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FantasyCon 2019

I’ve had a week to catch up on sleep, so it must be time to talk about FantasyCon.

The first thing to say is that I had a great time. I always do at cons. The people are lovely, the panels provide entertainment, and it’s great to browse the books of the indie presses that don’t make it into mainstream stores.

The highlights for me this year were about fun rather than learning new things. Breaking The Glass Slipper live and the Dungeons and Disorderly panel were both very entertaining, playing around with familiar characters and tropes. BTGS had panellists explain how their chosen sf+f character would deal with a difficult scenario, with the audience voting on their favourites. D&D was a ridiculous, improvised 45-minute roleplay game featuring the underdork, conspiring cows, and seven kobolds disguised as a dragon.

My panel seemed to go fine, though it’s hard to judge when you’re on the inside. I certainly got more insight into how franchise writing works, and now have some thoughts on what I can do to hunt out more work. But for me this was mostly a relaxing con, with a lot of bar chat.

Inevitably, I bought a couple of books. Luna Press are doing great work and I’ve already enjoyed dipping into their latest essay collection, as well as Gareth Powell’s new writing guide.

Going to Glasgow, or more accurately the edge of Glasgow, seemed to reduce the number of attendees, which was a shame. FantasyCon is a great event even when, like this year, it has a few organisational problems, and it should go as far north as Scotland once in a while. Multiple conventions close together also seem to have cannibalised membership, and hopefully con runners will consider that next year.

It’s a shame more people didn’t make it, but then that’s always going to be true. If you live in Britain and you enjoy fantasy then this is one of the most rewarding events of the year, especially for writers. I’m really glad I went.

Survivors – a flash sci-fi story

The ops room was silent, the radios dead. On a screen by the door, the symbols for our starships had all turned to black. Not the grey of lost in action or blue of lost comms. Black, every one.

Image of space

With trembling hands, I drew the headset down from my ears and let it hang around my neck. I hadn’t felt this way since I’d been fifteen, sitting by a hospital bed, watching a face that was a mirror of my own turn pale then still as Dani let go her last breath.

At the command station, Admiral Burling drew her hands away from her face and looked around at the analysts, programmers, and comms officer who made up the fleet’s command staff.

“It’s over,” she said. “We gambled and lost. This base is all that remains of the fleet. Go get some rest, our work here is over.”

People rose from their stations and started shuffling out. My grief turned to horror. How could they act like this?

I lurched to my feet.

“What about the survivors?” I said. “They’ll need us to guide them in.”

I pointed at my screen, from which I’d guided whole wings of the fleet, directing them in battles that spanned entire systems, then talking them home when fried sensors and hacked systems left them blind.

Everybody turned to look at me, then at Burling.

“Whatever that weapon was, it wiped out a star system,” she said. “There are no survivors.”

“You don’t know that!”

I saw the others’ shock as my scream echoed around the room. I could be taken out and shot for talking to an admiral like that, but I couldn’t stay silent. I was a desperate, wounded creature crawling towards the faintest sign of light.

“We’ve lost,” Burling said stiffly. “It would be a waste of what resources we have to man these stations. Go sleep, before you cross a line I cannot ignore.”

“Yes, we’ve lost,” I said. “But we have to have hope, otherwise we have nothing.”

“Hope?” Burling spat the word. “Hope isn’t some panacea for your broken soul. Hope is a poison that will have you clinging to that terminal, pouring your energy into dreams that will never come true, burning away the last of your will until all you have left is the darkness and a service pistol that promises a way out.

“I’ve seen what false dreams hope can offer, and I won’t have you drag the rest down with you.”

On a console between us, a diode was blinking a heartbeat rhythm. Between the flashes, I saw how little I understood about the grey-haired woman standing across from me. I knew that she had fought other wars, had lost friends and comrades like the rest of us, had been with us an hour before when every channel went suddenly and chillingly dead. But I had never considered what more she might have seen than me, what scars she carried on her soul.

I looked at my colleagues standing uncertainly by the door. I saw the yearning in their expressions, the desperate longing to hear that not everything was lost. I imagined the weight of expectation held up by my own fragile desire, noble perhaps but unsupported by what we saw, for all of this to be alright.

I saw the trap I was talking them into, a shadow of the one into which we had unwittingly led the fleet.

“I’m sorry, Admiral,” I said.

I took off my headset. As I set it down, a sound emerged, rasping and tenuous. Was that a voice?

I clutched the headset to my ear and felt my heart hammer as I spoke into the mic.

“This is fleet command, can you repeat that?”

There it was again, almost but not quite words.

Burling glared at me and I wilted beneath her fury. I was fooling myself, wasn’t I? Fooling myself and everyone else.

Then the voice came again, louder this time.

“Fleet command, this is Gardener, do you hear me?”

“Gardener, this is fleet command.” I turned to my station, turned my back on my commander, and stared at the screen, looking for some sign of where the voice came from. “How many of you are left?”

The Admiral strode towards me, her boots thudding against the floor. I had to get proof of life before she tore me from my terminal. I had to-

“All hands to stations,” Burling bellowed. “If we’ve got even one pilot out there, we’re bringing them home.”

Her hand settled on my shoulder and as I turned to look at her I saw her smile for the very first time. Around us, people rushed to their positions, grief replaced by grins as they grabbed communication consoles and reached out across the void of space.

I remembered a face going pale and then still.

This time I could do something to help.

This time there was hope.

***

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***

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.

Trying to Write Amid the Chaos

Writing is a lot about focus, and that’s hard to find right now. In both Europe and America, politics is going batshit crazy. The extent of our damage to the environment becomes clearer every day, as does our failure to tackle it. The economy has become this crazed web of investment instruments utterly detached from reality, which somehow holds people’s fates in its hands. And that’s just the distant, impersonal stuff.

This shit is not good for your mental health. It weighs down on you like the ocean on a submarine’s hull, a constant pressure that can threaten to split you at the seams.

When that’s happening, it’s OK to feel like crap. It’s a natural response. To quote Christin Slater in Pump Up the Volume, feeling fucked up doesn’t mean that you’re fucked up. Feeling fucked up is a perfectly normal response to a fucked-up situation.

It’s important not to beat yourself up if you find this stuff distracting or you struggle to work through it, if your thoughts are constantly off-kilter or scattered to the wind. Mental health is a societal issue, not just a personal one.

But it’s also a good idea not to let it get to you. Find ways to set the unsettling thoughts aside. Go for a walk. Try some mindfulness. Treat yourself to a massive bar of chocolate and gobble that tasty treat down in front of your favourite sitcom. Whatever takes some pressure off your brain. Then take the few precious minutes of happiness you’ve bought yourself and use them to get something done. Write a page of your novel. Cook a cool new meal. Make that phone call you’ve been putting off. Anything that will make you feel more productive, more in control.

That’s how I approach work at times like this. Just banging my head against the words won’t help. I have to take time, take breaks, and then take care to use the energy I’ve saved. Because if I let this completely stop me writing, if I let it trample me down, then I might never get up again.

It’s OK to feel fucked up. But that doesn’t have to mean letting the fucked up win.

Omens of the End Times – a flash fantasy story

Shooting stars blazed across the sky, bright wounds in the skin of dusk.

“Another omen!” Ostelia shouted, glaring angrily at her fellow senators. “The city will fall.”

His body quivering with rage, Asmir hitched up his toga, rose from his seat, and pointed past her through the pillars of the temple porch.

“The city will not fall because of this,” he said. “It will fall from our neglect. The great lake has not dried up through the will of the gods but through our inaction.”

A rumble rose out of the east. A great foaming wall of water came rushing across the lake bed toward the city.

“Another sign!” Ostelia exclaimed. “The end is upon us!”

“The dams have broken.” Asmir swung around and grabbed a servant. “Quick, ring the bells, get people to high ground.”

The water surged across the dried out lake bed and crashed against the houses beyond. Buildings at the foot of the temple hill were smashed aside. Timbers and bodies spun in the current as the waters rose. One by one, the temple steps vanished beneath the flood.

“The end is upon us,” Ostelia declared.

Half the senators cried out in agreement. They followed her as she strode solemnly out of the temple, onto the steps, and down towards the waters.

“Get back here, you fools,” Asmir shouted. “We’ll need everyone we can get to rebuild after this.”

He ran after them, sandals flapping against stone, and tried to haul them back. A brawl broke out as half the senate tried to keep the other half from drowning itself.

Ostelia reached the water’s edge. It was still rising, but slower than before. She raised her hands and stepped in. The edge of her toga darkened and clung to her shins.

“Take me, oh divinities. Carry me into the purer world that follows.”

Asmir was about to grab hold of her when something caught his eye. A wicker basket bobbed across the water to them, carrying with it a baby’s frightened cries.

Thoughts of Asmir’s fellow senators fled his mind. He tore off his toga and dived into the swirling waters. Currents snatched at him, trying to drag his body this way and that, but this was one thing at which he excelled. Though he was spun around and almost sucked under, he kept his course, until at last he laid a hand on the basket.

There was a hiss. A cat popped its head up over the edge and glared at Asmir. It dug its claws into his fingers, causing a fierce flash of pain. Tail stiff and back arched, it stood protectively over a tightly swaddled infant.

“I’m here to help,” Asmir said, but the cat just raised its claws again.

No time to appease the savage beast – Asmir would have to take whatever punishment it gave him. As blood welled from his fingers, he turned the basket and pushed it ahead of him towards the shore.

The waters tugged at him again as he neared the temple steps. He was so close, but a current clutched him and he could feel himself being drawn away.

Then a hand reached through the last grey light of dusk. Ostelia was in the water, and other senators behind her, a chain of them clinging to each other back to dry land. Asmir grasped Ostelia with one hand and the basket with another. Battling the force of the flood, the senators dragged him to shore.

At last, Asmir sat sodden on the hillside, lit by torches the servants had brought out, the torn up timbers of the city being swept away in front of him. The cat leaned its head out of the basket and licked his fingers, cleaning the wounds it had caused. The baby gurgled, smiled, and raised a tiny pink hand.

Ostelia leaned in, her toga dripping, and the baby grabbed at her dangling hair.

“It is an omen,” she whispered. “A sign that life will go on.”

Anger flared in Asmir. Ostelia had almost died of omens, almost taken half the city’s leaders with her. Now she was twisting this so she didn’t have to see her own madness.

The baby laughed and something shifted inside Asmir. He might not believe in omens, but he believed in people.

“It is a sign,” he said. “A sign of hope. A sign that we can rebuild together.”

Ostelia laid a hand on his shoulder and smiled.

“Together,” she said.

***

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***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

FantasyCon is Coming!

It’s almost time for FantasyCon, that magical time of year when a bunch of fantasy fans and professionals get together in a hotel to enthuse about our shared passions. This year we’re near Glasgow, my first foray into Scotland in twenty years, and I can’t wait.

I’m only on one panel this time, Franchises and Ghostwriting, at one o’clock on Saturday afternoon. There, I’ll be moderating a discussion with Charlotte Bond, Una McCormack, and Mark Morris on some of the less-discussed options for professional writers. So if you’re at the convention this weekend please come along, or at the very least find me to say hello in the bar.

Crone’s Curse – a historical flash fiction

It was a nondescript hut amid some nondescript fields somewhere outside a nondescript town on the edge of Hampshire. There was no mark worth speaking of here, no-one Alice could trick with a sob story or a play on their greed. But if what she’d heard was true, then there was something even better – an accomplice for her greatest con yet.

A woman answered the door. She was stooped and dishevelled, with a jutting chin and sagging eyelids. A black cat rubbed around her ankles. The whole scene could have come straight from one of the witch hunters’ pamphlets.

Alice almost squealed in delight. This was too perfect.

“Judith of Mowbray?” she asked.

“Aye, that’s me.” Judith looked Alice up and down. “I don’t meet many ladies in fancy dresses with fancy ruffs.”

“I think we can help each other. May I come in?”

Judith led Alice into her house and closed the door behind them. The door didn’t quite fit right in its frame, the hinges sagging and the wood warped. It went perfectly with the battered chairs, odd herbs, and cauldron bubbling over the fire.

“They say you’re a witch,” Alice said. “I work the same trade.”

“Aye, I’m one of the guilty.” Judith stirred the pot, then settled into a seat. Her cat leapt into her lap. “Thought I were just making salves for aching joints, but these last years, they’ve opened my eyes to the truth.”

It was a good act, one of the best Alice had seen. That bit about being persuaded made it feel more real.

“You’ve been here for years, right?” she asked. “Since good Queen Elizabeth was still young?”

“I was only a girl then. Thought I were talking to myself, not to devils. But then Adam the carter broke my heart, and I muttered ill wishes against him. Just a month later he broke his leg, the first curse of many.”

“That’s what I need, someone well-established. I have this whole act where I use my powers to find hidden treasure, then promise them more in return for a room and some pay. I set them doing a day-long ceremony to the faeries, then clear the place out and head off while they’re distracted.”

“You’re a con woman?” Judith gaped at her.

“Of course. Don’t pretend that’s not what this is all about. Convincing people you can curse them, then getting paid to curse their enemies.”

“I’m no trickster. I’m a real witch.”

“Witches aren’t real. I should know, I’ve met enough of them.”

“I am! I cursed poor Adam without even meaning it. Same with Mistress Emily, and the alderman’s cows, and a dozen others. Its why no man ever settled with me. It’s why I’ve only my familiar for comfort.” She stroked the black cat behind his ears and he purred happily. “I’m cursed, and when they arrive this noon, I’ll burn for it.”

Alice couldn’t have made a living if she had space in her heart for pity. But looking at this poor woman, dragged down by misplaced guilt and anxious neighbours, something sad and sympathetic stirred inside her.

She knelt beside Judith, took her hand, and spoke softly.

“People have accidents. Milk goes sour. Any time you get angry at someone, something bad will happen to them in the next month, because something bad happens to everyone every month. It might be a broken leg or a bruised toe, but it’s not your fault.”

“Then why am I alone?” Judith wailed. “Why’d it come to be just me and black-furred Jack?”

Heavy footfalls approached the hut. Judith had said they were coming for her at noon. The smart thing would be to leave now and claim no knowledge of the woman or her works.

For once in her life, Alice didn’t choose the smart thing.

“You’re not alone,” she whispered. “Quick, tell me three things about the man who leads this mob.”

As soon as the answer was out, she got up, flung open the door, and stepped outside.

“Alderman Henry,” she boomed. “You come seeking witches? You have found one.”

The crowd was twenty strong, most of them men. They stopped, uncertain, at the sight of a strange woman in rich clothes.

“You want to burn with her?” A large man stepped forward, better dressed than the rest.

“I want to offer you our services,” Alice said, holding out her hands. “Magic can bring curses, but it can bring blessings. I sense things about you. A sickly wife, old debts unpaid, a storm-blasted tree beside your house.”

The crowd murmured to each other excitedly, as if this was the most shocking thing they’d ever heard. It must be witchcraft. After all, that was what they’d come for.

“Want us to burn you too?” the alderman asked.

“Or take my blessings. There is a treasure close to you, one that could cure your wife.” It would be easy to hide a silver crucifix in a storm-blasted tree stump, then guide this man to find it. Judith could help, providing a distraction and authenticity. “Give me three days with my powers and I can heal your Kathryn. Then we can talk of where other treasure might be found.”

The alderman hesitated. She could see him wavering, tugged one way by pain and greed, the other way by cynicism and anger. His eyes narrowed and Alice feared she had finally overstepped.

Then the door behind her creaked and Judith appeared. A wicked smile crept up the Alderman’s face and Alice knew what he was thinking. Profit from his witches, then burn them. Best of both ways.

“Alright,” he said. “I’ll give you your three days.”

Alice took Judith’s hand.

“Come, sister,” she said. “Our powers are needed.”

“But the burning…” Judith looked bewildered.

“No burning, Judith,” the alderman said slyly. “You’re going to do some good.”

Judith’s face brightened.

“Really?” she whispered.

“Really,” Alice replied.

They were going to teach these men a lesson, then be gone before the kindling came out. What more good could a woman possibly do?

With the mob flanking them like an honour guard, Alice and Judith headed across the nondescript fields towards town.

***

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***

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.

Winston Churchill or Lord Bath? The Power and Problems of Historical Analogy

“Trump is like the Nazis.”

“Johnson is like Charles I.”

“Corbyn is Stalin all over again.”

“Nice parliament you’ve got there. Would be a shame if someone was to shut it down…”

Every time political news breaks, it’s accompanied by a raft of historical analogies. Whether it’s comparing immigrant internment camps with those used against the Boers and Jews or comparing the British Prime Minister’s policies with those that triggered the Civil War, these are powerful images.

I’m always pleased to see people learning from history, and perhaps becoming better informed through these comparisons. But I’m also very wary of these analogies. They’re powerful, in both good and bad ways.

How Analogies Help the Individual

Historical analogies can be really useful to us as citizens.

Firstly, they help us understand what’s happening. Familiar stories and recurring patterns give us a way to wrap our brains around events. Past examples create expectations for the future, reducing uncertainty.

Man carrying heavy crate
An analogy would be so much lighter.

Then there’s the emotional weight they carry. Not just the alleviation of uncertainty, but the summoning of other feelings. Analogies give us an instinctive feel for whether an event is good or bad. They tap into existing feelings, and so do the emotional heavy lifting for us.

Together, these factors mobilise us to action. That might be protest, it might be voting, it might be sitting back in pleased acceptance. Whatever the outcome, the analogy helps get you there.

How Analogies Help the Politician

Analogies are also incredibly useful for politicians.

Because they’re heavy in information, they can convey a complex message in a simple way. That’s an important tool when trying to either persuade or inform citizens.

For politicians relying on shaky logic, analogies can be particularly useful. Once people accept that situation A is like situation B in one way, they are more likely to assume that it’s similar in other ways. That saves the politician from explaining how A will actually reach a particular outcome – it will get there because B did. This smooths over contradictions and logic gaps.

This is a great way to justify policies. “You know what happened last time we ignored a country backing religious extremists…” is a great excuse for kicking off on Iran. But it ignores the differences between Iran and “the last time”, as well as the religious extremists we’ve left alone.

The Weakness in Historical Analogies

This leads into the bigger issues with historical analogies.

“What the hell? No-one ever cites me in blog posts! Couldn’t you find a picture of Churchill?”

Firstly there’s the pretense of objectivity that historical comparisons bring. Which analogy you choose is subjective and based on what point you want to make. Whether you compare Boris Johnson to Charles I, Julius Ceasar, or Lord Bath is a matter of political choice. Johnson’s attempts to make us think of Churchill have been almost comedically blatant.

It’s possible to choose from many different good analogies to any situation, which can teach valuable yet contradictory lessons. It’s also possible to pick bad analogies and have people accept them.

Analogies are dangerous because of the simplifications they bring. The analogy itself usually ignores nuance and difference. The vision of the past period it summons is usually a simplified, stripped-down one, ignoring debates, uncertainties, and complications about what happened. By extension, it makes the current situation seem simpler than it is.

Any analogy comes with assumptions about cause and effect, based on common historical understanding. “X was followed by Y, so if Z is like X than Y will happen again.” But what if X didn’t cause Y? Or what if, as is usually the case, it was caused by multiple complex factors? In that case, Z could have very different results.

Every situation is different from every one that came before, if only because we know about the previous ones.

Should We Ignore Historical Analogies?

So should we ignore historical analogies?

Of course not. And I don’t just say that because I write about history for money.

Historical analogies are very useful. They can provide perspective and understanding. They can motivate us to action, if only to ensure that the outcome is different this time, that the analogy breaks down and we free ourselves from history’s heavy hand.

But we should be very careful with analogies. We should be aware of their limits. And we should watch out for when they’re used to manipulate us, by our political allies as much as our opponents. Because the insidious analogies aren’t the ones we laugh at or decry. They’re the ones we unquestioningly accept because they feel right.

Last Night Under Moonlight – a flash steampunk story

Tasta practically spun the screwdriver as she rushed to unfasten the hatch. Within moments, it fell with a clang onto the gantry, revealing the mechanisms within.

This was one of the last of the great springs still moving. The rest had wound down, their mechanisms too clogged with dirt and old oil to keep going without constant maintenance, the city’s inhabitants too taken with other cares to keep their home alive. They had socialised and celebrated, chased money or art or fame, while their world fell into neglect. Even now, on what the experts had calculated to be Wonburg’s final night, most of them were holding a party in the upper tiers.

Those who hadn’t fled already, terrified at what the city would be like when its mechanism fell still. There would be no transport, no heating, no cold storage, no factories to make clothes or boots, no hospital machines. Wonburg was dying and Tasta’s peers were drinking their cares away.

But she wouldn’t give in. She climbed through the hatch, pulled a cloth from her tool belt and wiped dirt from the spring, dirt that should never have been allowed to accrue. Then she took a crank handle, slid it into a slot in the wall, and started to turn it.

“Tasta?” Fnell’s voice came softly through the open hatch. “Are you in there?”

“Someone has to be,” Tasta snapped.

Fnell stepped through the hatch, wearing an evening gown of blue silk and her finest gold jewellery, the pieces Tasta had given her on their wedding day. She smiled sadly as she looked at Tasta.

“Won’t you come out and join us?” Fnell asked. “It’s a lovely night.”

“It’s the only night left, and I can’t waste it.”

The crank wasn’t working. The gears hadn’t been properly maintained and now they clicked across each other instead of meshing and turning. There was no time for finesse, so Tasta pulled out a crowbar and started prying open the wall.

“It’s too late for this,” Fnell said, laying a hand on Tasta’s shoulder. “It was too late before we were even born.”

“We can’t be sure. A city has never unwound before.”

“And with luck it never will again. We’ll take to the carts and find others, to warn them about what happened here. But first, let’s celebrate what we had.”

Tasta flung the crowbar down, then the chunk of panel she had ripped free. The gears lay exposed.

“How can you celebrate a disaster?” she asked, leaning in close to see the gears. “How can you dance and drink now?”

“We’re not celebrating a disaster.” Fnell wrapped her arms around herself. “We’re celebrating the life we had, the life we’re losing.”

Tasta sighed. The gears were too far gone. She would need to find replacements, but where from?

“I have to go find parts,” she said, pulling out one of the worn gears. “It’s our only hope.”

As she slid past Fnell, her wife grabbed her by the arm.

“Please, Tasta, let this go. Come and make a memory with me. Don’t let this be how Wonburg ends for us.”

“I can’t.” Tasta refused to meet her gaze. “I have to keep trying, don’t you understand?”

She squirmed free and out the hatch, but a sob caught her in her tracks.

“Don’t you understand?” Fnell asked, tears running down her cheeks. “You can’t save the city, but there’s something here you can still save.”

Tasta looked down at the gear in her hand. It had been worn away by the centuries, like so many others she’d seen. Perhaps there had been spare parts to replace it once, but not anymore.

It was over.

She dropped the gear. Tears ran from her own eyes as she turned to hug Fnell.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I just…”

“I understand.”

They clung to each other for a long time, while the spring wound down behind them, its curved steel unfolding into entropy. Then Fnell took Tasta’s hand and led her up to the roof of the city.

A band was playing melancholy songs in the moonlight. The city’s remaining inhabitants waltzed or drank champaign or just sat and talked in hushed tones. There was sadness, even tears, but not despair, not that dark pit Tasta had feared she might fall into if she ever stopped.

Fnell led Tasta onto the dance floor. Everybody else was in evening dress, but they didn’t seem to mind her overalls. Friends and neighbours smiled, happy to see her sharing the end with them.

Tasta could barely feel the trembling of the city’s mechanisms through her feet. Once as constant as her own heartbeat, it was faltering, almost gone.

But the city wasn’t a body, was it? It was a thing once made, so long ago that no-one remembered how. Could they make it again? Could they build something new from whatever remained? She imagined gears repositioned, walls rearranged, springs set aside in place of some new motive source. Perhaps, just perhaps…

“What if we don’t go with the carts?” she asked, looking up into Fnell’s beautiful blue eyes. “What if we stay and try to start over again?”

“In a dead city?”

“We’ll be alive. Isn’t that what counts?”

The moonlight shone gently down on Fnell’s smile.

“Yes,” she whispered.

They kissed, and for one last night the band played on.

***

A story about finding hope in a world falling apart? Can’t think why I’d write that right now.

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 Bear’s Claws – Writing a Different War

The Bear’s Claws is an unusual book for me. I guess it’s an unusual book full stop, a story of a war that never happened, concerned as much with the politics and traumas of that war as with its action. It’s picking up the “what if World War Three comes?” genre that was popular during the Cold War and running with it, even though we know that war never came.

So where did this book come from? And what did we do to make it stand out as something different?

The Origins of the Story

This story starts out in the real world, with my friendship with co-author Russell Phillips. Russell and I have known each other for over twenty years now, ever since they came to Durham to visit their partner, who was part of the same live roleplay club as me. We got to know each other through games and student socialising, then went off our separate way, as often happens.

Years later we reconnected over writing and became accountability partners, meeting online once a month to check in on progress, celebrate our achievements, and push each other to write more. Russell has done a lot to keep me motivated over recent years, and I like to think that I’ve done the same for them.

Russell and I write in very different genres. While I’m away in my imagination creating worlds of fantasy, steampunk, or science fiction, they’re grounded in reality, writing non-fiction about military history and technology. But we were keen to collaborate on a book and so Russell came up with an idea.

We would write a story set during the Cold War, using the technology and tactics he was familiar with, but altering history, creating something that headed away from reality. We’d both enjoyed Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, the best-known story about a Cold War turned hot, and it was the sort of story we were both interested to tell. Between Russell’s technical knowledge and my creative writing, we felt we could create something cool.

The seeds of the story came from Russell. While there’s a whole sub-genre of books telling Cold War turned hot stories, they wanted to do something different from the rest. They wanted to tell the story from the Soviet point of view instead of the Western one. It would give us a different angle and a unique hook with which to entice our target audience.

And so a story was born.

Writing Differently About War

Both Russell and I have an unusual perspective for people writing war stories. We’re lefty, liberal, pacifistic types who would rather everybody just stopped shooting each other, but we were also raised on war stories and feel the thrill of those tales. Personally, I’ve never been near war but I know plenty of people who’ve served in the military, and respecting their perspective and experiences is important to me.

This creates a difficult balancing act. Writing a war story that will show the skill and courage of individual combatants while trying not to glorify the war itself, trying to get away from narratives of good guys versus bad guys, is difficult, especially in a conflict as ideologically charged as this one.

To that end, The Bear’s Claws tries to show different sides of its characters’ experiences. There are moments of skill and daring, but there are also more troubling ones. There’s sudden and arbitrary death, soldiers struggling with the trauma of war, problems of discipline and corruption. Most of all, there’s the experience of war as an ideological challenge.

As Vladislav Rakovich and his men head west, they find that neither the world nor the war they’re fighting in is as they were promised. While the outcome of the war is a central question of the book, so is the outcome for Rakovich. Can he hold true to his beliefs as his world is shaken? Should he?

The Other Side of the War

When Russell sent me their first draft for the start of The Bear’s Claws, I found something surprising – a scene away from the war. Following Rakovich’s sister Anna, this showed reactions to the war back home in Leningrad.

When I started expanding out a plot from those starting scenes, the strand around Anna grew. She provided an interesting contrast with her brother, as well as a different perspective on the war. After all, wars transform nations, even away from the fighting front. Politics, industry, culture, it’s all affected. The history of a war isn’t just military history.

Anna’s strand is about rebellion and resistance. Looking back, we know that the Soviet system was on its last legs in the 1980s, but at the time that wasn’t clear. Speaking out against the government was dangerous, and that’s the risk that Anna eventually takes.

Writing this section let me get into one of the great issues about how societies respond to war. There are many examples that show nations pulling together, with an external threat used to distract people from internal dissent. But other examples also exist, most notably in the latter half of the First World War, when the strains of war encouraged revolution. So do wars inherently pull people together, with only defeat undermining this effect, or can they go the other way? Can war become an opportunity for dissent?

We decided to go with the path of revolt. This was partly a storytelling choice, to create drama in the home front chapters. But it’s also a reasonable speculation based on the state of the Soviet Union in 1982. The strains of a broken system were starting to show. It’s not impossible that people would have taken a great disruption as an opportunity to push for change.

A Different Take on World War Three

The Bear’s Claws is an unusual war story in a lot of ways. It’s co-authored. It’s about a war that never happened. It walks a delicate line in its treatment of war. It’s a war story that’s also about the civilian side.

It’s not a book that’s going to be for everyone, but if any of this has intrigued you then you can find it as an e-book in all the usual stores or as a print book from Amazon.

No More Milk – a flash science fiction story

After the funeral, we went next door to the pizza place fuelled by the crematorium fires, in accordance with Uncle Frank’s will.

“If anybody’s getting their dinner cooked by my burning body, I want it to be you,” the will had said. That was Frank – at sea in a world he didn’t recognise, clinging to some scrap of control as if it could keep him afloat. The cancer had won in the end, but he sent us to claim a final victory over his broken body.

We snacked on fried crickets and chatted idly while we waited for our meals. When the food arrived we toasted Frank and joked about him joining us for one last supper. But once the waiters had moved on, there was no avoiding the real conversation anymore.

“One of you should take over the farm,” Mum said. “It’s what Frank would have wanted.”

Kath and I looked at each other. We’d both known this day was coming since we were kids and Frank had taught us to set up milking equipment. He and Mum had persisted through our teenage rebellions and the decline in dairy sales, keeping the herd alongside oat fields and a silo converted for breeding edible beetles. When Kath came home from agricultural college, the only courses they asked about were animal husbandry. When I insisted on studying tourism instead they almost screamed the place down.

“We’ve talked about this,” Kath said and I saw Mum tense. “We’re both willing to take over, but we’d be running things our way.”

A slice of pizza trembled in Mum’s hand. I wondered if she’d noticed that this place didn’t use real cheese anymore. I couldn’t tell the difference, and I figured she would have complained if she’d known. But then, Mum was good at ignoring what she didn’t like.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“If I take over, I’m going to run down the herd,” Kath said. “There’s no market for dairy anymore, not with cheaper alternatives that don’t cost the planet. And we’ve not sold a beef cow in a decade.”

“Those ridiculous cloners,” Mum said. “It’s nothing like the real thing, but who can compete with their prices?”

I kept my mouth shut about how those prices happened, and about the likely origin of the ham on her pizza.

“I’d concentrate on the beetles instead,” Kath pressed on. “Lower costs, lower emissions, and there’s a huge market for them these days.”

“No.” Mum shook her head. “You’re not turning the whole place over to those ghastly, rattling silos. Frank would turn in his grave.”

“Frank just cooked our dinner,” I snapped.

“Simon!”

“Sorry, sorry, that was completely out of line.”

“It’s good that someone here can admit when they’re wrong.” She shot Kath a sharp glare, then looked back at me. “How would you keep the place going?”

“Petting zoo,” I said. “We’d keep a few of the cows for that, and bring in some more exciting animals. Sheep, llamas, maybe some of those prehistoric sloths they’ve started cloning. Those things are adorably fluffy and they can’t run away from over-affectionate toddlers.”

“And the milk?”

“No more milk. It’s just not worth it.”

Now she was glaring at me too.

“If neither of you will keep up with tradition then we may as well sell the place.”

She sat back, arms folded, and waited for us to respond. By the smug look on her face, she thought she’d played a trump card.

I took a bite of pizza, forcing myself to pause and think my words through. Her tone had made me tense up, but I couldn’t let her get to me. I had to deal with this calmly or we’d end up not speaking for six months again.

“That’s fine,” I said at last. “People will always pay good money for land. Without the farm, Kath can take up that research post she wanted and I can move to-”

“How can you say that? How can you let go of the farm? And with Frank only just gone, as well.”

“Don’t start on the emotional blackmail. The world has changed. Diets have changed. The farm has to change.”

“And abandon everything Frank held dear?”

“I’m warning you, Mum, pull that card one more time and I’m leaving.”

I pushed my plate away. I’d had enough. Enough of the pizza, enough of the conversation, enough of the damn family farm.

Kath took Mum’s hand. An untapped well of tears threatened to burst from all of us, a pool of emotion built up through decades of struggling for change and fighting to resist it. The unspoken assumptions, abandoned dreams, and bittersweet memories.

“This is how we preserve Frank’s legacy,” Kath said. “By making it fit for the modern world. We’re on your side, but we have to do this our way.”

Mum sniffed and rubbed at her eyes.

“Can we keep the old milking shed?” she asked quietly. “It’s such a lovely building.”

“Of course. It’ll make a great farm shop and cafe.”

A slightly nervous waiter came over, holding out a set of dessert menus.

“Can I get you anything else?” he asked.

“Why not.” Mum blinked back her tears and managed a smile. “I keep hearing about your rice milk desserts. It’s time I tried one of them.”

***

There’s a lot to be explored about the future of food. What we eat is going to have to change to look after the planet, but that change is painful. It goes against our habits, our expectations, and many people’s livelihoods. I wanted to explore that a little. I daresay I’ll be back to it again later.

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.

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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.