• Out Now – Praying Away the Plague in Ancient History

    Are you interested in history? Do you like to read about the downfall of civilisations? Does the thought of past disasters help you survive current ones? Then the latest issue of Ancient History is for you!

    Themed around the end of antiquity, it features an article by me entitled “Praying Away the Plague”, about how people used religion to cope with the Justinian Plague of the 6th century. There’s also stuff on learning, politics, and the personalities of those changing times. So if you’re a fan of well-written and accessible history, go grab a copy now.


  • Edge Lit 6

    Conventions are one of my favourite things about science fiction and fantasy fandom. The chance to hear and talk about sf+f with like minded people is great. And with Derby within day trip distance, one of my regular ones is Edge Lit.

    Epic panellists dwarfed by epic title

    The Epic Panel

    I didn’t go to many panels this Edge Lit. I enjoy the panels as conversation starters, but I get easily distracted and end up staying in the bar.

    The one I went to was on epic fantasy.

    The panel’s starting question was about why epic fantasy is so popular at the moment. But there’s a reason why I say “starting” question. The titles of panels are seldom their whole focus. Instead, they provide a theme and a starting point for the panelists to work from. What’s interesting is what they do with it.

    This particular panel featured RJ Barker, Lucy Hounsom, Stan Nicholls, Anna Stephens, and Gav Thorpe in the chair. They talked about how epic fantasy lets them write the stories they want to tell, about how various media are making it more popular, about the bad cliches that can be a problem, and all sorts of other things around what epic fantasy is. It was a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion that ended with some good recommendations for books.

    This is the joy of panels. It’s hearing smart, lively people talk about interesting stuff. The panel titles might get a bit repetitive, but it’s the panelists that bring them alive.

    The Event Running Workshop

    Alex Davis, who runs Edge Lit, ran a workshop on running events. It’s certainly something he’s got experience on, making it a valuable addition to the convention. I’ve been toying with the idea of running some sf+f evenings in Leeds, so I went along to learn about the practicalities.

    I know Alex puts a lot of effort into these events. Hearing him talk about it only made me more aware of that. So kudos to him for keeping the convention going. Whether I act on what I learned remains to be seen…

    All the Books

    I have too many books on my to-read pile already. Every convention I go to, I plan not to add any more. Every convention, that plan fails.

    My main purchase this time was Laura Mauro’s Naming the Bones. I heard her read from this at the book launch and it caught my attention. A horror story that starts with a terrorist attack and ends up in the tunnels under London is something new for me, but with familiar elements I’m fascinated by. I’m looking forward to reading it, though probably not when I want to be able to sleep.

    And then there was the raffle. I bought five tickets. Three of mine got drawn from the massive bowl. Slightly embarrassed, I asked them to draw again and let someone else have my prize the third time. Because like I said, I have too many books. But hey, I won!

    In summary, Edge Lit 6 was everything I expected, in a good way. Books, panels, conversations, more books. Plenty of inspiration for what to read and write.

    Needless to say, I’ll be back in the winter for Sledge Lit.


  • Across the Factory Floor

    Talia didn’t have to creep to pass unseen across the factory floor. The machines were hammering away, steam blasting from ramshackle and rusted pistons in long, roaring gouts, gears clattering, hammers smashing against plates. Even with her ears filled with cotton, the noise was so intense she felt like needles were being stabbed through her ears.

    Despite the pain, this noise was for the best. She could be stealthy when needed, but Umberto Pollyglog, wobbling along behind her in his working class disguise and with a length of pipe dangling from his hand, was as light on his feet as a hungry elephant.

    Raising one hand, she held Pollyglog back while she peered out between the machines.

    On a pedestal above the ship floor was the overseer’s stand, where the men who had attacked her said Jan Shofflekrep was meeting them. No-one was there yet, which wasn’t a surprise. What was surprising was that there was literally no-one in the factory, even though the machines were running.

    Hairs on the back of Talia’s neck twitched.

    Turning to Pollyglog, she pointed at him and then at the spot where they stood, indicating that he should stay there. He nodded his understanding.

    She drew her sword with one hand and pistol with the other, then stepped out into the open space, that roiling maelstrom of noise. As she cautiously approached the pedestal, she saw brief twitches of movement between the machines.

    They weren’t alone.

    She turned to see half a dozen men and women emerging from between the machines.

    One of them stood behind Pollyglog, a knife pressed against the side of the accountant’s neck.

    Talia tensed. It wasn’t the first ambush she had walked into, or the stupidest one to get caught out by. But moments like this were hardly a source of pride for a private detective.

    Now came the tough choice. Fight back and risk Pollyglog getting skewered or give in and risk that they would both be murdered out of hand. After all, Jan Shofflekrep’s freedom was at stake and the bankrupt agitator was a big deal for there people.

    To her surprise, Pollyglog made the decision for her. Somewhere in their time together he’d clearly grown a backbone. He slammed his elbow into the man behind him and lurched to the left, away from the knife.

    The blade nicked Pollyglog’s neck. He clutched one hand to the wound even as he used the other to swing his pipe.

    Talia leapt into action. With a single shot she shattered one man’s shin, the roar of the gun lost amid the factory noise. She parried an attack from the next thug and punched him in the face so hard his head bounced of a pillar and he slumped to the floor.

    Every second counted. Neck wounds were serious business. She needed to deal with their attackers and get to Pollyglog before-

    He slumped to the ground. His face was pale. Fingers slid away as blood streamed from the wound.

    Everyone else stood still, looking from him to Talia. Their expressions were smug and expectant. None of them moved to finish off Pollyglog but no-one went to save him either.

    Umberto Pollyglog was an arse and an annoyance. The people he worked for were scum. But still, Talia reluctantly admitted, he didn’t deserve to die.

    Certainly not while his company was paying her bills.

    Moving slowly enough to avoid alarm, she laid her weapons on the floor. Still no-one moved. She walked over to Pollyglog, squeezed the wound shut as tight as she could with one hand, and tore a strip from the bottom of his shirt with the other. As she struggled to bandage him while still staunching the flow of blood, their attackers closed in.

    Here was hoping that the two of them wouldn’t just be murdered.

    * * *

     

    Oh, Pollyglog, your name is so much fun to say.

    You can find the previous episodes of this story over here. And come back next week to see what Shofflekrep has planned for our heroes.


  • Out Now – The Collection

    They say there’s a library at the end of the world. After the final war comes the Cold. Humanity struggles to survive in the frozen wasteland they’ve made of the world, squabbling for resources and jumping at shadows. So much has been lost – it’s only a matter of time before we lose the rest. But there’s a fragment of civilization left. Urban legends about The Collection, a sanctuary of knowledge which appears where it’s most needed. And the stories about those who guard it are even stranger…

    The Collection is a series of interconnect short stories about a world that’s fallen into trouble and the people holding knowledge and hope together. Edited by my ridiculously creative friend A C Macklin and illustrated by the immensely talented Andrew Cradduck, it contains tales by a collection of writers as eclectic and fascinating as their stories. I don’t have a story in this one but I wrote the introduction, which was a new and exciting experience. If you like your stories thoughtful, wild, and fascinating, then check it out.


  • Spiderman Homecoming and Representation in America

    Spiderman Homecoming is one of my favourite Marvel movies so far. It’s fun, exciting, and heartfelt in exactly the way I like Spiderman to be. And now I’m going to skip past all the enthusing I could do about its plot, dialogue, and characters, because there are actual reviewers for that. I want to talk about how this fun, breezy film reflects upon serious issues in America, issues that are all too familiar to someone living in Britain.

    Who’s Who in Homecoming

    There are three important sets of characters in Homecoming – school, villains, and The Man.

    Peter Parker’s school is a youthful and diverse place. The students and staff represent the complex and varied society of a modern global city, without the story ever making an issue out of this. It’s a space that celebrates diversity and representation while recognising that everyone has their flaws and weaknesses. This is the America that liberals want to encourage.

    The villains are working class men. They’re mostly white, though with a significant black character. A lot of them are getting on in years. They’ve been shit on by the establishment. Their overriding concern is to look after themselves and their families. This is the America that conservatives want to protect.

    Then there’s The Man, as represented by Stark Enterprises and Damage Control. These are economically and politically powerful organisations run by people in suits. They cause problems for everyone else. They’re caught up in the big picture and aren’t good at seeing how that affects the people around them. They’re powerful, patronising, and not as smart as they could be.

    Symbolism!

    You don’t need a degree in semiotics to see how this is symbolic of what’s going on at the moment. The sides of America represented by Spiderman’s school and his villains are in conflict politically. At its extremes, this is supporters of Trump versus supporters of Obama and Hilary. The irony being that they’re both voting for faces of The Man, the big traditional bodies that have let them all down.

    I’m not saying that Spiderman Homecoming offers a deep exploration of these themes. I’m in two minds about whether it’s even consciously looking at them, and when I go back to watch it (which I will, many times) that’s one of the things I’ll be trying to judge. But I still think that it’s doing something important. It’s representing both of these groups in a light that is, if not always sympathetic, at least understable. It’s showing that The Man is a third factor in their lives, not the representative of either group. That shouldn’t be an unusual thing for someone to say, but it is. Hopefully by saying it at all, this film will help people to gain a little more insight into the society we live in.

    Maybe it will even, as the film suggests, offer hope for reconciliation amid further divisions.

    As Cap says, it just might take a little patience to get us there.

     


  • Stay Back – a steampunk story

    “Stay back,” Talia snapped as she strode deeper into the alleys of The Anvil.

    “I might lose track of you,” Pollyglog replied, panting as he tried to keep up.

    “Good.”

    The noise was getting to Talia already. The Anvil might look like the rubbish tip of some angry machine god, the place where heaps of old machinery went to die. But it was also a place where the rejected and the lost found new life. Where skilled artisans who had rejected factory routines built their own manufacturing shops. Improvised pistons and blackened furnaces powered a thriving industry, creating goods for those who lived down below, repairing and recycling the objects others abandoned.

    To Talia’s sensitive ears, the noise was like a steam hammer pounding at her brain.

    “I need to witness the retrieval,” Pollyglog shouted, struggling to be heard.

    “Without you, I’d have captured Shofflekrep already,” Talia said. “Go back to your barracks and wait.”

    “That’s the fifth time you’ve-”

    “Enough with the counting!” She spun around and waved a fist in his face. “If I hear one more number out of your mouth, I swear I’ll…”

    Her words trailed up as she looked past him. Half a dozen burly men and women were approaching, each one carrying a cudgel, an axe handle, or some other primitive weapon. She glanced around and saw more coming, closing in on them from every direction.

    She knew some of the faces, guards from Jan Shofflekrep’s rally. They clearly also knew her.

    “Reactionary pigs,” the leader bellowed, waving a length of pipe above her head. “It’s time for you to see some justice.”

    Talia drew her sword but left her pistol holstered. She didn’t want to kill these people. She’d seen the way they lived. They had a right to be angry at the way the world treated them.

    But she didn’t want to get killed either. As Pollyglog drew a pristine gentleman’s rapier, clearly never used in anger, she groaned inside. She was going to have to save him again.

    As the toughs advanced, Pollyglog lunged. It was like watching a hot air balloon caught in a storm, a rippling blob that threatened to collapse at any moment. His thrust was easily parried by a length of pipe and Talia had to leap in to stop him being battered around the head.

    “Back against the wall,” she said as she stabbed one attacker’s shoulder and slashed another across the forearm, making both drop their weapons.

    “I can do this!” Pollyglog exclaimed. “I don’t care what the others say. I’m not just a bean counter.”

    He tried another attack. The target brought a sledgehammer down, smashing the top six inches off Pollyglog’s beautiful blade.

    “I said get back.” Talia darted low, cutting the back of the man’s legs. He fell to the ground, dropping his sledgehammer and clutching at the wounds.

    She slammed Pollyglog back against the wall then spun to deflect another attack. The machines in the nearest building had got louder. She almost lost her balance as a wave of nausea made the world spin.

    “Your whole job stinks,” she said, lunging twice and then parrying a length of plank. “Going after a reformer for a bunch of mercenaries. Fighting poor people who want change.”

    “You didn’t mind when I showed you the pay,” Pollyglog said. He stabbed at someone with his broken sword, leaving himself exposed to another attack.

    “Maybe I should have.” As a woman lunged at Pollyglog, Talia smashed her in the back of the head with her sword guard, knocking her out. “Instead of helping people who kill for money.”

    Pollyglog laughed. It was a shrill, hysterical sound, the laughter of a desperate and sweat-soaked man.

    “You think Shofflekrep’s any better?” he asked. “How do you think he wound up in prison?”

    “Debt. The plague of the poor.”

    There were three opponents left. Talia was exhausted, her head aching, but if she could keep herself together they might get through this.

    “Debts from gambling on illegal cage fights,” Pollyglog said. “Shofflekrep likes watching tramps beat each other to death.”

    At last he landed a blow, slicing the shoulder of a man attacking Talia.

    “And these people?” Pollyglog just parried an attack by the man he’d injured. “Did he send them for a revolution or to protect his hide?”

    With a low kick, Talia swept the legs from under a woman in an ironmonger’s apron. A second swift kick knocked the woman out.

    Only Pollyglog’s attacker remained. He stood uncertainly, blood running down his arm, a cudgel in his hand.

    “She beat thirteen of your compatriots in one hundred and ninety-three seconds,” Pollyglog said. “Do you think you can beat her now?”

    Despite the ringing in her head, Talia grinned. It wasn’t often that her achievements were acknowledged.

    The man dropped his weapon and ran.

    At last, Talia sank to the ground. She clutched her head. The noise was killing her.

    Pollyglog tore a strip of soft lining from inside his scabbard.

    “For your ears,” he said. “The sword’s broken anyway.”

    “Thanks.” She tore the material in half and started balling it up.

    “I’m not saying I’m a good man,” Pollyglog said. “But neither is Shofflekrep.”

    Talia stuffed the material into her ears. It didn’t blot out all the noise, but it did make things better.

    “Let’s talk to these people,” she said, gesturing at the injured and unconscious bodies around them. “Someone must know how we can find their boss.”

    “We?” Pollyglog asked, the word just audible through her improvised earplugs.

    “We,” she said. “You and me.”

    * * *

     

    As a fan of action stories, I hate how often women are shown as needing protecting by men. Watch how often even supposedly “plucky” ladies get led away from explosions in Hollywood films, never mind the whole plotlines about rescuing them. So while I didn’t deliberately set out to invert that in this scene, it was still very satisfying to write.

    Next week, Talia and Pollyglog head even deeper into danger. Will anyone need rescuing? Guess you’d better come back in seven days to find out. And if you want to make sure you don’t miss it, you can sign up to my mailing list to get these stories by e-mail. There’s no cost, no obligation, and you can unsubscribe whenever you want.


  • Finding a Non-Office Office

    My only regular colleague

    I’m sat in Costa Coffee. It’s the third time this week I’ve worked in this Costa. I’ve started recognising some of the other customers who come here to work.

    Is that weird?

    This is the thing about working for yourself from home. After a while you start to go a bit crazy. You need to be somewhere else. Not necessarily interacting with people but at least being around people. Humans are social animals, after all. Just like when my cat comes to sit near me without interacting, I sometimes need to be near people just to not be alone. To hear the background hum of human existence.

    Fortunately for me, one of my friends is about to start working from home. We’ll be arranging to work together from time to time, not because we work on the same things but just to stay sane.

    In a changing world, more and more people work from home. It has lots of upsides, but some downsides as well. There are lots of solutions. I know an arts centre that opens up two days a week for people to work in. A friend of mine hires a workshop space. Any given coffee shop probably has someone typing away at a laptop.

    Because even if we work alone, no-one wants to be alone.

    And now this sofa has a nice Andrew-shaped dent in it. It’s almost like being at home.


  • Philosophy and Final Fantasy at Nine Worlds

    As I’ve mentioned here once or twice (or a bazillion times), I love conversations where philosophy and high culture tackle pop culture. Using geeky narratives to explore deep issues is my idea of fun. And I’m going to be doing it in public on the 4th of August on a panel at the Nine Worlds convention. If you’re going to be at Nine Worlds then please come hear me pontificate and other people share real wisdom. And if you’re not, hey, maybe next year.


  • The Sanity of Crowds – a steampunk story

    The space holding the Social Levelling League rally was something like a town square. A broad, open space, it was flanked on three sides by the ramshackle buildings of Rubble Town and on the fourth by one of the massive pillars holding up the sky docks. Somewhere up there were the comforts of Talia’s office and her cat. Down here, where she waited impatiently to do her job, there were only noisy crowds and her employer.

    At least she’d managed to find Umberto Pollyglog some working class clothes. A collarless shirt and frayed waistcoat couldn’t hide a waistline made by fine living, but even the poor included some fat people, so there was a chance they would blend in. She’d even left her rapier behind, a revolver and a sturdy knife providing more discrete armament under long leather coat.

    The crowd grew louder as a man stepped onto a stage made of old ceiling beams. Jan Shofflekrep looked just like his wanted leaflets and pamphlet etchings. Long, thinning hair fell across his shoulders like a tangle of old string. His eyes were dark and narrow.

    “Comrades!” he called out.

    The crowd fell silent.

    “Comrades, can you feel the change blowing through this country?” Shofflekrep talked with the practised pattern of a man who had given his speech a hundred times. As he got into the rhythm, Talia stopped listening to the details and focused instead on the people around the stage. Many of them were tough looking. Most had weapons poorly concealed beneath their coats.

    Grabbing Shofflekrep wouldn’t be easy.

    Someone shoved between her and Pollyglog.

    “Frightfully sorry,” Pollyglog said. “Didn’t mean to jog your elbow with my belly.”

    The woman turned to stare at the man with the cut crystal accent. Instinctively, Talia reached for the handle of her knife.
    Others were turning to look as well.

    “Ain’t he funny?” Talia said, linking her arm through Pollyglog’s. “Playin’ at bein’ one of them.”

    She gestured upward with her head.

    “Funny,” the woman’s lip curled like there was a spring winding it. “Yeah, maybe.”

    “Ooh, this is one of the best bits,” Talia said, nodding toward the stage.

    On cue, Shofflekrep’s voice rose, drawing attention away from them.

    Talia dragged Pollyglog off through the crowd, away from the woman and closer to the stage, trying not to jostle people as she passed. The two of them couldn’t pass for locals much longer. That left two options. Either she gave up on grabbing Shofflekrep here and followed him back into the noise and chaos of The Anvil, or she grabbed him soon and counted on surprise to carry the day.

    The sound of the crowd cheering was making her ears ring. There was no way she could face The Anvil.

    The crowd went wild as Shofflekrep finished his speech. Their cheering made Talia feel dizzy, but she kept her feet, kept her focus, and extracted her arm from Pollyglog’s.

    “Follow me,” she hissed.

    She reached the bottom of the rickety steps as Shofflekrep descended from the stage. She slid her knife into her right hand, just the tip of the blade protruding from her baggy sleeve.

    “Ooh, Comrade Shofflekrep!” she exclaimed, sliding her arm through his. “You were magnificent!”

    Shofflekrep’s smile affirmed everything she’d expected. This was a man whose position had an allure his looks didn’t, and he wasn’t averse to making the most of it.

    “I try,” he said.

    “You succeed!” She did her best to look bashful. “Could I buy you a gin and hear more about the revolution?”

    “Of course.” Shofflekrep said. “But I have business first.”

    “Ooh, go on, have a drink now,” Talia said. She slid her other hand across so that the tip of the blade, hidden by their interlinked arms, pressed against his ribs. “I insist.”

    Shofflekrep’s eyes widened. He had the good sense not to say anything but to fall into step with her, though she could practically hear his eyes shifting as he looked for a way out.

    “You ain’t no factory man!” a voice called out behind them.

    Talia turned to see Pollyglog, his face red, being harangued by an old woman in a shawl.

    “You’re some sort of spy,” the woman exclaimed. “Here, everyone, they’ve sent spies!”

    Talia hesitated. If she was going to get paid then she needed Pollyglog as well as Shofflekrep.

    The crowd shifted, closing in toward the disturbance. Someone barged against her. As she turned, Shofflekrep twisted clear of her grasp.

    “Spy!” he yelled, pointing at her. “There’s two of ‘em!”

    Angry glares turned on Talia. She flashed her blade and drew her revolver. But now what? Pursue Shofflekrep or rescue Pollyglog?

    She hated the answer. She might find Shofflekrep again, but there was no way Pollyglog got out of this alive on his own.

    “Everybody back.” She raised the gun. A clear space opened up between her and her employer. “Here, now.”

    Pollyglog hurried over. Together, they inched toward the edge of the square, people parting to let them through.

    Everyone looked furious. Many had pulled out knives and clubs. The only thing holding them back was her gun. But if these people did the maths, if they realised that she had six shots and there were hundreds of them, if some were willing to risk themselves for the greater good…

    They reached the edge of the square.

    “Run,” she hissed.

    That, at least, Pollyglog could do.

    She fired a shot just above the heads of the crowd. As they backed off in panic, she turned and ran too.

    She was around two corners and almost caught up with Pollyglog before she even heard pursuit coming. They were going to get away.

    What came next, though – that she wasn’t happy about.

    * * *

     

    And so the story continues. If you’d like to read more from me, just sign up to my mailing list for a free e-book and flash fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.


  • Brain Exercises

    The brain’s like any other organ – it needs regular exercise to stay healthy. And sometimes it needs a warmup before a workout. On that basis, I’ve started building up a list of ways to get my brain started before writing, including:

    • cryptic crosswords
    • free writing – just scribbling down whatever’s in my mind, as fast as I can, without pause
    • idea jigsaws – grabbing six concepts out of my notebooks and working out how they could fit together
    • word pictures – writing a description of a photo, postcard, etc.

    What exercises do you use to warm up your brain? Got any good ones I can borrow?