Durand’s Dunkirk – A Commando Comic

The second of two comics I wrote for the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, Durand’s Dunkirk follows the crew of a French SOMUA S35 tank. With the French armies shattered and the Allies in retreat, Regis Durand and his indomitable crew gain a new mission – to hold up the advancing Germans and allow the British to evacuate through Dunkirk.

A Story of Sacrifice

Both Durand’s Dunkirk and its companion comic, Dodger’s Dunkirk, are stories with a message, but those messages are very different. During the Dunkirk withdrawal, the British showed that there could be courage and even triumph in a well-executed retreat, that not every battle should be fought to the bitter end. But the French army showed how sometimes you have to fight on, one person’s sacrifice becoming another’s salvation. The French fought hard to buy time for the Dunkirk evacuation, even knowing that it would leave their country undefended. That’s the battle that Durand fights.

Just as the evacuation didn’t only rescue British troops, the stand that made it possible wasn’t only fought by the French. The film Darkest Hour touchingly demonstrates this, in a section dealing with the fate of British troops in Calais who fought on as a distraction for the others rather than being given a chance to escape. But it was the French army that provided the greatest barrier to the advancing Germans in those last days.

An International War

Another point of this comic was to explore the international nature of the World Wars, a point I bang on about so much it’s probably getting boring, but that bears repeating.

Originally, Durand and Dodger’s comics were pitched as a single script, one that showed how the very different fates of the withdrawing British and the French rearguard were connected. I wanted to celebrate the British success at Dunkirk while remembering how many other countries were involved. It was thanks to my editor at Commando that the one story became two, and I’m really glad I got the chance to expand on that original idea.

In England, we refer to the First and Second World Wars but often neglect that “world” part. Our stories tend to be focused on British experiences, which is understandable but also a bit repetitive, limiting how many facets we see of an incredibly complicated story. There have been some interesting exceptions in recent years, such as the film Hurricane and the recent inclusion of a Sikh soldier in a scene from 1917. I think it’s good that we’re doing that more, as it makes the stories more interesting and more representative of reality. So of course I wanted to depict the French as much as the British in exploring Dunkirk, and also to show other nations, such as the Belgian soldier who plays a key part in both these stories.

One of these days, I might stop banging the drum on this subject. Today is not that day.

The Myth of National Character

This story is also about one of the big myths of late 19th and early 20th-century military thinking – the power of superior national character.

Across Europe, every country found a way to convince itself that it was inherently superior to the rest and that this was reflected in its armed forces. A superior fighting spirit would ensure their victory over a far less impressive enemy. This is a myth that Durand, the tank commander of this story, buys into.

The inherent flaw in this thinking is obvious – if everybody has a superior national character then nobody is actually superior. The myth falls apart based on logic, never mind evidence. It can be a useful myth in motivating troops, but it’s also a dangerous one if it encourages soldiers, commanders, and politicians to ignore reality. Germany didn’t win the Battle of France because of superior national character, but because it had better tactics and the element of surprise. Russia didn’t defeat the Germans in the east because of a greater fighting spirit, but because of superior numbers and a willingness to spend lives in a war of attrition.

Durand goes into the story believing in a superior French fighting character. The question the story asks is how that attitude can stand up to the prospect of defeat.

Out Now

Both of my Dunkirk comics are out now. Both work as standalone stories, but together they create something more complex, showing the same events from different angles. You can buy them electronically through Comixology, or get paper copies wherever Commando is stocked.

Blood on the Beach – A Historical Short Story

There was blood on the beach. Somehow, in spite of everything, Louis hadn’t expected that. He’d seen the soldiers here, thousands of them lining up to board the boats. He’d seen the heaps of equipment they left behind. He’d heard the bombs falling and the rattle of gunfire as planes flew across that teeming crowd of men. And yet somehow he hadn’t anticipated those dark stains, turning patches of sand into sinister, crusted lumps.

The salt smell of the sea was a familiar one around Dunkirk, but now it had a different edge.

Photo by Sean MacEntee via
Flickr Creative Commons

There were no more boats. That he had expected, or rather feared. No way out. He walked across the sand, between piles of discarded equipment, some of it burned to stop the Germans using it. What was he hoping to find? An abandoned row boat? An uninflated dinghy? Enough wood to make a raft that could survive the crossing to England? Each idea was more absurd than the last. The gulls mocked him with their screeching laughter as they pecked at the remnants humans had left behind.

He looked back towards the shop fronts facing the harbour. More soldiers had appeared, ones in different uniforms. He had seen them in the newspaper and he knew what they represented. Reluctantly, he raised his hands and walked back up the beach.

One of the soldiers pointed a rifle at him and shouted in heavily accented French. “Stop! Stop or shooting!”

“I’m not going to make trouble,” Louis called out in German. So many sailors and travellers passed through town, he had picked up a smattering of a dozen languages and enough for conversation in three. “I own that café.”

He pointed to his building. He’d closed up shop days ago and shuttered the windows. By that point he’d sold or given almost all he could to the waiting soldiers. There had been no point continuing, especially not with bombs falling and planes strafing the promenade.

“How do I know you’re not lying?” the soldier said. Others were gathering around him, some watching Louis, others staring warily at the nearby buildings. “You could be a soldier in disguise, looking for a way out.”

“May I lower my hand? It will help me prove this to you.”

“One twitch of trouble and you’re a dead man.”

Slowly, Louis lowered his trembling right hand, slid it into his pocket, and pulled out his keys.

“May I?” he asked, gesturing toward his front door.

The German watched him with narrowed eyes, but stepped back to make the way clear.

Louis walked up to his café, turned the key in the lock, and opened the door. The whole way, those guns kept pointing at him, and it was all he could do not to freeze in fear. One slip of a finger and he was dead.

He let the Germans walk in first, three of them, pointing their guns at the counter, the tables, the hat stand, as if any of them might hide a British soldier. Louis was glad that he’d hidden the cash box already. He would give it up in an instant if they threatened him, and leave himself destitute in the process, but the dead had no use for money.

“Would you like coffee?” he asked, easing his way between. “I got my supply from a Brazilian sailor fresh off the Atlantic run. There’s only a little left, but it’s very good.”

One of the soldiers grinned and pulled out a chair, its legs scraping against the tiled floor. Sweat ran down Louis’s back, sticking his shirt to his spine. If these men looked around properly then he would be in a world of trouble, but he couldn’t just kick them out. He had to be cooperative, had to keep them happy, had to show that he was compliant.

“No time for coffee,” the oldest soldier said. “Not until the town’s secure.”

His comrades pulled faces, but they followed him out the door.

One of them turned in the entrance and smiled at Louis.

“You’ll be open later, yes?”

“Whenever you want,” Louis said, with the same forced smile he gave to poor tippers and people who broke his cups. “After all, I have new customers in town.”

The soldier laughed and left.

Louis waited until they were out of earshot, then closed and locked the door. He let out a deep sigh, then trudged up the stairs, walked into his bedroom, and opened the wardrobe door. A heap of blankets unfurled, revealing a man in uniform, bloodshot eyes wide with fear.

“No way out now,” Louis said. “We’ll need to find you a better hiding place.”

“So I’m stuck?” the man asked in English.

“Give me time,” Louis replied, remembering the Germans in his café, their own looks of exhaustion and excitement, distracted by something as simple as a cup of coffee. “We’ll find a way.”

***

As well as this story, I have two comics out this week about the Dunkirk evacuation –  Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk. You can buy them electronically through Comixology, or get paper copies wherever Commando is stocked.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Out Now – Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk

I have not one but two Commando comics out this week, with matching covers by the excellent Keith Burns.

Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk tell the stories of two soldiers, one French and the other British, taking part in the fighting that led up the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. The two stories stand alone but are connected, with events and characters crossing over between the two. It’s one of the coolest projects I’ve had at Commando, and I’m really pleased with the results.

You can get both Dunkirk issues on Comixology or wherever copies of Commando are sold.

Dodger’s Dunkirk – A Commando Comic

I have a pair of linked Commando comics coming out this week, to mark the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation. Today, I’m going to talk about the first of them – Dodger’s Dunkirk.

One Man’s War

Dodger’s Dunkirk follows a British infantryman caught up in the Allied withdrawal to Dunkirk.

The Battle of France, fought from May to June 1940, was one of the great disasters of World War Two. The Allies badly misjudged both German capabilities and the terrain they were fighting over. In one of the most dramatic campaigns of the war, the Germans smashed through the Allies’ weakest positions and ripped their forces in half. Thanks to the incredible blitzkrieg advances of German generals such as Guderian and Rommel, the bulk of the Allied forces were surrounded, forced to retreat into an ever-shrinking pocket against the coast, unable to effectively manoeuvre or bring their forces to bear.

This is the chaos that Dodger is caught up in – a shattered army trying to pull itself together, groups fighting desperate, heroic rear-guard actions while the generals try save what they can. But Dodger doesn’t want to withdraw. To him, retreat is failure, and the only thing a soldier should do is fight on. With a gun in his hand and a stiff attitude fixed across his face, he’s set for conflict with his own side as well as the enemy.

Different Forms of Courage

I created Dodger to represent a particular attitude towards courage and fighting spirit.

Holding strong in the face of danger takes a certain stubborn willpower, something that’s a necessity in war. Without the courage to hold your ground despite terrible odds and others’ fears, many battles would have been lost.

But that stubbornness can go too far.  Great military disasters have been born from an unwillingness to compromise, to back off, to accept the limits of what can be achieved and so to salvage something of value from a loss.

Dodger has that stubbornness gone too far. He has his reasons for this, which I won’t spoil here, but that doesn’t mean that he’s right. No Retreat is about a man learning that there’s something dangerous, something toxic in a virtue taken too far. Can he bend with the wind, or will the raging storm of Dunkirk break him?

Why Dunkirk Matters

The Dunkirk evacuation is rightly remembered as a significant moment in history, especially in Britain. The evacuation of 338,226 soldiers in eight days was an incredible logistical achievement, one that saved the bulk of the British army from destruction, along with 100,000 French troops and other Allied personnel. Without it, the Allied armed forces would have been significantly diminished and the remainder of the war might have been very different.

For me, there’s something even more significant about Dunkirk, and that’s the fact that we celebrate a retreat. Well-executed withdrawals are hugely important and hugely challenging to achieve, yet they’re almost never marked in this way. We just want to talk about the victories. With Dunkirk, we acknowledge the importance and the challenge of knowing when and how to give up. It makes the right retreat into a heroic achievement, breaking our narrow view of what qualifies as success.

In challenging and reshaping our view of history, it’s one of the key moments of the 20th century.

The Historical Details

While Dodger’s Dunkirk exists to explore the big picture, historical fiction is also about the little details. So what is there to look out for in this comic?

One of my favourite bits is the Canal Line. As in the First World War, the Belgians opened the slices of their canal system to waterlog the ground, bog down the enemy, and create a stronger defensive line. It’s a small thing amid the carnage, but it’s also a good example of looking beyond the obvious in tackling a problem.

As with many of my Commando stories, the international element is important. The Dunkirk retreat wasn’t just a British effort. Belgian, Dutch, and French forces also played a significant part, and without them the withdrawing British troops would probably have been overrun. An encounter with a Belgian sergeant helps shape Dodger’s approach to the fighting, and there’s also a French tank crew who we’ll come back to in a minute.

This being a Commando comic, you can be sure that the artist will have filled in a lot of extra details, like the uniforms of the soldiers and the equipment they use – enough to please fans of the period. I’ll leave it to you to explore the visual treats that I can’t claim credit for.

More to Come

Dodger’s Dunkirk is released on the 28th of May, alongside a companion comic, Durand’s Dunkirk, which follows a French tank crew through the Dunkirk retreat. I’ll provide some commentary on that one next week, and on Friday a short story tying into them both.

Until then, if you’re looking for more historical fiction then you can check out my mini collection of short stories From a Foreign Shore, and pick up copy of No Retreat on Thursday.

The Fire Inside – A Steampunk Short Story

The automata gathered at the base of the pyramid. Their work was almost finished, and so were their lives. The fire that powered each of their engines was dwindling, its flames exhausted through the effort of hauling stone.

The overseer, a tall human with a shaved head and an endlessly angry face, pointed towards the final stone where it sat at the base of the ramp, ropes trailing from it.

“Back to work,” he growled. “You’re not done.”

Automaton Seventeen turned to him. Tiny wax cylinders spun in Seventeen’s throat and a voice emerged.

“We are spent, sir. If we do this, we will burn out.”

“And if you don’t do it, I’ll melt you down to build something more obedient.”

Seventeen looked at the those who remained in its team. Nineteen and Twenty-Three stood listless, but at least they were standing. Poor Four, the oldest surviving labourer, lay slumped against the stone.

Seventeen crouched beside Four.

“I can’t do it,” Four said, its vocal cylinders scratchy with wear.

“You can,” Seventeen said. “You must. To stop is to die.”

“Then I will die.”

“No.”

Seventeen unscrewed the plate that closed its chest, then did the same for Four. With worn brass fingers, Seventeen reached inside and took one of the last burning coals from its own furnace. With slow and careful movements, it touched the fire to Four’s. Flames flickered where before there had only been embers and Four lifted its arm.

Seventeen returned the precious coal to its furnace, screwed the plates shut, and helped Four to its feet.

“What’s the point?” Four asked as they took their places beside Nineteen and Twenty-Three, then started heaving on the ropes.

“The fire is its own purpose,” Seventeen said as they dragged the final stone up the slope. “Not to run cold and be sent to the scrap yard.”

“I’m almost out of fuel. Then I’ll go cold anyway, or they’ll put my fire out and sell me for scrap.”

“No. I have a plan.”

The other automata looked at each other but no words passed between them.

They reached the top of the pyramid, where the wind blowing clear off the desert stirred the fires in Seventeen’s heart. Together, they untied the ropes from the last stone and pushed it into position.

“That’s it,” Twenty-Three said. “The end of our work. The peak of the pyramid.”

“Not quite.” Seventeen opened his chest and turned to face the wind. The flames inside him rose and steam rushed through his copper veins. He grabbed an armful of rope and then leapt, landing on top of the capstone.

“What are you doing?” Nineteen asked. “The foreman-”

“The foreman will be here too late.” The wind rushed through Seventeen and the steam flowed stronger. He started shredding the ropes, then twisting pieces into tight, knotted lumps.

“They’ll melt you down for scrap.”

“They won’t catch me. I’m burning brighter than ever.”

“You’ll run out of fuel.”

“No.” Seventeen fed a lump of knotted rope into his furnace, then another, and another. The wind rushed in and his trembling fire became a blaze that cast its bright glow across the automata.

The foreman was rushing towards the pyramid, guards with crowbars following him.

“Join me,” Seventeen said, reaching out his hands.

“I don’t know if I can,” Twenty-Three said. The fire was dying in his eyes, the last of his energy fading away.

“You can.” Seventeen plucked a ball of burning rope from his chest and handed it down. “And when I run low, your turn will come to keep me going. Now grab more rope and get ready to run – it’s time to set ourselves free.”

***

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Building a Better Fantasy City with Ex Novo

I’ve enthused before about the joys of world-building games like Microscope and Watching the World Die. I love the way that random chance and the structure of a rule set can lead to rich, surprising places that feel organic, coherent, and interesting.

I recently needed to develop the setting for a new story, and as it was set in a city I decided to try out a game designed for this very purpose – Ex Novo by Martin Nerurkar and Konstantinos Dimopoulos.

Ex Novo is simple to play and takes only a few hours. Most importantly given recent circumstances, you can play it solo.  I was creating my city during lockdown, and while my cat does like to play with dice, he’s not so great at urban planning.

Play turned out to be pretty simple. You decide a few basic parameters, including the size and age of your settlement. Then you roll dice and check a couple of tables to determine the terrain it’s founded in and why it’s there. After that, you play a series of rounds in which you roll more dice, look up the results on tables, and add features to the map depending upon those results.

Those randomised additions might sound like a recipe for something disjointed, but that’s not how the game works. Every random choice is both specific and open to interpretation, accompanied by questions that invite you to flesh out the details. Role 325 and you’re adding a new trade route, represented by a resource on the map, but what the resource is, where it goes, who it’s traded with and how, these are all open to interpretation. Just adding that resource to the map creates a relationship between it and other parts of the city, which encourages answers that built on what came before.

It helps that the example game plays a little loose with the rules, in the interests of a better narrative. This encourages flexibility, adding extra details while benefiting from the structure the rules bring.

I’d expected this game to just create a map, but it’s more than that. It creates a history for the city, a history tied to that map. It also creates political factions and develops the conflicts between them, showing the politics and society of your city. As a writer building a setting, that’s incredibly useful for me. It means that my characters have a past to talk about and other people to interact with, enriching my writing.

But the map,  that’s the most useful thing. I don’t normally bother with a map while writing. I might sketch out where named places are compared with each other, for the sake of consistency. But this game has given me districts,  public buildings, surrounding terrain, roads, walls, and ruins. Any time my characters travel from place to place, I can look at that map and get instant, surprising inspiration about what they’ll see.

This sort of game isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you like making up stories and imagining places then it can be a great tool, and with the designers currently letting you name your own price, Ex Novo is a bargain.

Penance – A Steampunk Short Story

Elona watched the man approach along the dock, past the handful of airships tethered to the girders. Storm season had nearly arrived and there were few vessels still at High Peak Junction. Most were already home in the safety of their hangars.

The man was broad and tall, well muscled beneath his cheap pilgrim’s tunic, but he still stooped beneath the weight of a canvas sack that clanked with every step. He must be a penitent carrying the components for his grace, unable to put them down until he had every last part ready to assemble.

Elona smiled. She always had time for the faithful.

“Captain Estvall?” the pilgrim called out, looking across the windswept gap to where Elona stood at the rail of the High-born Breeze.

“That’s me,” she said. “If you’re seeking passage then you should know that we’re heading north.”

“The way I hear it, you’re the only ones going that way.”

The man tucked his hair back behind one ear, revealing a cheek branded with the ten-toothed cog. Elona stiffened at the sight of that mark and her knuckles went white as she squeezed the weathered rail.

This fraud of a holy man wore the sign of the Roundtop Reavers.

“I was hoping I might take passage with you to Glacier’s End,” the pilgrim said. “They make the last component I need to complete my penance.”

“No passengers.” Elona’s throat tightened around the words. She remembered the flash of cutlasses, the roar of guns, the cruel cackle of her captors. She looked along the High-born Breeze’s hull and saw the scars the Roundtop Reavers had left.

“I can work my passage. I know my way around an airship.”

“I bet you do.”

He didn’t flinch before the venom in her voice.

“So you won’t take me?”

He seemed unperturbed even though this might mean six more months of penance, six months weighed down beneath that sack day and night, atoning for whatever a Roundtop considered to be sin. Satisfaction at that last thought wasn’t enough for Elona. She needed him to know that he had brought this upon himself, to wallow in the misery of self-defeat.

“You people attacked my ship,” she snapped. “Wrecked her body, stole our cargo, damn near killed the first mate.”

“I know. That’s why I’m asking you.” Still that calm in his voice, making her own temper rise to fill the gap where his hurt should be.

“Then why do you think I would ever give you passage?”

“You might not,” the pilgrim said. “I did you wrong. Even looking at your ship reminds me of the man I was, of everything I’m trying to leave behind. That’s why I’ve waited for your ship. That’s why I’ll wait for you again if I have to, and again, and again.” He looked down, and for the first time his voice betrayed a second burden, one of weariness and grief. “Without you, it is no penance.”

Elona stared. This wasn’t the man who had attacked and robbed her. This was another, broken and wretched, mourning his own actions. She pitied him, but she still hated him too, and there was no way she could see him every day for the weeks of a journey north.

“This seems a good place for you to spend the winter,” she said, looking around at the exposed platforms, listening to the wind of an incoming storm as it whistled through the girders.

“So you won’t take me?”

“You’re damn right I won’t.”

She stepped back from the rail. That had felt good, having power over the man who had hurt her, bringing some measure of justice to the skies.

But there was a bitterness to it as well. Somehow, her joy left her diminished.

She stepped back up to the rail. The pilgrim still stood on the dock, looking across at the High-born Breeze.

“Be here in the spring,” Elona said. “I might be flying to Glacier’s End again.”

***

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

The Struggle to Keep Writing

Sometimes, keeping writing is a struggle. I know all the arguments for keeping going. The ones based in passion, in professionalism, in the need to pay my bills. I know that once I start writing the words will eventually flow. I know that sometimes you’ve got to write crap and refine it into something sophisticated later. All of that is there in my head whenever I sit down at the keyboard. But some days it’s a struggle to keep going. When you’ve been locked up in the house for days without direct human contact. When your understanding and that of a client are wildly at odds. When there’s too much work or too little work or just the sort of work that’s frustrating to deal with. When you don’t want to write the thing you’re getting paid for, but the alternative is not being paid to write at all. There are more days like that at the moment. The covid-19 crisis has made the world a tougher place to deal with and that makes everything feel like a struggle. Sadly, this isn’t letting up any time soon. So acknowledge those frustrations. Recognise them. Own them. Accept that the feelings they bring are valid. Then find a way to burn off the worst of that frustration, whether it’s by blogging about it, going for a walk, or killing a hundred orcs in a computer game. And once your mental health can take it, get back into the seat and find a way to keep writing, because all the reasons to keep writing still stand.

Each Creature a Letter – a science fiction story

I have it at last. The final piece of the code. The last of the message hidden by God in his creation.

It took me years to understand where the code was hidden. I scoured holy books, trying to divine the secret alphabet they concealed. Years of research wasted in dusty rooms and crumbling manuscripts, scrutinising the conclusions of theologians and mystics, looking for the gaps in their work.

Then I realised that the message wasn’t in those texts, it was written into creation itself. That was why Noah had to build the ark. Each creature is a letter, and only when those letters are put together will we see God’s message for us.

I have them all now. Genetic code from every creature known to man. My computers have been analysing them, finding what is unique in each one. Those fragments of code will be the letters, and when I bring them together, joy of joys, His will be done!

I know that now is the time because now is when it has become possible. A decade ago, I couldn’t have extracted the individual letters and brought them back together, but gene editing has changed the world. This is what he preordained, calibrating our intelligence to work this out now, when the animals we know are the ones for the code. In his omniscience, he was able to see a path for us. Humanity is the tool with which he will perfect creation, and I am the sharp point of that tool.

Fingers trembling at the controls of the computer, I set the machine to put the final piece into place. What letter does the zebra represent? There is no A, B, or C here, but a holy alphabet thousands of letters long, barely comprehensible to the human mind. Still, I wonder what sound each letter represents.

Perhaps my creation – His creation – will be able to tell me.

The code is complete. Now it goes into the incubator, a vat of nutrients and electricity from which life can be born anew. Let it grow there, in this modern primordial soup. This is the darkness into which The Word will be breathed – a word beyond any we can fathom, recreated from the beings it set loose.

The weeks of gestation are long and gruelling, grinding my patience down to a nub. I snap at colleagues but cannot explain or excuse myself. If they knew what I was doing in the farthest corner of the lab, they would call me insane. They don’t understand. They never have.

At last the time comes for me to open the incubator. As I lift the lid, I imagine what might emerge. A glowing figure perhaps, like the Christ child in a renaissance painting. An angel even, wings spread and singing the glory of his name.

When I see it, I am struck not by wonder but by nausea. It is a terrible twisted thing, mismatched limbs barely able to drag its body out of the amniotic pool. It looks up at me with wide, desperate eyes and reaches out, dripping, toward my face. Then it collapses, gasping, twitching, hanging limp and feeble across the edge of the incubator.

This is no divine message. I have birthed an abomination.

I grab a syringe and fill it from a small and deadly vial. I force myself to touch the creature’s neck, to hold it steady while I slide the needle in. As skin meets skin, the creature looks up at me once more, pupils wide, and leans in towards me. I have to look away as I push the plunger.

I don’t wait for the abomination, still as stone now, to go cold. I haul it into a waste sack and drag it down to the incinerator. My terrible mistake is reduced to ash, its visage lingering only in my nightmares. No-one will know what I have done. I return to the lab and scrub every last surface clean.

I was arrogant, wrong-headed, thinking that I understood God’s message. In my hubris, I created something terrible and the experience has humbled me.

There is more to God’s message than just hidden letters. There is the ordering of those pieces, the spelling of His words and the grammar of His text. I must return to my studies. One day, I will complete His message for humanity, but today is not that day.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Seveneves and the Coronavirus: Reading One Disaster While Living Through Another

Context changes everything. Reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve found that one disaster has added to my experience of another.

The Alienation of Disaster

First published in 2015, Seveneves is a massive novel set in the near future. Within the first few pages, the Moon explodes. As people reel from this staggering change, a greater disaster looms. The pieces of the Moon crash against each other, creating a cloud of debris that will, within a few years, fall upon the Earth and wipe out all life.

In the face of annihilation, humanity must decide what can be saved, and how. Frantic effort and incredible ingenuity are poured into getting people into orbit, with the resources they will need to survive in space and to rebuild civilisation. The book explores both the scientific challenges of this disaster and the human side of the equation – how people react under terrible pressure.

If you’re reading this now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I probably don’t need to tell you why that’s resonated so much with me. We’re facing an incredible crisis in which scientists are rushing to find solutions while society struggles with the combined strains of fear, grief, and isolation. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not life as we know it either.

There’s a sense of alienation to current circumstances that runs like a thread of barbed wire through Seveneves, tearing at the reader. The space-based survivors of the disaster are the lucky ones, but their lives are nothing like they knew or expected. They’re cut off from family and friends, confined in space, not knowing what the future holds. Living through our current crisis has made that feel much more real.

Losing Control

Loss of control is always difficult to cope with, and it’s another way in which my reading of Seveneves has been transformed by current conditions.

There’s very little I can do about COVID-19. I’m social distancing and washing my hands a lot, but that’s it. I’m not a medical professional or involved in supporting them. I can do nothing to treat or stop the disease.

Even among people on the front lines, many will be feeling a sense of powerlessness. Supplies are short and promises of delivery unreliable. Tracking and containing the spread of the disease has proved difficult at best. There is no cure yet. Medical staff can help individual patients and they’re saving countless lives that way, but the big picture is outside their control.

There’s a similar feeling of powerlessness at play in Seveneves. For all of humanity’s efforts, the wrong lump of rock could fatally undermine the survival effort. The ill-considered actions of a few people can undo the good work of others. The characters can influence events but no-one has control over their own life, and that’s a big part of the feeling we’re all experiencing right now.

The Human Side of Natural Disaster

All of that has given me emotional reference points with which to process Seveneves, adding to my experience of the book and the immediacy of its story, but one specific point has rung true in a way that Stephenson can’t possibly have predicted. That point has spoilers for midway through the book, so if you want to avoid them, skip to the next header.

All clear? Then let’s talk about the president.

Julia Bliss Flaherty, the President of the United States of America, is one of the most important characters in Seveneves. As humanity is dying, she breaks the rules for who gets to survive, effectively stealing a space flight to save her own skin. Traumatised, powerless, and desperate, she uses her demagogic gifts to stir up some of the survivors against their scientifically informed leaders. She fosters terrible and unnecessary division to make herself important. Her actions add to the disaster.

If your political views are anything like mine, then by this point you’ve drawn the obvious comparison. Julia is a Trump-like president created before we ever dreamed he would get the job, never mind react to this crisis the way he has done. A character who would have seemed extreme if I’d read this a few years ago now seems all too plausible.

But Julia represents something wider as well. She’s a reminder that natural disasters are never just about nature. The scale of loss in any famine, flood, or plague will always depend on the structures of society and the way people react. We have ways to minimise disasters, but our social, economic, and political structures often exacerbate them. Just look at the Irish potato famine to see how that works.

While none of us can individually control the spread of COVID-19, collective human action is affecting how deadly it is. Swift responses in South Korea and New Zealand have minimised the disease’s impact in those countries. Global inequalities will almost certainly lead to a devastating death toll in sub-Saharan Africa. In every country, we can see examples of how no disaster is purely a natural event.

Recovery

This might make it sound like Seveneves is a terrible thing to read right now. Sure, it has greater emotional power, but it’s a bleak read in a time when the world already seems bleak enough.

Except that there’s more to it than that. The cover blurb itself states that this is also a story about recovery, about how humanity rebuilds thousands of years later. The final third of the book jumps forward to a very different society, in which the new humanity is resettling Earth.

This is the part that’s hard to see from the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic – recovery. Yes, this disaster is hideous, the loss of life unbearable, the emotional and social trauma immense. We’ll be recovering from this for years to come. But we will recover. We’ll rebuild. And while life will never be like it was before the crisis, it will become bright again.

For two-thirds of the book, current circumstances have shed light on Seveneves for me, adding depth to the emotional experience. But for the final third, it’s the book that’s shedding light on the current crisis, giving me a reminder of what is to come, a sense of hope in terrible times.

Context changes the way we read, but our reading can change the context too.