Tuesday, 25 December 2018

A Christmas story... just not the Christmas story

Santa Claus.  Father Christmas.  Saint Nicholas.  What's his job?

Yes, you heard right.  What's the great man's form of employment?  What does he say at parties?  How does the sentence, "Hi, I'm Nick, I'm a..." end?

Now, you may think, given he's got almost 2 billion addresses to deliver presents to (okay, that's the number of children in the world, but it's easier to google, so go with it), that he'd say he was something in logistics, transportation.  You'd think he'd be in the Teamsters.  Actually, you'd think he'd be life president of the Teamsters, given he has 364 days to devote to union activity, and who works Christmas Day?

But that's just where you'd be wrong.  Because the flaw in your logic would be staring you in the face.  What's he doing the other 364 days of the year?  He's making a list; he's checking it twice.

That's a bloody big Excel file.  Excel's good, and it's a simple table (name; address; present wanted; naughty or nice?; maybe a column for evidence), but 1.9 billion lines may be flying at the limits of it's capacity.  I haven't worked that one out.  But the point is that Nicholas of Bari was - nay, is - a data jockey, a spreadsheet pilot.

You see, the whole courier thing is a sideline, little more than a hobby.  There are Yodel drivers on zero hours contracts that are more committed to door-to-door deliveries that Santa.  Like the rest of us, he's a corporate wageslave, a commuter with a computer most of the year.  Probably works in a cubicle.  Maybe seen him on mass transit, sat next to him.  He'll have a grey pallor; a faraway expression like he has something on his mind; I don't think he'll have a loud tie.  He's looking forward to Christmas; it's his one day away from a screen, out in the fresh air.  He's not that different from you.

You don't like that Christmas story?  Okay, here's another: NewMyths.com has just run my seasonal tale, Charles Edward Tuckett's Yuletide Message.  Maybe you'll like that one.  Or this one:


Sunday, 16 December 2018

Who am I to criticise Isaac Asimov? Well, let's find out

Well, as we've recently found out, sudoku and futoshiki won't save us from dementia.  One of my strategies to hold back the softening of my cerebrum, which I'm sure I can feel happening daily, is to record the books I've read on goodreads.com with a short review.  Maybe it won't slow down my eventual descent into senility, but the ability to look back and say, did I really read that?, may act as some kind of speedometer.  Or, possibly, depth gauge.

One of the most recent additions to my goodreads history is 'Robot Dreams' by Isaac Asimov.  It's the third Asimov I've added, joining 'Foundation':

Asimov is famous for the sheer weight of words that he wrote. I suspect that all that writing left precious little time for re-writing, and it shows. A succession of silly characters with silly names, a storyline that aims at portentous and just hits pretentious, I'm baffled as to why this is a classic. Is it me, or is it Isaac? Perhaps volume two will give me a clue... (two stars)

And 'Foundation and Empire':

Abandoned around page 50 when all the characters started speaking in the voice of Matt Berry in my head. Typing, not writing. Drivel. (one star)

Robot Dreams is a different proposition, a collection of short stories, rather than part of a longer narrative.  You get a sense that Asimov could see the finish line of each tale, so managed to navigate himself there; whereas in the Foundation trilogy I sensed a writer without a map banging on a typewriter in the hope of spotting the end point in the fog.

Too many of my reviews on goodreads complain of a lack of story masked by the ability to write some damn good prose (Ian McEwan, I mean you).  Asimov's situation is somewhat different; it's not a lack of ideas that's the problem, it's that Asimov can't wait to simply have one of his characters explain it.  There's little in the way of subtlety or subtext.  It's beyond show, don't tell; if he could have got these tales to tell don't state, that would have been a start.

The stating is typically done by having a number of characters meet - I don't know how many meeting room tables were spoken over - and explain a predicament in a very on-the-nose conversation.  The situations are often realistic, in the context of science fiction; say, that first formal meeting when a visitor to a facility of some kind has the mystery explained to them.  But there's little in the way of realistic talking round things, oblique references that would make sense to the characters if not the audience, and when backstory is referred to, it's for our benefit, not their's.  Very little rings true.

There's some good idea, sure.  Some really good ideas.  An anti-gravity device that causes objects to reach the speed of light, which a scientist uses to kill an experimenter who's rejected the hard graft of theory ('The Billiard Ball').  That humans host an unseen, other-dimensional parasite that causes death ('Hostess').  The monetization of a time travel bubble; the fruits of the first experiments thrown away when the inventors find they can reach further back ('The Ugly Little Boy').  Or computers having narrowed the electorate down to the one representative voter (Franchise).

But there's also a strange moral code running through these, redolent of the stiff and formal 1950s.  There's no room for the drunks, delinquents and paranoids of PKD's work.  In an Asimov story you do your tie up, kiss your wife, and go to to work.  No sex before marriage, and probably nothing beyond missionary.  But it's beyond simply not writing stories about non-conformists, there seems to be a strand that says this is what the world is like.  Hostess depends for its logic on a lack of pre-marital sex: not that you shouldn't, just that people don't.  But, lest we forget, Asimov spent an awful lot of time typing.

The best and worst story is 'Spell My Name with an "S"'.  In this science fiction gives way to speculative fiction, as if Isaac had just bashed this one off having watched an episode of The Twilight Zone.  It's still high on people talking to each other, but differs in that the conversations are mainly others speculating on and misinterpreting the main character's motives.  But, just when he's built a world running slightly askew, he explains the oddness by way of alien intervention.  This one would have been so much stronger if he'd omitted the coda.

What Asimov's writing reminds me of more than ever is television.  The 1950s brand of science fiction that looks like a parody of itself now: two people in mid-shot wearing rubber heads or costumes with capes and fins, talking hokum.  Stuff that had to be banged out because the writer had an episode to write a day, and had to be heavy on the static shots of people explaining because the cameras weighed more than a car and you couldn't move the lights.

I quite understand why science fiction TV and cinema should have evolved.  Digital equipment is so light and portable that we can now film virtually anything, and when we can't film it we just make it up.  But back then, the action was staged - almost literally.  But, guys, this is writing, this is words on a page, little lines of black ink on pressed wood pulp.  We've never been constrained by technical parameters.  We could do anything, can do anything - then and now.  There's so many ways to be different, subversive, innovative.  So, why make your writing feel like it's got to fit into a dialogue heavy, wooden acted, static framework?  

I've written before about the difference between supply and demand of stories now and in the late fifties, exactly the era that most of these hale from and from when Asimov made his mark.  Back then, by all accounts, you only had to be adequate to get published and keep getting published.  And 'adequate' as a bar to leap over doesn't lead to innovation or paradigm shift.

Perhaps the most damning test for me is to ask myself whether any of Asimov's stories would get sold on the pro short fiction market today, into a publication like, say, Asimov's.

To be honest, I really don't think they would.


Monday, 26 November 2018

Stop staring out the window - we have reached our destination

Recently, my mind has been turning to the idea of the meshing of soft flesh and sharp-edged technology, the enhancement of the body with the products of engineering.

Bizarrely, at first glance, it doesn't fit comfortably with any of Wikipedia's list of science fiction themes - I had expected some Latin-derived catch-all term - but I suppose it's covered by artificial organs.  However, that's slightly narrower than I had in mind as, to me, it implies a like-for-like exchange for what you're (meant to be) born with, functionality-wise.  Whereas I'm thinking of implanted and integrated devices that give you more than you started with.  Or, maybe, organs cover more ground than I'd usually credit.

I did follow the links to biohacking, in case that was the bon mot I was seeking, but that instead took me to lots of interesting things that can be done with the penis.  Genital bisection, inversion or headsplitting, anybody?

Why this mental meander?  Perhaps it's a byproduct of the challenge of making 365 story submissions in the year (day 329, and I'm only at 318!), that I end up reading virtually every set of submission guidelines, and things like Blood Bound Book's 'Crash Code' ("Let’s talk voluntary amputations so we can wear cybernetic limbs as fashion statements") stick in the mind.

Or possibly I've been considering the themes that crop up in my own writing; I find myself often dropping the word 'corneascreen', alluding to some in-eye head-up display, Google Glass-cum-contact lenses arrangement providing all sorts of data and information, hosed straight to the eyeball.  Curiosuly, Google doesn't give any results for 'corneascreen' as one word, so I guess that makes it copyright little 'ol me.  You read it here first.

It's also one of the few sci-fi tropes that we have in the real world; one that had a major red letter day on 2nd December 1982 when William DeVries carried out the first artificial heart transplant - or, at least, the first where the new organ stuck around for any length of time.  Pacemakers and prosthetics came before, of course.  And now, in 2018, we have the microchips Three Square Market have been implanting into employees.  I thought that was our Orwellian future - no, turns out it's our Orwellian present.

I've struggled to think of examples in sci-fi where the enhancement is used voluntarily, to put the human body ahead of the pack, rather than, repairing what's been lost or disabled.  I did find these examples, all of which, apart from Dune, were unknown to me.  Not quite sure where, say, Steve Austin or Robocop would fit in that spectrum; bit like taking your Ford Focus to the garage to find they've put an F1 engine under the bonnet.

So, what's the point that I'm stumbling towards?  Well, here's a trope that I think should be more common than it is, because we've already made advances in the real world unlike, say, faster than light travel, but isn't.  Why?  You'd think we'd be able to push the direction of travel forward, take it to its logical conclusion.  You'd think that characters having parts of their body lopped off and replaced and upgraded would be all over the genre.

But I've realised that the direction of travel that I'm string up is a blind alley.  And I suspect that's what any sci-fi author realises as soon as he tries to put flesh on his story.

If you haven't worked it out for yourself yet, ask yourself why integrated televisions and DVD players fell flat on their face?  Why do you only find washer/dryers in poky student flats?   For a variety of reasons, but mainly because when one element fails you don't want to throw the whole thing away.  Likewise, people want the freedom and flexibility to upgrade one element without needing to trade-in the rest.  Imagine now having had the functionality of a bleeding edge iPhone integrated into your body in 2010.  You'd be a laughing stock.

That sci-fi genre stalwart, the sweating surgeon carefully joining wires to neurons, is as weak a link as the ones he's making.  Why?  Because we already have magnificent interfaces between technology and wetware.  They're called our fingers and eyes.

Just take a walk around any city as we head towards the second decade of the twenty-first century.  Thousands of 'em, staring at their screens as they walk, many with headphones.  This is what the melding of flesh and technology looks like.  Really looks like.  It's already here, integrated through our existing, superbly adapted interfaces: fingertip, eyeball and eardrum.

So, unless you're dealing with somebody who doesn't have use of those interfaces - and all hail those working in biomedical engineering, with the possible exception of the ones who made Oscar Pistorius rich and famous and able to afford firearms - the future is here.  So, stop staring out the window, we've reached our destination: we've perfected the integration of carbon-based flesh and silicon-based technology.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Nice buns!

Sat the kids down the other week and made them watch The Dam Busters.  It's part of their heritage, and their grandfather was in the RAF during that little local difficulty between '39 and '45.  (Not, '41, pur-lease.)

My sales pitch was that this is one of the key sources for Star Wars, but I didn't elaborate, wanting them to spot the parallels between the bombing runs on the dams and the rebels' attack on the Death Star for themselves.

But, in reality, I think they may have thought I was merely referring to Mrs Molly Wallis' hairstyle, Barnes' missus clearly a distant descendant of Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan.

Princess Leia's characteristic hairstyle.jpg

In fairness, I'm not the first to spot this, (but I can't find any proof that I'm not the second - surely not?!).  The only other reference Google led me to was this excellent blog posting, which provides an analysis of the genesis of Star Wars from movies like The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron, and signs off on exactly the same coiffure-related point.


Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Don't count your chickens until their published

As the millions of you (if I could address you in terms of your constituent cells, multiple personalities, and gut bacteria) that follow this blog know, my aim is to submit 365 stories this year, one a day.  Being roughly on track, it’s hardly surprising to report that, occasionally, the blancmange sticks to the ceiling.

But I’m uncertain as to how much of it will stay, and how much is already peeling off onto my upturned face.

Let me explain.  My story ‘Farndale’s Revelation’, which first appeared in DomainSF, has been selected for Nexxis Fantasy’s Corporate Shadows’ anthology.  I’ve even signed a contract.  However, it’s been utter radio silence since, to the extent that the book should have hit the shelves last month.  (Maybe the publication date of ‘31 September 2018’ on their Marie Celeste of a website should have alerted me to something bigger than a typo).  Can’t get anything out of them, even though they appear to be actively seeking submissions for their next work.  Odd.

Secondly, my sci-fi noir ‘The Fool’ will (hopefully) appear in ‘Deductions, Delinquents, and Detectives’ by Banjaxed Books.  Again, communication here is intermittent.  I only received acceptance of the tale when I chased, long after writing this market off, receiving an exceptionally charming and apologetic email.  But then, nothing.  Confusingly, the website talks about the high number of high-quality submissions received, but that they’ve held the doors open for a bit longer so as to publish two volumes of genre-melding mysteries.  I have more faith in this one appearing, particularly as they successfully published their first anthology, Chaos of Hard Clay, although I haven’t seen a contract as yet.

Thirdly, and I think this will happen because there’s more than just a book going on, my space-trucker fable ‘The Loimaa Protocol’ has been selected for the anthology to be published alongside WhimsyCon, Denver’s steampunk and cosplay convention.  Odd, really, given the story isn’t steampunk, and there’s little potential for dressing up to it.  Apart from space helmets.  We’ll see what the good burghers of Colorado make of it next March.

Plus, I've delivered my rewrites to James Gunn's Ad Astra, and I have a drabble that's made it over the first hurdle at Daily Science Fiction

So, all is rosy?  Well, only if roses are the main thing.  And these roses generate very little in the way of magic beans.  To me, short fiction is a signpost to my longer works, which pay their way on purchase, not on publication (did I mention my novel ‘2084’ is still available?).  But the cornfields are, to be honest, neglected; my current novel having been hardly pushed forward this year.

It will be, I keep telling myself.  But only when I’ve written that story about ghosts from the future, of course.  And the human origin story involving multidimensional beings.  And the Victorian steampunk tale that may be the imaginings of a tortured mind in the here and now.  And the one about the jester and the creature that absorbs malice or goodness...

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Something Star Trek got right

The criticisms levelled at Star Trek are legion: the, at best paternalistic, at worst imperialistic, politics; James Tiberius Kirk's continuous and continual sexual harassment, particularly of those to whom he has safeguarding responsibilities; and, most heinously, Scottie's accent.

However, I'm beginning to think that one accusation made at the show may actually be prescient.  And it's not just a gripe people have with Star Trek; you can find this trope across all of science fiction.

It's that, whilst cultures between planets may be very different (you guys get the prosthetic limbs; you, we'll paint blue; you... where do you want the fur?) each planet is a strict monoculture (everybody with furry kneecaps with me, the six-limbed over there to that planet).  Diversity is strictly interplanetary, not intraplanetary.  With Star Trek, it's always struck me as particularly surprising that, given the deliberate rainbow nation-nature of the crewing of the Enterprise, this never strikes any of them at the time as surprising.

As a writer, I can understand the shorthand; the fact is that if every fictional planet had as rich and heady a mix of cultures as Earth then it would act as a brake on the momentum of the story as you try to remember all the made-up ethnicities and groupings.  Except when diversity becomes the issue, and then it's dealt with in a heavy-handed, black and white (pun intended) way, just to get the point across.

But I'm beginning to wonder if it's not the Earthlings which are ultimately going to be misrepresented.  You see, we're living in an increasingly homogenised, monocultural world.  And I can only see this heading in one direction.

It's wonderful that you can go on to a London street and eat European, Asian, American.  But that's true (I suspect) of Berlin, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, New York and the rest, and where's the fun in that?  There are KFCs and McDonalds on the streets of Beijing and Moscow, unthinkable when I was growing up during the fun, fun, fun Cold War - indeed, KFC is apparently the most popular fast food brand in China.  We're all becoming a bit samey, as we may realise if we bothered to look up from Facebook on our iPhones, that is.

This news story didn't inspire this posting - there's basically something like this weekly - but we learnt this week that IKEA is looking to follow the mouse, the clown, and the jolly man with whiskers who enjoys killing chickens, by expanding globally.  Brilliant.  Now everybody the world over can file their shit Dan Brown novels on shit Billy bookcases.

On one level, fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist capitalism are both trying to make the world homogeneous.  It's just a choice between burkas for everyone or lattes all round.  It makes you want to go huzzah for North Korea, which has fewer websites than you can access via your avatar on Grand Theft Auto, as remaining one of the last bastions of heterogony, albeit mainly through the brutal curtailment of freedom of choice.  Though, if plans come to pass, they'll be a unified Olympic nation by 2032.  So, that'll be Coke, Mickey Ds and Fruit of the Loom t-shirts all round.  Another nation brought into line, blandification-wise.

But, maybe, this is what progress looks like.  Coming from Bedfordshire, there was a time when people from Cambridgeshire would have appeared strange and alien.  And as for those from Norfolk...  People read this blog in Ukraine and Israel - to you guys, Brits are Brits, pretty much the same.  Just push this process forward a few hundred years.  One day Earthlings will all be pretty much the same, whether you're from Earth yourself or you stopped off for a leak and a sandwich at Barnard's Star on your way here.

Perhaps, that total blandification, that cultural reversion to the mean as everything, everywhere is shaken together, is a necessary condition for us to achieve the next step in our evolution.  Like having to perform to a certain level in order to move on to the next level in a game, we have to become a beige monoculture before the gods allow us to reach for the stars.

Why not?  They're out there, aren't they?  Watching.  What are they waiting for?  Who's to say I haven't got the answer...

So, here's my manifesto to you: black, white, brown or yellow (which, after all, is only skin deep and will mix together to a single shade over the next, oh, thirty or forty generations) grab your Starbucks or Coke, your smartphones and your buckets of chicken or BigMacs, sit down to watch Premiership football or read Fifty Shades.  Only when an independent observer can no longer tell where you come from or the qualities that used to set you apart, only then will the aliens come and show us the way to the stars... 

Friday, 28 September 2018


You may be, but probably won't be, aware that, outside of writing science and speculative fiction, I'm a fully paid-up card-carrying (quite literally) human resources professional.  There's an old maxim: write what you know.  Well, other than the occasional character who works in HR ('The Lodeon Situation') or a scene around a conference table ('Farndale's Revelation'), I've tended not to write about the world of office life generally or personnel management specifically.  Possibly because editors don't have to read beyond the first page or two of anything duller than dark matter.

Well, I thought that I'd combine these two interests in this posting, the glue that binds being the prospect of a dystopian future, in degree of awfulness somewhere between The Handmaid's Tale and Man City winning the title each season without challenge for the next thirty years.  And I'll be taking as my starting point, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's People Management's July/August 2018 edition, focusing on technology and what it's going to do for us all within the profession.  Or with us, all depending.

Now, don't get me wrong: technology is not just useful - I couldn't run either my working or writing life without it, and I suspect you couldn't either (if you're a Unabomber-style off-grid hermit but also reading this, let me know how, I'm curious).  I've just pinged off a slide pack for a colleague's presentation, having picked up a draft from another colleague to polish.  We're all at our various homes, none at the client's offices.  We couldn't do this without the internet, the ubiquity of Microsoft Office, Google and the rest.  That's the prosaic everyday stuff.

But there's some developments going on at the edges that genuinely scare me.  Like ThriveMap, which uses people analytics to ensure employers select candidates that have the best cultural fit.  That's a phrase which sounds innocent, attractive even.  Why on earth would you not want cultural fit?  But I bet eugenics sounded like a similar no-brainer to many between the wars.  And I think they are not without parallels.

Yes, I know the arguments, that cultural fit doesn't mean everybody being the same sex, race, or religion.  It means looking at attitudes and propensities rather than skin colour and church of choice.  (Which begs the question, how much diversity is here?  How many companies don't want intelligent, initiative-taking team-workers, able to communicate, problem solve, and face customers?)  But that hides the fact that there are cultural nuances to communication, hierarchy and the rest.  Issues like deference: one culture's talking around the issue having been issued with instructions is another's insubordination.  Lack of eye contact doesn't always mean a lack of engagement.  I'm struggling to see how this encourages diversity rather than embeds a, say, a white, Anglo, first-world, perspective. 

And what about Olivia, your recruitment chatbot?  She'll screen, sift and longlist candidates so you don't have to.  Sounds great, but we all remember how Tay went off the rails on her first day, don't we.  Just saying...

And as for 'Put an end to harassment with the power of blockchain' (Vault), that just felt like a headline hanging off the side of a skyship in a Phil Dick novel.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any darker I came across this nugget from Nicola Strong, MD of a 'virtual learning, leadership and communication skills consultancy': "I believe that when AI is able to do the more mundane parts of our jobs for us, we'll have more work than ever."  What the fuck?  More work than ever?  What's the point of technology if it's simply going to replace nine-to-five drudgery with the need to be on-message and ready to rumble eight-to-seven?

If you've ever looked into deathbed regrets, even cursorily, you'll find that consistently in the top three is the regret of prioritising work over family, of missing the kids growing up, of not maintaining familial relationships.  Well, luckily, Ms Strong seems to be suggesting that after the march of the machines none of us will have the time to have a family.

I knew there had to be an upside.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Partial Recall

I re-watched Total Recall, the 1990 incarnation, the other night.  Didn't remember a damn thing about it.


Sorry.  That came out more like a tired sub-Vegas stand-up routine than it was intended to.  I meant what I said literally: I re-watched fresh faced Arnie finding out who he was and what Mars meant to him, knowing that I'd seen it before, but not having the slightest idea what was going to happen next, none of the scenes ringing the faintest bell.

When I really, really wring my brain out to establish what little there is in the drawer marked 'Total Recall', all I can muster up is a sort of warm memory of enjoying it.  It makes me wonder what sort of memory that is, whether it even counts as a memory.  It's more meta than that, a recollection of an opinion of an experience, a footprint in the dust from which I extrapolate where I've been.

I've always found philosophers' analogies for how the mind works unsatisfactory.  We used to be told that the mind worked like a library; nowadays it's like a computer.  Whatever the technology of the day, it seems to boil down to a big bucket of black and white data that we can dip into.  And that seems to sit very uncomfortably with the merry dance my neurons had been engaged in.

On the library analogy, the way I've always seen it presented is that we (our soul? our essence? our ego? what exactly?) are prowling the shelves, pulling down tomes and verifying facts.  It strikes me that that's fundamentally flawed.  For a start, how do you account for the difficulty, the uncomfortable feeling, at times the impossibility of holding views and opinions that don't quite mesh?  For that matter, how do account for views and opinions at all?

If there's any mileage in the analogy, I think we are the library, and it's the library itself that is opening volumes, bringing the knowledge to the fore, but with all the other stuff in the background.  But we're also the librarian, having a say over what makes it onto the shelves, making sure that they have an editorial stance that is us.  But that all feels like I'm trying to make something fit that was never intended to.

The computer analogy does little other than reduce books to ebooks; same analogy, different technology.  Neural nets appears to offer better models for learning, but less so for memories and knowledge - or intelligence and consciousness overall.  What exactly are at the junctions in the net in those cases?  Or is the net, in effect, your entire personality, memories, attitudes and aptitudes.  If I'm a racist who's good at needlework, is it my neural net that pulls me towards doing a damn fine quilt.  Just with a swastika in the middle.

Sci-fi has brought the absurdity of the mind as a box of facts to the fore many times over with computer-says-no logic engines like Spock and Data.  After all, an orrery is not the universe (I'd like to see that on a t-shirt, please).*

When Babbage thought up his difference engine, one of the key controversies was putting what God had put into Man and Man alone - the ability to reason - into a machine.  Where did that leave us?  Where was our special status?  I think that worry missed a fundamental.  Calculations are actually the easy bit, the - pun intended - mechanical bit.  The grey area is doubting, misremembering, having an uncanny feeling about, mild bigotry, Machiavellian scheming and the rest.

Whatever model works for all of that I'm sure of two things - it won't be a box of facts, and we we're nowhere near stumbling on it.

* Yes, yes, I know that an orrery is a model of the solar system, not the universe, but somehow that doesn't have the same ring.


Tuesday, 28 August 2018

One story, two guvnors

A long time ago, maybe six summers ago, I wrote a story whilst walking on the Devon or Cornwall coast.

When I say 'wrote a story', I, of course, mean that my mind wandered as I trod the narrow cliff path, a narrative slowly taking shape in my mind.  I can't help it; I can't stop it.  That, to me, is writing.  All the rest is writing down: the slightly tedious heavy lifting, which rarely proves - but occasionally, wonderfully does - to leave a tale behind as elegant as you imagined.

In the case of that story the writing down didn't take place for some months, perhaps a year or so.  There are so many stories that I've written that are waiting to be written down.  Form an orderly queue, please...

That particular story became 'Litter Picking on the Moon', just shy of 4000 words, and it may be instructive for me to relate what happened to it after that.

I'll skip the fifteen rejections the story received, and dwell on its two successes.  The first was when I submitted it to PunkWritePoems Press for their anthology "Don't Open 'til Doomsday".  I submitted the story on 5 November 2015, and it was accepted on 6 February 2016.   Amazon shows the book as having been published on 27 June 2016.  I was paid on 18 July 2016, without any chasing, and a copy arrived around the same time and sits on my bookshelf.

All in all, a pleasure doing business with PunksWritePoems and Jason Bates, Founding Editor.  I tried to see what he's doing now on the interweb, without success, but did stumble across an interview with him from 2016, which included this nugget: "I work in aerospace quality management. It is the opposite of the creativity of writing and publishing. Everything is controlled by specifications and regulations."  No, I think you carry that business-like approach into your creative ventures, Jason.

Contrast this experience with my sale of "Litter Picking" as a reprint with Indie Authors Press for their anthology, The Chronos Chronicles.  It was submitted on 29 September 2016, and accepted 17 October 2016.  I responded the next day, confirming my PayPal address and querying the lack of a contributor (hard) copy of the anthology.  Jason was happy to post my copy of Don't Open 'til Doomsday from the US; Indie Authors are fellow Brits.

26 October 2016, I chase for a contract, receive a holding reply, and chase again March 2017, when it comes through (there's a family illness involved somewhere, so I'm mellow about the delay).  I turn it around in a couple of days, but do put this is in the covering email:

...I just wanted to raise an eyebrow at the length and complexity of the contract, in particular your taking 50% of future sales of the work - of a reprint, at that, for which you are paying $10 and not even providing authors with a print copy of the anthology.  Seems a bit lopsided to me.  When this story was sold the first time around the legalese was covered in the following seventeen words: "We are seeking first print rights. Compensation is one contributor copy and $15. No contract to sign."  Didn't see any reason to make it more complicated than that.

That's right: Jason Bates was happy to have our contractual relationship covered in seventeen words.  As was I.  But Indie Authors Press stipulated a contract of over a thousand words.  If you want to have a look at it, its here.  As you'll see, it contains some cracking legalese, but possibly it's most smoke and mirrors - or, perhaps, wolf in sheep's clothing - section is the one on subsidiary rights:

The  further  and  additional  rights  referred  to  in  this  agreement  are  hereby  defined  to  include  the subsidiary  rights  enumerated  below,  net  proceeds  to  be  shared by  the  Author(s)  and  the  Publisher equally  (50/50),  less  only  such  direct  expenses,  including  agent’s  commissions,  as  shall  be  incurred  by the  Publisher  in  disposing  of  such  rights: 
  • Abridgment,  condensation,  or  digest
  • Anthology  or  quotation
  • Book  clubs  or  similar  organizations
  • Reprint
  • Special  editions
  • Second  serial  and  syndication  (including  reproduction  in  compilations,  magazines,  newspapers,  or books) 
All  revenue  derived  from  the  sale  of  rights  not  specifically  enumerated,  whether  now  in  existence  or hereinafter  coming  into  existence,  shall  be  shared  equally  by  the  Author(s)  and  the  Publisher. 

All  such  rights  shall  be  disposed  of  by  the  sale,  lease,  license,  or  otherwise  by  the  Publisher  who  for that  purpose  is  constituted  the  agent  of  the  Author(s).  The  Author(s)  agrees  to  sign,  make,  execute, deliver  and  acknowledge  all  such  papers,  documents  and  agreements  as  may  be  necessary  to effectuate  the  grants  herein  above  contemplated.  In  the  event  that the  Author(s)  shall  fail  to  do  so, they  may  be  signed,  executed,  delivered  and  acknowledged  by  the  Publisher  as  the  agent  of  the Author(s)  with  the  same  full  force  and  effect  as  if  signed  by  the  Author(s).  All  sums  due  under  this Agreement  shall  be  paid  to  the  Author(s)  [by the  Publisher] who  shall  act  with  the  authority  of  the  Author(s)  in  all  matters  arising  out  of  this  agreement.  

Yes, you've read that correctly.  Not only have I got a publisher, I've got an agent who can market and monetize my story, take fifty percent, and agree to sales that I may not wish to make otherwise.  Given that this was just a short story, unlikely to be resold without my efforts, I was happy for it to go over the barricades a second time and wave a flag for my novel, 2084.  But if it had been a novel, no way I would have been signing up for those terms...

The Chronos Chronicles eventually stumbled off the presses on 8 May 2018, over eighteen months after submission, with the publisher sending hysterical requests such as:

PLEASE share the links to where people can buy the book. Not just ONCE, ALL THE TIME, ALL OVER SOCIAL MEDIA!  (Their emphasis)

But, as in any morality tale, there's a twist.  Payment terms as set out in their contact was three months after publication.  I've chased for payment this month - and was asked to confirm my PayPal address, first confirmed back in 2016.  Curiously enough, no payment has been made at the time of writing - which luckily constitutes a breach of contract that, in turn, under their clause XI.B, terminates the contract.  So, that's all that tosh about subsidiary rights kicked into the long grass.  If you can't play to your own rules...

It also absolves me, as author, of the responsibility to "self-promote the Work to the best of his/her ability".  Therefore, my sincere advice is, if you want to read 'Litter Picking on the Moon', follow the links to Jason Bates' "Don't Open 'til Doomsday" and support both common sense and publishers who wish to work with authors on a level playing field.  'Nuff said.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

We've joined a cult and we didn't even realise

I always like to base my thinkings out loud on fact, and can generally cite my sources, but I've struggled to find where I saw this nugget of apparent truth that I'm going to riff off.  But as this posting depends on its veracity I'm just going to assume that my recall is accurate and that somebody else has fact checked.  Hopefully somebody outside of the Trump administration.

And this fact is that people (I assume Americans, it normally is) would pay $30,000 to keep the services provided by the likes of Google and Facebook if the threat of their removal, nay disappearance, was to be waved in front of them.  Presumably between them and their screens.

Yes, you read that right.  $30,000.  All depending on whether I've remembered rightly but, to be honest, that was element of the story that stuck in my mind.

Let's just unpack that.  Social media - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin - and the services that the FANGS provide are now so entwined, enmeshed in our everyday lives that we would happily pay half our income on never having to see the words 'wait 28 days for delivery' again.  So that we don't have to go back to waiting to see a TV show when it's scheduled.  So we don't have to actually travel to a shop to buy a CD.  So that a cat video is never more than a couple of clicks away, assuming we don't get distracted by a picture of a friend of a friend's dinner.

Half our salary.  Even the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God only takes 10%, although apparently Alpha won't bat an eyelid at the 50%.

I'm not sure that I'd pay anything if the whole interweb thing turned out to be a vivid dream after an especially good Stilton.  As long as it was a level playing field and we were all in the same boat.  It would be irritating, sure, but if the web were removed for me. and only me..  Actually, isn't that the same as being burgled and having your laptop stolen?  Would I pay anything in that scenario?  Of course not: I'm insured.  Or maybe it would mean that I'm Julian Assange...

I've implied that Amazon, Facebook, Google and the rest have formed a cult-like status, and if that's the case, then that's probably to their credit, a reflection on us not them, and thoroughly deserved.  But the image that forms in my mind, more than a cult is that of the pusher.  They've got us hooked on their wares.  But if they were to stop giving it out for free, where does that leave us?  Sweaty, pale and shaky.  And wanting our toys back.

Now, I don't want to paint a picture of Zuckerberg and the rest leaning out of the window of an ice cream van handing out single cigarettes to school children as a reality (mainly because I suspect they have some fairly decent lawyers), but as a dystopian what-if thought experiment, it's worth considering.

Like, what if the good and great of the web (and Zuckerberg - hey, only joking) have already formed a shady cartel, meeting Illuminati-like, and there's a date red-circled in their diaries and on that date, everything gets pulled unless we stump up.  Half our income.  Half global GDP.  That's about $67 trillion.  A year.  That puts the schemes of most Bond villains in the shade.  And the scary thing is that it has a stronger basis in reality than most sci-fi visions, utopian or dystopian. 

In the 60's we all believed love was free.  But there was a price to pay.  The 80's made us think the markets would rise forever, but they just came toppling down from on high.  Why the hell should we think all that information and functionality slopping back and forth on the net for free will last forever.  I'm sure it'll end; I'm only curious how.


Postscript - found my source; now I can sleep easy...

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...


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.com.  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, an anthology of stories about coming-of-age at all ages, was announced I pointed out that it would be an excellent fit, and its resubmission was very generously accepted.  But not to the anthology, just the ezine for which it was originally a near miss, curiously.  Hence I've rather screwed up NewMyth's response turnaround chart on The Grinder with a 393 day acceptance, but it's another sale either way.

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.


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.