Guilty Pleasures

The very ideas of guilty pleasures is a weird one. I mean, pleasure is subjective. Different people like different things. In the modern world, shouldn’t we be OK with people just saying “I like this”, as long as no-one else gets hurt?

Yet there are pleasures I feel I have to justify. Listening to Taylor Swift. Watching The Ranch. Roleplaying. Things that don’t do any harm but have a particular image around their cultural value.

The very use of the phrase “guilty pleasure” stigmatises these harmless choices. Yet if I don’t start explaining, I feel like I’m going to be judged.

I suppose the solution is to stop worrying about being judged for liking things. But that’s a hard habit to break.

In the meantime, I’m off to watch Ashton Kutcher be a rancher. I know it sounds bad, but the cast are excellent, the show’s got these lovely moments, and – No! No explaining! I love it. Outside of a critical discussion, isn’t that enough?

Songs of a New World – a science fiction flash story

Photo by Dejan Hudoletnjak via Flickr Creative Commons
Photo by Dejan Hudoletnjak via Flickr Creative Commons

There was a lonely beauty to working with chorister birds. The first to land on the terraformed planet, Simon stepped out into woodlands unseen by any other human and released his birds to fly free among the trees. Nature surrounded him, its beauty the inspiration for the song which would spread with his birds, comforting and encouraging settlers as they landed far from home. Other choristers might be out there in the woods, but by the time he met them the settlements would be rising, humanity claiming the land it had made inhabitable. The beauty would start to fade.

Following the birds with the strongest voices, he headed along a ridge line scattered with pale, jagged rocks and young pines. Hearing the birds respond to their surroundings, he whistled a new refrain, building up the harmony of their intertwining chorus. It became more soothing, in tune with the woods.

As the wind carried away his birds’ voices, he heard those of another chorister ringing across the valley, reaching him from the distant hills.

Captivated, Simon climbed a rock to hear more. It was the most dazzling chorister song he had ever heard. As the wind died down and the voices of his birds reached him again, he was stunned by how much cruder his own work was. He had thought himself sophisticated, but his music was nothing compared with this.

Around him, the focus of the music became lost as his birds explored the new world, picking out local inspirations and broken fragments of the song from across the valley. But he could not remember where he had meant to take the composition, how he wanted the birds to sing.

All he could think about was the other song.

He had to know who had created it.

Hefting his pack of supplies, Simon trudged down the valley and toward the far side. It was a gruelling trek, the ground uneven, the fresh foliage thick and tangled. He was soon exhausted, but he kept whistling as he went, trying to keep his birds with him, striving to weave their song around this new world.

Sweat-soaked and aching, he started up hill. The other song came clearer to him here. His early musical training had been in jazz and blues, and he followed that improvisational discipline, playing around with the tune he heard, trying to whistle a fitting response. Something that would fuse their songs, and those of the two flights of chorister birds. Something that would bring a higher harmony to the planet.

Everything he tried sounded wild and clumsy, not even close to the beauty the other chorister was crafting. He wanted to cry at the wonder of that tune, and at his inability to match it.

Reaching the top of the far ridge, he sank broken to the ground. His body ached, his throat was raw, around him was a chaos of disconnected notes. Worst of all, there was no-one in sight.

Head in hands, he struggled to find even the simplest tune.

Then a whistling emerged from the woods behind him. Picking up the notes he had left discarded in his wake, it threaded them together, connecting them into the already amazing song.

Suddenly Simon heard how it could work. He smiled and leapt to his feet, whistling as he did. The tunes melted together. The valley cam alive.

Someone walked out of the trees. She smiled at Simon, and he smiled back.

“I’m Bernie.” She held out her hand. “Your song was amazing. So many ideas. I wanted to…”

She shrugged bashfully.

“My song?” Simon shook her hand. When he was done, neither of them let go. “Yours was, was…”

“Nowhere near what we’ve made together?” She tilted her head, and Simon listened with her.

Around them, a new world resounded to the beauty of their music.

* * *


This week, I received a mystery parcel in the mail. It turned out to be a buddy box from Blurt, an organisation dedicated to supporting people with depression. It had been arranged by Simon Prebble, a friend of mine. We’ve known each other for years but aren’t particularly close, and it took me completely by surprise, in a good way.

Depression is really hard to deal with, and having people reach out with random acts of kindness, not trying to fix you but letting you know that they care, is a wonderful thing. That box of treats moved me so much I cried a little, and it’s helped me through an increasingly tough week.

So this story is dedicated to Simon and his wife Bernie, as a small way of saying thank you.

I haven’t found out much about Blurt yet, but they look like a good source of support for people with depression. If you want to find out more, then you can follow this link.

Lets Change This Up! Thoughts On a Playful Culture

What do toy soldiers, Bruce Springsteen and a computer generated city have in common? On one level, not much. But on another, they draw attention to an increasingly important tension in our culture, around the modification and reinvention of all forms of art.

Gaming Miniatures and Remaking Your Toys

Fear my poorly painted warlord!
Fear my poorly painted warlord!

I started pondering this after reading Patrick Stuart’s excellent articles on HiLoBrow about wargaming miniatures. Despite the hours of pleasure I’ve taken in painting and remodelling my own figures, I’d never thought about their nature. That’s what happens when you pick up a hobby at the age of eleven – from then on out, it’s a journey through familiarity to disdain and finally nostalgia.

As Stuart points out, wargames miniatures, apart from being an incredibly detailed form of pop sculpture, are designed to be reinvented through painting and unique conversions:

It’s assumed that the user will and should want to alter the product. Means are designed specifically for the end user to do that. Is there any other form of art in which it is assumed that the consumer is also a minor creator?

I say, barkeep, that's an unusual light fitting you have there.
I say, barkeep, that’s an unusual light fitting you have there.

At first glance I accepted this defence of why something I love is extraordinary. But it didn’t take long for doubts to set in. I agree with all the reasons Stuart gives for miniatures being a fantastic form of art, but without even stretching I could think of another hobby where the consumer is a creator – Lego. From following the instructions on the box, through to throwing all your pieces together and building the best damn castle the living room has ever seen, Lego makes everyone an architect.

If art that makes the consumer a creator isn’t unique – and yes, I do consider Lego design art, just look at the joyful intricacy of the things that company creates – then how widespread is this sort of thing?

Singing Songs and Modding Games

An obvious comparison is song writing. Anyone who comes up with a song hopes that others will enjoy it, and knows that part of the enjoyment comes in singing the song. If you’re really lucky maybe you’ll get cover versions. If you’re in folk, you’ll get endless variations. And each time the song is replayed, the consumer, the person who heard and enjoyed it, is being a creator, making their own version of that song. It might be a near-identical performance, it might change genre like Postmodern Jukebox, it might be a full-on spoof. Regardless, it’s a new act of creation.

Then there’s the much more modern phenomenon of modding – the creation of adaptations and additions for existing computer games. Voo’s Reviews brought this to the forefront of my mind with a discussion of current modding debates, but it’s been around for almost as long as the games have. The gaming industry, being modern and forward looking, is even seeking ways to make modding part of their mainstream, monetised model. Sure, those attempts have included clumsy failure, but modding is still widely accepted and celebrated.

Given the popularity of musical covers and modding, are we actually very comfortable with art as something we recreate?

The Inevitable Push Back

Of course not. We’re human beings, and our behaviour is never that simple.

I could write a dozen blog posts on the current state of intellectual property law and how that limits this culture of re-invention. If you’re not already familiar with these issues, then the Crash Course Intellectual Property YouTube series is a great place to start. Debates around this are focused on power and business interests, but while those discussions are important, I want to consider a more subtle and insidious sort of reaction – the one that comes from within our subconscious.

A few examples I’ve experienced will show the breadth of this. In the comments on a video of Mumford and Sons covering Springsteen’s Atlantic City, someone protested that the singer’s status didn’t give them the right to change the song’s words. China Miéville’s excellent talk on the future of the novel was immediately followed by comments from audience members outraged at the idea of people changing the literary classics. When I recently made a Lego mad scientist layer, I sat it on a shelf for a month afterwards, unwilling to have my toy changed.

When we find or create something we love we want to protect it, and we try to do that by fixing it as it is. That’s only natural, but it’s not necessarily helpful. Different lyrics for Atlantic City don’t stop the original being out there. A chopped and changed War and Peace will still leave the original available. If I take apart my Lego town, I’ll still have the memory of enjoying the old build, not to mention the photos I took. And when our defensiveness extends to stopping others adapting things, that becomes problematic. We aren’t just looking after our own happiness, we’re limiting that of others.

Dealing with this isn’t easy. Not all forms of art are designed to be reinvented, but they’re all designed to spur further creativity. If that involves reinventing the old version, creating refinements and variations, doesn’t that just add to the pleasures out there?

Sure, we shouldn’t treat a Rodin sculpture like a Perry Brothers one – the Rodin is unique, and you can buy 40 Perry miniatures for £20. But in these days of mass consumption and easily accessible copies of songs, books and other products, maybe we need to let go and reinvent some more. Clinging defensively to what we have is exhausting. Inventing something new is reinvigorating.

I disassembled the mad scientist layer in the end. I don’t know what I’ll make next with those bricks, but in the end the creativity is more important than the creation.

A Hard and Hollow Sound – a steampunk flash story

2617377522_0061b469b8_zPart of Dirk had always longed to be musical. There was something magical about music, something transporting. But he had no instinct for it, and life made so many other demands that he’d never found the time to learn. So he made do with listening.

The music drew him to the heart of the funfair, just as it had so many others. Peering over heads and around top hats, he saw an extraordinary machine. Steam and sound rose together from a cluster of church organ pipes, to which other instruments were connected by fanbelts, cogs and pistons. There were fiddles and banjos, washboards and drums, even an accordion with its low, distinctive drone. Most amazingly, the instruments were playing without any sign of human intervention, apart from the grinning and soot-stained woman shovelling coal into the back of the machine.

It wasn’t just a mass of noisy instruments playing at random. The sound was beautiful to the point of hypnotic. The hard, hollow notes of the banjo transported Dirk back down the path of memory, to long nights out on the plains and journeys taken through the peaks of the Rockies. Without intending to, he found himself taking all the money from his pockets and pouring it into one of the buckets in front of the machine. All the other listeners were doing the same, and more were approaching, drawn by the music. Coins overflowed from the buckets, as seemed only right and proper.

A stubborn corner of Dirk’s mind screamed at him that they weren’t doing this of their own volition. He hadn’t chosen to put a week’s rent in the bucket. The machine was controlling his mind. He had to break free.

Yet the rest of him refused to care. His hand just flopped back down when he lifted it up. There was no need for action, just listening.

What was he worrying about anyway? Something about money and a bucket? Maybe he hadn’t brought any with him. That would make sense. Yes, that was it.

Once again he heard that hollow banjo sound. The funfair faded away, replaced by the plains and the horse drifting along beneath him.

Except that wasn’t how it had been. Those days had been hard work and hunger, not just sunsets and scenery. Like those banjo notes, it was a thing of melancholy, not comfort.

He clung to those notes, clung to the real world and its hard realities. The plains faded back into memory, and he was stood in front of that amazing musical machine, its operator rubbing her hands as she wandered in front of the empty-eyed audience, collecting up the buckets of money.

Dirk grabbed the bucket in front of him, heavy with nickels and dimes, and flung it with all his considerable strength. It hit the heart of the machine with a mighty clang. Coins flew and steam sprayed from buckled pipes. The music went from melodious to discordant. The operator stared around in alarm as the audience blinked their way back to reality.

A pipe hurtled into the air. People ran screaming as another one flew past, demolishing the bearded lady’s tent. Dirk ducked as the whole thing exploded, burst pipes and snapped strings flying every which way.

As the sound faded, a banjo fell with a clunk at Dirk’s feet. He picked it up and turned to walk away. This time he’d find the time to learn.

* * *

This story was inspired by listening to the awesome Yan Tan Tether singing at the Otley Folk Club on Wednesday. This song doesn’t feature any instruments, but will give you an idea of the enchanting and haunting tunes I enjoyed.

And if you’d like to read more of Dirk’s adventures, steampunk adventure story Guns and Guano is free on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords.


Photo by Jim, the Photographer via Flickr creative commons.


Two Very Different Game of Thrones Parodies

Some people – both fans and critics – still seem to want to stick fantasy in a special cultural corner. But lets face it, when one of the most popular works in the genre is getting regicide jokes onto Sesame Street, that genre isn’t the wimpy kid in the corner any more.

And as if to prove that Game of Thrones can be combined with just about anything, here are two very different parodies I stumbled across within minutes of each other. Enjoy!



Preparation and Improvisation – Writing Lessons From Kind of Blue

5771025070_bddb7e2ec6_zI’m a big planner where writing’s concerned – working out where I’m going helps the words to keep flowing. But it’s interesting to see how, even for artists who prefer to improvise, preparation can be key to success.

This short video on the BBC website features jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb talking about working with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue. It’s a record that, to my ears, is one of the most sublimely perfect pieces of music ever made, a fluid, graceful masterpiece. But even if you don’t like jazz, it’s interesting to hear how Davis worked – picking the people to work with and the themes to explore meant the music just flowed, and they seldom needed more than one take.

The new year’s a great time to think about how you prepare to write, or for your other creative activities, and to set things up for success. If you feel like sharing how you do that, then please leave a comment below – I’m always interested in other people’s creative processes, whether or not they’re legendary jazz musicians.


Picture by photosteve101 via Flickr Creative Commons

My cultural highlights of 2014

I’m really bad at keeping on top of modern culture. There’s just so much of it, and so much stuff around the corner behind us that I want to peak back at. That’s no bad thing, just a reflection of how much awesomeness there is out there. But it means that as I think back on what I’ve really enjoyed this year, not all of it’s actually from this year. Still, here are the new(ish) things that really rocked my brain in 2014:


I’ve done more reading recently, as my befuddled brain has emerged from the fog of the last few years. And from that enshrouding miasma appeared a thing of spell-binding beauty – Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic. I cannot recommend this pair of books enough – Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors are breathtaking in their majesty, their immediacy and their beauty. They’re big, slow, weighty reads, but well worth the heavy lifting. Many thanks to Glenatron and Everwalker for pointing me towards Kay, and to Sheila for the present.

This was the year Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie returned to their old stomping ground of pop culture as magic, launching The Wicked + The Divine. It’s a beautiful looking and cleverly written comic that explores what it is to be an artist, a fan and a believer. There are clever layouts, smart references, intriguing characters and a fascinating plot. The only thing currently matching it is Chew, with its crazy world building, madcap plotting and offbeat characters. These two together show that comics can be fun, wild, entertaining and carry a serious emotional message all at the same time. They also show that the medium doesn’t have to get all dark to get beyond superheroes.


Speaking of superheroes, did Marvel bring their A game this year or what? Agents of SHIELD turned from a limping pet only fanboys would love into a TV show that is dark, twisty and full of character. Tying its fate to Captain America: The Winter Soldier crippled it for most of its first season, but then created a moment of spectacular cross-platform awesomeness. The film and TV show spiralled around each other in ways that let them entertain as stand-alone viewing but break new ground as a cultural project. It helped that the Winter Soldier was a good film in its own right.

As if that weren’t enough, Marvel also brought out the biggest, funnest thing I watched in the cinema this year – Guardians of the Galaxy. A bunch of bickering misfits, forced to work together to save themselves and the universe? A talking raccoon and his walking tree buddy? A dance-off against a villain? Hell yes, I’m in for that. It wasn’t a smart film, or a ground-breaking one, but man was it ever entertaining.

But my favourite new film this year didn’t get a cinematic release, and that’s part of why I loved it. Joss Whedon, mastermind behind Marvel’s Avengers movies, took time out from his regularly scheduled blockbusters to help create In Your Eyes, a beautiful and unusual film about love and an inexplicable magical connection. It also took a bold approach to distribution that, for me, points towards the future I want to see. Just when we thought Whedon couldn’t get any more awesome, he upped his game again.

Aside from that, I’ve been making much more use of YouTube, and particularly recommend the PBS Idea Channel. Every week they come out with a slice of smart commentary, combing intellectual insight with popular culture. So cool.




Here’s where we leave science fiction and fantasy behind. I listen to some sf+f podcasts, and a bit of geeky music, but my favourites this year have been other things.

The Revolutions Podcast is an entertaining and extremely well presented show covering some of the most fascinating slices of history – political revolutions. So far it’s covered the English Civil War and the American War of Independence. Now it’s onto the French Revolution. Mike Duncan previously created the excellent History of Rome podcast, but this is even better. If you like history at all, check it out.

Musically, my favourite discoveries this year haven’t been new to this year, but they’ve been new to me. A friend pointed me toward the Wanton Bishops, a spectacular blues rock outfit from Lebanon. For pure grinding energy, they’re hard to beat.



Then there’s Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. I like to hear clever rapping and pop musicians getting away from tired themes of romance and and self-aggrandisement. Macklemore absolutely hits the spot, backed by Ryan Lewis’s catchy and diverse beats, from pro-equality anthem Same Love to the ridiculously exuberant Lets Dance to recycled shopping tribute Thrift Shop. Even when they’re crafting whole songs about Cadillacs, basketball or trainers, their sheer passion keeps me wanting more.



But my heart really lies with folk rock, and for that I recommend checking out The Patient Wild. Theirs are beautifully crafted storytelling songs, the sort of thing I can’t get enough of. And a member of the band reads this blog, so everybody wave to Glenatron – hi dude!


As Laura will testify, I’m pretty much obsessed with the card game Smash Up, in which you combine genre favourite factions to battle it out for domination. Whether I’m leading robot ninjas against time travelling pirates, or dipping into madness with the Cthulhu expansion, I would happily play this all day every day. It’s a lot of fun.

I also enjoyed the story/game combo of Device 6, which showed just what great things we can do with storytelling in the age of phone apps. Looking back, it feels like a test piece for greater things to come, but it’s a fascinating and atmospheric test piece.

And now I’m addicted to Minecraft. I’ll probably blog about this another day, but it’s kind of like having a giant Lego set on my Kindle, except a Lego set where zombies try to kill me. I don’t know why I didn’t play it years ago, but I’m glad I didn’t given how much time it’s sucking away.

Other stuff

Tiger stripe espresso beans. Manchester’s beautiful new central library. Costa Coffee’s caramel crunch cake. This year has been full of great stuff. Here’s hoping for more.

And so, in a variation on yesterday’s question, what have been your cultural highlights this year, big or small? Please share some recommendations in the comments, give me cool things to check out next year.

Magic and art

Magic and art are a natural match in our minds. Art taps into the parts of ourselves we understand least – our emotions, our instincts, our subconscious. And magic, from card tricks at a kids’ birthday party to vast elemental spells in an epic fantasy, is all about the unexplained.

Casting of magic in stories often involves some form of art. It can be singing and chanting to cast a spell, dancing around a campfire to communicate with the spirits, drawing symbols or stitching together creepy voodoo dolls – if there’s an artform out there then there’s a form of magic to go with it.


Joss Whedon created one of my favourite examples, the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode ‘Once More, With Feeling’. For a single episode song and dance are both enforced by and and unleashed by the power of magic, as the cast show off their variable music talents. It’s an in character excuse for an out of character novelty, turning a popular fantasy show into a musical for one episode, and it’s great fun.

Sailing to SarantiumGuy Gavriel Kay often explores art and power, and though magic often plays a low key part in his works, it still fuses with art in Sailing to Sarantium. Sculptures of birds are brought to life, art capturing the human spirit in a way that becomes unsettling as the truth behind it is revealed.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionCombining art and magic is something I’ve tried to do myself in some of the stories in By Sword, Stave or Stylus. The emotional core of ‘Live by the Sword’ is about how the gladiator characters use art as an escape from the terrible brutality of their lives, and about magic making this literal. ‘The Essence of a Man’ fuses oil painting with alchemy, combining two arts that created high excitement during the European Renaissance. ‘The Magpie Dance’ is about dance as magic, while ‘One Minute of Beauty’ is about a very conscious attempt to squeeze the art and magic from life, the artist in his and her modern form.

I love to see magic and art combined in stories, one becoming an outlet for the other. So what other great examples are there? What other books, shows or films have combined magic and art in interesting ways? What have I missed?

My favourite steampunk things

I’m about to launch my first e-books, a steampunk short called Mud and Brass and a collection of my previously published steampunk shorts titled Riding the Mainspring. Those of you on my book mailing list will receive a free copy of Mud and Brass on Monday, and anyone else who’s interested has until the end of the weekend to sign up and get the free story. I am very excited, and more than a little tense.

In the meantime, and to celebrate the occasion, here’s a list of some of my favourite steampunk things…

That really is quite a different engine
That really is quite a different engine

Favourite steampunk book

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling was the first steampunk book I ever heard of. I was fascinated by this transformation of Victorian history. From steam powered computers to aerodynamics inspired by dinosaurs to battles in the smog, this sold me on steampunk.

There's nothing gentle about that boat
There’s nothing gentle about that boat

Favourite steampunk comic

The second volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was still coming out when I first got into comics. While the first volume of League is great, this is the one that really excites me. Featuring icons from my childhood such as John Carter’s Mars, Rupert the Bear and H G Wells’s alien invaders, this is an incredibly vivid, incredibly exciting, and incredibly warped tale. The detail of O’Neill’s art is extraordinary, and this is some of Moore’s finest writing.


Favourite steampunk music

My friend Will is part of Pocketwatch, a great steampunk band. But before they were Pocketwatch they took part in The Clockwork Quartet. The Quartet‘s gig that I saw in London was fantastic. The whole room was decked out in steampunk style. Half the audience was in costume. The bar served espresso and absinthe. The show featured a sword fight, a dancing conductor and a virtual orchestra of performers, far more than the four of a traditional quartet. I love Pocketwatch, but that Clockwork Quartet performance is one of the best gigs I have ever been to, and I love my souvenir CD.

Oh the adventures we have seen, this hat and I
Oh the adventures we have seen, this hat and I

Favourite steampunk event and costume

I was privileged for a few years to be part of a small steampunk live roleplay group called The Company of Crimson, in which I played the valet Jackson. Thanks to a player’s family connection we once played an event at Skipton Castle in Yorkshire, during which we stormed the castle on Sunday morning, leading to a gunfight in the back garden. I roamed the grounds serving tea and bullets, while Rasputin and his evil minions leapt out at us from the undergrowth.

It was a fantastic experience, and my bowler hat, which saw occasional use by Jackson, remains one of my all time favourite pieces of costume.

What are your favourites?

Those of you who dabble in steampunk or alternate history, what are your favourite examples?

And remember, if you sign up for my mailing list by the end of the weekend you can get that free e-book on Monday.