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John Meaney

John MeaneyI was born in the ‘Irish ghetto’ of northwest London, of Irish parents, and grew up in Slough, famous for the Poet Laureate’s words (addressed to the Luftwaffe): “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough/It isn’t fit for humans now.”

When I was five, my mother took me to the local library to join up. There, I found a book about a little boy who hid behind wooden crates next to a launch pad, sneaked on board a rocket, and flew to the moon. This was the time, on TV, of Fireball XL5, the first Dr Who — yes, I watched the first episode in November ’63 — and surreal offerings like Torchy, the Battery Boy. Aged six, confined to bed with simultaneous mumps and measles, I read the first Dr Strange and Spider-Man, with Steve Ditko’s quirky, compelling artwork.

Within a year or two I was reading the ‘juveniles’ (as publishers used to call them) of Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton, two very different writers, dragging apart the boundaries of my worldview in opposite directions.

Aged ten, I discovered adult SF, starting with Clifford Simak’s Time is the Simplest Thing. The book begins with a robot crawling across a grey plain, discovering an alien who broadcasts this thought to the robot’s linked-in human operator on Earth: “I trade with you my mind.” What an opening.

What other scenes struck me? I remember the first human being in a million years to see a sunrise, peeking out from the enclosed city of Diaspar; Paul Atreides tied up in the back of the ornithopter flying through the sandstorm over the desert of Arrakis; and the amnesiac Corwin, driving with his unremembered brother Random in an altering car as they shifted between realities on the road to Amber.

Outside books, well… I was overweight, asthmatic, and everyone else at Slough Grammar School was taller than me. The least athletic kids played hockey rather than football or rugby. The least athletic of the least athletic played in goal, meaning that an asthma sufferer, wearing a cotton sports jersey and shorts — no extra layers allowed — was required to stand still for hours at a time in chilly winter winds. It might have put me off physicality for life. (Can anybody spell ‘operant conditioning’?)

But our school had an arrangement with the local college, and in the fifth form (in the old way of designating school years), aged fifteen, I went along to my first judo lesson, taught by a 70-year-old gentleman called Alf; and it changed my life. In the following year, the instructor was a weightlifting ex-commando called Jack Gayson (not sure of that spelling), and that’s when things really kicked off. While continuing in judo (and Jack’s after-lesson close-quarter-combat training with the keenest students) I took up wu shu kwan, a hard style of kung fu.

At Birmingham University in 1975 I switched to shotokan karate (becoming the club captain), and began serious weight training and running.

And one Friday in November ’78, I popped in to Andromeda where Rog Peyton asked: “Are you coming to our convention tonight?” That moment changed everything!

After leaving Brum, I lived in Wales (having met Yvonne), Hampshire then Kent. In ’89 I began working for Europe’s largest software house, which meant commuting to London; and that allowed me to train at Enoeda Sensei’s famous Marshall Street dojo for five or six years.

That was a period when I spent at least four and a half hours commuting every day (or worked away from home), while fitting in my writing and martial arts training. But once you’re in your thirties, you have to realize that it’s time to take the writing seriously. (Most first-time novelists are over 35, having spent fifteen years to twenty years learning the craft. Like a martial artist, you’re in it for the long haul. If you begin with novels and not short stories, realize that the first novel you get published may well be the fifth novel you write.)

I sold my first short story to David Pringle (Gawd bless ‘im!) at Interzone in 1992.

I wrote To Hold Infinity and Paradox while travelling on trains. The first drafts, at least. You work where you can, not where you would like. (And you write because you must.)

Martial arts remain a huge part of my life, despite my 50th birthday being a distant, fading memory. I cross-train in disciplines outside karate whenever I can, and I’ve trained with world class people. (For those who follow MMA — it rocks, as far as I‘m concerned.) I have a personal dojo in my back garden, and I train in a honbu (main) dojo with some tough and capable guys. I’m proud to do so.

As for computers, I wrote my first programs in 1976, in BASIC, on a PDP11 minicomputer and a Univac mainframe; while in the financial IT arena, my first language was RPG II. That’s the one with the real logic cycle, none of yer namby-pamby later RPGs. (And there was no such thing as a mouse, unless it was furry and squeaked.) These days, if I were to write code it would be Java or even Haskell, and I would design the heck out of the system using UML, incorporating design patterns. Given half a chance, I’ll specify the operations formally, using OCL; and if you give me total freedom, I’ll specify it in Z (i.e. symbolic logic and set theory) and mathematically prove the design before coding.

Some of the software engineers that I’ve taught absolutely love this approach. They’re the ones who, if their software fails, have to live with the fact that someone has probably died.

Less technically, I’ve taught business analysts to use lightweight UML, and enhanced their soft skills: I’m as interested in psychology as software. During one course, besides teaching the official subject, I used hypnosis to cure a delegate’s stuttering.

Elsewhere, I’ve cured phobias and addictions, and that special fear known as writer’s block.

I loved my IT career… although when I started in the industry, the term “IT” did not exist. I worked in IT departments mainly in the finance sector, then spent over a decade in Big Software House in a range of consulting roles, and became a trainer, which combines psychology with software engineering and a touch of showbiz. Perfect for me.

I’ve taught software engineering and business analysis all over the place — often in the States and Switzerland — and had great fun with it. I still do a tiny, tiny bit of training (and a while back, I resumed studies as a very part-time graduate student at Oxford University). Right now I need to write full-time in order to meet deadlines, and so here I am. Finally.

For someone who remembers the little boy hiding beside the launch pad, and the alien offering to trade minds, what else could I do?

For more about John see the SF Encyclopedia.

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