Character, Conflict, and The Girl With All the Gifts

Story is about character. Even when it’s also about zombies or dragons or the emergence of the internet, a good story will keep characters at its core. We come for the novelty but we stick around for the people.

As writers including Film Crit Hulk have pointed out, what makes a truly compelling character is their internal conflict. The divide between what they want and what they need can drive an arc that leaves us yearning to see how it will all end.

This is particularly clear in M R Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, a story about scientists and soldiers surviving in the aftermath of a zombie plague. When circumstances force a small group together on the run, there are obvious conflicts between them and with their environment. But it’s the conflicts within that make the characters so engaging.

The wants are carefully shown in the earlier parts of the story. Melanie, a ten-year-old girl infected with the zombifying spores, wants to be loved. Helen Justineau, Melanie’s teacher, wants to protect the children in her care, despite their apparently monstrous nature. Caroline Caldwell, a research scientist, wants to understand the cause of the disease. Sergeant Parks, the commander of their research base, wants to maintain order in a disintegrating world. Kieran Gallagher, a young soldier under Gallagher’s command, wants to please the people around him.

As the story progresses, each character reveals a deeper need, related to and often in conflict with their desire. Melanie, too bright and wilful for a life of captivity, needs to find a place of purpose in the world. Justineau needs forgiveness and acceptance. Caldwell needs to feel heard and recognised for her work. Parks needs to see the limits of his world view. Gallagher needs to escape the traumas of his past.

These needs become the driving engine behind the story, placing the characters in conflict with each other and with themselves. Gallagher, the least prominent of the five, has one of the arcs that moved me most, exactly because of those internal divisions. His past has left him desperate to please but incapable of doing it. As the pressure mounts, traumas he’s never admitted to other people tighten the screw in his mind. We face the awful question of whether he can even look after himself, never mind the people around him.

In a story as dark as The Girl With All the Gifts, not everyone is going to get what they need, never mind what they want. But sometimes those needs can make a tragic arc satisfying. We feel sad for characters who don’t get what they want, but may feel satisfied to see them get what they need. The satisfaction of the story comes in seeing the characters move towards those ends.

In this story, the characters’ divisions also become symbolic of a bigger issue. With the future looking increasingly bleak, what humanity wants and what it needs may not be in line. The revelation of that terrible division becomes the climax of the book, an arc as satisfying as those of the individual characters.

When a real person finds themselves divided, the best port of call is a counsellor. When a fictional character feels strong divisions, it’s time for a publisher. The Girl With All the Gifts is a great example of why these stories work and why, even in the apoclypse, character is so important.

Eastercon 2019: SF is Not Just Escapism

Some people dismiss speculative fiction as pure escapism. Margaret Atwood famously disdains the science fiction label as she thinks it represents something without the depth of her work. But as a weekend in the heart of British SF shows, there are few genres more engaged in the big concerns of the modern world.

Ytterbium

Space ship taking off
Not the sort of escape I’m talking about, but it would be cool.

I spent Easter weekend 2019 at Ytterbium, the latest in Britain’s long-running series of Eastercon science fiction conventions. Eastercon is one of the big national gatherings for the speculative fiction community, covering, fantasy, horror, and science fiction, with an emphasis on the latter. It’s a great place to get a sense of where British SF is at.

As an attendee, Eastercon always seems very smoothly run to me. The volunteers who do the work give every appearance of professionalism. For a long and lovely weekend, a bland hotel becomes the hub of a normally dispersed community.

The entertainment at an Eastercon covers a wide range of topics. Panels, talks, and workshops discuss writing, editing, and commentary. But this year, I was struck by the level of political engagement.

Facing the Real World

What you get out of a convention will always be shaped by what you choose to attend. But that will also be dependent on what’s available, and this year, there was plenty for the politically concerned attendee. I heard panellists discuss subtle forms of racism, climate change, paranoid politics, and fake news. I went to events drawing attention to under-represented groups within SF. It was enlightening, uplifting, and very relevant to the world around us.

When people dismiss SF as pure escapism, they wilfully ignore its potential to engage in deep topics. This depth comes from two angles. One is the writers using spec fic’s tools to make us consider uncomfortable truths about the world, as when Marian Womack or Kim Stanley Robinson write about the future of the environment. The other angle is the analysis, with thinkers like Helen Gould looking at the assumptions in our writing and pushing us to move past them, to create work that is more enlightened, more representative, more inclusive of our world.

In both these ways, the SF community engages hard with real world issues.

Community

And then there’s the community itself.

Human beings need community. It provides them with support and a sense of belonging. SF is great for that. A shared passion for imaginative stories pulls people together.

That might not sound very political, but a moment’s thought shows that it is. By providing a community, we give support to those who need help to get by or who struggle to be heard. While imperfect, the SF community’s approach to trans rights has generally been forward-looking in recent years. Some in UK SF are pushing to amplify voices sidelined by poverty and colonialism, as in the screening of African SF films at Ytterbium. Just by spending time in this space, I’ve become more aware of the issues at stake.

A community can bind together people of very different backgrounds and help them see each other’s perspectives. That’s a radical political act and one that shouldn’t be so rare.

It’s OK to Escape

I don’t think that escapism is a bad thing. Some of the books I read and shows I watch are chosen for it. They help me relax and recharge, give me the energy to face a tough world. They help keep us sane, and we should never be ashamed of enjoying them just because they offer the relief of escape.

But there’s also a rich strand of SF that is politically and socially engaged, that recognises the politics embedded in any text, that deliberately seeks to raise important issues and make us think about the world.

SF is many things, but as Ytterbium showed, it is not just an escape.

Submarine Pirates and Silkworm Smugglers – a flash steampunk story

The junk steamed through the waters towards Indonesia, its paddle wheels leaving a churning wake behind. Out on deck, the crew were gathered around the automaton Susan had bought in Beijing, the one that excused her investment in engine oil and protective wrappings. They laughed as the mechanical dragon danced jerkily across the deck, oblivious to the smaller box hidden in Susan’s trunk, the one worth thousands of these high price novelty trinkets.

Captain Chao waved to Susan.

“So good!” he said in Mandarin. “Your husband will be delighted with his present.”

Susan smiled, nodded, and straightened her skirts. That imaginary husband was such a convenient cover, but he could sometimes be a hindrance. Chao had a roguish charm and she might have enjoyed his company more if not for the need to maintain her cover.

Suddenly, the sea in front of them churned. Jointed metal tentacles parted the waves, followed by the bulbous brass head of a giant squid. A smokestack on the back opened to let out a billowing black cloud.

Chao ran to the wheel and turned the junk, but they were already too close. The squid wrapped its tentacles around the prow. Wood buckled and splintered as it squeezed.

“Stop your engines and we won’t sink you,” a voice announced, made tinny by a speaking trumpet.

While Chao flung back a lever, Susan hid beneath the heap of crumpled canvas that was the junk’s emergency sails. The weight was oppressive, but better that than be taken for ransom by pirates.

As she peered out from beneath the canvas, men and women clambered out of a hatch in the squid’s head and down its arms. They wore loose, practical cloths and carried cutlasses and pistols. Chao knelt before them and started pleading for his ship.

As the lead pirate bent closer to Chao, Susan saw a symbol embroidered on his tunic – a yellow chrysanthemum. She smiled and shrugged off the canvas. This was no mere pirate raid.

The pirates looked up as Susan emerged, hands raised. She had pulled a book from her pocket and held it open, revealing an image of that same chrysanthemum. This wasn’t where she’d expected her contact to turn up, but it was certainly one way to avoid taking goods through customs.

“Mrs Talbot, I presume,” the pirate captain said in English. “You have them?”

“One moment.”

She went to the back of the junk, where her trunk was stored. From within a pile of petticoats she pulled a bamboo box the side of a briefcase. Holding it carefully in both hands, she walked slowly back towards the pirates.

The captain reached out, opened the lid, and grinned like a wolf who’d just got into the meadow.

“Mechanical silkworms.” He stared at the dozen intricately geared tubes. “The first to get past the Chinese authorities. We’re going to be worth a fortune.”

“We should go.” Susan shut the lid. “Any delay increases the risk of capture.”

“Indeed.” The captain turned to his men. “Kill this lot and we’ll be going.”

“What?” Susan stared at him in horror. Chao, who spoke no English, was looking up at them with a frown.

“Got to cover our trail,” the pirate captain said.

“It is covered! I’ve done everything under a fake identity and you’re sailing a submarine disguised as a sea monster. These people aren’t a threat to us.”

“Can’t be too careful.”

The captain drew a pistol and pointed it at Chao’s head. Chao whimpered. Susan stiffened, took a deep breath, and turned away.

In two strides she was at the side of the ship, holding the case out over the waves.

“If you hurt any of them,” she snapped, “our prize drops into the deep.”

“You wouldn’t dare.” The pirate turned his gun on her.

“Try me. And if you shoot, you know I’ll drop it.”

“You were hired for a job.”

“Not for one involving killing.”

“Shows how naive you are. Now quit this nonsense and get over here. We’re on a timetable.”

Susan’s heart raced. If she gave in, Chao and his people would die. There was no way she could fight back against all those weapons. So how to get out of this?

“There’s air in this box,” she said. “Not enough to stop it sinking, but enough to slow it down. In one minute, I’m going to drop it overboard. If you want any chance of catching it, I suggest that you get into your machine right now.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Fifty seconds.”

The pirate snarled and waved to his crew.

“Everyone back, quick!”

There was a mad scramble up the jointed tentacles and through the hatch. A lid closed over the smokestack and the squid released the junk.

“Time’s up!” Susan shouted.

She dropped the box just as the squid vanished from view. There was a splash and the treasure she’d come all this way for sank beneath the waves. Maybe the pirates would catch it, maybe they’d be too slow. Either way, they would be busy for a while.

Susan gripped the rail with trembling hands and took a deep, slow breath.

Chao got to his feet and walked over to Susan.

“I don’t know what you did,” he said in Mandarin. “But thank you, Mrs Talbot.”

“I’m not really a Mrs,” Susan said, turning to look back across the deck. The dragon automaton was still wobbling around, ignored by the pale and wide-eyed crew. “I don’t suppose you know anyone who would like to buy a dragon, do you? And maybe somewhere I could hide out for a month? I think I need to make a new life plan.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then check out my collection of fantasy stories, By Sword, Stave, or Stylus. Or you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

And for the steampunk lovers:

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.

Out Now – Lady Death

War has come to the Ukraine, German tanks driving back the Red Army in a brutal mechanical tide. Faced with the prospect of losing everything she holds dear, Svetlana Ivanovna Korzh takes up the gun, ready to defend her homeland. Turned from a teacher into a sniper, she heads into the streets of Odessa in a desperate attempt to stop the onslaught. But as her friends start to fall, a far more personal struggle begins…

Lady Death is my latest story from Commando Comics, brought to life by the art of Manuel Benet. It was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary history book The Unwomanly Face of War, which explores the role of women in the Red Army in World War Two, their experiences both in action and in transitioning to and from civilian lives. It’s one of the best history books I’ve ever read, and I can’t recommend it enough for the way it brings forgotten stories to light and personalises a vast historical narrative.

While an action comic could never do justice to the complex and difficult lives these women led, I wanted to at least draw attention to their experiences, from the harrowing losses to the touching moments of friendship amid the horror of war. In doing so, I’ve taken fragments of reality and stitched them together into a fictional whole. Many elements of the story are taken from real life. The recruiting officer who doesn’t want to accept women. The troop trains strafed on the way to war. The wedding dress made from parachute silk. The partisans fighting in the catacombs. And most importantly, the thousands of female snipers who risked their lives, only to be forgotten in the aftermath.

Historical storytelling is a strange thing, a delicate balance of truth and fiction. I hope that I’ve included enough truth here to make the story worthwhile, and enough fiction to keep you entertained.



***

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.

You can read more about From a Foreign Shore, including what other readers thought here. It’s available on Kindle through Amazon.



The End?

Endings are funny things to write.

I’ve started getting feedback on a big work in progress and one of the interesting questions raised has been about the ending. It closes off the plot arcs that I’d built the story around, but it also leaves a lot of questions open. One beta reader’s initial feedback was full of these questions – what happens next? what about character x? is this setup for a sequel?

Leaving such questions open is one of two ways to deal with ending a story.

On the one hand, you can deliver closure, providing neat endings for story arcs. This is satisfying for readers, in part because it’s so different from the uncomfortably open-ended nature of reality.

On the other hand, there’s ending with questions open. This leaves readers thinking about the novel, considering what they think happens next, potentially yearning for more. It’s more real, but lacks the catharsis of a closed arc.

Of course, most stories don’t just do one or the other. They’ll close some arcs and leave others open. The question isn’t which to do but which to do more of.

The answer isn’t going to be easy. It depends upon your taste, your audience, the nature of the story, the message you’re trying to convey, and a hundred other considerations of craft, inspiration, and business. But it’s not an answer you can avoid providing.

Every story finishes, but not every one has a neat “The End”. For the one I’m working on, I want a high degree of audience satisfaction, while still leaving some questions open. That probably means I need to provide more closure than I’m doing right now. For you, the balance might be very different.

And for now, I’ll just stop there.

It’s OK to Ask

One of the toughest things for me as a freelancer is convincing myself that it’s OK to ask for stuff. For advice from other professionals. For support from friends. For more work from past clients. For feedback from current ones.

The thing is, asking does no harm, and it can lead to good things. It took me months to build up the courage to ask clients for testimonials, which I wanted to put on my freelance website. I felt like I was intruding, felt afraid of how people would respond. But these were people who valued my skills enough to pay for them, so of course when I asked they were willing to spare a couple of sentences recommending me.

When you work for yourself, whether it’s full time freelancing or doing a creative side gig, you’re the one who has the power, the motivation, and the opportunity to push your work further. People aren’t always going to think of you or to know what you want. So it’s OK to ask. More than just OK. It’s what you need.

Back to Running LRP

Life has a habit of repeating on itself, only a little different. And so, several years since I last did it, I’ve signed up to help run a LRP (live roleplay).

This is going to be an interesting challenge for me in terms of balancing parts of my life. I’ll be writing plot for the event, which means I’ll be using similar mental muscles to the day job, but in different ways. I’ll be collaborating with other people in an act of creativity, which is great because I like people and my work can be quite isolating.

But the biggest concern is how I respond to the emotional pressure of it all. I don’t always respond well to stress (who does?) and my brain has a tendency to register what could be excitement as stress instead. This is particularly true when other people are involved or I care about the outcome, which is obviously going to happen here.

So how do I manage all that while ensuring that I do my part of the project and have fun along the way? I’ve got a few ideas:

  • Proper planning to tackle the tasks I’m responsible for.
  • Tackling them early to reduce background stress.
  • Looking at the excited and positive responses people will have to the project.
  • Stopping regularly to take deep breaths.

I’m glad I’ve been given the chance to be part of something awesome. I’m looking forward to it. And with a bit of care, I can fit this into my life without turning it into a major source of stress. But that care is going to be important.

And expect more details here as the project goes along…

When Fantasy Isn’t Fantasy

Sometimes making a story look like something it isn’t can frustrate readers. Other times, it can be immensely satisfying.

Why?

(Mild spoilers for The Shattered Sea ahead – don’t want this article turning into something you didn’t expect.)

Joe Abercrombie‘s Shattered Sea trilogy is mostly a straightforward, if rather dark, YA fantasy series. In a world ripped apart by a long-ago war, Viking-style raiders plough the seas, looting, trading, and making war on each other. The story has its twists and turns, all in keeping with the style of story it lays out from the start – one of deception and betrayal in the cause of greater goods.

There’s also another twist hidden in the world building, one that slowly becomes apparent as you read the story.

This isn’t a fantasy world. It’s our world in the future. The elven ruins are the remains of modern cities, magical artefacts modern technology. Hints dropped along the way let the reader work this out without the characters ever finding the truth, which is irrelevant to their lives. They care about what those artefacts can do, not what it really means for magic to exist.

This isn’t an entirely new idea. John Christopher did something similar in his 1970s Sword of the Spirits trilogy, and he’s not alone. But the reason this works isn’t precedentt. It’s the way it affects the reader.

Finding out that you’re not reading the story you thought you were can be frustrating. The writer pulls the rug out from beneath your feet and then stands there smugly grinning, with a look on their face like “aha! I tricked you!” They’re proving how clever they are.

Abercrombie’s books have the opposite effect. You as the reader get to feel clever, as you put the pieces together and work out the truth. That’s a great feeling. We accept the bait and switch because of the way that it’s presented.

I’ve talked about this idea a bunch of times – that we feel good about books when they make us feel smart. From a little kid learning to recognise letters to an undergraduate student ostentatiously reading Ulysses, feeling smart makes you feel good, which makes you like the thing that made you feel smart.

So yeah, I really liked The Shattered Sea series. Not just because of that smart feeling, of course. There are compelling characters and events presented in clear, enjoyable prose. But that fantasy that’s not fantasy, it certainly helps.

What if Games Were Real?

Back when I was a kid, I loved The Last Starfighter. It was an incredible wish fulfillment film, in which a teenager’s arcade game skills made him the hero of a real inter-planetary war. It fostered the idea that games could be empowering not just within themselves but in the real world, that the geeky things we did for fun could be relevant. And at the time, there was nothing else like it.

The Growth of Gaming

When The Last Starfighter came out, the question of “what if our games were real?” was a pretty niche one.

These days, things are different. There are games consoles in most homes, roleplay or wargaming clubs in most high schools. Glancing at a stranger’s phone on the bus (don’t pretend you never do it!) there’s a good chance I’ll see them playing some brightly coloured Skinner box of a mobile game.

Now that gaming is mainstream, there’s space for multiple takes on the games as reality tale. Whether’s its a portal fantasy where teens are transported into a game world, a sci-fi story where consoles are training us for future wars, or just an exaggerated take on the skills gamers develop, these narratives are becoming increasingly prevalent.

Armada by Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline’s novel Armada is a very deliberate successor to The Last Starfighter. The protagonist, Zack, is an American teen living with his widowed mother. He’s also one of the world’s top players in an online spaceship combat game called Armada. When Zack sees a spaceship from the game flying over his home town, he starts to worry about his mental health. But that worry is replaced by new ones when the game turns out to be a recruiting ground for pilots in a war to save the Earth.

I discovered this book through a review by my friend Jane, so I went into it with high hopes. And the further I got, the more disappointed I felt. This didn’t just feel like a return to the themes of The Last Starfighter – it was a cheesy rehashing of that film. And that wasn’t the limit of its faults.

The geek culture references were repetitive and over-explained, with all the subtlety of an episode of The Big Bang Theory. The protagonist had, to steal a term from the Mythcreants, too much candy – his personal conflicts were quickly resolved and his wishes cam true in the most blatant ways. Why, I wondered, did a professional bookseller of apparently sound judgement like this book? It was just wish fulfilment fantasy for teenage geek boys!

And as you’ve probably realised, the answer is in the question. Because the moment I thought about audience, I realised that Armada wasn’t meant for me. For a geeky teenage boy, it would be a world of excitement and wonder. Not deep, but not harmful either, and very accessible.

This was a new generation’s The Last Starfighter, and who was I to begrudge them that?

Die by Gillen Et Al

If The Last Starfighter style fantasies are dead to me, does that mean that I, having reached middle age, can’t enjoy the “what if games were real?” fantasy anymore?

Do you think I’d be writing this if the answer was yes?

To the rescue comes the comic Die by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans, and Clayton Cowles. Die tells the story of a group of tabletop roleplayers who were once magically transported into the world of their game. Years later, they return to that world. In doing so, they again become magically empowered, but are forced to face the horrors that almost destroyed them.

Die is a much more substantial take on this topic. Instead of simply replicating familiar tropes, it dissects them, revealing the darkness behind the fantasies, the price that comes with getting what you think you want. As Alasdair Stuart deftly explains in his review, it’s a story with familiar yet compelling characters, a strong plot, and incredibly striking imagery. Just two issues in, it’s shaping up to be a fascinating comic that makes you look at its subject matter in new ways. In short, it’s everything you’d expect from Kieron Gillen.

This is a grown up take on “what if games were real?” Problems aren’t easily fixed and they leave troubling scars. Wishes never come true in the way you want them to. But maybe there’s still empowerment and inspiration to be found.

Different Stories for Different Audiences

Reading these two stories in parallel, my first reaction was to see Die as the better of the two. It’s deeper, it’s darker, it’s far more inventive.

But audience is important when judging a book, and for its audience, Armada is going to be great. To many teenage gamers, it will feel empowering and inspiring, like The Last Starfighter did when I was young. They don’t need the deconstructions yet. To most of them, the darkness of Die would be alienating. Let them come to it later, once they’ve had a chance to enjoy the pure fantasy. The deserve to enjoy the brightness for a while.

This is what’s brilliant about now. There’s room for a Last Starfighter tribute and for its dark, gothic cousin. The question “what if games were real?” has all sorts of answers, and we have a chance to see them all.

And once I got to that space, I started enjoying Armada again. I didn’t need it to be something weighty – I had Die for that. I could enjoy it on its own terms. I could get back to fantasising about the games becoming real.

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.