Neal Stephenson on Science Fiction

I took the afternoon off today to attend a symposium on Science Fiction as a Literary Genre at Gresham College. However, the main reason I went was because Neal Stephenson (author of Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, Quicksilver, etc) was the keynote speaker. Aside from being one of my favourite science fiction authors, Neal is also an excellent speaker. I last saw him give a talk at Trinity College in Cambridge a few years ago, and since he rarely makes public appearances, I was looking forward to today.

Having gone to many conferences in recent years, on subjects varying from neuroscience to space exploration to game design, I’ve seen an awful lot of bad talks, and some very good talks. The good talks tend to fall into two broad categories. The first are given by highly charismatic speakers who have spent a long time perfecting a visually rich and witty presentation, in the sense that the words and the slides merge into one. If you couldn’t see the speaker and their slides, you’d lose a lot. These guys tend to come from the technology world.

The second are those in which the speaker has more or less memorised or pre-written the entire thing, and works without any slides whatsoever. They might consult notes, or even read from them directly, but their words are so engaging that you don’t care. If you could listen to these guys on the radio, you wouldn’t lose anything – in fact, it might actually be better that way. These guys are often from the academic world.

Now, this is obviously an approximation and there are people, myself included, who fall in between these categories. One of the best talks that I ever saw was by Leon Lederman, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, and he was of the second category; a master story-teller if there ever was one, even if he does give the same talk again and again. I became convinced that this was the way to give a good talk – no slides, just words. Unfortunately I was only 18 at the time and I just didn’t have the chops to pull it off.

Over the next few years, I went to a lot of technology and gaming conferences, and saw lots of well-produced presentations. I then concluded that, since I couldn’t just rely on words alone, I had to bolster my talks with images; game design is, after all, quite a visual subject. This worked fairly well and most of the presentations I gave about Perplex City had quite a lot of slides.

Still, I wasn’t entirely happy about this; I had the niggling feeling that I was just telling people stuff rather than making them think. I also remembered how enraptured I could become in just listening to the words of a good speaker, and how that’s much more difficult to do when you’re being distracted by visuals. So I backtracked a little and that’s where I am now.

Neal Stephenson is not only a science fiction author but also an insightful writer on technology and computers; In The Beginning Was The Command Line is a very highly regarded essay on computer operating systems. You might therefore expect him to be of the first, visually-rich type of speaker. However, he is not the sort of person who keeps a blog or writes frequently on technology; perhaps tellingly, both his parents were hard scientists. And so, Neal is a speaker of the first second category – he clearly prepares his talks in detail beforehand and has few to no slides.

The title of Neal’s talk at the symposium was ‘The Fork: Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture’. The subject was essentially about what makes science fiction different from, well, everything else. ‘Everything else’ used to be called ‘mainstream’, but that term is basically meaningless today. Some science fiction fans call non-fans ‘mundanes’ and so that’s the term Neal used (in an obviously joking manner).

Now, I normally don’t take notes at talks any more. I find it distracting, and generally pointless since I never read the notes again afterwards. I didn’t intend to take any notes here either, but Neal said a few things that I found so original that I had to write them down. As usual, these are imperfect, etc. Continue reading “Neal Stephenson on Science Fiction”

Life on Mars: 2041

I finished watching Life on Mars a few weeks ago, and have become mildly obsessed with it. This tends to happen with any good book, TV show or movie that I see – I end up wanting to use elements in games or other projects, until the next shiny thing comes along.

After a few beers on Saturday, I came up with the idea of a new Life on Mars series. Instead of Sam Tyler being from the present and waking up 33 years ago, in this new series, Sam is from 33 years in the future and he emerges from his accident in the present.

To my mind, this has a few advantages over the traditional BBC sci-fi show. Firstly, it’s cheap – with the exception of a few scenes set in the future, mostly during the first and final episodes, everything is set during the gloriously easy-to-film present day. Secondly, it doesn’t overload people with science or data-dumping. Thirdly, it has the potential to comment on today’s society in ways that might not be possible otherwise (why, of course everyone has multiple marriages in the future!).

The whole idea is ultimately a thought-experiment that’ll only be of interest to geeks, but I came up with enough fun ideas to throw these scenes together:

“My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident in 2041, and I woke up in 2008. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet. Now maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home.”


GENE: Alright Sammy boy, we’ve got a real bastard here. We’ve been watching Tom Coates for weeks – he’s been selling thousands of pirated DVDs-

SAM: So?

GENE: And we know he’s receiving a shipment of cocaine worth a million tomorrow night.

SAM: What’s the problem?

GENE: [LOOKS AT SAM IN DISBELIEF] The Green Party might have taken over in Hyde, but piracy and drugs are still illegal in my town. And if that doesn’t get you going, maybe the bloke he murdered last night will!

SAM: Believe me, we keep track of murderers in Hyde.


GENE: Get on with it then, Dorothy, it’s not going to drive itself!

SAM: You know what, maybe you’d better drive for now.

SAM: Chris, can you send over the 3D reconstruction of the crime scene to my computer?

CHRIS: 3D what?

SAM: Right, right. Uh, send over the photos then.

CHRIS: Sorry boss, still haven’t uploaded them yet. Ray left the camera in his car.

SAM: …Upload them? For Christ’s sake, I feel like I’m in the 90s.

I have a few more scenes set in the future, but they feel a bit clunky to me. I might post more if I can write something coherent.

Sharpe, and the 95th

Sharpe remains a fond favourite of mine, and I’ll often reminiscence about the scenes (essentially identical in every movie) in which French soldiers slowly march towards the British in a line while being blasted by Sharpe’s green-jacked rifles, firing three shots to the minute.

This Christmas, the oddly-named UK TV History channel are running a Sharpe marathon, and I eagerly tuned in to watch Sharpe’s Eagle. Like other childhood favourites, I was worried whether it would age well, and first impressions indicated that it had not. The quality – at least on TV – was grainy and blithely non-widescreen. Once I’d gotten over these superficial problems though, Sharpe looked pretty much the same as if you’d produced it today – there’s only so much you can do with a story about some Napoleonic-era soldiers marching around in Spain, sleeping in tents and shooting each other with rifles.

The dialogue and acting held up wonderfully; Sean Bean is Richard Sharpe (thus ensuring a lifetime of typecasting) and the writing, presumably closely adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s original novels, barrels along with jokes, action and backstabbing. It’s about the only ITV programme I can bear to watch any more.

I noticed that Brian Cox featured in Sharpe’s Eagle, and I had a nagging suspicion that I’d seen one of the other actors before. A quick trip to IMDB revealed that the extremely nasty Lt. Berry was in fact a young Daniel Craig with black hair. Even better, he spent most of the movie either playing cards or beating people up, which provided a wonderful moment of serendipity given that I was occasionally flipping channels to watch Casino Royale at the time.

What I found most interesting about Sharpe, however, is the history that it’s based on. The main characters in the shows belong to the 95th Regiment of Foot, a highly innovative and experimental company:

In 1800 an “Experimental Corps of Riflemen”, the 95th Regiment of Foot was raised by Colonel Coote Manningham and Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. William Stewart, drawn from officers and other ranks from drafts of a variety of British regiments. The Corps differed quite a bit from the main infantry of the British Army. The Riflemen wore dark green jackets rather than the red more customary to the British Army of that time … The “Rifles” were armed with the formidable, but slow-loading Baker rifle which was more accurate and of longer range than the musket

The Rifles were trained to think for themselves, not to blindly follow orders and together with the riflemen of the 60th (later the King’s Royal Rifle Corps) were the sharpshooters, skirmishers and scouts of the British Army. They went into battle not in line, but in skirmishing formations ahead of the main infantry, who were bunched into close formations, to snipe at their opponents and take cover in the process. These tactics – originated by the 60th in campaigns in North America – were unusual for that time. It was generally deemed to be dishonourable to deliberately aim at an individual, and conventional tactics favoured the volley from a close formation and the bayonet…

On top of this, the unit’s operation was markedly different from the line infantry. Flogging was abolished as a means of enforcing military discipline (a very progressive move and unheard of for the times), they held regular shooting and sporting competitions, and were rewarded for their achievements. Officers would regularly dine with their men and in so doing would become familiar with each man in their respective companies, a practice also unheard of at the time.

The performance of the regiment can be demonstrated by the story of Rifleman Thomas Plunkett of the 1st Battalion, 95th Rifles. Plunkett, armed with a Baker rifle, allegedly shot the French General Colbert at a range of between 400 and 800 yards during the Peninsula War. Apparently, he then shot a second Frenchman who rode to the general’s aid, proving that his was not just a lucky shot. By comparison, a standard issue Brown Bess musket could not be relied upon to hit a man-sized target at over 60 yards.

(compiled from Wikipedia)

It’s hardly surprising that Bernard Cornwell picked the 95th as Sharpe’s company given its groundbreaking nature, and this finally explains the eternal mystery of why the French would always march – very slowly – towards their doom in every single movie…

The A-Team Formula

I can’t remember why I looked up The A-Team on Wikipedia a few months ago. Perhaps it was research for some long-forgotten game idea, or perhaps I was just really bored. Chances are it was a combination of the two. What I found, however, wasn’t just a typical Wikipedia ‘article-by-consensus’ – thorough, but long-winded and lacking critical faculties…

Well, it was mostly that, but it had one real gem in it: someone wrote a long section entitled Formulaic nature of episodes. Rather than being some high school essay, it’s both hilarious and completely spot-on in its almost scientific specificity. After all, all the episodes were essentially identical:

An episode … will start with the A-Team being hired by down-trodden, terrorized clients (often more than one member of the same family). Frequently, one of the clients will be a young woman who Face is immediately attracted to and who will serve as the object of his advances. The clients will have already passed “Mr. Lee”, one of Hannibal’s aliases, used to make sure the clients aren’t set by the military and encounter Hannibal in a second disguise, in which he’ll tell the clients they’ve “just hired the A-Team.” Just as frequently, the A-Team are on the road and stumble across someone who needed their help. The A-Team often return their fee to the most needy clients or find another way to pay their expenses.

By this time, Murdock will escape from the psychiatric hospital where he is interned with the help of Face. The mission is assessed by the team, and Face, sometimes assisted by Murdock, is sent to scam items for the team, often angering the episode’s opponent at the same time. This scene usually precedes or runs alongside to (part of) the team confronting the episode’s main opponent and his henchmen, with Hannibal delivering a warning – typically accompanied by a pithy, insulting remark – to them to give up peacefully. During this fight there is usually be a slow motion camera shot of B.A. throwing one of the bad guys over his head and onto a car hood, pile of cardboard boxes, or other such surface. The henchmen report to their boss, who quickly swears revenge.

The A-Team continue about their mission, often helping the clients in their daily routine, during which they prepare for the counter-attack from the episode’s antagonist. During this time, the clients question either Murdock’s sanity or that of Hannibal. In the latter case, one of the team members will make a reference to Hannibal “being on the jazz”, a term to denote the adrenaline rush that accompanies their adventures. During this segment the aforementioned female character (often sister, daughter or assistant to the client(s)) will give into Face’s advances, but the two are usually interrupted by a member of the team after a short kiss. A short scene showing the interaction between B.A. and Murdock would follow, often with Murdock angering B.A., as a set-up to B.A. taking revenge on Murdock at the end of the episode…

And so on. I ask, who could criticise Wikipedia when it harbours moments of brilliance like this?

Sidestep Right Two Paces!

One of the most memorable children’s TV shows of my generation was Knightmare. Ah, Knightmare – a show that was about role-playing games, but oddly cool to be a fan of. In Knightmare, a team of four kids would try to get through a dungeon populated by all sorts of traps, baddies and dangers.

Of course, it wasn’t a real dungeon, or even a real set – instead, one kid would put on a big helmet that covered their eyes (I’m sure there was some silly reason for this) and stand in front of a blue-screen stage. The other three kids and the audience would then see this helmeted kid transported into the fantasy land, which was mostly computer graphics, but with real actors dropped in as well.

Part of the game involved outwitting enemies, solving riddles and casting spells, but what everyone remembers most are the physical challenges. The helmeted kid would frequently be placed into situations where they had to walk very carefully in certain directions, e.g. a winding path next to a cliff, a maze where the tiles are disappearing, giant scythes swinging across the room, etc.

What with the helmet, the kid would receive directions from their three friends, who would shout out things such as ‘Turn left 90 degree and then take two paces forward! No, left!’ All of this confusion provided endless amusement to the audience at home, who typically thought (erroneously) that they could do much better.

I was recently told that halfway into the show, which lasted for a whopping eight series, some kids came up with an entirely new direction: sidestep. Apparently up until this point, no-one had thought of using this specific direction, using more ambiguous terms such as ‘step to your right’ or similar, so ‘sidestep’ was a genuinely innovative improvement. What made this even more interesting was that following this development, all the teams that followed also used the ‘sidestep’ manoeuvre. It reminds me of nothing else than the development of tool use among social animals.

I suppose there are two morals to this story, if you needed any. The first is that if you give players a broad and flexible set of tools in a game (in this case, full voice control) you can get all sorts of surprising innovations popping up that change the game for everyone.

The second is that someone should really make a knock-off of Knightmare and put it on YouTube. I would sign up for that dev team in a shot.

Bits and Pieces: The Future

This is almost exactly a year late, but Vernor Vinge, one of my favourite SF authors and perhaps the most insightful prognosticator I know of, gave the keynote lecture at the Austin Games Conference in 2006. He covers so much ground in the lecture that I suspect he lost a few people not familiar with his ideas, but the two main themes he focuses on are localizers – dust-sized devices that can exchange information that includes their location – and display technologies that would allow for augmented realities.

In its simplest conceptual form, [localizers] are simply a feature that is on networked embedded processors, whereby the processor knows where it is in 3D space.

In principle, that actually is very easy. You don’t even need GPS, simply if you have lots of them, thousands in this room scattered around as an ad hoc network, they can figure out their relative position to the other nodes. And in fact they can know where things are outside of this room if the world as a whole is hooked up this way.

Think about what that would mean. It actually eliminates whole industries. It eliminates hundreds of different locational technologies. Almost all the moving parts machinery we have and coordination of moving parts machinery involves either having humans know how to position the parts or a wide variety of technologies working together…

I am convinced that the day we really get high resolution heads up displays, most people who nowadays are carrying a bluetooth earphone and microphone would have no problem with wearing eyeglasses that gave them a heads up display of something like 4,000 by 4,000 if the infrastructure had moved along in concert. Then high resolution HUDs could be exploited. That’s an example of a highly disruptive technology. It essentially destroys all other display technology except as emergency backups.

If you were able to get localization that was really good, you could imagine setting this up so that if your wearable knew where you were looking, what the orientation of your head was and where your eyeballs were tracking, then in addition to being able to produce the world’s best display, as good as the worlds’ best desktop display, you could actually overlay things in the environment.

The term for that in academic circles is augmented reality. In that situation, having the processing power that’s involved with the network infrastructure I just described becomes very very useful, because you could in an ad hoc way overlay those portions of reality that you wanted to.

In an auditorium like this you could make the walls look like whatever you wanted, you could make the speaker look like a clown, and since everything was networked, you and your friends could get together and agree on what things looked like. The notion of consensual imaging becomes very very important, and again this is actually a very disruptive technology, if it were finally to happen. It blows away all discussion of large three-dimensional display technologies.

And so on. I suggest you read the whole lecture, or better yet, read his latest Hugo award-winning novel, Rainbows End, which he has very kindly put online for free.

The West Wing

Never mind one year late, this is about ten years late: I began watching The West Wing a couple of months ago after enjoying Studio 60, and I must say that it’s one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen. Its wiki page says that one of its most significant effects was to challenge the overwhelming view of politics being totally cynical, and I would agree with that wholeheartedly.

I am also overjoyed by the fact that it sees intelligence as a virtue. This may seem like a strange thing to say, but I don’t feel that intelligence or thoughtfulness is particular valued these days, at least not in the popular media. There’s a particularly brilliant part in the third season, where the President is worried that he’ll be crucified by the public for appearing to be too smart:

Toby: You’re a good father, you don’t have to act like it. You’re the President, you don’t have to act like it. You’re a good man, you don’t have to act like it. You’re not just folks, you’re not plain-spoken… do not – do not – do not act like it!

President Bartlet: I don’t want to be killed.

Toby: Then make this election about smart, and not… Make it about engaged, and not… Qualified, and not… Make it about a heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight.

This is a very deliberate allusion to Bush versus, well, anybody else, but it still had me cheering.

They should show the West Wing in civics classes. Two episodes a week, plus discussion, and you could get through the whole series in a few years. It’d be perfect for home-schooled kids as well.

The BBC Civil War

It’s a shame to see what’s happening at the BBC now. With the TV license fee not increasing anywhere near as much as the BBC had hoped, something’s got to give, and people are all trying to point the finger at anyone but themselves. Jon Humphrys from the Radio 4 Today Programme suggested killing off BBC3 and BBC4 lest any further budget cuts affect his own work, which has sparked off a furious debate about the worth of the channels. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be at BBC3 while this is on – a media frenzy is probably the worst way of figuring out a sensible solution.

Yesterday, Jeremy Paxman, whose own Newsnight is facing the same 20% budget cuts as the Today Programme, responded in Ariel:

Well, hold the front page! John Humphrys thinks his programme shouldn’thave its budget cut. That’s not even up there with Dog Bites Man.

Perhaps the Greatest Living Welshman would like to consider how clever it is for us all to start fighting like rats in a sack because this organisation apparently finds it impossible to live on an assured income of £3.5 billion a year.

Might it be wiser to ask that senior management make some strategic judgements about what we’re FOR?

In his Edinburgh Festival lecture, Paxman said:

I guess there’ll certainly be one more licence fee settlement. But can we really be certain there’ll be a fourth? Or a fifth?

In other words, how long will the BBC be funded by the universal TV licence fee? It made some sense in the past, when production and broadcasting costs were high, but nowadays, costs are lower and competition is higher. The BBC is too expensive at the low end and it can’t compete with the US at the high end – nothing they produce comes close to Lost, 24, Heroes, Deadwood, South Park or The Sopranos. Thanks to the internet, young people have both the desire and the ability to watch those programmes.

A couple of weeks ago, I logged on to BBC iPlayer to check out what was on. Only a fraction of the BBC’s broadcast output was available for download. Bafflingly, there were a couple of Doctor Who episodes from the second season. The only reason they were there was beacuse they’d been repeated in the past week.

This is absurd. Why carry over a practice that’s used to fill in the scarce gaps in BBC3’s live schedule to the internet, which has no scarcity whatsoever? The BBC has all the Doctor Who episodes digitised. It could put them all online, not just the paltry one or two that happened to be repeated.

The BBC fundamentally does not understand content. A TV is nothing more than a really big computer monitor that has in-built streaming of live, high quality video. The notion that we should be slaves to TV schedules and arbitrary channels is insane, when there are so many other ways of getting content now. Who cares whether something is on BBC2 or BBC3 when we’re all going to have Freeview and Tivo and the iPlayer in a few years?

All of this running around, trying to hoard as much money for as long as possible, completely misses the point: the BBC is quickly becoming irrelevant. That’s why the budget is decreasing.

This is the BBC’s future: they’ll keep radio. They’ll keep the news. They’ll keep the very best and most popular dramas and documentaries (e.g. Planet Earth, Top Gear, Doctor Who, Who do you think you are?, Eastenders). They’ll probably still fund some experimental programming. They may or may not decide to enter gaming, but they’ll meet some stiff opposition for anything but ‘serious games’. And that’s about it.

BBC iPlayer: well over a day late and a dollar short

As has been widely noted, the BBC’s iPlayer application, which lets people watch the last seven days of TV over the internet, didn’t actually launch on 27th July. It’s still currently in beta, and if you apply to test it, it’ll take a couple of days to receive your login details. This is not particularly surprising, given the long delays the project has suffered over the past few years.

In any event, I got into the beta and launched Windows XP on my iMac (using VMWare). I’d heard that the process of getting iPlayer to run was a little complicated, so I wanted to see for myself. Here’s how it goes:

  1. Register at
  2. Receive login details via email a couple of days later
  3. Visit the BBC iPlayer page, enter the custom username and password to get into the secure site
  4. Get to the point of finding a programme I want to watch (not easy – why not show a list or grid of programmes divided by channel and ordered by time?), click on download, and get told that I need to be running Internet Explorer. Sigh.
  5. Revisit programme page using Internet Explorer (I chose ‘The Museum’)
  6. Install Windows Media Player 11
  7. Download BBC iPlayer application and install it
  8. Refresh programme page again
  9. Give IE permission to install the ‘Kontiki ActiveX addon’ (I happen to know what this is – a P2P application – but what happens if other users are suspicious?)
  10. Log in using my BBC online account (it wasn’t immediately clear whether I had to make a new iPlayer-specific account – thankfully not)
  11. Finally, click on download in IE
  12. One hour later, view the programme from the iPlayer application. It works, even inside VMWare, and the quality is fine, but noticeably worse than anything you could get via Bittorrent (or Tivo, for that matter)

I appreciate – or at least, hope – that the finished application won’t need custom login details. I also understand that most people will be using Internet Explorer by default, so they won’t have to launch it like I did; although it’s worth noting that almost 20% of people in the UK use Firefox, and another 5-10% will use some other non-IE browser.

Even with these caveats, the process is far too long. Users are expected to download and install an application, and install an ActiveX control. They’re also required to have a BBC online login, which most will not. On top of all of this is an irritatingly large amount of switching between applications and refreshing of pages, and a mediocre programme library.

I am, of course, ignoring the fact that the iPlayer doesn’t work on Macs. I have heard it argued from the BBC that they are not under any obligation to ensure that the iPlayer works for every single system, and that Mac users should blame Apple for not licensing the Windows Media Player 11 DRM. The problem is that the BBC is a public service institution and is expected, where possible, to provide content to the widest number of people. There are other ways of getting content to people using Macs besides Microsoft’s DRM.

To be honest, I doubt that anyone at the BBC even believes in these arguments. All of the BBC techs I’ve talked to about the iPlayer and Ashley Highfield tend to begin swearing profusely. Maybe it’s because most of them use Macs.

Ultimately, the iPlayer is irrelevant. ABC’s website already allows anyone in the US to stream high-definition versions of Lost, Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty, among others. You don’t need to download anything, you don’t need to register or log in, and yes, it works on Macs. Now that’s a service that will entice people away from Bittorrent!

No doubt the BBC would say that they have different rights issues to ABC. There are two responses to this: firstly, if ABC figured out the legals so that they could stream programmes online, surely the BBC can? And secondly, it’s not as if the BBC even appears to care about rights in other arenas. The BBC’s copyright is already enforced completely schizophrenically: there’s nothing stopping someone with Sky Plus from recording all the episodes of Doctor Who at original quality and keeping them for years; or someone with a Sony DVD recorder from burning those same episodes to disc. People have been illegally downloading TV episodes for years – it’s easier, quicker, more flexible and higher-quality than the iPlayer – and you don’t even get caught any more! And if they can’t figure out Bittorrent, there’s always YouTube, Dailymotion and TVLinks. So why restrict computer users to downloading only a fraction of their content, and automatically deleting it after a month?

The BBC’s stance makes me think of the boy with his finger in the dike, proudly holding back the sea – except with the BBC, there’s water gushing through a thousand holes elsewhere. They think they’re doing people a favour by letting them rewatch programmes over the internet, as if this were a huge innovation. They think they stop people from copying their content by building restrictions into their outdated piece of software, the iPlayer. They can’t.

Heroic Studio 60

I’ve got four weblog posts that have been ‘in progress’ for the last two months, I’m writing up to 1000 words a day of fiction for a game, and it’s crunch time. But let’s forget that for a moment. Masi Oka – also known as ‘Hiro’ on Heroes – was on this week’s Studio 60. A crossover of my two favourite TV shows? It’s a wonderful thing.

The Ruby in the Smoke

Lately I’ve been seeing many people cursing the name of AA Gill (a TV critic for the Times), declaring that if they see his name, they skip to the next page. Given that I don’t watch any British television, I haven’t had much cause to join in on the cursing until now.

I quite enjoyed the BBC production of Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke. While the story was rather dense and very fast-paced, I didn’t have much trouble keeping up, and that’s without having read the book. Apart from that, it was a fun, mysterious and dramatic adventure of the types that we rarely see on TV or film these days.

Since this was both the first book in Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series, and of course the first adaptation, I expect things to improve quickly, although I have few complaints,: the casting was excellent, and while Billie Piper didn’t have much to work with, I wasn’t let down by her performance; and as usual, the atmosphere and sets were wonderful. To me, the production demonstrates that the BBC is quite capable of making world-class drama, particularly when it’s set in the Regency/Victorian era, and it adapts stories and doesn’t try to do the writing in-house (I’m looking at you, Torchwood).

Back to AA Gill. He reviewed the show in today’s Sunday Times:

The Ruby in the Smoke (Wednesday, BBC1) was an Edwardian-style adventure in the manner of John Buchan. It was adapted from a book by Philip Pullman, whose work my daughter reads. The story had all the elements of a boys’ adventure — an orphan hero, buried treasure, deathbed conundrums, shady characters from the East, mysticism and a really evil villain. It all rollicked along at a terrific pace and was stuffed with more plot than a Victorian municipal cemetery. It was replete, robust, flatulent with red herrings, dead ends, MacGuffins, nods, winks, threats and enigmatic ciphers. And, all this considered, it was a pretty good pastiche, though I’m sure Pullman would have called it a homage. Only two things were modernised. The hero and the villain had both changed gender: Billie Piper, a girl, played the orphan adventurer; Julie Walters, the very, very wicked nemesis.

Though I’m usually a great fan of Piper, she was rather lost in the role. I don’t think it was entirely her fault. She was called on to be both laddishly up for a scrap and femininely vaporous and lovelorn, all in a frock that precluded much physical activity in either department. The usual trusty sidekick had to double as the romantic interest, which confused, diluted and held up the narrative. Walters, though, was a brilliant villain, properly menacing, avariciously psychopathic. But making the boys’ roles female ranked as an improvement only to the publishers and producers, with their smug sense of political correctness. The damn good tale of The Ruby in the Smoke was spoilt by casting Violet Elizabeth Bott as Just William.

On my first reading of the review, I was dumbfounded. Did AA Gill really think that the BBC changed the sex of both the hero and villain from male to female? Certainly, Philip Pullman’s novel had a female hero and villain. I then re-read it, and realised that that wasn’t what he was suggesting (although given his writing, confusion was inevitable) – instead, he was saying that the story would have been much better if it was like the stories in the old days, that is, with male lead characters.

The only reason he gives for this belief is that the trusty sidekick’s romantic interest in the heroine held things up. This is laughable – would it have been a better story if Sally Lockhart, the heroine, was changed to Simon Lockhart, with a female romantic interest? Does he somehow imagine that the novel originally written by Philip Pullman had male leads and the evil publishers made him switch their sexes? Given that pretty much all of Philip Pullman’s novels had female leads, I find this rather unbelievable.

So, it seems that AA Gill is a sexist fool who doesn’t have the guts to insult Philip Pullman – who wrote the story, after all – and instead goes for the weaker prey of publishers and producers. No wonder people curse his name.