Living on the Edge – Emily Nation by Alec McQuay

Cornwall might seem like an odd setting for a post-apocalyptic novel. But Emily Nation, Alec McQuay’s dark story of family and adventure, shows what a perfect place it is to show characters living on the edge.

The Edge of History

By their nature, post-apocalyptic novels are about living on the edge. The characters struggle to survive in broken cities and barren wastelands. Their societies reflect the jagged outer edge of history, a moment in which civilisation has collapsed, leaving us wondering if it can ever be rebuilt.

That rebuilding is central to Emily Nation. Generations on from a destructive war, the assassin Emily Nation is living in Camborne, a town rebuilt from the ruins. Here, families live lives of relative peace, supported and protected by the likes of Emily. Life hangs by a tenuous thread, and the swiftness with which Emily wipes out her targets is a reminder of how quickly anyone could be snuffed out. But at least the citizens of Camborne are rebuilding with good intent.

Down the road, life in Penzance is very different. Crime lords are rebuilding an economy based on brutality, prostitution, and forced labour. When Emily falls foul of one of these crime bosses, her friends and family suffer the consequences. The peace of Camborne is violated by outsiders, just as a reader’s sense of peace and security is violated by the post-apocalyptic ruins.

Our future balances on a knife edge between prosperity and collapse into McQuay’s speculative ruins. And as the story unfolds, the future Camborne joins us there.

The Edge of Britain

Cornwall is a perfect setting for such a story because it is already a land on the edge. Laying at the south-western extremity of Britain, it is geographically isolated. Even once you get to Cornwall, it can easily take two hours to reach Penzance. Most of the county lies within easy travel of the coast, where rugged cliffs mark the edge of land and sea.

Throughout its history, the people of Cornwall have found themselves living on the economic edge. The food and money provided by fishing are vulnerable to weather and the shifting shoals, fishermen vulnerable to storms. In the tin mines, men literally scraped a living from the dirt, again risking their lives for jobs that could vanish when a seam ran out, and that disappeared forever in the 1980s. The modern economy, dominated by tourism, offers the uncertainties of seasonal work.

This creates a background note of anxiety that matches the breath-taking bleakness of the coastline and its abandoned mines. That anxiety fosters a conservatism that led many in Cornwall to vote to leave the European Union, despite the benefits it brought the county. Living on the edge means living in uncertainty, and that pushes people towards the comfort of a conservative outlook.

The Forward Edge of Progress

This is where Emily Nation takes a different path from its setting.

The book embraces sexual diversity, starting with the protagonist’s marriage to another woman. It holds up alternative family units as just as valid as the traditionally mum, dad, and their own kids. It shows the systemic oppression that comes when desperate people accept desperate jobs, giving cruel economic masters power over them. Racism is exposed in all its hypocrisy through the struggles of mutant miners. The biggest driver for destruction is effectively the arms trade.

The values of the book lie left of centre, at least in a British context. Having a gay female protagonist shouldn’t be unusual, yet is still a radical act, pushing genre fiction towards greater representation. The women in the book are just as capable as the men in exactly the same fields, and it’s not an issue. This is a progressive book that lives on the edge in a positive sense, at the forward edge of current reforms in society and representation.

The Two Edges

Like the blade that features prominently in its final act, Emily Nationhas two edges. One is a dark edge, exposing the insecurities that come not only in a post-apocalyptic future but in any part of the world where life and livelihoods are uncertain. The other edge shines brightly, slicing through traditional expectations, joining with other great speculative fiction in trying to set people free.

Sure, this is an action story, one dominated by fights, chases, and explosions. But it’s an action story with a thematic richness, made all the more satisfying by its distinct and evocative setting.

Angel of the Poison Plains – a flash fantasy story

Picture by khym54 via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by khym54 via Flickr Creative Commons

Kuliraga knelt before the short pillar in the village square and offered up her prayer.

“Please God,” she said. “Sickness has come again. Many are ill. Funsani and Mesi have both died. Please send your angel to heal us.”

She pressed her thumb against the eye, that single dot atop the gleaming black pillar. In response, she heard the soft click that told her god had been listening.

True to His word, an hour later the angel arrived, soaring above the poisoned plains to the north. She did not know if it was the same angel that had come when fever struck the year before, or in the plague of her younger years. It had the same square white body a foot across with an eye blinking red on each side, the same four limbs protruding from the corners of the body, and the same wings on the ends of those limbs, each one fluttering so fast it became a blur.

The angel landed on top of the pillar. Its wings fell still, revealing themselves as thin black strips unlike the wings of any bird. A needle-like tooth emerged from beneath each of its eyes.

One by one the sick villagers were brought forward and allowed the angel to taste their blood using its sharp teeth. Sated from the sacrifice, it stirred its wings and rose into the air, heading back toward the distant hills. Kuliraga smiled, knowing that it would soon return with the medicine they needed.

An eagle hurtled from the sky above. As Kuliraga watched in horror, it struck the angel and the two tumbled to the ground. There were gasps and wails from the watching villagers.

“Doom,” someone cried out. “The devil strikes down the angel!”

“No,” Kuliraga said. “I do not accept this.”

Everybody knew that the plains to the north were poisonous, that those travelling there fell terribly ill. When winds blew off those plains, all the villagers hid indoors. But without their angel, all the villagers might succumb to sickness.

Forcing herself to ignore her fears, Kuliraga picked up her walking stick and set out north.

It was over an hour before she reached the angel, and she feared by then that she might have gone the wrong way. Already the poisoned plain was making her head spin and bile rise in her throat, and it was hard to keep a straight path.

Then she heard the cries of the injured eagle, and followed them over a rise. The fight between the bird and the angel had clearly been fearsome. The eagle lay in a trail of blood and feathers, one wing torn and both legs broken. A hundred yards away, the angel lay unmoving in a patch of dirt, one limb twisted beneath it.

Kuliraga rushed over and knelt beside the angel. One of its eyes had gone a dead black, while the light in the others flickered intermittently. Its wings were twisted, and part of its white shell hung loose, exposing its innards.

Dread filled her. Such a wound, one exposing vital organs, would surely have killed a human. Could the angel survive?

She looked at the wound. There was no blood. The angel’s guts were like nothing she had ever seen. The seemed to be made of strange square stones, coloured string and lines of silver. She could not even being to understand them, never mind heal them. Her heart broke at the loss.

Wanting to provide the dying angel with comfort, she reached out and touched its side. One of the eyes flashed from red to green, and then a miracle happened.

A picture of the angel appeared in the dirt, and a pair of hands above it. They moved, showing the broken shell being pushed back into place, the twisted limb adjusted, broken wings bent to their right angle.

“You want me to do this?” Kuliraga said, fighting down nausea that came not just from the poisoned land but from dread at such a terrible responsibility.

All three eyes flashed green.

Taking a deep breath, Kuliraga forced herself to do as the angel asked. Step by step she did her best to heal it, despite the spinning of her head and the fear of hurting the angel more.

At last the picture faded and the angel lay in the dirt, its wings making slow, experimental turns. Kuliraga slumped beside it, all her energy spent. She could feel the poison eating away at her.

The angel reached out with one of its teeth and bit the back of her hand. There was a pause and then it bit her again. Moments later, she felt her strength begin to return.

“I…” She turned to the angel in wonder. “You can heal the poison?”

The angel’s wings became a blur and it rose, wobbling, into the air. Slower than usual, but still a miracle to behold, it flew north.
Kuliraga stood and turned to walk home. The eagle, still lying in the dirt, feebly raised it head to watch her.

Careful not to let it bite, Kuliraga picked up the injured bird.

“Come,” she said. “I think you have learnt your lesson. If I can heal an angel, and it can heal the poison of the plains, then maybe I can heal you too.”

* * *


This story is a return to the world of ‘Pale Wings‘, my setting in which half-forgotten technology takes the place of magic. If you enjoyed this then  ‘Shades of Loss‘ uses the same setting, and if you enjoy any of these stories then please share them with your friends.

This particular story was inspired by a news article about the use of drones to provide medical services in Malawi, which is awesome. It was brought to my attention by Dr Nick, who among other things hosts the Learning Cliff podcast. If you’ve ever been curious about the massive online sci-fi world that is Eve then check it out.

And lastly, if you’d like to receive more stories like this direct to your inbox every Friday, along with a free copy of one of my books, then please sign up for my mailing list – it’s like an all you can eat fiction buffet, full of delightful sci-fi and fantasy treats.

Can Character Motives Be Too Strong?

I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout 4 recently, and I’m starting to hate the protagonist’s motivation.

Just me and my dog, playing catch at the end of the world.
Just me and my dog, playing catch at the end of the world.

In case you aren’t familiar with it, Fallout 4 is set in a post-apocalyptic America with a 1950s vibe. It’s an amazing looking game that lets you interact with a fascinating world, just roaming around, exploring, talking with the people who inhabit it.

That’s where the problem with the motive comes in. As the protagonist, you’re meant to be rescuing your son who has been kidnapped. That’s powerful stuff. It makes sense that, as a parent, you’d be completely focused on that task, to the exclusion of all else. It provides the core for a tense, compelling narrative.

But this is a big sandbox game. I want to wander around, get into conversations and side-quests, rebuild settlements, flirt with the scrappy journalist, upgrade my guns, maybe cook some radstag stew. I’m avoiding the quest for my son because I know that, if I follow it, that will drag me at speed towards the end of the game. I don’t want that end. I want to take my pet dog out hunting molerats.

The result is that, if I step back and think about my character, I realise he’s a terrible person. His wife has just been killed.* His son has been carried off by terrible people. And his response is to wander around, eyeing up the scenery, collecting random junk and chatting with strangers. He should be putting all his energy into saving his family, and most of the time he doesn’t even think about them. I’m trying to play as a good guy, a character rebuilding civilisation, but in the context of the plot my priorities are monstrous.

It’s like those moments in films where the lead characters stop to kiss at the height of the action, and you’re sat there thinking “stop wasting vital seconds – there are lives at stake!” It makes dramatic sense, but not human sense. Their motives to press on have been made too powerful for them to do what the writers want.

In terms of writing, I’ve taken a big lesson from this – strong motives are good, but make sure they aren’t so strong that they’ll outweigh everything else you want to include. In Fallout 4 though, I’m going to stick with being an inconsistent monster. I’m enjoying my wanderings too much not to.

The Suit – a science fiction flash story

Lies - High ResolutionCheryl was afraid. Afraid of the guards around the decontamination suite, afraid of the security cameras watching the corridors, afraid of the holding cells beneath the biodome. She was even afraid that the rumbling of her stomach might give her away.

But more than anything, she was afraid of how close Connor was to starvation, and that if she couldn’t feed him she would be failing to live up to their parents’ last wish. She might only be thirteen, barely old enough to look after herself, but her six-year-old brother stood no chance without her.

So she fought down the fear, instead remembering the pictures she’d seen of the outside world. The woods and fields still recovering from the devastation of war, beyond the safety of the biodomes. The apples in the trees, the rows of wheat. If she could get a biohazard suit then she could get out there and take some of that food. Sure, it was breaking the law, but better that than starvation.

The camera at the corner turned its unblinking eye to look down the other corridor. Cheryl darted forward, through a door and into the locker room of the decontamination suite.

There it was, hanging from an open locker. A thing of such promise that her heart skipped a beat. She reached up and grabbed the baggy orange suit, with its clear plastic helmet and rubber seals. The cloth made a crunching sound as she bundled it up in her arms and turned back to the door.

A woman stood there, hair wet, wearing only her underwear and a frown.

“That’s not yours.” The woman planted her hands on her hips.

“How do you know?” Cheryl tried her best to look indignant.

“Because it’s mine.”

For a moment, Cheryl considered running. But the woman looked well fed and muscled, and would be faster than her. With some adults, the best option was to seek sympathy.

“Please,” she whispered. “Please, I have to go outside. To gather food for my brother.”

“That’s not allowed.” The woman took a step forward. “If you even have a brother.”

“I do!” Anger at the accusation warred with the growing fear of punishment. “His name’s Connor. He’s only six and he’s starving. Please, I have to get out there and get food.”

The woman shook her head and took another step forward, hand outstretched. Cheryl shut her eyes and prepared to cling on to the suit for dear life.

There was no tugging at the cloth. After a moment she opened her eyes and saw that the woman had taken a camera out of the locker. Now she sat on a bench, thumbing a button on the device until she saw the image she wanted. Her eyes were sad as she held the camera up to show Cheryl.

“That’s what’s outside,” she murmured.

There were no trees in the image, no fields of corn. Just a landscape of blackened, shrivelled things, among which a diseased dog limped along beneath a gunmetal grey sky.

The biohazard suit fell in a crumpled heap at Cheryl’s feet. She trembled from head to foot.

“But how will we eat?” she whispered.

“That’s the question.” The woman sighed, switched off the camera and put it down. She waved around the deserted locker room. “Hardly anyone can face going out there, never mind battling to reclaim it.”

Cheryl thought of Connor, curled over around his empty belly, barely able to get out from beneath his blanket.

“I can.” She didn’t fear anything out there, not compared with what was in here. “Find me a suit. I’ll make things grow.”

“Alright.” The woman smiled, just a little. “But first let’s go talk to my boss. He can help us find some food for your brother.”

* * *

My collection of science fiction stories, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, is free on the Kindle today and all weekend. So if you enjoyed this then why not go pick up some more of my sci-fi?

Postapocalyptic Fiction and the Fragile Rise of Civilisations

Just one of many images of the apocalypse.

Postapocalyptic fiction is pretty big at the moment. And by ‘pretty big’ I mean among the best-selling books and movies out there in the form of The Hunger Games. Of course there’s grittier stuff as well, scavengers looking to get by in the devastated future of Mad Max or prepper fiction.

Harry Manners, author of the postapocalyptic Ruin Saga, made a good point about this when he said on Twitter that postapocalyptic fiction is a great arena to discuss the underlying fragility of civilisation. In a world where we have become so detached from the basics of survival, it can be terrifying to consider how easily our comfortable lives could be undermined. Postapocalyptic fiction is a way of addressing that terror, of venting and exploring modern fears. Perhaps it also lets us get a taste of the barbaric, as we increasingly come to understand that the rest of the world isn’t populated by backwards primitives, as everyone from the Romans to the Victorians believed.

I find it fascinating that we can see the same themes – the fragility of civilisation, difficult choices between morals and pragmatism – in stories about the rise of civilisation. Rome and Deadwood both brought this to our TV screens, deliberately exploring how civilisation emerges while showing that as a difficult struggle of faltering steps. In both, the path to safety and security was spattered with blood, and the survival of something that might be called civilised always seemed under threat.

As writers, it gives us two ways to explore these themes – with the birth and the death of civilisations. And as readers it provides something familiar and intriguing in wildly different settings.

What do you think? What’s the appeal of postapocalyptic fiction? Are we really so fascinated by civilisation’s rise and fall?

And if you want to see me grapple some more with what it means to be civilised, you can download my novella Guns and Guano for free from Amazon or Smashwords.