ruthless.

2006. The First Emperor of China. Off to Xi’an and Beijing. A new edition of the Anime Encyclopedia. Consultant for The South Bank Show on anime, although I am largely ignored. Write the novella Cheating the Reaper.

2007. Got married — honeymoon in Estonia after Mrs Clements vetoed Georgia. Wu. Not a book title that is easy to bring up on search engines, although you can hear me doing a great interview about it here on Radio Four. Before it’s even published, there are excited feelers from a TV company, which hires me to work on the outline of a 16-episode drama series based on the early Tang dynasty. Nothing comes of it, although I do spend the money going to Japan to get materials for another book: Nagasaki and the Amakusa archipelago.

2008. Beijing: The Biography of a City is published. But my next book, Christ’s Samurai, is left in limbo when Sutton Publishing can no longer afford to pay for it. Luckily, Haus Publishing has decided it wants a massive multi-volume history of the Paris Peace Conference, and has me writing the biographies of the Chinese and Japanese representatives. Big Finish scripts for Highlander and Doctor Who. Titan Books ask me to start this blog.

2009. Switzerland for the Locarno Film Festival. Back to Japan for a month getting materials for three new book projects. Then Shanghai, Sydney, Melbourne, Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver and New York on the way home. Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy is a Christmas bestseller… in Finland, although it goes down a storm at the launch in London’s Finnish Institute. Big Finish scripts for Robin Hood, Judge Dredd and Doctor Who. My collected articles and speeches appear as Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. I am rendered poor as a church mouse by an exploding boiler.

2010. Next year, I am supposed to be going to Taiwan for the filming of Koxinga: Sailing Through History, a documentary for National Geographic. I have two big publications coming on Admiral Togo and A Brief History of the Samurai — although if it’s got more than 300 pages, can we really call it brief? I’ve got a deadline for another book in January, and after that, who knows…?

I don’t know about you, but that little list sure scares the hell out of me. This, I guess, is the flipside of those cheery little adverts in the broadsheet press, that trill “Why Not Be a Writer?” That’s why not. Because unless you love your job so much that you need to be dragged away from it, you will never put in the required hours. And yet, like Marco Polo, “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Happy New Year.

Advancing

As if by magic, the First Emperor of China rears his ugly head again only a few days later, with the word from my publishers that he’s finally earned out his advance. This is a cause for great celebration for an author — it means that a book is performing in a manner which the publisher is liable to find satisfactory, and is now, at least in theory, a little income-generating machine that can be left to perpetually whirr away in the corner and occasionally spurt out coins.

Opinions are divided about advances. One acquaintance of mine is always despondent when a book of his earns back its advance. He regards it as a sign that he wasn’t paid enough in the first place, and that he should have held out for more money. For my part, I regard an advance as a two-way contract, in which a publisher’s faith in a book’s potential is borne out by a sum paid over before the book has even started to earn any money… i.e. “an advance”. The clues are all there in the name… If it does well, everybody wins. If it doesn’t, well, someone overestimated the book’s (or the author’s) likely appeal.

The first edition of the Anime Encyclopedia, if I remember rightly, earned back its advance in a terrifyingly swift six weeks. For books that don’t quite fly off the shelves so fast, three or four years seems to be a reasonable time. My First Emperor book was published in 2006, so it’s done very nicely: with a hardback, a paperback, a dozen foreign editions, and as a cherry on the cake, an edition published in Chinese. My publishers, my agent, and I are entirely baffled why the Chinese would actually want to read what I have to say about him, but their money’s as good as anyone else’s.

The Terracotta Army exhibition helped, as did the opera in New York and the attention I got a year later from the Empress Wu, with some territories buying Wu and coming back for the First Emperor later on. But now, since the advance is all paid off, if there are any future sales of foreign editions (COME ON, NORWAY! WHAT’S KEEPING YOU?), then it’s all gravy. Now all I need is a hundred people to buy a copy, every day, for the rest of my life, and I can retire….

I said it was an income-generating machine; I didn’t say it was a *big* income.

Better Days

Beijing’s policy towards Google is nothing new. The First Emperor of China‘s advisers rounded up all ‘unapproved’ books. Single copies were retained in the emperor’s own library, and all duplicates were destroyed. It was a criminal offence to possess a banned volume. When the Qin dynasty fell a few years later, the library of censured books was destroyed, along with uncountable, irretrievable works of classical Chinese.

The First Emperor’s censorship scheme removed books considered superstitious or useless, but also any account of history that differed from the one approved by the government.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the First Emperor’s policies should sound familiar. His advisers were the first real career politicians, and one of his greatest admirers was Chairman Mao.

Other chilling features of the First Emperor’s time include:

  • a society under constant surveillance, in which people were encouraged to report on the activities of their neighbours.
  • a criminal justice system in which the interrogator delivered a verdict before questioning.
  • legalised bribery, in which the rich could buy off legal penalties, or send proxies to serve jail sentences in their place.

And some are simply impossible to imagine:

  • a campaign to make immigrants the scapegoats for all social ills.
  • an identity card system.
  • a military expedition launched against a rival nation, to retrieve magical artifacts that were later found not to exist.

So I hope you feel fortunate that you live in such enlightened times.