Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

My brother the fantasist

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2011-03-03 Times.jpg


Spacemen, drunks, wizards and ... family. David Aaronovitch joins his author brother Ben at a sci-fi/fantasy convention

In the ground floor gents at the Britannia Hotel in Coventry last Saturday a rather strange scene was unfolding. In the door was a drunk man, who —laughing and gesticulating — was undecided on whether he was staying or leaving. The reason was his amusement at the silver-faced alien in a spacesuit, standing at the urinals, who was trying his best to have a distinctly terrestrial pee — and failing. There was a stand-off until the drunk fell back through the door.

This clash of cultures happened because , the hotel was hosting something called Redemption II, described as "A Science Fiction Multimedia Convention", put on by enthusiasts of sci-fi and fantasy books, comics, games, films, radio and TV. Over three floors about 300 fans were attending lectures, taking part in workshops, playing board games and (as we've seen) dressing up. There were a couple of princesses, something from one of the Star Trek sequels, a Terry Pratchett wizard, a superheroine with an axe, an explorer in a pith helmet with something luminous on his arm, and a very young cyberman. Most attendees, it must be said, were in normal clothing —two young men were in what appeared to be waterproof skirts, but which their labels described as Utilikilts.

I was there not as a fan myself but to see my younger brother, Ben, perform. Ben is a writer, the first part of whose "urban fantasy" trilogy, Rivers of London, has just been published in Britain, and is doing very well (two appearances in the fiction bestselling lists). It has been a long and difficult slog for him to reach this point, and I have become charmed by the world of genre fiction in which he seems to be succeeding.

His first gig of the day illustrates the obsessive playfulness of fantasy fandom. He is part of a panel discussing whether the old Doctor Who was better than the new. There are 100 people in the hall, and the chairman begins by sharing with the audience his own qualifications for being there. That he has watched and analysed every episode of Doctor Who yet shown. "My girlfriend said, 'Why have you got all those old Doctor Who videos? You're never going to watch them': he confided. "Two years later, aha! I've watched them all. In order!" And charted their audiences, too, which he now displays on a graph. "The peak here is Tom Baker as the Doctor in City of Death," he says, indicating a huge spike, before admitting: "True, ITV was on strike at the time." In this hall Michael Grade is the villain who took a great series off the air in the late Eighties, before a more enlightened BBC bought it back 16 years later. The consensus is, as my brother puts it, that there was always "a Doctor Who-shaped hole in the schedule, waiting for someone to put a Tardis in it".

When the discussion gets under way, a number of things become apparent. The first is that the people here are mostly very bright, very well-informed and anything but swivel-eyed saddos. The second is that sci-fi and fantasy are not, as I'd imagined, boys-only territories. Half the people attending are women, and mostly feminists at that. Perhaps because the creation of alternative worlds allows imaginary spaces in which sexism and male awfulness simply do not exist (In the afternoon I was part of a small otherwise all-female audience for two women librarians discussing censorship in children's sci-fi. I learnt a lot.)

More than anything these people— men and women — seemed to want to be writers. They had a detailed appreciation of plotting and characterisation, and seemed to seek advice about their own projects whenever they could. One session, marked "for adults only", was described as "Rope bondage, for writers". Another, which I stumbled into by mistake, was on kimono making. Ben explained to me that these both had to do with manga, Japanese fantasy comic books.

Over lunch Ben dealt patiently with my questions about fandom. "It's like Andrew Marr reeling off stories about Harold Wilson's first term as Prime Minister. The people interested in politics are just one kind of trainspotter. People who like sport [he knows that I'm a big Spurs fan] are another. We're all trainspotters, but some have traditionally been given higher status than others."

My little brother's enthusiasms manifested themselves, even to his detached older brother, in his early teens. With his best friend, the 11-year-old Ben began to play something called Dungeons & Dragons, a role-playing game in which the players adopt characters who were given attributes such as "skill", "dexterity" and "swordman-ship". Thee avatars then wander into made-up landscapes, there to encounter monsters and enemies. The only equipment required was dice, booklets and huge imagination. The last my brother had in occasionally worrying abundance. So he would act as the "Dungeon Master': who devised the world and its inhabitants.

Maybe these internal worlds were too satisfying compared with the external Britain of the Eighties, but Ben managed to be a rubbish student, scraping his A levels and-not going to university. His family despaired. Until, in his early twenties, he wrote to a BBC producer enclosing a script that he had written for a detective series. The BBC then asked him to write an episode each for a series called Rockcliffe's Babies and for Doctor Who. Both were accepted, but Rockcliffe Babies wasn't killed off. Ben wrote two series for Doctor Who, however, including Remembrance of the Daleks. He was 24 years old. He even wrote an episode for Casualty.

And then, as abruptly as it had begun, it stopped. Woody Allen's line captures it. "It's worse than a dog-eats-dog world, it's a dog-doesn't-return-other-dog's-phone-call world." He wrote a series called Jupiter Moon for BSB, before that company disappeared into BSky B. Fifteen years of struggling to get a commission followed, almost as though he'd been blacklisted. It was horrible. Then one day, working in Waterstone's, the penny dropped, he told me. TV drama was controlled by maybe two or three commissioners, and if you weren't on their list you didn't work. Looking at the shelves of books, however, he realised that publishing was still a series of open doors. He opened one, and went through.

Before I left I watched him giving a masterclass on fantasy writing. Twenty-five people hung on to his words. He was confident and witty — the years of frustration behind him. I had one last visit to make, before walking to the station. But it was interrupted by a drunk and a spaceman.

Caption: SIBLING RIBALDRY? David and Ben Aaronovitch test-drive a toy Dalek

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  • APA 6th ed.: Aaronovitch, David (2011-03-03). My brother the fantasist. The Times .
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