Friday, 6 July 2018

133, or number 7

Blink and miss it as it speeds by, you'll find my seventh story acceptance of the year, all twenty-seven words of it, as the 133rd microfiction on the ever-scrolling Story Seed Vault site.

Meanwhile, my longest work is still available...

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Sunday, 1 July 2018

Half-term report

Halfway through the year and, as I've already flagged, I'm gunning for a submission a day.  So, how am I doing?

  • 188 submissions
  • 154 rejections
  • 6 acceptances
In terms of stories out, I'm on track; and I've reached my basic goal of three sales.  So far, so good.

Half of those acceptances came in the first six weeks of the year, a veritable avalanche.  'A Second Opinion' has already appeared on Terraform; New Shoes in Third Flatiron's Monstrosities; and Product Recall reprinted in NewCon Press' Best of British Sci-Fi 2017.  I'm sure all three grace your shelves, actual and virtual.

I had to wait until May for the fourth, another reprint, with 'They Have Been at a Great Feast of Languages, and Stol’n the Scraps' getting a second airing in Timeshift.  Many thanks if you helped out with its Kickstarter.

The fifth was a drabble, 'General Katutian Surveys her Triumph', which has been accepted by Martian (both this as Timeshift are the brainchildren of Eric S Fomley).  A curious exercise in that I wrote five, four of which were very 'me' and this fifth one, redolent in style to a bloke in a rubber suit waving a sink plunger around calling it a ray gun.  But that's the one that sold.  I think the writing gods may be telling me something.

I also invited my children to compose and submit, but their phones turned out to be more inviting.

The sixth acceptance is hot off the press: my flash about technology and ageing, Charles Edward Tuckett's Yuletide Message, has been taken by NewMyths for their Passages anthology.  Another interesting gestation, in that the story was originally rejected, albeit as a near miss with some very heartfelt feedback from editor Susan Shell Winston, last September.  When Passages was announced I pointed out that it would be an excellent fit and its resubmission was very generously accepted.  Hence I've rather screwed up NewMyth's response turnaround chart on The Grinder with a 393 day acceptance.

This contrasts with my somewhat bitter experience of Parsec's short story contest, for which I sent in two stories, one of which seemed to fit their theme perfectly.  My hopes were raised when the deadline for notification of results passed with only a rejection of the weaker tale.  I chased, a couple of times - perhaps they were trying to boil four down for the three winning slots, or debating gold, silver and bronze.  No, turns out that they'd simply forgotten to send me both rejections.  Ho hum.

Putting such typical experiences aside, but adding in a rewrite request from James Gunn's Ad Astra, and another submission shortlisted by Abyss and Apex, and 2018 is shaping up to be a pretty good year.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Some passing thoughts on God

I have a fanciful target to send out 365 short story submissions this calendar year; I suspect my next posting will be an update at how I'm performing against that goal.

In trying not to scrape through the bottom of the barrel just to keep some arbitrary numbers up, I've gone back to previously published works, like my noir-ish desert-set thriller Death of a Medicine Man, which appeared in Crimson Fog in 2012, a publication so obscure I could probably pass my story off as unpublished.  If I hadn't just typed those words, of course.  Doh!


I went back to my mss and the comments the editorial team had on it.  Here's a line from that story: "Half-Moon thought for a moment, the voice of Rosemary Clooney drifting out of an open window farther down the sidewalk."


This elicited the following comment: Very weird image, until I realized he was talking about music; and response from the editor-in-chief: Agreed with Andrea. I don't know Rosemary Clooney, and our readers might not either, but a simple addition here solves the problem, I think.


I know this isn't exactly what they're saying, but there is an implication of editor as God: that the knowledge, experience, and literary & cultural references of readers should be a subset of the editors.  If the editors get the reference or joke, then so will the readers.  If they don't, then please explain for the hard of understanding.  Doesn't matter that (and this is the crucial point to me), given the milieu, Rosemary Clooney would be well known to the narrator and he wouldn't need to, or even think to, spell it out.


I'm not sure if I ever did rewrite that line, but I've always worked on the basis that readers are clever, especially en masse, much cleverer than writers.  Or editors.  I actually enjoy a clear reference that I don't get; it makes me explore, find out what the author was getting at, find out things that I didn't know.  Or when I do get it - I still have a very soft spot for Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, for the moment when the reading of the second and stranger part of Coleridge's Kubla Khan begins.  Not a tricky joke to get, granted, but it does give you the feeling of privileged access.  


I'm currently rewriting a story for James Gunn's Ad Astra (which doesn't mean that it's sold by any means), which involves an alcoholic taking refuge on a dry colony.  Offered a drink, he is surprised that the reasons for his escaping Earth are not known.  The response comes, “Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator's wife? I like to think you killed a man."

The line is, of course, from Casablanca.  I haven't credited it - but the speaker is described as an aesthete given to literary quotations - and may even cut it down to the last part to make it less on the nose and less problematic, copyright-wise.  But the point is, Rick then goes on to say that he came to Casablanca for the waters, exactly the same reason my alcoholic travels to Titan.  It a subtlety that'll be lost on ninety-nine out of a hundred readers.  But I'm writing for the one percent who will smile, their thought process echoing mine.


There is a flip-side to this, which is readers telling you your story is an allegory for man's inhumanity to man; or the politics of the Philippines; or how they're feeling right then, right there, whereas it's actually a simple story about a personality clash on a faraway planet.  I have no idea of the state of your soul, honest.  I only make the mirror, not the visions you see in it. 


Of course, we all know that the writer is God, pulling the strings, making the puppets dance, but only within the world of the story.  Outside, in the bigger, scarier real world, it's you, the reader.  And I'll continue to try to treat you are as clever as the cleverest amongst you, not on a par with the dumbest.  It's the only way I know.

Friday, 15 June 2018

You too can be a museum piece

A few weeks ago the family paid a visit to Big Pit, Wales' National Coal Museum.  It's really worth a detour, but only if you're already in Wales.  Obviously.

The Three Day Week sits at the very edge of my memory, candles joining bog-roll on that short list of items that you never, ever, ever, EVER run out of.  But the English Civil War of 1984/85... oh, sorry, it says Miners' Strike here... sits firmly in my formative years.  I may have grown up without a mine for a hundred miles, but it really mattered.  There was a sense of the country pulling itself apart.


Three things surprised me.  The first was that all watches have to be removed when you go underground (and you do, for a good hour or so), even my wind-up one.  Given that I bought it on eBay as 'in need of a new battery', I understand their stance that somebody will take a battery-driven watch down thinking that it's an old school model.  They're very sensitive about anything that could cause a spark.  Which I appreciate.


The second was how much we, as a country, paid for the nationalisation of the mines.  In 1947 £164,660,000 was paid to the owners for almost 1000 collieries and £78,457,000 for other assets such as coke ovens, brickworks and smokeless fuel plants.  That's almost £10bn at today's prices.  And we treated the industry like Pete Townsend treated his guitars, smashing it to pieces within a working lifetime.  Except Pete, apparently, used to creep back onto stage, collect up the bits, and glue them back together.  Unlike Thatcher and Ian McGregor.


Thirdly, and a natural consequence of the second, it was how quickly the industry has become, quite literally, a museum piece.  Miners were real people when I grew up.  Now they're categorised with knocker-uppers and those blokes who carried red flags in front of horseless carriages; shiny lamps are on sale as souvenirs for £55.  It got me thinking: what other industries and jobs that we take for granted?  What real jobs today could be museum pieces themselves before today's graduate trainee retires?


We can all list the easy ones with our eyes closed.  Cashiers: we'll just be walking into shops, filling our bags, and walking out and it won't be stealing because it'll all be recorded on our phones with our accounts instantly debited.  Taxi drivers: driverless Uber a-go-go.


I think you can extend the latter concept to pilots, too, both military and civil.  Planes are on auto-pilot more often than they're not; and why complicate instrument-only flying by adding an underpowered, fallible human into the process flowchart?  My guess is that the only time human intervention has any real value is at landing, and even then I'd prefer the faster reactions and collective experience of a million touchdowns of the computer.  Driverless cars will all get us used to having nobody up front, and first class could get to have a big windscreen.  And all those sci-fi movies, where every spaceship has a pilot, which are all essentially WW2-in-space, will look so anachronistic.  Except for Star Wars, of course, which was a long, long time ago, so they have yet to invent any of this technology.   

What about prostitutes?  It must be a fairly soul-less experience, and doesn't all that repetitive movement add up to a robotic experience already?  (Not sure if this one counts, because it's a robot replicating human action, rather than superseding it).


Politicians?  Our political views are influenced by the media, and much of the content in the media is already generated by AI, if not by Russians.  So, by that measure, they're already being voted in by software.  Going the whole hog will just enable them to make best use of continual online referenda and the wisdom of crowds and not be swayed by the last person to speak.  Just don't say 'Skynet'.


Actually, it may be easier to list the jobs that remain: pig masturbators, pickers of soft fruit, plumbers, electricians... and creative writers.  Maybe, for once, I've picked a winner, and without the need to jerk off a pig.

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Monday, 21 May 2018

Buddy, can you spare some change?

'Course you can, what with the peace dividend that Trump's triumphant diplomacy is bringing to the world (I'm bargaining that'll either look satirical or prescient in a year or two).

Anyway, after bagging yourself a copy of my novel 2084, you'll want to contribute to the Kickstarter campaign for Timeshifts, a time travel anthology that'll carry my story They Have Been at a Great Feast of Languages, and Stol’n the Scraps, which originally appeared on Daily Science Fiction.  It's a little different from most anthologies in that it'll only have reprints that originally appeared in pro or semi-pro venues.  So, minimal chances of it being crap...

And there's always Tales of Ruma, which carries my story Stormwarning, for which I stumbled across this touching review by fellow contributor Jon Ficke, which concludes: "Bagnall captures the “fairy tale” voice extremely well in this sad story."  I'll take that.

And the Chronos Chronicles is also finally out, which carries my story Litterpicking on the Moon.  Except it's been unilaterally re-titled Picking Litter on the Moon, and never having been sent proofs to check, I can't say what else has been done to it.  And as, unusually, contributors only get a copy (and, unusually, only soft copy, at that) three months after publication, which is when we also get paid, I won't be able to tell you until August.

You can find Chronos Chronicles on Amazon, whether you like your behemoth waterway with a .com or a .co.uk.  Or you could always go back and find its first outing in PunksWritePoemsPress' anthology Don't Open 'Til Doomsday, which I can guarantee was as written by me.

Lastly, I see that my story The Trouble with Vacations, podcast last year as Overcast 54 (go back and listen!), has been nominated for a Parsec Award.  Which is nice

Oh, did I mention I've written a novel?

Friday, 18 May 2018

I have seen the future and it looks like the 1300s. But with better dentistry

Science fiction isn't really science fiction at all.  It's future fiction.  Except when it's alternate history, but let's park that one.  And there's far more that defines the future than science.  Unless you count social science as science.  Which I don't.

Not that I'm saying the social sciences aren't relevant.  They're central to this argument.  Science is just the T in a PESTLE analysis, but a good strong cup of T at that.  Two sugars, and make the spoon stand up.

What the future looks like depends as much, if not more, on the values we adopt and how we organise ourselves.  Not just on when (when?!) somebody will finally get around to inventing hoverboots.

Recently, Bernie Sanders has been getting himself in hot water suggesting the state should ensure all Americans have jobs at $15 an hour.  It makes a lot of sense, unless you happen to be numerate.  And think about it.  There's no way that the plan could work; indeed, by stifling productivity it's destined to make us all poorer.

But the criticism only makes sense if your paradigm is that economic, and therefore social, progress is defined by making the world more efficient, producing more with less, and that, on balance, makes life better.

Well, duh, I hear a lot of you say.  A lot?  Okay, everybody.

But consider this: surely progress has to mean things getting better for all, not just the lucky winners?  If we're born with nothing and die with nothing, just surely it would be better to try to fill in the brief gap in the middle with lives that hold autonomy, mastery and purpose for all?

I know the arguments.  One man on a combine brings in hundreds of times more grain than an army in a field with scythes.  It makes my cornflakes cheaper.  It makes everything cheaper.  And don't forget the people designing and making the combines, the supply chain that supports.  If we reverted to blacksmiths making hand tools then China or Korea or someplace else would fill the gap and provide the world with the combines it wants.

And China or Korea or someplace else would give the world the cheap cornflakes it needs, because it would still be using combines.

And we haven't even got on to agrochemicals increasing yields so that rich white people don't need to starve.

The trouble is that, whilst the man on the combine or the people designing and building it are now highly skilled, highly paid professionals, the descendants on the army of scythe-wielding oiks are now on sofas consuming corn oil in various forms, watching TV.  Their lives are empty, devoid of prospects, devoid of a meaningful future.  So empty that occasionally they find the scythes at the back of the wardrobe and riot.  (Can I find a way of dropping in Eric Hobsbawm's phrase 'collective bargaining by riot' - not sure how... oh, I already seem to have done so).

It strikes me that in our calculations we don't give enough weight to the social costs of progress.  Not just the health costs of corn oil and cleaning up after the scythe-wielding riot or turning people to terrorism as a last resort, but the value of autonomy, mastery and purpose for each and every individual.  Those things are not easy to measure, not like EBITA and RoI.

I think there's a yawning chasm between those popping out for a latte around Silicon Roundabout before brainstorming the monetisation of the gamification of healthcare, and those sleeping rough on real roundabouts, and no matter how much life gets better for the former, arguing that life has got better overall starts to sound churlish.

And, yes, I know that there are innumerable academic studies that are trying to analyse just those things, but I'm talking about a Kuhnian paradigm shift towards us as individuals judging whether a change is welcome based on how it affects everybody.  A shift towards a utilitarian hive mentality.  In each of us.  Which means changing how we view the world.  Like, say, waiting fifteen minutes more for the taxi with a human driver than the driverless Uber.  (Oh, I think I may have lost your sympathy there...) 

Maybe, just maybe, the industrial revolution was the fresh faced child's watered down wine that turned out out be the gateway drug to us sleeping in doorways drinking something blue out of a paper bag whilst shouting at strangers.  Metaphorically, of course, although literally for some of us.

It's no coincidence that I'm blogging this during Mental Health Awareness Week; that guy in the combine, the one dong the job of a hundred with hand tools, chances are that he's leading a life of quiet desperation.  Our wonderful workplace tools that allow us to never go home seem to be sucking away the balance of human happiness.  Would he have been happier in a field with a scythe and a hundred fellows?  Discuss.

I'm not advocating full fat Luddite extremism.  I'm not going to smash the combines, nor pretend that they were never invented.  We have to find a middle route.  We don't need to get rid of healthcare and energy from renewables and life's luxuries.  Mao's collectivisation of the farms didn't work; I'm not suggesting it did.

I see a lot of science fiction that subscribes to the dystopian terminal of the journey we're on - I caught up with Elysium the other week, which has a starving, sprawling human population, but also has humans building the robots, which struck me as naive - but very little with a Utopian world where we're happily scything away.  Perhaps that's just what's needed.

At the same time as these thoughts have been flitting through my mind, I've been hearing the idea that our economy has evolved from agrarian to industrial to knowledge, and the next step is creative.  Sounds wonderful, but also sounds like so much more winner-takes-all economics, where the second best struggles to raise its head above EL James and Dan Brown (did I say best? I meant most popular).  For my part, I'll be combing these two ideas by employing a couple of dozen locals to illuminate manuscripts of my next story rather than sending them out electronically.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

I think I've discovered a portal

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I think I've discovered a portal.  To idiocy.

You see, like most - actually, I assume virtually all - writers, I use the internet constantly and continually, not just to submit material, but to check facts, spellings, and names.  Not to do real research, mind.  A long time ago, having reluctantly revealed I wrote, I was asked what I wrote about.  I gave my stock answer: death.  Why?  Because it required no research.

And, whilst science fiction by no means defies research, I tend to see something worth knowing and riff off of that, rather than actually dig into, say, recombinant memetics or neuroparasitology.*

No, my fact checking is there to give a gloss of authenticity.  I think of it as finessing.  If a character can relate a couple of ideas about the Punic Wars, then he probably has a dozen, even if the author stopping reading the wikipedia entry when he'd collected his brace. 

I have a story that, like one or two houses I've owned, I've just finished extending.  It's called 'Knights of the Spherical Table'.  The story has existed as a flash piece for about three years and has been a near miss a couple of times.  Some really nice feedback from Avily Jerome at Havok Magazine included the thought that she'd really like to know what happens next.  As is my want, on reflection, the story fell into the trap of stopping after act 1, at the point the main character is just waking up to their predicament.

So, it's now a far more rounded 3000 word piece.  

As well as checking basics - in this instance, what postcode is Chingford in? what's the nearest hospital? - I always check my names to see if they actually exist; I'm quite capable of naming my protagonist or antagonist Britney Spears without realising the significance.

In this case I didn't expect 'Knights of the Spherical Table' to fail to register any hits; indeed, it's not even my phrase.  It came up in a sermon at church, as a a throwaway quip about taking King Arthur's Round Table to a whole new dimension.  But, putting the phrase into Google, I was surprised at how few hits there were, and how dumb most were: some tosh about role playing characters, some more similar tosh, and even more dwarf-tossing here, worth quoting in full:

A new King has taken the thrown and everyone in my Kingdom must like and obey me. IF you disrespect the King or question the King you shall have your head chopped off IMMEDIATELY by one of the Knights of my spherical table. I will also have Jester's, a Queen, Slaves, a Mighty Castle with a moat with crocodiles in it that eat people i don't like. I will have women beckoning to have intercourse with me, because i am the King. Anyone that try's to overtake the thrown will be killed immediately, or if i suspect a take-over incoming i will barricade my walls and my my Archers shoot you in the face, we will find you and if you live you will be banished from King Thilz's Kingdom forever.! 

Best is this hideousness, which puts any bad purchase around the $300 mark you've ever made into context.

All of this leaves me wondering whether these have been written by real people - who, somehow, know the more technical word 'spherical' but have somehow mistakenly used it for 'round' - or algorithms.  I had settled on code, possibly real English translated into Korean and back again, until I remembered (whisper it) that half of the population is of below average intelligence.  Scary, huh?

And that's the moral of this posting: without gatekeepers, what's out there represents the total spectrum of human intelligence.

Yes, of course, there are representatives of those above the arithmetic mean.  Okay, as far as I could see there's only this cartoon, which does show an understanding of the English language:

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and there's also this video, which I flicked through on mute, so there may a quip-a-minute commentary that puts it all in context, but otherwise it just seems to be children hitting each other.  Which we're all fully in favour of...

All of which implies that, maybe, the monarch above with jester's and women beckoning for intercourse may also be above average.  Even more scary.  Or, perhaps, this is just a phrase around which the dumb cluster.  Like 'President of the United States' or 'low-fat'.

I'll ponder on.

* Just to illustrate my whole big thing point, these phrases were gleaned just be Googling for lists of obscure scientific disciplines, not by any real knowledge on my part.  Just how shallow am I...