Monday, 27 June 2016


Less than a week since Britain, or at least 52% of Britain, made the maddest, saddest decision of my lifetime.

Less than a week since the blackest, bleakest day in our recent history, at least one that didn't involve loss of life.

Yes, Britain is to detach itself from the European Union and do its own thing.  Whatever that is.  Markets have already plunged.  Expect job losses next, and not just amongst evil bankers.  And when the price both on the forecourt and at the Magaluf bar lurch upwards the gormless Mail readers who led this craziness may finally work out that they put their Xs in the wrong box.

There are so many reasons for being baffled by the result.  Not least that history, from wandering the plains trying to find a mastodon for lunch through to our projections of the far future through science fiction have been all about smaller units - family, tribe - coming together into cities, states, corporations and empires.

The reasons are obvious: economies and efficiencies of scale.  As, say, building a dwelling has progressed beyond mud huts and blocks of ice stacked together the technical skills, let alone the heavy lifting, no longer resides in one man, or even a close-knit family.  If you want progress -- better harvests, better homes, longer lives -- then come together in teams, folks.

And with it comes the need to let go of some decision-making and defending-the-realm responsibility.  Let politics, policing and soldiery become professional, so I can get on with writing code or growing GMOs.  (America, you may want to review the background to your right to bear arms before another schoolkid or minority gets wasted; it comes out of the need for a citizen militia after the Revolution, since made redundant by your military-industrial complex and 2.1m armed regulars and reservists, but that's another blue-touch paper of a posting altogether).

In fact, space opera is awash with alliances, empires and federations.  Star Wars has The Empire; Star Trek the United Federation of Planets; Blake's Seven the Terran Federation.  1984 has the world divided into three megalithic nation-states; and even then there's a hint they may be colluding to prolong the war.  You never seem to get spatterings of independent states in our thought-out futures, unless they're in some chain-with-no-name arrangement.  That's not just because it gets hard to write; it's not how we see the future progressing.

And here's an oddity.  Some of these socio-political units have definite, distinct figureheads - The Emperor, or Servalan (who, from memory, seemed to work from home, albeit an ostentatious one, possibly Cheshire).  Others seem leaderless - who's in charge of the United Federation of Planets?  We see lots of statesmen, but there doesn't seem to be a single Putin, Trump or George Washington, to pick three banknote-faces at random.

But in sci-fi the ones with faces always turn out evil (is that right? - I can't think of a disproof, a happy star-cluster led by a benevolent altruist).  The EU's problem may have actually been the polar opposite; it's the fact that we're not sure who the muscles in Brussels really is that makes us distrustful: turns out we'd prefer to stick with people whose faces we recognise, even if the current team are lizard-people in human masks.  (Seriously: look at Cameron and Osborne in HD - that's not flesh.)

However, there's evidence that Britain's decision to say 'no more' to all this joining up of nations is perfectly sane and reasonable and it's our whole direction of travel that's wrong.  That we shouldn't just stop at dismantling Europe but most of our own nation; our countries, counties, even cities.  What we need to get back to is the optimal size of community.

And that's 150.

That's not my view.  It's called Dunbar's number.  And if you're an anthropologist it crops up everywhere.  It's the personal relationships that a human can typically manage and maintain.  It's the size that villages or tribes get to before somebody thinks that a second tribe or village may be a god idea and leads a contingent off over the horizon.  Think of a Roman legion of centurions and the associated upward management structure - it's that kinda number.  WL Gore found that when you had more than 150 people in a building then issues started to crop up as people stopped dealing with each other one-to-one, so they limited their organisational units to 150.

One day we may achieve enlightenment and return to the village.  I foresee a possible - although highly unlikely - future of us living in 150-person units, dealing with our own shit and ignoring everybody else.  It would be a utopia, not because everything would be rosy in the garden, but because at least we'd be in control of the weeds.

If I was brave I would map out this way of life in a sci-fi magnum opus.  But, given the happiness and lack of conflict therein, where would be the fun in that?  Long live The Empire!

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Getting closer to the transom

Did I mention that I have a story that's made it as far as the story-strewn desk of the editor-in-chief of Spark?

Well, in the last day or so I've also had one enter Bill Adler's 'considering-for-publication folder' for the Binge-Watching Cure, and an 'I look forward to your next submission' from Sheila Williams at Asimov's.  I feel I'm getting closer to pitching one over the transom.

But I've had warm leads turn into near misses before and, if that's the case, from one perspective they merely add up to a straightforward rejection delayed.   Rejections that invariably tend to take the form of 'this doesn't fit with us' or 'this isn't right for me'.

Which leaves you wondering what it is that they do want.

Of course - and I've covered this before - the received wisdom is to read the magazines.  And in order to support these laudable concerns I agree.  But to identify the market... well, there are only so many hours in a day, plus work to do, and I'd like time to write too.  Plus the Euros.  Oh, and the Tour de France.  And Pakistan are touring...

My main reason for not slavishly reading the publications I submit to is that my mind is a two-way street and I don't want my story ideas sullied with what I've just read.  My strategy is to surprise, to be distinctly different.  As if to prove my point, try these submission guidelines from Analog: "We have no hard-and-fast editorial guidelines, because science fiction is such a broad field that I don't want to inhibit a new writer's thinking by imposing Thou Shalt Nots. Besides, a really good story can make an editor swallow his preconceived taboos."

Or Fantasy and Science Fiction: "F&SF has no formula for fiction. I am looking for stories that will appeal to science fiction and fantasy readers. You know what kind I'm talking about."

Daily Science Fiction even presents the counter-argument in one breath: "Read, and get a feel for what Daily Science Fiction publishes. We always want new and different work, of course..."

Of course, as long as you're not submitting your space opera to Portable Restroom Operator or Miniature Donkey Talk then rest in the knowledge that a good editor will recognise that breadth in our wonderful genre.  And, as if to prove that point, I stumbled across a new speculative fiction author I really like.

Patricia Highsmith.

Yes, author of Strangers on a Train, the Ripley stories, and a suitcase-full of other taut psychological thrillers (with enough room for a sack of money and maybe a severed limb).  Tucked away in 'Eleven' are some really weird genre-defying vignettes, particularly those involving snails, which aren't crime fiction at all, but portholes on to strange lives.  A man becomes obsessed with snails.  A small boy is driven to protect a terrapin.  A scientist sets out to find a legendary gastropod... and succeeds.  And if they don't fit any particular pigeonhole then they must be ours.

All I need to do right now is not let them influence me too much.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Lakeside Circus - epilogue

Or, possibly, coda.  Maybe an afterword.  I'm really not sure.

You may recall my communications with Carrie Cuinn, Managing Editor of Dagan Books, under whose umbrella sits Lakeside Circus.  Well, Carrie issued the following email earlier this week to all affected authors:

It is with great sadness I must announce that we've decided to close Lakeside Circus, at least for now. It has always been a labor of love, with very little funding outside of my own pocketbook. I was happy to pay for as long as I could, but recent events in my personal life - being laid off, going back to college, requiring surgery - have made it so I can no longer afford to fund this project.

I hope that changes, and one day soon, I may reopen Lakeside to submissions, but I can't guarantee when. In the meantime, I'll keep the website up for as long as I can, and continue to share those wonderful stories and poems with the world. 

All accepted authors with a signed contract will of course have those contracts honored: I will pay a 50% kill fee for declining to publish your work at this time. All authors are released from the other terms of publication, and you are free to submit your work to other markets. Please be patient, though; since we're closing due to lack of funds, it may take a few months to pay everyone off. (I'll do it as quickly as possible.)

I wish you the best of luck, and I will look for your fiction out in the world.

One of my first writing tutors told me 'nothing bad can ever happen to a writer' - although, if you're like me, a list beginning with 'persistent vegetative state' quickly forms in your mind.  On that basis, I hope that the experience has made Ms Cuinn, an outlier in terms of my experience dealing with editors, somewhat wiser and wish her all the best for the future.