Britain’s a funny old place. Lets face it, guidebooks can never quite capture the essence of a nation that gave us both Bilbo Baggins and the Rolling Stones. Fortunately our rich tradition of making stuff up, aka science fiction and fantasy, can help out.

Fellow writer Victoria Randall‘s daughter will be learning about Britain first hand later this year when she travels to Swansea, a town some of my readers are very familiar with. So to help her out here are a few valuable lessons on Britain, as shown by science fiction and fantasy.

Queueing matters

I know that in some other countries getting what you want is a mad scrum to get to the front. She who shouts loudest or pushes hardest gets her way.

Yes United States, I’m looking at you. Don’t try to hide behind Canada, even if they’re too polite to give you away.

No pushing, no shoving, no giggling at the back - these chaps know how to behave.

No pushing, no shoving, no giggling at the back – these chaps know how to behave.

In this country we are far too polite for that (sidenote: studies from the Centre for Made Up Statistics show that 63% of British politeness is just a cover for repression – more on that later). The cybermen may be brutal villains hell bent on destroying humanity, but at least they know how to wait their turn in line. Get out of line around cybermen and they will destroy you. Real Britains will politely dream about it, and then provide you with poor service and a look of disdain. Don’t take that chance.

Food = happiness

Sam cookingIs there any more British hero than Sam from Lord of the Rings? Diligent, home-loving, unsure of himself. And what does Sam do whenever he wants to cheer people up? He cooks.

The British love of a cuppa is well known, but it goes beyond that. Look at our traditional national cuisine – Yorkshire puddings, teacakes, milky tea, boiled potatoes and over-cooked vegetables. Some people might call it joyless and unexciting, but it’s really the opposite – it’s a sign of how much we love our food, that we can find comfort in it no matter what. That’s what makes Sam such a big damn hero – halfway up Mount Doom he’s still putting on the kettle and reaching for the breadknife.

Scepticism is not just healthy, it’s compulsory

How better to cope with an infestation than by having a nice cuppa?

How better to cope with an infestation than by having a nice cuppa?

We may be polite but that doesn’t mean we blankly accept whatever we’re told. Remember, we chopped our king’s head off long before other countries got in on the act.

That’s right revolutionary France, I see you jumping on our bandwagon.

Scepticism is the bedrock of the British mindset. It can be about authority, about ideas, even about whether this nice weather will last (it won’t, this is Britain). And it’s embodied in the works of one of finest fantasy authors, the amazing Terry Pratchett. Pratchett’s characters and the plots of his books challenge accepted ideas and authorities. They show that scepticism of which we’re so proud.

Though we do look askance at anyone who gets too proud.

Repression is so last century

Not as polite as they look.

Not as polite as they look.

All of this might leave you thinking that Britain is still the stiff upper lipped land of the Victorian age. But if you want to see modern Britain, and just how foul-mouthed and sneering that upper lip has become, then you should check out Misfits. The show about young people who develop super powers while on community service is full of imaginatively foul language and the worst sort of behaviour. Because after years of repression Britain is finally pulling out of the nineteenth century and the results are… lets call them messy.

Modern Britain has learned that it can get away with swearing in public, consuming drugs other than a nice cup of Assam, and loudly screaming its scepticism in the face of authority. We’re changing, which is not all good and not all bad, and as always science fiction and fantasy are there to show the world what it means to be British.

So anyway, that’s my guide to Britain, as shown by our science fiction and fantasy. Fellow Brits, add your opinions in the comments – what lessons have I missed? And those of you further afield, what have you learned about Britain from our national nerd culture? Or what would you like the rest of us to explain?

Today I have a guest post from Russell Phillips. Regular readers will be familiar with Russell as the author of several self-published books on military history, as well as many insightful comments here. He’s been a huge help to me in starting with self-publishing, and he’s here to offer some more of that great insight today…


When I was at university, I discovered open source software, and I’ve been using it ever since. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, open source basically means that the source code for a program is available to anyone that wants it. They can then examine it and, if they wish, change it so that it better suits their needs. These days, I’m less involved with the open source community, but I can see some parallels between the open source community and the self-publishing community. I think there are lessons to be learned from the open source community’s experiences.

Fund-raising and self-publishing (the open source way), Part one

I often saw this quote in open source circles: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” I’d say that open source is currently in the “then they fight you” stage, and self-publishing is moving from “then they laugh at you” to “then they fight you”. I don’t know whether self-publishing will ultimately “win” or not. I think it will become an accepted way to publish, and that in itself is something of a victory. Maybe the traditional publishing houses will slowly die out completely, and self-publishing will be the only way to publish, but it seems more likely that some traditional publishers will adapt and survive, alongside self-publishing.

FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, And Doubt

Many open source advocates have accused traditional, closed-source, companies and developers of using tactics known as “FUD” (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) when arguing against the use of open source software. Such tactics are easy to use, and difficult to counter, since they don’t offer concrete examples of problems, they simply suggest that problems might exist. Why go for the new and unknown, the argument goes, when you can stick with what you know? The same tactics are now being used against self-publishing, with warnings that many self-published books might not be ready for publishing.

Hippies, Teenagers, And Authors

The stereotype of open source developers is long-haired hippies and teenagers living in their parents’ basement. Similarly, the stereotypical self-published author only turned to self-publishing because their work isn’t good enough to get a traditional deal. There is undoubtedly some truth in these stereotypes, but in both cases, the stereotypes fall far short of the full story. Large companies including IBM, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have released open source software. Self-publishers regularly appear in the New York Times and USA Today best-seller lists.

The Letter Matters More Than The Spirit

One lesson all authors (both traditionally and self published) should take to heart is that the letter of the contract is important. Large companies will obey the letter of the contract, and if they don’t, they can be sued. That’s a difficult proposition, but it’s much more difficult to sue a company for not adhering to the spirit of the contract. If you are signing a contract, make sure that everything that matters to you is written into the contract. Similarly, don’t agree to a contract or a set of terms and conditions if there are provisions missing that are important to you. Several large companies (including Amazon) have released open source code because the licence forced them to do so. In some cases, they did the bare minimum to abide by the licence conditions, annoying some open source advocates because the way it was released meant that developers had to spend many hours getting the code into a more useful form.

Not Everyone That Takes The Freebie Would Have Paid

I run my own web server, using the Linux operating system, Apache web server and MySQL database. These are all open source, and none of them cost anything. There is an option to pay for this software, usually in return for support, but because this option is primarily aimed at businesses, it’s expensive. If the free option wasn’t available, I wouldn’t pay the huge licensing fees. I’d make do without my own web server, and just pay to host my websites for me. Similarly, not every copy of your book that is given away or pirated is a lost sale. If the free copy wasn’t available, some of those people would buy your book, but some of them would simply look elsewhere for their entertainment.

Share The Knowledge

This seems to be a lesson that many self-published authors have already taken to heart. The internet has many blogs (including this one), forums, etc, where authors share their knowledge, what has and hasn’t worked for them, etc. Similarly, open source developers often share ideas and help each other solve problems. While it may seem that other authors are competitors, very few of them actually are. I write non-fiction (specifically, military technology and history). Andy writes fantasy, steampunk and sci-fi. My books simply don’t compete with his. Even if a given reader reads both genres, they’re highly unlikely to refuse to buy a book I wrote about the Football War because they’ve already bought a book by Andy about Victorians going to Mars on steam-powered space ships.

What Else?

These are some lessons that I believe self-published authors can learn from the open source world. There are probably more, but I’m sure there are also lessons that could be learned from other areas. Maybe doctors, taxi drivers, and chefs could teach us something. Do you have any lessons from other areas of your life that are relevant to authors? Act on my final lesson, and share your knowledge in the comments.

Image by opensourceway, from Flickr.

Conflict is common over the depiction of race and gender in speculative fiction. As a middle-class first-world white bloke I recognise that I’m in a very privileged position and over-represented in popular culture. But as a nerd I also recognise why people get defensive about challenges to a frequently mocked subculture. I’ve written a post about this and recent superhero films over one Curnblog. Here’s the start of it…

Where Did Storm Go? Representing Race and Gender in Superhero Films

Superhero films and the comics that spawned them are famous for their traditionally white male fan-base. It’s a fan-base to which the creators play, with the vast majority of superheroes, and particularly the high profile ones, being white men.

This raises issues for the balanced representation of gender and race and for the diversity of perspectives possible within these stories. It becomes even more problematic as these stories reach out to a wider audience, perpetuating norms of white male cultural dominance. But why is this so common? And is an opportunity for change being squandered?

Talking raccoons are surprisingly well represented in the Marvel universe

Talking raccoons are surprisingly well represented in the Marvel universe

To read the rest please hop on over to Curnblog. And while you’re there I also recommend Anthony Pilloud‘s ‘The Fallibility of Superheroes‘, an interesting article on the troubling moral structure of the Marvel universe.


For more on issues of representation you might also want to check out this rough transcript of a panel R A Smith was on at LonCon.

And if you have any thoughts on the subject or links to other interesting articles then please leave a comment.

A steam-powered cowboy with a taste for death. A daring art heist in a moving city. A zeppelin flight through the smoke-filled skies of a Europe torn apart by volcanoes. This collection brings together nine stories of mechanical adventure from worlds where pistons and clockwork are king.

Like any author, I want my books to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. And so Riding the Mainspring, my collection of steampunk short stories, is out now on all sorts of formats via Smashwords. I’ll be adding Mud and Brass there tomorrow, so that both books are available to those of you who use epub or other non-Amazon formats. From Smashwords they’ll filter out to other stores over the next few weeks.

Riding The Mainspring - High Resolution

As with the Kindle release, one of the best ways for my books to gain readers is through reviews. So whatever format you buy the book in please leave a review in the appropriate online store. And if you include a link to the review in the comments to the original book release blog post then I’ll include you in a draw to win a free copy of my next release, coming soon to all your different e-reading platforms.

I hope that you enjoy the book, and if you do please let me know.

Happy reading!


No, today’s blog title isn’t just me saying how great I am – Amanda Headlee did that for me over on the Sarcastic Muse. Last Saturday they had a post taking part in the very inspiring blogger award, for which they had been nominated by another blogger, and one of the people Amanda nominated was me.

Thank you very much Amanda!

Just because I can't work socks right doesn't mean I can't be inspiring

Just because I can’t work socks right doesn’t mean I can’t be inspiring

Obviously it’s great when someone considers my blog worth mentioning to others, and I’m honoured by the mention. And while I really like these ‘pass it along, tell folks about other blogs’ things, I find the use of the word ‘award’ in these blogging awards a little odd. So I’m going to mostly join in but just skip that bit.

So, most important things first, a few other blogs I think you will enjoy:

  • The Sarcastic Muse – yes, of course I’m biased because they just called me ‘very inspiring’, but it’s not just that – as well as a cool blog name they have some great posts on writing topics.
  • The Nerds of Color – I’m a middle class English-speaking white bloke, and even I know that my background is massively over-represented in nerd culture, so it’s great to see an intelligent blog working to address one part of that balance.
  • 21st-Century Victorian – a new find this week – I’m a sucker for anything that’s well-written and discusses history or books, and this hits all those points – I particularly recommend ‘Respecting nineteenth-century women‘ for the Austen fans, history aficionados and feminists out there, or anyone else looking for a thought-provoking read.

Seven random facts about me:

  • I live in a house built in 1901. This means endless repair work – this week we have builders in tackling dry rot.
  • I grew up in Norwich, which is a fine city but a bit too isolated for my current tastes.
  • At university I took part in a student film. It was a fantasy epic called Dunorilus: Kingdom in Flames. It was great fun, but it’s hard to make an epic battle scene using a dozen live roleplayers and some foam swords.
  • For my seventeenth birthday I went to see Therapy? play live. I moshed so hard I almost fainted. It was amazing.
  • My mum lives in Dorchester, the town Thomas Hardy based Casterbridge on. It’s a lovely place, but putting up blue tourist plaques to mark the places where fictional buildings would have been is cheating – bad Dorchester!
  • I have a vegetable garden, and therefore hate slugs.
  • It’s nearly ten in the morning and I’m still in my pyjamas. Writing for the win!

OK, that’s enough from me. Have a great weekend, please take the time to check out those other blogs, and I’ll be back on Monday.


And if you’re looking for some more weekend reading please consider checking out Riding the Mainspring, available on all your different Amazons, including for the Americans, for us Brits, and all those other different-ending Amazons.

I enjoyed the first book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower fantasy series, with its broken narrative and its intriguing ideas. I loved the second volume, with its intense study of a small group of characters, their personal struggles and their developing relationships. So I was really looking forward to the third volume.

Unusual setting, decent story

This story, which follows the Gunslinger Roland and his companions on the way to the Dark Tower, is very much a quest story. More coherent than the first volume, and a more conventional fantasy narrative than the second, the most interesting aspects lie in the details of the world. The characters take a familiar journey from A to B through various dangers, but the details of the world are unusual. It’s a mishmash of fantasy, science fiction, western and modern settings, with some horror elements in the mix.

More conventional makes for less interesting

The problem for me lies in the expectation set by the previous two volumes. By comparison with the intense character studies of the The Drawing of the Three, the familiar quest narrative is just OK. Like Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics, this is combining familiar and comfortable structures with more unusual elements, but in a way that doesn’t excite me.

If this had been the first volume I probably would have been excited by the novelty of the setting, and let the quest story carry me through that. But as a third volume it felt disappointing.

The awesome bits

I still enjoyed this novel a lot. It may not be great, but it is good.

And King’s ambition here is great. Like the new weird, this combines elements in unexpected ways. Questions are raised about the relationship between the real world and that of the Gunslinger, a relationship which is complex and currently unresolved. We see how people respond when their world falls apart. The disparate genre elements unsettle and excite, promising exhilarating new experiences that they come within a hair’s breadth of delivering.

I read a blog post yesterday in which Jacqui Murray identified an optimistic view of the future as a feature of steampunk. While I’m not sure that optimism is essential to steampunk it is a common feature, a way of making the problems of Victorian society comfortable, shunning the darkness of colonialism and factory labour in favour of bold excitement. Steampunk can explore darker places, and can become more interesting by doing so, but it’s a more risky approach, and so less common.

In the same way, it feels like King has taken the safe route with this volume, and in doing so created something I enjoyed but wasn’t blown away by. I’m hoping for more next time.

Anybody else read this book? What did you think?

I love world building, that distinct part of speculative fiction that is creating a whole new environment from scratch. The flora, the fauna, the technology or magic, the politics and culture… Even though we never build worlds from nothing, taking elements from reality and other settings, it’s always fun to craft a place of our own.

A world above

‘The Promise and the Reckoning’, one of the stories I put into Riding the Mainspring, was inspired by a world building idea. During the hugely disruptive Icelandic eruptions of 2010 large numbers of flights were cancelled because modern airliners couldn’t fly through the ash-clouded atmosphere. At the time someone pointed out to me that airships would be able to fly in these conditions. Having heard the word ‘airships’, naturally I started thinking steampunk.

Eyjafjallajokull volcano plume – imagine a whole continent of that. Photo by Boaworm via Wikimedia commons.

The challenge for me became creating a setting in which that ability of airships to fly through volcanic ash would be relevant. And so I set about creating a world in which volcanic ash had become a huge problem in the 19th century.

Rubbing two ideas together to create a spark

At the time, I was also very conscious of how unrepresentative speculative fiction can be. There are plenty of examples that aren’t centred on characters from America and Europe or their fantastical equivalents, but they still dominate the bookshelves. So I wanted a reason to shift that around as well, a context that would remove the advantage of 19th century Europeans, turning the power dynamics on their heads.

What better way to provide ash-clouds and remove European dominance than to blow Europe up with volcanoes?

So I created a world in which vast volcanoes have destroyed vast swathes of Napoleonic Europe, leaving a wasteland of ash and fire. The survivors cling on to what habitable land remains, or build settlements high above the ground, desperately clinging to the remains of their old lives. Because lets face it, that’s what people do.

World building that drives character building

Interesting characters are at the heart of any good story. So if your story’s job is to explore and expose a world you’ve built then you need a central character with a reason to expose and explore. Mine was Professor Ondieki, a vulcanologist from Mombassa who flies into Europe determined to prove his theories about the cause of the Reckoning, the event that laid waste to a continent. By making him an academic and an outsider I provided reasons for him to ask and talk about what was going on. And by making him African I scratched that itch to reduce my Euro-centrism, while still using my knowledge of European history to inform the setting.

As I thought about this world all sorts of extra details cropped up – cloudberries, a British diaspora, what happened to Napoleon and to French cuisine. But it all came back to that central concept – blowing Europe up with volcanoes.

Tell me about your worlds

I know I have quite a few world builders reading this blog, so tell me, where did the inspiration for your worlds come from? What triggered your core concept, and how did you expand from there?

For more examples of intricate and well-considered world building check out The War of Memory Project, a great example of world building explored in breadth and depth.

And if you want to learn more about Professor Ondieki and the world of the Reckoning then check out ‘The Promise and the Reckoning’ in Riding the Mainspring, available on all your different Amazons, including for the Americans, for us Brits, and all those other different-ending Amazons.