An Interview with Duncan Lunan - Part One - Unabridged Version
By Michael S. Collins
and the Winterwind staff
What have you been doing lately in ASTRA?
I’ve been on the exhibitions and publications committees since they were set up in 1970, and between 2001 and 2003 Jamie McLean, Andy Nimmo and I were producing four issues a year of our magazine Spacereport and journal Asgard, plus an occasional supplement, The New International Spacereport, in memory of Oscar. The Asgards were exploring one of my big ideas, the Politics of Survival, with a view to producing a book, but one of our Past Presidents, Bill Ramsay, suggested a spinoff project on protecting the Earth from asteroid and comet impacts, and that’s been taking priority since.
I staged an exhibition for ASTRA’s 30th anniversary at the Glasgow Science Centre, and four in Glasgow and Airdrie during 2008. In 2009 we had exhibitions in Glasgow, Stirling, East Kilbride and Forth marking the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing, and we’re now looking to see what can be done for the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight.
In 1977 the Public Observatory in Airdrie was reopened by ASTRA after damage in a storm, and we ran it for Monklands District Council, afterwards North Lanarkshire, for just over 30 years, for 18½ of which I was a curator. Our part in the 1978-79 refurbishment was under the Glasgow Parks Astronomy Project, of which I was Manager, and at the reopening in October 1978 I was asked if I could create a similar one for North Lanarkshire. It took till 2006 with repeated attempts, but eventually I ran a three-part educational project financed by the National Lottery, through Awards for All for two pilot projects and then Heritage Lottery for the big one. Altogether we ran about 700 events, over 450 of them school visits, and we didn’t have a bad one. Kids and teachers just loved us – the subjects sells itself.
How did your enthusiasm for SF develop?
Until I joined ASTRA I was pretty much under the influence of Patrick Moore’s “Science and Fiction”, reading only classics – Verne, Wells, Stapledon – and technically accurate hard SF, mostly Arthur C. Clarke and Fred Hoyle, though I was branching out into John Wyndham by the time I joined ASTRA. Andy Nimmo introduced me to Asimov, Heinlein, Van Vogt, Sheckley, Poul Anderson… and when I got to University I began reading the magazines and ranging more and more widely.
Did your writing enthusiasm start as a continuation of this, or was there another spark?
The love of words pre-dates all of this. I can remember not being able to read just before I was three, and the full package having arrived just after my birthday. For a while I pretended I couldn’t read because I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but by the time I was four I was writing poetry and produced my own hand-drawn newspaper. So they put me into a school class a year older than me, who couldn’t read or write yet, and you can imagine how popular that made me.
In the early 1970s, you came close to writing for cult favourite Doctor Who. How did this come about, and do you view it as a missed opportunity?
In the days when ASTRA had meeting rooms in Hamilton, 1970-1982, it suited members best to have weekly meetings on Saturday afternoons, and we developed the habit of unwinding afterwards by watching Dr. Who in the pub. During the Pertwee era we were going to Skelton's Bar near the Top Cross. One Saturday for some reason only Jim Campbell of the Glasgow SF Circle and I were there, and at one point we were remarking that if Katy Manning came in, bought us both pints, flashed the fags for Jim and generally played her cards right, she might just get off with one of us.
"You wouldn't have a chance," said Jim, "I'm a Big-Name SF Fan.”
"You wouldn't have a chance," I replied, "I'm a big name SF author." And then I thought, wait a minute, they do take stories from outside authors. So I went away and started working on one. Chris Boyce and others lent me books on writing for TV, and eventually I submitted a story through my then agent. It made it on to a short leet of six, from which they selected four. Mine wasn't one chosen, but through the agent I had a friendly correspondence with Terrance Dicks, from which I learned a number of surprising things. One was that the rules in the beginners' books didn't apply to Dr. Who because at that time it was the BBC's biggest overseas earner. So when the books said, 'minimise the number of scene changes to keep production costs down', they went for short, snappy scenes to keep up the pace. When they said, 'avoid special effects', that was because Dr. Who absorbed 90% of the entire BBC budget for special effects. When they said, 'minimal use of outdoor filming, preferably none', Dr. Who preferred to film outdoors because it looked more realistic. So one reason why I didn't make the sale was that I'd written an economy-budget Dr. Who story when they weren't looking for those kinds of savings; but Terrance Dicks did encourage me to try again.
Not long after that, Jon Pertwee appeared in cabaret at the Caledonian Hotel in Ayr. He'd said in interviews that he wanted more input to the Dr. Who story-lines, so I went over with friends in hopes to talk to him. The night was a disaster. Anticipating a big audience, the hotel had laid out the tables around the dance floor to put on a disco afterwards, but only three tables were taken, one of them ours, and one by a solo drunk who barracked throughout. "Would someone mind pouring that gentleman back into the bottle?" Essentially he was presenting a stand-up act to an empty space. It was impossible to work up any spontaneous laughter, and after the first few jokes fell flat we clapped one, to which he replied, "Oh, don't applaud for God's sake, intellectual nods will suffice" – which got about the only laugh of the night. There was no chance to talk to him, so I sent up a note afterwards inviting him for a drink, but not surprisingly the reply was that he didn't want to see anyone.
Soon after that my career in nonfiction took off dramatically, so I didn't pursue the Dr. Who angle any further. But who knows what might have been?
Something similar happened in 1989, when I reviewed the Glasgow premiere of Moontrap for the Herald. I wrote to the UK producer asking if they had any plans for novelisation, and he replied, “Forget that – I need a treatment for a sequel in six days, can you help?” Again Chris and others lent me books on writing for the cinema, all of which began, “Forget your dreams – you’ll never be asked to start your career with a $45 million SF movie,” and spent the rest of the book telling you how to do a docu-drama about your local baseball team for $250,000. But I found that the format for a treatment was the same as for the story-scripts I was writing for Lance McLane, so Jim Campbell and I brainstormed a story and I got it in on time. I heard nothing back, but Locus said a few months later that a sequel would be filmed, set on Mars, which wasn’t ours. As far as I know it never happened.
What writers have inspired you?
At one of the US Milford workshops apparently 20 SF writers were asked that, and the only name on every list was C.S. Forester. Because my first love before space was the sea, naturally enough when I grew up beside it, so other early influences were Percy F. Westerman, Arthur Ransome, Nicholas Montserrat…and I read a lot of nonfiction by Thor Heyerdahl, Joshua Slocum and other seafarers before I started on astronomy and space. In the next phase, Arthur C. Clarke, Patrick Moore, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis… and after that my reading broadened out a great deal.