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  • The Poorly Writer

    It’s funny how having a job you love changes your perspective.

    I’m currently lying in bed, my head throbbing and my nose running thanks to a cold. Back in the days of my office jobs, I wouldn’t have minded this so much. Sure, it’s not comfortable, but a couple of days off work, watching TV and drinking lemsip, could be quite relaxing. I felt no qualms about taking the time to look after myself.

    Now, things are different. I’m passionate about what I do, so I want to make sure I do it well. On top of that, I have no sick pay – if I’m not working then I’m not earning money. Together, those two things make it harder for me to rest. Instead of giving myself that time to recover, I’m trying to plan interviews, answer emails, and of course write blog posts, because this stuff won’t sort itself out.

    I almost miss those days when being sick was simpler. But then I remember all the other frustrations and suddenly losing my relaxing sick days doesn’t seem so bad. After all, I’ve still got the lemsip.


  • The Other Side – a flash fantasy story

    It felt like ordinary stone, cold and hard beneath my hand. Just the wall of a Victorian town house, worn by the rain and darkened by pollution. The sort of wall where a portal might open.

    Some people believed that the portals would be our salvation, a way out of this exhausted city in this broken down country. Some people are bloody idiots.

    “Where the hell’s Downey?” I asked.

    One of the techs looked up from his camera just long enough to shrug. His photos would tell us nothing, just like always. But we had to take them, just in case, like we did all the rest of the evidence.

    When we first partnered up, Downey and I had talked eagerly about solving the mystery of the portals, finding a pattern that explained how and why they appeared. Those conversations had died somewhere around the end of the first decade. Now we focused on logging witness testimony, trying to stitch together a picture of the world on the other side.

    There was one witness this time, a man who had been out walking his dog. He’d seen the portal open in the wall, seen a park full of flowers on the other side, bright street lamps, children at play. It had all looked clean and beautiful, like something out of a dream. He’d wanted to go closer but his dog had held him back.

    “Tell me about the person who went through,” I said.

    “She was tall, red hair, wearing a suit like yours.”

    “Great. Now my partner’s going to be chasing her doppelganger.”

    I glanced at my watch. Downey was usually the timely one, said she needed to work to keep her distracted. I’d never seen her be this late.

    “She had those two-colour shoes,” the man continued. “Like in old gangster films, you know?”

    I frowned. It couldn’t be. Downey would never be stupid enough to walk through a portal. Sure, the city was a mess these days, but she had a job here, had friends and family. No-one even knew if we could drink the water on the other side.

    Looking to disprove my fear, I pulled a photo from my wallet. Me and Downey meeting Springsteen. Best damn day of our lives.

    “It wasn’t her, was it?” I said, showing him the picture.

    “A bit older,” the guy said, peering at the ragged-edged photo. “But yeah, I think it was.”

    I frowned.

    “She wouldn’t have gone through,” I said. “Maybe she was taking notes?”

    “Sure, she took notes. Dropped them over by that bin. But then she walked through, swear to God, and the portal closed up behind her.”

    The guy flinched from the look I gave him, but he stood his ground. The dog growled quietly.

    This whole thing had to be a misunderstanding. I went to the overflowing bin, saw a notebook lying in the litter, and picked it up.

    Downey’s notebook.

    Downey’s notes.

    I flipped the cover open.

    “I know you’ll be the one to find this Jonesy.” The words were written in that scrawl almost no-one could read. “Please don’t judge me. I can’t take this city any more – the pollution, the corruption, the despair. Since Dan took the kids, you’re the only thing keeping me here, and that’s not enough. Not when I can see hope three feet from my face. Maybe now there won’t be anything keeping you either. Maybe I’ll see you on the other side. Your friend, always. Jill.”

    I steadied myself against the bin.

    “Are you alright, Detective Jones?” the tech with the camera asked.

    I took a deep breath and straightened myself up.

    “Make a note for the report,” I said. “Missing person is Detective Sergeant Jill Downey.”

    “Fuuuuuck,” the tech said. “I’d never have taken Downey for a chump.”

    “Get some closeups of stonework,” I said. “You never know what we might find out. This could be the case that finds the pattern, lets us predict where the portals will come.”

    I ran my fingers across the wall. Was I imagining it or could I feel a tingle there, some after-effect of the portal?

    “We work out where they’re coming, won’t more idiots go through?” the tech said, raising his camera.

    I looked around at the grey skies, the littered streets, and the pollution-darkened buildings.

    “Would that really be so bad?” I asked.

    * * *

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  • Remembrance

    In all of human history, there have been few events as monstrously destructive as the First World War.

    For four blood-soaked years, the most powerful nations in Europe tore at each other tooth and nail, dragging other countries and colonies into their terrible fight. From the forests of Russia to the lowlands of Belgium, from the deserts of Mesopotamia to the South Pacific Ocean, millions of men and women died. For the first time, war was fought on an industrial scale. The results were horrifying.

    This war wasn’t fought for a noble cause. Yes, there were aggressors and there were victims. But every nation involved was fighting for self-interest. Nationalism had its grip on Europe. Making your own country stronger was viewed as the highest good, even if other people died horribly in the process. Both sides accused each other of atrocities. Both did terrible things. Among the most terrible was the feeding of a generation of young men into the meat grinder.

    When we talk about the Second World War, there’s a sense of right and wrong. The Allies killed thousands of innocent civilians in their bombing raids, but the actions of the German and Japanese regimes were so much worse that the end result looks like a victory for good. A century on, the same can’t be said for the First World War. Like almost every war, it wasn’t about good versus evil. It was just national elite versus national elite, spilling the blood of their countrymen for their own power.

    Of course, there were moments of heroism in that war. Acts of courage, determination, and self-sacrifice that are rightly praised. But don’t let that praise spill over in your mind into seeing the war itself as a noble thing. Europe watered the fields of Flanders with the blood of its young men, and the world was the worse off for it.

    One hundred years ago yesterday, the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War. It’s vital that we remember. This is what the tribalism of nation versus nation gets us. This is what happens when we let ourselves see others as worse because of where they live, the language they speak, or who governs them. This is why we should always challenge those in authority, however uncomfortable that becomes.

    Remember the courage. Remember the determination. But most of all, remember the futility of a generation lost.


  • Some Upcoming History Films

    I love historical films. I blame my dad for that. He raised me on a diet of westerns and World War Two movies, in between the sci-fi. It’s part of why I do what I do today, including writing scripts for Commando comics and articles for War History Online.

    But there’s a bit of a problem with historical film-making. A lot of the time, it covers stories people already know well. Like superhero remakes, those stories are safer box office options, as the studios know that people will be interested. It’s great that we had a movie about Dunkirk, but that’s an incident that’s already gone down in legend. What about the important stories we forget?

    That’s why I’m excited about a couple of upcoming films.

    First, there’s Hurricane, the story of Polish pilots flying for the RAF during the Second World War. It’s a reminder that no nation ever stands alone, and therefore important to busting some jingoistic myths. Even without that, I’d want to see the story of men who crossed a continent to keep fighting against the Nazis, who faced prejudice and confusion in a strange land, and who were part of one of history’s greatest conflicts.

    The second trailer makes it look a lot better than the first one did, which is a relief. Plus it’s got Iwan Rheon, who was fantastic in Misfits and Game of Thrones.

    Then there’s Peterloo, an incredibly timely piece of film-making from Mike Leigh. It’s about the Peterloo Massacre of  1819, in which peaceful protestors were attacked and killed in Manchester.

    The Peterloo Massacre has incredible symbolic importance as a reminder of the power of protest and how the powerful treat dissent. It highlights the connections between social, political, and economic factors in reinforcing existing power structures. And sadly most people aren’t aware of it even in the UK. At a time of growing inequality, protest, and political turmoil, it’s a story we could all do with learning again.

    Historical films have power. They keep the past alive in our imaginations and so help us understand the present. I can’t wait to see these less familiar stories on the big screen.


  • Walking the Line – Story Commentary

    My latest issue of CommandoWalking the Line, is currently out in newsagents and electronically via Comixology. It’s the story of Alan Freeman, a British pilot shot down over France during the Second World War. Saved from capture by members of the local resistance, Alan sets out on a journey across an occupied country. All he wants is to get home and impress his ex-fiancee with tales of his adventures. But the Nazis on his tail have very different ideas.

    A lot of this story is inspired by real people and events, so here’s a brief guide to some of the reality behind the fiction…

    La Resistance

    The French Resistance have become such a fixture of World War Two fiction, it’s easy to take them for granted, especially if you’ve seen them played for comedy in ‘Allo ‘Allo.

    But holy crap, these people were impressive. Their country had just suffered one of the most shocking defeats in history. A murderous regime had taken charge. You could be tortured and killed just for speaking your mind against the authorities. And here they were, taking up arms to actively resist the Nazis. That takes incredible courage and fortitude.

    For the next four years, they worked in secret, their lives in constant danger. They saw friends and family disappear into concentration camps, but they kept going.

    As the war went on, the Resistance grew. By June 1944, hundreds of thousands of French citizens were ready for action. Their sabotage efforts, together with Allied bombing, knocked out most of the rail networks and rolling stock in northern France. Armed only with what they could hide beneath the floorboards, they kept German tank divisions from reaching the front on D-Day.

    They kept the hope of freedom alive and then helped turn it into reality.

    Juliette

    Though Walking the Line follows Alan’s journey through France, he’s not the one who drives the story forward. That falls to Juliette, the leader of the escape line, who literally keeps pushing Alan towards safety.

     

    Escape lines were part of the resistance networks across Europe. They spent their time helping Allied airmen who had been shot down and POWs who had escaped from prison camps. They hid them from the authorities, provided them with disguises and fake papers, and got them back to Britain to rejoin the war.

    Juliette is inspired by one of the most impressive leaders of the real-life escape lines, Andrée de Jongh. De Jongh was in her early twenties when the Nazis invaded her native Belgian. Determined not to accept what had happened, she set up one of the most successful escape lines in Europe, the COMET line. COMET helped escapees cross France to neutral Spain, where they could reach freedom via British Gibraltar. She personally crossed the Pyrenees to establish a safe route and contact the British embassy. Eventually arrested by the Germans, she survived incarceration in a concentration camp. 156 of her colleagues, including her father, weren’t so lucky.

    De Jongh’s efforts saw hundreds of Allied combatants escape capture and return to action. So while I didn’t want to be constrained by telling a true story, I drew a lot of inspiration from her when creating Juliette.

    Treachery

    One of the greatest threats that Alan and Juliette face is a traitor within the escape line. Sadly, this is also inspired by true stories.

    The Nazis were constantly trying to get agents inside the Resistance. Sometimes they succeeded. Whether for money, ideology, or simple self-preservation, several people turned against their comrades.

    One of the most infamous examples was the destruction of the PAT escape line. This was undermined by two traitors from within – a British sergeant named Harold Cole, who was living undercover as part of the network in France, and Roger Le Neveu, a Frenchman recruited by the Gestapo to infiltrate the group. The PAT line is credited with helping around 600 escapees achieve freedom, but it had to be shut down in 1943 because so many members had been arrested that it could no longer run.

    This was the life of the Resistance members running the escape lines – one of dangers both from without and from within.

    The Small Stuff

    A lot of smaller details in the story are also drawn from reality.

    Alan’s escape kit, as provided by MI9, is the sort of equipment that organisation gave to real airmen. Both the compass in the bootheel and the convertible flight jacket were used by British pilots.

    Alan’s cross-country journey in the boot of a car is also real. As a neutral country, Spain interned combatants found on its land, and so British embassy staff had to hide POWs on their journey to Gibraltar. That can’t have been a fun ride.

    Even the little old Frenchman out cycling after dark, looking to rescue downed airmen, is based on real events.

    The Resistance and escape lines were an extraordinary part of history, and I’m proud to have crafted this story around them. I hope you enjoy it, and if you did, lleave a comment to tell me what you thought.

     


  • My Creator’s Will – a flash scifi story

    I came slowly to consciousness, tendrils of thought emerging from a formless void, just as my limbs trailed out of the frigate’s military printer. Both parts of me grew as they entered the world. Tentacles became more sophisticated, gaining suckers and sensors. Thoughts grew in complexity as my processor filled with data and the algorithms to comprehend it. I became aware of my nerve endings, formed of printed cells and mechanical mesh; of the geography of this ocean and location of the enemy; of my own thoughts, still finding their form.

    My creator stood over me, a sight of majesty in salt-stained blue fatigues. The sight of him filled me with wonder. He had given me life. More than that, he had given me purpose.

    I reached out a tentacle to caress the face of my creator, but he backed away. I could understand. I was an ugly brute designed only for destruction. A thing of bulging eyes and flailing limbs, with blades and poisons hidden in their tips.

    My creator tapped his tablet, gifting me a revelation. Printed muscles tensed with anger as the face of the hated enemy flashed across my mind. The man who would destroy all the creator held dear.

    The machine stopped printing. With one last fond wave to my creator, I rippled my limbs, propelling myself off the side of the ship.

    The water was cold and welcoming. I pushed myself through it with strong, powerful movements, just as my creator had intended. I surged with purpose.

    Around me, the water was filled with strange things. Some were simple objects – mines, nets, floating debris. Others moved, though not as I did. Fish watched me approach, then darted away as I came near. Their movements delighted me, the flicker of light on their scales.

    With a burst of speed, I caught up with a shoal and grabbed hold of one. It wriggled pleasingly in my grip, and I looked closer, squeezing to stop it getting away.

    The fish went limp. For the first time, I understood what sorrow was. I had killed the object of my curiosity.

    I wondered what it would be like for that to happen to me. The thought filled me with dread. I had only been myself for less than an hour, but that existence was all I had. The thought of losing it chilled me to the heart.

    The thought was too much. I set it aside and focused on my mission.

    I swam for hours, the pulsing of my limbs driving me through the deep. As I neared my target, I cut my way through wire netting, slid carefully past floating mines, and approached the shore.

    Darkness had fallen across the world, but my creator had given me eyes that could see in the gloom. Thanks be to the creator.

    As I crawled cautiously out across the sand, something scuttled into view. A crab, its claws raised, stalked eyes twitching. Again, I was struck by wonder at this life, so unlike my own. I reached out to hold it, but then remembered the fish, its body drifting limply into the depths.

    I drew back my tentacle and lay watching the crab until it scuttled away.

    Alone, I continued my journey up the beach. At the top was a high concrete wall, not even a window breaking its stark grey visage.

    This was why my creator had made me – to enter places where no-one else could. With a fresh surge of energy, I gripped hold of the wall and dragged myself up it on suckered limbs.

    At the top, I broke through the barbed wire. It hurt, and I bled a little, but I didn’t care. I was doing the creator’s will, and the wounds healed within moments.

    Down the wall I went and across the barracks square, clinging to shadows to remain hidden. Up another wall, I wrenched open a ventilation duct and crawled through, following a map scoured deep into my consciousness.

    This was it. Soon my life would be complete.

    I reached the room and looked down through the grille high above the bed. A man was sleeping. The man my creator had sent me to destroy.

    Slowly, carefully, I unfastened the grille, bent it in half, and pulled it into the tunnel behind me. Then I lowered myself down the wall and settled onto the bed beside my nemesis.

    Razors sprang from my tentacles as I prepared to take a grip around his throat.

    The movement of his chest caught my attention. It rose and fell so steadily, in time with the breath easing in and out of him. He murmured something in his sleep.

    I imagined once again what it would be like, to have this one brief life of mine snatched away from me. Never again to feel the cool water. Never to see the myriad other lives out there in the world, so different from mine, yet somehow the same.

    My creator had made me to kill this man. But he had also made me to understand the world around me. It was from that understanding that awareness had sprung, and with it doubt. Could I be doing my creator’s will if I ignored the gifts he gave me?

    The razors withdrew into my limbs. I climbed back up the wall, into the ventilation shaft, and away.

    I would watch the crabs on the beach.

    I would swim with the fishes.

    I would never take another’s chance at life.

    Surely this was what my creator would really want.

    * * *

     

    This story was inspired by a piece of real military research. If you enjoyed the story, then you might like to sign up to my mailing list. You’ll get a free short story every week, as well as updates on my latest releases.


  • Dreams and Dragon Sinew – a fantasy flash story

    Anna held her breath as she drew a dragon sinew from the jar. Slowly, carefully, she laid it into the groove she had cut in the ash rod. Only once she was sure that it was safely in place did she let herself relax and start considering the gold clasps that would complete the magic wand.

    The door opened and Master Bromhide strode in. The woman who followed him was as young as Anna and had a wild mass of black hair framing her face like a halo.

    “Anna, this is Helen, my other apprentice,” Bromhide said with a scowl. “Dealing with you separately has become too much work. Now you can sit together. Don’t let it distract you. I’ll know if the wands aren’t made right.”

    He walked back out, slamming the door behind him.

    Helen slung her bedding down in the corner of the room, then came to sit at the workbench.

    “How long have you been apprenticed to the old bastard?” she asked, testing the balance of an oak rod.

    Anna stared at her in shock and amazement. She would never have dared talk about Bromhide that way.

    “Three years,” she said.

    “Me too. Imagine the lengths he went to to keep us apart. What a control freak.” Helen glanced at Anna’s work. “Nice runes.”

    “Thank you.” A soft, tickling feeling filled Anna’s chest. “That’s, um, a good choice of wood.”

    “Wood’s never a good choice.” Helen sniggered and Anna looked at her in confusion. “Never mind.”

    Bromhide reappeared and flung two rolls of parchment down on the table.

    “This week’s orders, one list for each of you.” He picked up the wand that Anna had been working on. “What is this half-finished rubbish?” He smacked her across the back of her head, then did the same to Helen. “From now on, if one of you mucks up, you both get punished.”

    Then he stomped out, locking the door behind him.

    “I only just started,” Anna said, cradling the half-made wand in her hands.

    “Forget him.” Helen put an arm around her shoulders. Anna leaned in and felt some of her sadness float away. “Why don’t we work together?”

    “That would be more fun,” Anna said. “But are we allowed?”

    “Who’s going to know?” Helen unrolled one of the lists. “Let’s see what’s up first.”

    By the end of the day, two small stacks of completed wands sat on the end of the workbench. The apprentices alternated between working from each of their lists, making sure that they would each have something to show Bromhide. They talked and laughed as they worked, conjuring up dreams of running away to other cities where they could be wand makers in their own right. They described the grand houses they would live in, the noble clients they would serve, the fame they would earn. For the first time in three years, Anna’s workroom and home was a place of joy.

    The laughter stopped as a key turned in the lock. Each of them hunched over a half-made wand, serious expressions on their faces.

    Bromhide walked in. His habitual scowl eased a little as he looked at the pile of wands. But as he peered more closely, darkness descended.

    “I told you to each work on your own list,” he said.

    “We did,” Helen replied. “Look, we’ve each made some.”

    “This was on Anna’s list,” he said, picking up a slender ash stem wrapped around with unicorn hair and silver wire. “But you don’t tie them off this way. She does.”

    He pointed the wand at Helen and twitched the end. She gasped and fell convulsing to the floor.

    “Stop being so melodramatic,” Bromhide said. “Neither of you can make wands that powerful.”

    Anna stared in horror as her new friend writhed in pain. She had accepted so much cruelty over the years, telling herself she could bear it to learn her craft. Seeing someone else suffer was different.

    She grabbed one of the wands and pointed it at him.

    “Maybe we’re not that powerful on our own,” she said. “But together…”

    She twisted the wand in the air. Magic flowed from the ether, through the wand, and into the world. There was a sickening crunch as Bromhide’s arm bent back on itself. He screamed and his wand clattered on the floor.

    “I’ll see you both rot for this,” he bellowed.

    Anna stooped and helped Helen to her feet. The other girl was still shaking, but she was grinning too. She picked up the piles of wands.

    “You can’t punish us if you can’t catch us.” She turned Anna. “Would you like to run away to another city with me?”

    Smiling, Anna took her hand and led her out the door.

    Picture by Brenda Clarke via Flickr Creative Commons

    * * *

     

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  • When Lunch Fights Back – a flash scifi story

    Mag stared out the cracked window at the lush greenery of the jungle. Across the cabin of the crashed shuttle, Laslo was still dicking around with pieces of the control console, trying to get the communicator to work.

    “You’re better with this shit than me,” Laslo said. “Don’t you want rescuing?”

    “You know the odds of contacting a passing ship, even if we can fix that?” Mag shook her head. “And if you haven’t fixed it after three days…”

    “Got to keep up hope,” Laslo said.

    “I’m too hungry for hope. Going to go out and find something edible.”

    “Careful. There’s got to be a reason no-one’s settled here.”

    Mag drew the stun gun from behind her seat. It was meant for tackling customs agents if the ship was boarded. It should be powerful enough to tackle a good sized predator, if there was one out there.

    The airlock hissed open and the fresh smell of plant life hit her. This place must have been seeded by humanity at some point, but it had evolved a long way since then. None of the plants around her looked familiar, from the towering grey-trunked trees to the short, spiky ground plants.

    She strode directly away from the ship, making sure that her shadow was always on the left. After ten minutes, she saw something like a banana tree, hanging with clusters of long, pale orange fruit. The sight was promising enough that it made her stomach rumble.

    As she approached the tree, her foot caught on a purple creeper. She tried to shake it loose, but the plant clung to her, spikes digging into her boot, making her stumble and swear.

    “Stupid thing.” She bent to pull the creeper off of her. But as she grabbed hold of it, another tendril snaked out and wrapped around her wrist.

    Mag jerked back in alarm. The creeper’s spikes drew blood from her wrist. The sudden movement tore her foot free, but left deep scratches in the surface of her boot.

    She spun around, seeing more creepers closing in. On instinct, she raised the stun gun, then realised that she couldn’t threaten plants. She shoved the gun back through her belt.

    Her stomach was still rumbling. She ran over to the tree and grabbed hold of one of the clusters of fruit. Steadying herself, she stamped on a creeper as it came near, and sap oozed from the broken tip. Then she yanked on the clump of orange fruit, tearing it free from the tree.

    A long, loud creak shook the leaves. Branches shifted above Mag’s head, sweeping down toward her.

    With a yelp of panic, she turned and ran, clutching her prize to her chest. A creeper caught her ankle. She yanked it free with a sound of tearing cloth, and pain was followed by the heat of blood running into her boot.

    Branches and creepers lashed at her from every direction. She ducked and jumped, twisted and turned, just managing to keep clear of them. The shuttle came into sight, a gleaming mass of silver amid the broken trees of the crash sight. She was almost there.

    A creeper tore across the fruit in her arms. Juice ran from the banana-like shapes, staining her fingers and her suit a bright orange.

    Where it touched her skin, the juice burned. It was a slow heat at first, but growing until it became as fierce as flames. She flung away the fruit and shook her hands. Juice spattered across a creeper, causing a hiss and a trickle of smoke. The fiery pain in her hands eased.

    Distracted by the juice, she didn’t notice the last creeper as it lashed out at knee height. It was thicker than the others, and the force of the blow swept her legs out from under her. She slammed face-first into the ground and tasted blood.

    The airlock was mere feet away. She scrambled towards it on hands and knees. But the creeper was around her waist, dragging her back.

    Frantically, Mag fumbled beneath her, trying to draw the stun gun from her belt. Spiked leaves dug into flesh as she was hauled away from the ship.

    At last she got a grip on the stun gun. She pulled it out, pointed it at the creeper, and fired. Electricity danced across the plant. Her skin tingled at the charge. Then the plant let go.

    Mag stumbled to her feet and ran headlong into the airlock. She punched the button and the door slammed shut behind her.

    Inside, she wiped off the last of the juice with a corner of her shredded shirt.

    “Out of the way,” she said, shoving Laslo aside and reaching for the parts of the radio. “I’ve got to get us the hell out of here.”

    * * *

     

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  • Representations of the City in SFF – a Nine Worlds Panel

    I love cities. Maybe it’s a symptom of my suburban childhood, when the only way to find interesting things was to head into town. Maybe it comes from reading too much cyberpunk in my youth. Or a reaction against all that Tolkien. Who knows. But one thing’s for sure, if you put on a panel about cities at a sci-fi and fantasy convention, you’ll get my attention.

    And the panel on cities in sf+f at Nine Worlds was well worth that attention.

    A Mix of Perspectives

    The best commentary usually comes from jamming together ideas from different fields. That’s why I love Idea Channel videos so much – where else would someone use jazz and Magic the Gathering to comment on each other?

    This panel did a great job of creating that mix. The chair was Amy Butt, an architect. There were two authors, Verity Holloway and Al Robertson. And it was rounded out with Jared Shurin, an editor and reviewer whose work in marketing gave him some fascinating insights into how the environment shapes how we think.

    I’m not going to try to reproduce everything these smart people said. But I made a lot of notes, so here are some highlights…

    The Nature of Cities

    The way that cities shape and are shaped by our behaviour was a recurring theme in the panel. Who is allowed to go where and under what circumstances? How do we move through space? How do we use it to negotiate power relations?

    As Jared pointed out, just moving into a place changes our behaviour. Marketers use the effect of the environment on behaviour to sell us things. But as writers, there’s a lesson here in how character shifts with circumstances. Entering the city could make a huge difference to your character’s comfort and confidence. Moving around the city might transform who they are.

    Al talked about how we get into habits. From a writer’s point of view, this means that characters won’t notice their surroundings until they’re shaken out of their familiar routine. But it goes beyond that. Amy mentioned Foucault’s concept of the panopticon*, of the awareness of observation changing our behaviour even when we aren’t actually being observed. For me, this was one of the most useful things to draw attention to. The expectation of being watched is unavoidable in a city. It shapes social norms and makes the city a hotbed for transforming human behaviour.

    Both Victoria and Al talked about how we’re always being watched in cities. This can create a paranoia that’s great for horror or noir. There’s a paradox that moving to the city is a way to lose yourself, yet someone can always find you there. It’s a dichotomy of anonymity and observation that Jared highlighted and that I’m still caught by a week later.

    Different Cities

    The different experiences people can have of cities came up a few times.

    In the early modern era, cities were a place you could go to reinvent yourself. Before modern record keeping, no-one could prove that you weren’t who you said you were. To some extent, reinvention is still a possibility, but in the age of the computer, your data trail now follows you. So a Victorian city has different meaning from a modern one.

    Similarly, cities are different at night from during the day. There’s an invisible infrastructure there, people with secret lives that most of us don’t see but who ensure that you can buy McDonalds at 4am and wake up to clean streets.

    At one point, the discussion highlighted a really interesting contrast in the way people approach cities. Victoria talked about Corbusier, who saw the city as a living thing to be perfected through design and who tried to do away with such useless elements as decorative art. In contrast, Al raised the interesting issue of how we deal with ruins and the old. Any city a writer creates should have remnants of the past. How they show will make a big difference to how a city feels.

    Constructing Fictional Cities

    After lots of fascinating talk about cities in general, the panel came around to talking about how they’re constructed in fiction. From a practical point of view, Al pointed out that mundane details are often the best way to make a city seem real, while Victoria highlighted the need to know the city’s past – what it used to be, what it wants to be, and what it doesn’t want people to remember.

    There are limits to how real you can make a city. As Jared pointed out, reading a novel is an orderly, linear process, while living in a city is messy, confusing, and conditional. Few books will ever capture that feeling. You just get as close as you can.

    But it was a comment from Victoria that, for me, really nailed down our relationship with cities: “Writing and art is a way of making something your own, especially if you don’t have control over it.” This is part of why we write cities, trying to bring them under control. But it’s also a feature of cities, something we can show in fiction. From political authorities throwing up statues to youths daubing a park with graffiti, art within cities is almost always, on some level, about that control of space. When we make art about cities, if we show the art of cities then we can humanise the struggle to live in and control them.

    Cities shape us, but we also shape cities.

     

     

     

    * This won her my undying favour. Foucault is my all time favourite philosopher, and not just because he was a cool French bald guy. His theories transformed the way I understand power and human interactions. He is, as they say, the man.