Friday 22 December 2017

Star Wars flavoured


Contains spoilers

I'm still not sure what to make of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  I'm left with a sense of something Star Wars flavoured, rather than real Star Wars.  Nothing wrong with being Stars Wars flavoured, of course.  It's just not quite the real thing.

This isn't my main problem, but I'm going to flag up the laws of physics as my first suspect.  When Rose's sister, Paige, bombs the First Order fleet, those bombs definitely drop.  Like out of a Flying Fortress over Berlin.  Not like something in deep space, which tend to bobble about amusingly.

I'm not even sure they drop towards the planet they're orbiting, which would be at least explicable.

But they're sufficiently in deep space to make going into warp drive (or is that Star Trek?) safe.  You would have thought all that gravity would have made the ships' computers fall over doing the calculations, given that Vice Admiral Holdo later has to remain on board a near-dead ship to... to do what, exactly?  Until she does have something to do, of course.  In which case, damn lucky she's there.

And, if it's so easy to take out a star destroyer or dreadnought, by flying through it at light speed, why haven't they developed drones, flying bombs, that just do that?  They clearly have the technology.

And that takes me to my real gripe.  Even more crucial than the laws of physics are the laws of story.  I get the impression that in the Harry Potter universe there are a strict set of do's and do-not-do's, and the characters act within those parameters.  Here?  Like children playing make-believe, rules and loopholes are created as and when needed.  Those flying bombs were only dreamt up when it became the most poignant direction for the story to go in.  Nobody said, if they could do that wouldn't they have done it before, and what would the world look like?

Leia as Superman?  Yeah, why not.  Luke projecting so he's solid enough to fight with a light sabre, but not enough to take a hit.  (Or is he using the Force to hold the light sabre at a distance, in which case how did it survive General Hux's onslaught?).  Explosions that kill all those wearing body armour, but not rebels in mufti.  

Maybe I should go more gently and just enjoy the ride.  After all, this has always been a children's playground game writ large.  Look at the supposedly cute animals that pop up jarringly in every episode (nadir: the funny as waking-up-to-find-you're-living-in-so-called-Islamic-State-and-you-have-terminal-cancer Jar Jar Binks).  And the aliens that are patently standard issue bipedals with rubber masks.  And the silly names.

And in children's games logic is fluid.  You're dead; no, I'm not.  Yes, I can, if I want to.  Goals always go in if you're the striker, those jumpers provide absolute ambiguity.

But, possibly, there's no bending of the logic at work here at all as Star Wars has always been a religious, rather than rational, experience.  To subject the Force to secular empiricism, to expect to work out its limits through some double blind experimental procedure, is completely missing the point.  Just as Louis Armstrong may or may not have said about love, or jazz, or maybe it was Fats Waller: if you need to ask, you ain't never gonna know.

So, I guess it comes down to belief.  Well, in that case, I'll stop trying to analyse, assess and justify.  I'll just stick with my belief that this is Star Wars flavoured...

Thursday 14 December 2017

Read all about it! Earth-shattering news!! (See page 12)

I wanted to make this posting about the possibility of making an owl's eyes pop out if you slap it on the back of the head - seriously, google 'owl skull', they have their eyeballs in tubes that resemble early mortars - but there seems to be limited research on the matter out there, and limited scope for field tests to boot.

So, instead, I'll focus on the biggest story to break in decades.  Which I found tucked away on page 12 of The Times.  Yes, we seem to be one step closer to performing human head transplants.

My head, your body.  And all without the fiddly need to download Photoshop.

There's a potential take on Frankenstein where it's not a cadaver that's brought to life but you, your head, on the body of a corpse.  You've popped in for something routine, wake up from the general anesthetic feeling a whole new man.  Or woman.  Who's fussy?

Stories have been written from the monster's viewpoint, but I'm not sure there's been one quite with that take.  I might let that one mull in the dark recesses, see what emerges.

Actually, I wasn't going to blog about Frankenstein's monster at all, but about self-driving cars, which seems to be this week's flavour of the month, and how this is going to make The Knowledge a thing of the past.

And that got me thinking.  If black cab drivers are simply learning a near infinite list of locations and routes, even some that go sarf of the river, aren't doctors just acquiring a relational database of symptoms, conditions and interventions by educational osmosis?  Aren't they as ripe for replacement as cabbies?

Of course, doctors have stronger unions than drivers, at least in the UK, so I fully expect GPs still to be running late, even when my driverless taxi has dropped me at the surgery door on time.

And, of course, the more senior the specialism, the more difficult it will be to be replaced by an algorithm.  I suspect head transplants may be one for the specialists.  Doctor Frankenstein chose his career well.

Thursday 16 November 2017

Cezanne or Picasso?

2084 by Robert Bagnall, now available from, or direct from Double Dragon, for your enjoyment.

I recently took in an episode of Malcolm Gladwell's brilliant Revisionist Histories podcast called Hallelujah.  It's on the subject of why genius takes time.  Or, sometimes, it doesn't.

He contrasts the slap-it-together, finished by lunchtime ethic of Picasso or Bob Dylan with the drafting and re-drafting of a Cezanne or Leonard Cohen, where works are never finished, merely abandoned needing to be monetized.  Sometimes it even takes another person to pick up what you thought had been taken as far as it could be to reveal the gold beneath the tarnish, just as Jeff Buckley, John Cale and a host of others did with Cohen's Hallelujah.  Or, like Elvis Costello reworking Deportee, it takes an older you revisiting what the younger you had declared as good as it was ever going to get.

Why mention this?

Well, I see myself as a Cezanne.  I have stories on my spreadsheet which were first drafted in the last century, western crime capers rewritten for the edge of space; flash pieces that have grown beyond their original intentions; longer pieces that have been boiled down to not much more than a flash.  I'm a honer, an editor, a re-writer.

So, you'll understand that it is with a tad of bemusement that I look back on the year so far and realise that my two most recent sales are both for pieces freshly drafted, with virtually no rewrites, and certainly no opportunity to take a mental step back.  Picassos.  Bob Dylans.  Not Cezannes.

One, I've already mentioned: 'They Have Been to a Great Feats of Languages and Stol'n the Scraps' in Daily Science Fiction.  As I put in the author comments:

Some stories have a difficult gestation, the product of long walks and hot baths, always just out of reach, more stared at than written over the course of weeks or months, until they emerge into the light, never quite as good as that elusive first idea that you loved, now lost sight of.

This story wasn’t like that.

Its genesis can be found in a jokey posting on my blog suggesting that Shakespeare’s famous lack of books could be explained away if he was actually a time traveller, and challenging somebody to take the idea and run with it.  Suspecting nobody would, I picked up the gage that I myself had thrown, as Shakespeare would have said.  The tale was written on a single damp spring morning and polished over a latte after lunch.

I know many of you would like to think we suffer for our art.  Not this time.  Sorry.

Well, added to that I can let you know that my story 'Storm Warning' will be appearing in Azure Keep's Tales of Ruma sometime early next year.

Which is nice.  Even if it leaves me not really sure what kind of artist I am.

(Who said 'piss'?  Come on, own up, who was it...)

Thursday 2 November 2017

More human than human

2084 by Robert Bagnall, now available from, or direct from Double Dragon, for your enjoyment.

Contains spoilers

No, this isn't going to be a review of Blade Runner 2049.  I'm sure there are enough of them out there, although I've been avoiding them in order to watch the film unencumbered.

Instead I wanted to dwell on world-building and the Blade Runner universe, a world that I've always been a sucker for, even if the story itself made only passing sense - like, why does Leon need a Voight-Kampff Test when they have photo id?  Having said that, some have tried to fill such plot holes, with varying degrees of success and retention of dignity.

Actually, in story terms, the original is quite a simple one: a truncated act one which sets up the storyverse and gives Deckard his challenge: to air four replicants; act two: hunting down the easy ones; act three: the operatic set piece of killing the most cockroach-like of them.  Yes, there's an interweaving subplot with Rachael but, essentially, that's it.

But that world... a triumph of set design and paranoia, mostly delivered on a tiny corner of the Warner's backlot.

Blade Runner 2049 extends and expands the vision.  The rain has turned to snow, the advertising blimps to free-wheeling holograms, and there still appears to be no sense of leadership or government, just rules and regulations.

And the blade runners are now unashamedly skin-jobs.

This surprised me: I'd have thought Denis Villeneuve would have kept us guessing on that front but, instead, wrong-foots us with the revelation up front.  Yes, the bait that maybe, perhaps, K is different from the rest is dangled before us before being snatched away.  And - maybe I misunderstood, because it doesn't seem to have put this debate to bed - isn't it confirmed that Deckard is a replicant, because he was "engineered to fall in love with Rachael" or somesuch?  (Though why they needed a ruse so contrived to create life from artificiality is beyond me).

But, anyway.  In the opening, K sends up his targa top-cum-drone camera to photograph the surroundings of the farm where he encounters the film's first replicant wrong un' for later review.

And, this got me thinking when we (soon after) found out that K is a skin-job himself: why?

I'm a fan of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (not that I'm not a fan of the remainder of the trilogy; I just haven't read them).  Leckie's world-building game-changer is that the ship and the semi-catatonic, semi-mesmerised slave-cum-troops it carries are mentally as one.  With the ship destroyed and troops decimated, one survivor keeps that mental thread, that continuum of awareness alive.

K is a replicant.  Engineered.  Surely it wouldn't be that much as a technological leap to give him a live camera feed?  Leckie's ship sees everything its cadre of soldiers sees.  This is the Robocop of his time: less armour, more moody looks.

But, instead, all the technological innovation appears to have gone into making him human, but with skin you can peel and glue back on.  I'm not sure whether K feels physical pain; but the mental pain is there for all to see.  Bottom line: in 2049 they seem to have perfected synthetic emotions before Bluetooth.  Given everything else they've achieved - and I'm looking forward to the hundred-foot naked dancing girls - you'd think that'd be easy.

There's an element of wanting your cake and eating it, wilfully obscuring the issue with smoke and mirrors to make it all look more philosophical than it is.  What are replicants, anyway?  Are they robots or genetically engineered humans?  The story wants them to be one at some points, and the other at other times.  All the morgue scenes would suggest the latter, although that wouldn't make the issues any the less - just think of GMOs and the controversy they stir up, despite looking just like 'normal' vegetables and grains.

Take this line from the wikipedia page on replicants: "Although the press kit for the film explicitly defines a replicant as "A genetically engineered creature composed entirely of organic substance", the physical make-up of the replicants themselves is not clear. In the films’s preamble, it is noted that replicants are said to be the result of "advanced robot evolution.”". 

Just about sums it up, cake eaten, but still there on the plate.

Or, maybe, the point is that there is a level of engineering beyond which the distinctions between robot and genetically engineered human become pointless and illusory.  Either route involves manufacture and artificiality, its just a case of the size and nature of your building blocks.

But, most strikingly, it's 2049, and they still haven't invented a better bra fastener.


Friday 13 October 2017


2084.  The world remains at war.

A chaotic city in the Eurasian desert.  Twenty-year old Adnan emerges from a coma with memories of a woman he loved in a strictly ordered world of steel and glass: The Dome.

Adnan learns what the Dome is, and what he was inside it.  He learns why everybody fears the Sickness more than the troopers.  And he learns why he is the only one who can stop the war.

Persuaded to re-enter The Dome to implant a virus that will bring the war machine to its knees, the resistance think that Adnan is returning to free the many - but really he wants to free the one.

2084, my dystopian science fiction novel, is now available from,, or direct from Double Dragon for your enjoyment.

Monday 2 October 2017

Nobel prize for economics? Me!! Me!! Me, please!

You may, or probably may not, know that most semi-professional (or, if you're HMRC, hobby) writers, like me, have other lives and proper jobs.  For my part, I work as a human resources consultant, words I type with, metaphorically, my hand in the air and eyes to the floor; hearing, but not quite believing, that it's okay, I'm amongst friends.

I actually like the fact that I have a second life; otherwise I fear ending up like the comic shop guy in the Simpsons, self-obsessed, overweight and balding... oh, hold on.

No, seriously, I've seen people like that: there are things about you that you wish could remain forever sixteen years old, but your sense of humour isn't one of them.  An external perspective gives you material that isn't in any way related to science fiction to inspire you.  You never know where this stuff will take you.  Sci-if is a broad church, just as your sources should be.

For example, take the productivity conundrum.  I could describe it, but a picture says a thousand words (except when you hand in an envelope of seaside postcards instead of a PhD thesis - bastards); just take it as read that what holds true for Blighty applies far wider:

Image result for productivity since 2007

Basically, productivity, our ability to add value in our daily working lives, which took off around the time I entered the labour market and steadily rose for a decade and a half, went into reverse about ten years ago.  A lot has been written about what's stopped that steady upward curve.  Which isn't going to stop me throwing in my penny's worth.

You see, to me, the answer is obvious.  Every generation gets to see a transition; my grandfather's was from horse to car, my father's was consumerism.  My privilege was to enter the world of work in an office with only primitive PCs that weren't joined to anything more significant than the mains.

And, boy, that probably explains the initial sky-rocketing of the thick blue line, although I like to think I helped.  Being in a paper-centric, desk-bound civil service job, I'm sure the ability to throw away the Dictaphone (old joke: ever used a Dictaphone? a finger's easier) and type the document out yourself impacted on us more than most, although there was a thick strata of dinosaurs who resisted for as long as possible.  Primitive e-commerce soon followed for proper organisations that actually contributed to GDP.

I worked through that period of arrow-straight growth when the internet took off and employers, on the one hand, heard the words about how connectivity could transform business and, on the other, busied themselves writing digital usage policies that denied their workers access, although they were holding back the tide.

What was their fear?  Distraction.  And it came with a vengeance in the form of social media.  Facebook was founded in early 2004, but didn't break out of universities until late 2006.  Less than a year later it had 100 million users, which doubled in eight months, and doubled again in another ten.

And, oh look, where does productivity hit the buffers?  Exactly in line with the Facebook explosion.  Case solved.  Facebook destroyed the world's productivity.  Or, rather, our primitive desire to share and like pictures of our lunch did.

But don't think this blog is about blaming Zuckerberg - I don't have the budget for lawyers.  He was just the biggest surfer with the loudest shorts riding the wave of technology.  The first YouTube video was posted in 2005, and its history mirrors Facebook, going from a niche for funny cat videos to uber-broadcaster of funny cat videos.  And then there's Google.  I could go on and on, but I think the point is pretty obvious.

But not to the commentators.

You see, the error is that people who write books on economic history have a surfeit of intrinsic motivation.  They like their jobs.  They'd want to write the books even if nobody was paying them.  They continue their college lecture to a different audience over merlot and turbot in the evening (see what I did there?).  They're not bored at work.

Two things happened.  Our employers gave us internet access in the belief that joined-up businesses made for bigger profits.  And we all signed up to Facebook so that we could continue pub conversations and YouTube so we could watch cats fall off worktops, or whatever they do.  And, yes, we could go hunting for new business leads, but, hey not until we've watched... hey, come here and see what this cat does...

I mean, what an I doing here?  I'm meant to be writing another chapter of a science-fiction thriller novel, but instead I'm researching this blog posting?  I'm my own employer and even I'm skiving... 

Friday 15 September 2017

Praised with faint damning

Stumbled across this review by Eamonn Murphy of "Shooting the Messenger" within a generally upbeat write-up of "Best of British Science Fiction 2016":

Shooting The Messenger’ by Robert Bagnall features Dave Kite, an ambitious young journalist looking for a story in Pakistan, a war zone with the Taliban. I get the impression that Bagnall made this up as he went along, which you can do with a short story. It’s certainly unpredictable! I liked it. Authors having fun is something I’m glad to see in ‘the heavy industry that professional writing has become’ as Bernard Berenson wrote to Ray Bradbury.

Made it up as he went along?  Isn't that how fiction works?  Isn't that what I'm meant to do?  I'm having a bit of a 'small; far away' moment: are we saying that novels aren't made up?  I've checked the back of my wardrobe, and that's clearly made up.  What about the works of Philip K Dick - that was all real?  The Moomins are real, though - I've always known that...

(Seriously, though - much obliged)

Sunday 3 September 2017

Up like a rocket, down like a stick

Remember my red email day?  Well, didn't take long for the Scientologists to decide that my story was good, but not good enough for the Writers of the Future Competition.  Bit of a black edge to that email.

JK Galbraith came up with the idea of the bezzel, the amount by which the world is in profit whilst an embezzler has your money but the embezzled doesn't know.  It's one of my favourite cod-scientific theories.  Subversive comedy genius.

I think I can add the idea of a bezzel hangover; the despondency resulting from having the possibility of a win snatched away.  Had I simply found out I'd been placed, I'd have been happy.  However, to have received a call telling me I was in the last eight, talked about what it may mean, what they do for the winners, only for it to come to naught...  You inevitably focus on what coulda been.

Maybe this is the anti-bezzel, the perceived negative that balances out the false positive of the bezzel itself, meaning the world is really left in balance after all.  Socio-eonomic karma.

On a more positive note, you may recall the gauntlet I threw down to anybody reading these postings to write a science fiction story on the Bard.  Well, I accepted my own challenge and here's the result, published by Daily Science Fiction.  My second success with them; nice to have repeat business.

Back to the keyboard, I guess.

Sunday 13 August 2017

Overheard at Griffith Observatory

At regular intervals at Griffith Observatory, in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, curators fire up the Tesla coil, that spark-emitting metal orb in a huge cage that featured in La La Land.  For a better film reference, think a cackling James Whale-era Frankenstein, Igor having just thrown the switch.

I was lucky enough to witness the 3.50pm showing a few days ago.  At the sight of hundreds of thousands of volts arcing a voice next to me said to his companion, "Is that real?"

I appreciate that this was more knee-jerk expression of awe than literal question, but it immediately got me thinking.  If he wasn't expressing some concern about his own ability to tell reality from fantasy, what could he mean?

You see, whilst there are many things that a Tesla coil can allude to - lightening in a bottle, the battles of the Norse gods, the formation of the stars themselves - there isn't really anything else that can suggest a Tesla coil itself.  It's its own special effect.  You can't fake it.  It's not like putting antelope horns on a hare to get a taxidermy jackalope.  Or getting an actor to play dead or play a zombie.  The easiest way to suggest a Tesla coil is, um, a Tesla coil.

Is it real?  The stranger answer would be 'no'.

So, if there's one thing more impressive than a Tesla coil going hell-for-leather, it's something that can imitate a Tesla coil going hell-for-leather.

Friday 4 August 2017

I have seen the future and it looks like Wrexham Bus Station

Remember when your mother used to pull you across the road because somebody had a thousand yard stare and was talking to themselves?  If you grew up when the world was orange and brown, with endless summers, candy cigarettes, and ubiquitous casual racism, you'll know that talking to yourself could only mean 'nutter'.

Now it just means you're on the phone.  The world moves on, technology changes.

But we're only using one sense here.  What will the world look like, as it inevitably will, when we introduce corneal implant screens, or suchlike?

Well, the good burghers of Wrexham have given us a glimpse into what the future will look like when our sense of sight is distracted by the vastness of the digital universe rather than what we're about to bump into.

Image result for wrexham drug zombie photo

This guy?  Maybe free-fall parachuting or doing a really tough sudoko.

Image result for wrexham drug zombie photo

I think these two may be running a FTSE250 company as we watch.  I fancy the one in the planter to be head of audit.  What do you think?

Sunday 9 July 2017

Red Email Day

Doesn't sound half as good as 'red letter day', does it?  And I thought the world was subject to the doctrine of marginal gains...  oh, hold on, it's Tour de France time again, I must be getting confused.

Buses.  There's another cliche.  All coming along at once.  Try this for size:

Yesterday - and I've kept my powder dry on this one, because I know how fickle you all are, and if I told you before you could lay your sticky mitts on it you'd just go back to YouTube or something - NewCon Press released their Best of British Science Fiction 2016 anthology.

And whose name do you see leading the pack?  Yes, mine.  Not Peter F Hamilton or Ian Whates, mine.  (Okay, so it's an exhaustive webpage list in alphabetical order, and I'm relegated on the cover to the 'and more...' category, but still...)  It's my story Shooting the Messenger, which orginally appeared in Geminid Press' Night Lights anthology.

I know you want to rush out and buy it.  Well, don't bother.  Stay in and click here instead.  Much quicker.

Buses.  Where do the buses come in?  Well, yesterday also, just before the postman handed me my copy of the NewCon anthology (as an item of mail, not in some bizarre prize-giving ceremony) I received an email form Joni Labaqui at the Writers of the Future Contest, and that afternoon, a call from her, to tell me I'm a finalist, shortlisted, last eight out of thousands.

The enormity of this is still sinking in.  I'm not sure the gravity of the first has fully registered.

Maybe nothing'll come of it; maybe I'll find myself in LA dressed as a penguin because of it, who knows?  But days like yesterday balance out the hundreds that bring rejection emails.

The moral?  Keep banging your head against the wall, because you never know how close to breaking out of the madhouse you are.  And, who knows, there may not be void and vacuum on the other side...

Sunday 2 July 2017

I reject rejection

According to the Submissions Grinder, the score for 2017 at half-time is science fiction editors 97, me 2, with another twenty or so submissions still out there.  So please understand me when I say that rejection doesn't bother me, I just roll with the punches and find another market.

But, occasionally, my replicant goat is got.

We're not supposed to have favourites, I know.  But I do.  My favourite is a story I wrote possibly six years ago, called 'Faivish the Imbecile', which has been rejected some two dozen times so far.  It's set in a Jewish tailoring family in early 1970s New York City from the perspective of a teenage daughter, sewing suits by day, finishing bondage gear by night.  As a 40-plus atheist male with no needlecraft skills brought up in the penumbra between suburbia and the English countryside you may suspect this doesn't fall under the heading of 'write what you know'.

But there's something about the story that, for me, works.  And I've written enough bilge that doesn't to tell the difference.  At one point I wanted to evoke the 1950s and cited both The Blob with Steve McQueen and hula-hoops.  Only later did I find out that they hit the public consciousness virtually the same week.  Little things like that just make you feel like you've nailed it.

It also has one of my favourite lines, a put-down of a smug brother: "It's not like he invented the hat."  Maybe you need to read it in context, but I like it.

What makes it science fiction is that, in this world, Frankenstein existed, and Frankenstein's monsters are real, proto-domestic robots rather than brain-eating zombies.  The titular Faivish is one such creation, and the story is how the family learn from him, and he learns from them.  Hubris is avoided and the world is put right.

Now, I appreciate that there are no laser blasters defending the outer worlds of the Sadarog Empire against multi-dimensional beings.  It's not that kind of sci-fi.  Hence it's proved a difficult fit for many publications, witness its nomadic wandering in search of an editor who really wants a sci-if tale of 1970s New York Jewish tailors and their reanimated assistants, even if they don't know it.

But, as far as I'm concerned, it is sci-if.  I've blogged before about how science fiction is a broad church.  And whilst I find a lot of it, frankly, unreadable, I'll defend their right to nestle under that umbrella term.

To quote Analog's submissions guidelines: "We publish science fiction stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse. Try to picture Mary Shelley's Frankenstein without the science and you'll see what I mean. No story!"

They even use Frankenstein as an example.  In my case, remove Faivish and there's no story.  

So, when I see this rejection from Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores: "Thanks for submitting your story, but it does not contain any significant science fiction element - that element could be removed and the story would be essentially unaffected.  So, unfortunately, we will not be commenting.  Please submit stories to the correct genre" I almost fall off my chair.

Not the wrong kind of science fiction.  Or simply not good enough.  I could live with that, frequently have.  (The problem with being a broad church is that you're rarely sure whether you've sat in the right pew.  Yes, I know the theory is to familiarise yourself with the publication, but editors also don't want you to repeat what they've just published.  Square that circle, amigo.)  No, it's not even science fiction at all.

Well, if it's not sci-if... what the hell is it?

Thursday 15 June 2017

Meditations on editorial correspondence (again)

Something unusual.  A posting with potential for a character arc and a moral.

You see, last time I posted a blog entry with this title, I said that what mattered to me was "independent verification by somebody who doesn't know me through anything other than my writing that [my story is] worth putting in print".

But an exchange back in the spring with an editor has made me question whether that's enough.

The editor in question is Ty Drago of Allegory.  Don't know the man at all, but from his reviews, he appears to produce a decent line in genre fiction himself.  It all started with this:

Robert -


Your story, [title deleted as it's still up for grabs] has been accepted for publication in Volume 31 of ALLEGORY, due to hit the web on May 8, 2017.

Here's how it works:  In the next week or so I will send you out a contract, which will outline all of the details of our publication agreement, including compensation.  Please read it carefully, sign it, and then send it back to me.  I will also need you to please email me a brief biography.  The content may be anything you like. Optionally, you may send an author's photo to include with your bio.

Again, congratulations - and thank you!  This is a great story and I am proud to publish it.

- Ty Drago

- Publisher

Which is nice.  I don't get enough of those sort of emails.  And it would make my third sale of the year.  Target met.

It was then that I thought I'd get a better handle on Allegory.  Now, at this point, you could legitimately argue that the time for due diligence is prior to submission.  And I did do what I consider reasonable from a writer's point of view: check their legitimacy on the watercooler, and so forth.  

But I guess what I didn't do (and don't do, and don't feel a great need to do, ever) was any due diligence from a reader's perspective.  And what I found was... well, read on:


Many thanks for this, and my apologies for not responding sooner.

I have no issue with the terms of the contract, but since receiving it I have been trying, without success, to get a handle on Allegory's online presence.  Google 'Allegory ezine' (or similar) and I find, your own website apart, a number of calls for submissions, but little else.  I see nothing from readers and no reviews, anywhere - which, given you're on volume 30 (or is it 57?), I find bizarre.  I see your website cites 19,000 hits a month, but how many copies of the ezine do you sell?  You have a personal presence on Goodreads (and your own books are well received), but Allegory can't be found there.  Odd.

In short, I'm not sure how anybody who doesn't already know about Allegory would even stumble across it accidentally.  Given that I've moved on from simply seeking publishing credits and the warm glow brought by knowing that the pint in my hand can be attributed to the publication of a particular story, and view short story publications as a means of ultimately getting readers to my longer works, I'm not convinced Allegory would achieve that for me.  Grateful if you would correct my assumptions about the breadth of Allegory's readership if I'm way off the mark.



Is it just me?   Or do you find it odd as well?  An editor who is himself on, but hasn't made sure his longstanding publication is there?  Am I being paranoid?  This was Ty's understandably knarled reaction:

Robert -

This is a first, but okay.

Allegory was founded in 1998 as free online venue for SF, Fantasy, & Horror.  Since then, we've published hundreds of stories from all around the world.  We are not a business and never have been.  We don't sell copies.  Access to the site is completely free and every member of our staff, including myself as publisher, works strictly as a volunteer.

According to our visitor stats, we received close to 400,000 hits last year.  That's pretty typical.  Obviously traffic spikes in May and November, when new issues appear.

At nearly twenty years old, we've outlasted most online e-zines and, while we're not a major market like Asimov, Analog, or Space and Time, we've earned our chops.

Now a question for you: Why are you asking all this now?  You submitted a short story, which then went through our rather rigorous review vetting process, and are now occupying one of only twelve slots in the coming issue, having beat out more than 500 other writers.  If you have no faith in Allegory, why did you even bother?


I'm trying to be diplomatic here, but I'm left wondering how many of those 400,000 hits were by prospective writers rather than readers, given the only starting points to get to Allegory seem to be the Grinder, Duotrope and the like.  I probably account for a dozen or more hits - more if you count individual page views - and if everybody who submits (by implication 1000 a year) goes on to the site does the same, and then you have all the writers who decide Allegory isn't the right market for them, or mentally bookmark it for later.

And, all the time, Ty just has to say 'here's a link to a review of the last issue '....



Similarly, it's the first time that I've found myself asking the question.  It's not an issue of 'no faith', more one of seeking reassurance that you have a readership.  It may be a product of having a name which doesn't lend itself to googling (other uses of  'allegory' flooding the results), but, as I said, the only hits I found for your Allegory, other than your own website, were aimed at writers rather than readers.  Which made me stop and think.  Perhaps if you could point me in the direction of a couple of online reviews  of the November 2016 issue?  I'd be happy to sign the contract with that assurance.  Indeed, it was because of your longevity that I was surprised not to find anything posted by readers; I'm sure that you as a volunteer editor, as much as me as a writer, want to know that Allegory is being read and enjoyed.


I don't think that's too Et tu Brute, stabby-in-the-back, is it?  But it brings forth this fairly quick response:

I have to tell you, I've had enough of this.  After twenty years I don't have anything to prove.  I'm a published novelist myself, and so I understand your interest in managing your brand, but I find the idea of you challenging the legitimacy of my publication insulting.

Let's forget the whole thing.

Which I was happy to do, with correspondence ending there.

A confusing tale, but, having straddled the divide between the creative and non-creative industries, illustrative of an attitude that isn't that rare.  And I am only posting this to illustrate; Ty is free to run his publication as he sees fit.  And, if it ever makes it onto or similar, I hope it garners good reviews.

The moral?  Well, here's two.  On a personal basis, I've learnt that just getting a sale, just getting a credit, is no longer enough.  The publication has to be creditworthy in its own way.  And, secondly, and we all know this anyway, there's an awful lot out there on the web that's written but not necessarily read.

I should know; I see the stats for this blog.

Saturday 3 June 2017

Like a picnic in the park prepared by supermodels

I appreciate that this is some 45 years late, but I would like to review Andrei Tarkovsky's cinematic adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris.

Would like to, but I'm not sure I'm any the wiser.  It took me two evenings to get through it, and even then I fell asleep.  I jolted awake and found Kris Kelvin wandering around in his underwear.  I don't remember him undressing.  How much did I miss?  And did it explain the lingering close ups of a Bruegel landscape?  Or any of the other overlong and pointless scenes, almost too many to count?  Like the tedious elongated motorway scene, confusingly through a Japanese city?  I can only assume the editor was trussed up in the boot.

I suppose a starting point would be to regard this as Soyuz to, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey's Saturn 5.  America got a man to the moon and back.  Russia didn't.  America produced a film worth re-watching.  Russia didn't.  I don't want to make anything of the limited special effects, reflective of technology and budget then available.  But the vision, regardless of how it's realised?  Wood panelled libraries filled with books?  Big comfy swivel chairs?  Candelabra?  If there's one thing we all know about space it's that there ain't much space in space.  And, remember, this was made when the world was already familiar with what life in a spacecraft looked like.

My copy of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die doesn't seem to have a problem with such issues, and credits it as a "sci-if masterpiece".  IMDB gives it 8.1/10.  They make it sound like a picnic in the park with supermodels.  A picnic prepared by supermodels, maybe: not much, spread too thin.  But this is what they say:

"A brilliant experience of duration and big ideas combined with ascetic production values, Solaris is an argument against the ambivalence of lived reality in favour of fantasy's all-inclusive satisfaction.  Through Kris's journey from indifferent outsider to being literally the centre of a world created just for him, we see the unmaking of a rational mind by sheer desire.  As such, Tarkovsky's film uses the widescreen frame and lengthy takes to organise truly beautiful imagery.  In this fashion, Solaris externalises interior states to embody the mood of its protagonist."

Even with a first degree in philosophy and a masters in philosophy and psychology, I'm not sure what this all adds up to.  Other than Emperor's new clothes.

You see, film is good for seeing and hearing things, but not good for emotions - I recall Clive Hopkins, who taught a screenwriting workshop I attended almost a quarter of a century ago, hammer home the point that a screenplay should have what you see and what you hear and nothing else.  When you get into the world of sights and sounds that supposedly signify emotions I think you need emotional gullibility as much emotional intelligence to buy completely in.  A film can't take you inside the head like a book can, despite claims otherwise.  You're always outside looking in.  It's the difference between being on an acid trip and being in the same room as someone on an acid trip.

But whenever you hold your hand up and say that you just don't get such semiotics, or Rothko or Miro or fauvism, or practically any poetry that doesn't scan or rhyme, you inevitably run the risk of being branded a philistine.  Poor you, brain so limited that it thinks post-structuralism is what holds fences up.  It's the peer pressure that stops you pointing and shouting 'arse' when all around you are declaring it art.

But this is arse.  It's clearly arse.  The book may be brilliant - it's been filmed three times, and the Soderbergh version is a taut 98 minutes - but the film is arse.

Didn't Goebbles argue that if you make the lie big enough then it will be believed?  It's the same with art.  Art or arse?  In the medium distance we can all spot buttocks wobbling.  But Leviathan arse?  So big we can't avoid having our faces pressed up close?  That chocolate starfish begins to resemble some exotic plant, all leathery leaves, folds and ridges.  Anal hairs get mistaken for antannae, listening for signs of alien life against the cosmic background radiation.  Blemishes can be mistaken for beauty.

But it's still arse.

Tuesday 16 May 2017

Et in Cascadia ego

I think I may have missed a trick in my writing career (by the way, am I the only one for whom the word 'career', in whatever context, summons up images of cars crashing through Armco, exploding at the bottom of ravines?).

You see, I've always used my real name on my work.  I haven't really had a strategy on the subject, neither hiding behind a nom de plume or choosing a different byline for each genre I write in, nor shouting my name over and over and over on social media until it becomes ingrained in our psyche like Starbucks or the Zika virus.  It's not a sexy name, but it is solid, and - in today's world importantly - unusual enough to be searchable without being unnecessarily outrĂ© or bizarre.  (I wonder if the other Robert Bagnalls Google me?  I do them.)

What I didn't bargain on was it being unpronounceable.

One of my happy, go-to memories, alongside the time a colleague mangled the alternative spellings 'disc' and 'disk' and sent out an all-points email asking if anybody knew what her 'hard dick capacity' was (completely true - and hi, Jane, if you're reading this), is standing in Waterstones on Oxford Street when two women strode through, one saying to the other, "Of course, it's pronounced 'Trollope-aye'."

You could feel everybody else in the store clench and mutter "TRO-LUP" as one.

In the same way, I didn't think it was possible to mangle my dour Staffordshire surname - BAG, as in sack, NUL, as in 'and void' - but I'm indebted to JS Arquin of the Overcast for flagging up potential future problems with the brand by making a bit of a car crash (there's that image again) of it in the recording of my story The Trouble with Vacations as Overcast 54.  I was asked to provide advice on tricky to pronounce words, but I didn't think there was one so close to home.

Perhaps, like Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, I should consider changing my moniker to something a bit more monosyllabic.  Something easier on the brain.

But, in every other respect the podcast is an outstanding job, with exactly the right balance of pathos and absurdity that I could have wished for.  And, without wishing to pat myself on the back too much,  I've written enough bilge to recognise the story as being a half decent little tale.

But, of course, I'm far too close to the subject to judge.  So please, please head over to Overcast 54, settle back for twenty minutes or so, and leave a review.  It really does matter to grass roots publishers who are trying to provide a varied literary diet.

Yours sincerely,

Joe Doe

Or maybe VJ Smith.  How about Michael Carmichael?  'Cheddar' George Albertine?  Arthur C Clarke?  Oh, hold on, I think that one's taken...

Thursday 4 May 2017

The dress

I've been taken by the return of the 2015 internet meme that was 'The Dress' thanks to research by NYU's Pascal Wallisch.  What Wallisch posits is that how we see the dress comes down to your circadian rhythms, with owls seeing the dark colours and larks the light.  I haven't read enough to know whether one causes the other, they share a common cause, or it's just some inexplicable correlation.

Whilst a sample size of four is about as far from statistically significant as I am from the Moon, I found it curious that the theory works perfectly within our family.  We have two owls and two larks and, on this, we conform to type perfectly.  I'm an uber-lark, often up before 6am, whilst the good lady wife is 100% owl.  I don't even get brought a cup of tea on my birthday.  To me I cannot comprehend how the dress could ever be blue and black, which is as she sees it.  Likewise, she finds my view baffling.

Letting my mind wander around and over the issue, it struck me that the whole thing is akin to handedness.  Curiously, we're also split down the middle with left-handed owls and right-handed larks in our family, but with an even gender and generational mix in each camp. Handedness is, itself, a mystery well worth exploring in its own right, the fact that only a small but stable proportion of people in general are southpaws being especially resistant to explanation.  Those for whom the dress - or is it The Dress - is black and blue are also in the minority, even if the proportions differ.

So, what, I wondered, could account for people being larks or owls?  What could the evolutionary benefit be?  I've been doing a lot of thinking on this subject, which is not, lest we forget, the same as doing science.  And the conclusion I've drawn is that it all comes down to hunting.

Think about it.  You want mastodon and chips for dinner.  They're big sods, not easily taken down.  You want everything on your side.  What are you going to use?

Low sun.

Yep, you want to be coming out of the sun at that shaggy behemoth with your sharpened stick, animal pelt and big smile.  You want to maximise your odds, maximise the chances of eating tonight.  Because those that eat get to live, and those that live get to reproduce.

Which leads to populations of larks and owls, with the mad dogs and Englishmen who go out in the midday sun getting trampled due to their lack of tactical advantage.

I offer this baseless supposition up in the hope that I'll be able to refer to it in future years when some researcher, having put in decades of donkey work, comes up with this self-same idea, albeit founded on an evidence base of admirable solidity and detail.  Unlike his or hers, my approach isn't science, but it is prescience, and it's that that'll get my name, not theirs, on the theory.

Tuesday 25 April 2017


Whilst wandering around cyberspace with no particular place to go, I stumbled across the Wikipedia entry for the sci-fi author Robert Silverberg, which contained this odd phrase: "In 1959, the market for science fiction collapsed..."

Yes, collapsed.  Like October 1929, but for science fiction, not money, although they are, arguably, both abstract and immaterial concepts.

Something about this statement, the unequivocal nature of it, piqued my interest, and I thought that I'd dig a bit deeper and blog my findings.  Except, of course, an explanation far more eloquent - and possibly a tad more embittered - than any I could construct has already been written by Barry N Malzberg at detailing the various factors at play, not least the forced divestiture of the magazine distribution arm of American News Service.

That last point provides the explanation for the cliff edge nature of events of 1959, but there's a plethora of context to be taken into account as well.  One is that the parallels between 1959 and 1929 don't seem so far fetched: in both cases we're dealing with bubbles with an unrecognised oversupply or overvaluation leading to a market correction.  1929 is well documented; in 1959 it was the belief that the readership of science fiction could continue to grow exponentially whereas, in reality, it was made up of spotty youths who were just filling in the years until the family acquired a TV.

Which led me to wonder why the market for science fiction hadn't moved to television and cinema, rather than "collapsing".  Perhaps part of the reason was that, by Malzberg's account at least, the writers had become somewhat fat and lazy, needing to churn out a mere thousand words, derivative words at that, each day before indulging in whiskey and "wife exchanging".  TV would have demanded more, much more, and the market only actually collapsed for the dinosaurs.  Perhaps it was because, for Malzberg, the market is defined narrowly, as anthology and magazine publishing, and this marketplace was in New York whilst television and cinema was based on the opposite coast.  Perhaps it came down to personalities: the need to collaborate on a TV production doesn't sit well with a person who takes on a blank sheet of paper in single combat.

But I think there's another angle to this.  Compare, say, Melies' Le Voyage dans la Lune with something modern, for example The Martian or Gravity (both of which score virtually the same on IMDB, albeit with Melies' classic ahead by a nose).  There's a sense of utter joyful, ridiculous fantasy to Melies' classic, whilst the modern yarns labour the accuracy of the science and technology.  Sure, there's plenty of cartoon fantasy courtesy of Marvel and DC, but it ain't science fiction in the sense that magic powers ain't science, even when science gone bad is supposed to have endowed them.  Melies takes science - a rocket - and creates a fiction.  And in 1902 that fiction could take us almost anywhere; today we know that a rocket can't realistically take us anywhere other than our nearest neighbours, and they're all barren rocks anyway.  We've lost a lot of the freedom of movement in constructing a story whilst retaining a straight face.

Malzberg alludes to this when he says, "Sputnik in 1957 had made science fiction appear, to the fringe audience, bizarre, arcane, irrelevant.". However, I don't buy this.  If anything, Sputnik should have moved science fiction up the agenda: it showed we could really leave the confines of Mother Earth without suggesting the impending failure to find anything out there.  That all came later.

Classic science fiction up to, say, Star Trek, exists in a Goldilocks zone between technology being invented for us to explore the stars and us discovering that there's nothing out there to find.  The joyful youth of sci-fi, I think, ran until roughly the same time that Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon unwatched by native fauna - because there isn't any.  That's a full decade after 1959's "collapse".

Curiously, I found this extended timeline supported by some wonderfully unscientific research by Castalia House.  It makes an interesting read, even if you feel unable to sign up to its findings.

So where does this leave us?  Science fiction is dead?  Not at all.  It's just that the genre has moved on from stories that just happen to be set in space.  Think about how many spaceships are really just sea-going vessels with a different view out of the portholes, or aliens who are just re-employed redskins.  Science fiction in its cynical middle age has had to find stranger stories than a man wearing a goldfish bowl on his head wrestling a sentient octopus.  And, whilst that may make for the niche, cult, and distinctly un-populist, I think it's rather good at it.

Saturday 1 April 2017

Rise of the robots - I know how it begins...

Paperboy, barman, political speechwriter.  Physicist, engineer.  Aeronautical R&D.  Vacuum moulding machine operator, croupier.  Travel journalist, radio comedy writer, screenwriter.  In my case all of these jobs, careers and specialisms can be prefixed with either 'former' or 'failed'.  Which may be a cause for a massive shrug of the shoulders given the latest story on how robots will take all our jobs.

In the light of this approaching socio-economic apocalypse I'm all the more delighted that my current career choice (admittedly not the only egg in my basket) is as an author, given what fell out of the BBC's Secret Science of Pop. In this a rather sad looking evolutionary biologist, who professed no knowledge of or interest in pop music, tried to engineer a hit record by conducting deep statistical analysis on half a century's worth of top 40 hits.

And, guess what?  He fell on his arse.  He may have got back on one elbow by showing that his algorithms can pick a decent tune out of a bucket of pre-existing tracks by wannabe racket-making beat combos, but as for the actual creative process?  Pulling the inspirational hook, line, riff, melody or lyric out of the ether?  Sorry, no amount of coding will get you there.  At least not yet.

By extrapolation, my reading is as long as people want creative products then there'll have to be creative people to provide.  Including writers.  Not robots.  People.

Frank Lansink, chief executive for Europe at IPsoft is quoted as believing that fighter pilots are the least at risk of having their jobs taken by ones and noughts.  Given the rise of drones that aren't subject to the limits imposed by the human body's frailty under G-force I'm not sure I agree that they're even candidates.  Drone versus piloted aircraft in a dogfight?  I'm betting on the drone.

More prosaically, I've seen electricians and plumbers cited as protected species; their ability to combine practical, applied problem-solving with wriggling between the floorboards being something a robot can't yet deliver.  Of all the professions and specialisms in my CV perhaps paperboy is the one that comes closest - if it wasn't for the fact that the content is already delivered paperlessly to our devices, and will soon, in part, be written by algorithms.

I've mentioned Humans in previous postings.  Contrast it with - and this is a long way from sci-fi, I'll grant you- Further Back in Time for Dinner, which charted the changing culinary habits of a nation.  The servant class was represented by the irrepressible Debbie.  Skivvying at the start of the 20th century as a maid of all work, by the midpoint she has the vote, far greater social mobility and work options.  As somebody who has on occasion produced gender pay comparisons, don't think I'm saying that the back had been broken of gender inequality, but a great deal had been achieved between Britain losing and gaining a female monarch.

Debbie circa 1900 is, of course, the robot of 2030.  It took a couple of world wars, during which time the women took the men's jobs whilst the men lined up to be slaughtered, to upset the social order to the degree that the foundations of gender equality could be laid.  What will it take for a conversation about 'sentient rights'* to be started?  What will the robots have to do - be forced to do - to make the same transition that firstly slaves, then women have made?

Terrorists or freedom fighters, will this be what starts the robot wars?

* Bad news: I don't appear to have coined this phrase.  Good news: previous uses appear to apply to animals and New Zealanders, so perhaps I have expanded the definition.

Thursday 16 March 2017

Counting backwards (compatibility)

There's an exchange in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that I have heard credited as demonstrating cinema's greatest tacit understanding of history.  Those lines are:

Large Man with Dead Body: Who's that then?
The Dead Collector: I dunno, must be a king.
Large Man with Dead Body: Why?
The Dead Collector: He hasn't got shit all over him.

Why so hailed?  Because it pithily grasps both that the faces of even the powerful wouldn't have been immediately recognisable - bizarre to us in a world where we celebrate the famous for simply being famous - but your station could be surmised by dress, number of attendants and, yes, the last time you washed.

(I'm also very fond of the similar theory that the richer you were the stronger your beer - you didn't drink the water in those days - with those with the greatest political power on the strongest brews.  An examination of historical decision-making - declarations of war, marriages, etc. - in this context becomes enlightening...)

Why am I telling you this?  Well, because I think we're still waiting for an equally canny exchange capturing the essence of the future.

The future's meant to be shiny.  It's meant to be seamless.  It's meant to be infinitely functional yet so intuitive that a toddler can use it.  That's what the marketing tells me, and when has advertising ever lied?

But I'm really not sure that's where we're heading.  And unless the uber-lords of Facebook, Apple and Microsoft et al engage in some sort of coding and hardware civil war, the winner forcing us to adopt their technology across every aspect of our lives (am I the first to coin the phrase 'digital slavery'?) I don't think we will ever get there.

There's a classic episode of Star Trek - The Devil in the Dark, apparently Shatner's favourite, and one that last week celebrated it's fiftieth birthday - where the Enterprise comes to the rescue of a mining colony whose nuclear reactor has been sabotaged.  Unfortunately, the damaged part is obsolete, but Scotty rigs a temporary replacement from parts on board ship.

That even a temporary solution is possible, that spare parts knocking around The Enterprise fit with and talk to the colony's reactor, is possibly the most credibility-stretching aspect of an episode involving a rock-chewing polystyrene monster reminiscent of The Magic Roundabout's Dougal.  Most of the kit in my house cannot talk to each other and it's pretty much all sourced from the same place, and here we're dealing with a multi-national team assisting a distant mining colony.

We're about to embark on the Internet of Things - did I mention my most recently published story is on exactly that? - and Uncle Sam is still on Imperial units.  Ye Gods...

Let me give you a real world example.  I have an ancient MacBook, which has all 27.82GB (I just checked) of music and podcasts; a 3rd generation iPod Nano, which is dying; two docking stations, each of which is compatible with the iPod (in theory), and a Moto G 2nd generation, which is also coughing up blood, metaphorically.

To replace both iPod and Moto G I've settled on a iPhone 4s.  Yes, I'm going to invest in technology some 5 years old in a world in which anything over the age of two may as well live up a cave and scratch its arse whilst dreaming of fire.  Because that's the most recent iPhone that can take the SIM from my Moto, and talk to my MacBook and docking station.

This is my conclusion.  Essentially I - and by 'I' I mean we - have two options: either replace all your kit - and by 'all your kit' I mean everything that has a plug from the toaster upwards - in one go, or seek out a baseline of consistent redundancy.  Old technology that at least fits with what you've got.  Like old people in a home shouting at each other, at least they'll be shouting in a shared language within earshot of each other, assuming the batteries in their hearing aids are charged.

The Sunday supplements will paint us a picture of a joined-up digital life, whereas I foresee a world of being unable to get into your own home, the curtains inexplicably opening and closing as you watch from your drive in the drizzle.

Perhaps the only realistic illustration of how (in)compatible technology really is in practice was in the Cold War German drama Deutschland 83, where the East German spies stare at a floppy disk wondering how they are to extract the stolen NATO report when what they expected was a file of papers.  Brilliant, and brilliantly prescient.

I await the day when a science fiction character holds a 16-pin plug in one hand and an 18-pin socket in the other with a look of defeat on their face. Only then will I feel it has any claim to be grittily realistic.

Perhaps HAL simply wasn't compatible with the pod bay doors?