We Will Be What We Eat

Food glorious food. Without it, we’d all just curl up and die. It’s been the driver behind great historical migrations, the inspiration for fabulous works of art, and a form of artistry in its own right for thousands of years. It’s constantly changing as the means of production and the tastes of society evolve.

Yet we don’t see much fiction centred on food. I can count on one hand the speculative stories I’ve read where food played a central part. It’s sometimes used to indicate character or social status or to add a taste of the exotic. From the mouse feasts of Redwall to the replicators of Star Trek, it’s used as a piece of window dressing, a way of setting the tone. But how often is food central, whether it’s the art of cooking, the struggle against starvation, or the complexities of supply systems? And how often, as speculative writers, do we seriously consider how food production and consumption might change?

I got to thinking about this because of a talk I went to recently as part of Pint of Science, a series of events aiming to make science accessible. It brought home to me the challenges we currently face in feeding humanity into the future. Modern western diets are carbon intensive, so preventing environmental collapse probably means significantly reducing how much animal-based food we eat. It’s a huge personal challenge (I love cheese, but apparently cheese doesn’t love the planet) as well as a social and governmental one. One way or another, it’s going to shape the future, but I’ve never seen it addressed in fiction.

Is this because questions of food don’t excite us? The Great British Bake Off says otherwise. Is it because sci-fi writers don’t like to address awkward issues? The likes of Ursula Le Guin and Jeff VanderMeer prove that’s not true. Is this something that’s hard to dramatise? Open a copy of Interzone and you’ll see that writers can make anything dramatic.

Maybe it’s just too far down our radar. Maybe its time hasn’t yet come. But surely there’s space in the world of science fiction to take a proper look at our relationship with food and food production, to change the way we view these things. Hell, maybe it’s out there and I’ve missed it – if you can think of an example, drop it in the comments.

As a society, we need to think more about our food and where it comes from. Speculative fiction could be a way to encourage that thought.

***

If you’d like to read stories on all sorts of odd themes 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.

***

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.



Chrome and Sandstone – a flash science fiction story

Sergeant Otieno stared down the scope of the targeting laser. Despite the miles between them, she could easily make out the heavily armed androids on the hillside opposite, their chrome skin gleaming with menace. They stalked between heaps of weather-worn sandstone, some ruin from the days of the planet’s first settlers, treating it all like it was just one more heap of rocks. The sight of those machines made a vein in her forehead throb, but she focused on the task in hand. She set the targeter on its tripod, checked the view again, and pressed the button on its side.

Ruins

Private Graves pressed the long-range radio to his ear, then nodded.

“Bombardment in ten,” he whispered.

They sat in the silence they had shared on so many covert missions, waiting for destruction to rain down.

Rocks rattled on the hillside behind them. Otieno spun around, pistol in hand, ready to take down whatever tin can son-of-a-bitch had found them. Instead, she found herself facing a human.

The woman was dressed in loose, dusty clothing. A trowel hung from a hook on her belt.

“The fuck are you?” Otieno hissed.

“Professor Hana Taslimi,” the woman said, extending a hand. “I’m here with the historical preservation project.”

“The what?”

“We’re trying to protect historical remains from the war. And you’re here to bomb the androids across the valley, aren’t you?”

“That’s classified. Now get down on the ground.”

Taslimi sank to her knees and put her hands behind her head. She was strangely calm for a woman with a gun pointed at her.

“Please, don’t do this,” she said. “Those ruins are unique. Destroy them and we might never truly understand the early expansion era.”

“Let those tin cans win and they’ll turn humanity to mulch. What good are ruins then?”

“Can’t you wait for the androids to move and then target them? We don’t need to lose the ruins.”

“This is the most we’ve ever caught in one camp. Can’t miss that shot.”

“They might leave together.”

“‘Might’ isn’t enough.”

“Please, sergeant. Look at what you’re destroying.”

It was hard to resist the passion in the professor’s voice. Besides, what harm would it do to look?

Otieno pulled out a scope and stared across the valley to the ruins. Now that her attention wasn’t focused on the androids, she took in more of what surrounded them. The stones were intricately carved, some with abstract patterns, others with fragments of an image. It showed people in some sort of uniform, though it was hard to make out the details with the stones tumbled apart by time. The artists had worked with the colours of the stones, so that their natural variations added to the patterns of the carvings. The effect was mesmerising.

Reluctantly, she lowered the scope and looked back at the professor.

“It’s all very pretty,” Otieno said. “And I’m sure it’s important history. But history doesn’t win wars.”

“I see.”

Taslimi’s shoulders slumped in defeat. She stared at the dirt for a long moment. Then something stirred in her and she looked up with renewed purpose, this time focused on Graves.

“Why is this war worth winning, private?” she asked.

Graves looked at Otieno, who nodded.

“Cause the tin cans gonna destroy us,” Graves said.

“So we’re fighting for our lives?”

“Hell yeah.”

“And what makes life worth living?”

“Shit, I don’t know. Good stuff. Food, drink, gettin’ laid. Real good music and them big damn pictures with all the awesome little details, you know?”

“So pleasure, and maybe art.”

“Shit, yes. And tin cans, they don’t care ‘bout that. They smash it all up, ‘cause they got no souls.”

“Which is why you have to stop them?”

“Hell yes.”

Taslimi turned her attention to Otieno and raised an eyebrow.

“I see what you did there,” Otieno said.

Graves drew his pistol and stared in alarm at Taslimi.

“She makin’ some move, sarge?” he asked.

“Think, private,” Otieno said. “Who smashes beautiful things?”

“Tin cans, sarge.”

“And what were we about to do to those beautiful ruins?”

“Shiiiit.” Graves’ eyes went wide. “She’s sayin’ we’re no better than tin cans!” He glared at Taslimi and raised his weapon. “You take that back.”

Taslimi’s eyes had also gone wide. This was the problem with smart people – sometimes they forgot how dumb and scared and defensive the rest of humanity could be.

Otieno sighed and holstered her pistol. She tapped the switch on the side of the targeter.

“Call the carrier,” she said to Graves. “Make sure they cancel that inbound strike. Tell them we’re waiting for the enemy to move out, to give us a better targeting opportunity.”

“But what if the tin cans don’t all go at once?” he said.

“Then maybe we don’t get them all. But if we fire now, we know what else it will cost us.”

***

This was inspired by a friend of mine whose work is focused on preserving history in real conflict zones. As far as I’m aware, she’s never faced down anyone with a gun to save some ruins, but it’s still bloody impressive work.

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.

***

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.

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.

Building the Phoenix – a flash sci-fi story

Garbage lay across the land, torn bin bags and abandoned appliances as far as the eye could see. A trove of wonders from the High Age, exposed by a storm that had blasted by two days ago, smashing buildings and ripping furrows through the earth. Toke had spent a frantic forty-eight hours digging through it all – mysterious motors full of puzzling parts, shining cloth that had survived barely stained, and tiny plastic sculptures of the old gods. His heart had skipped as he bounded across the heaps, pulling out tubes and wires, gears and circuit boards.

Now he collapsed onto a pile of black sacks, which expelled a musty and nauseating air. He’d found almost all the pieces he needed for his machine, but he was still missing a second condenser, and without it, the chemical processor would never be complete. This was how it always ended – succeed or fail, no machine lived up to his dreams.

“Hey Toke!” Froy appeared around a mound of white metal boxes. She stopped by the cart, fed the mule a wrinkled apple, and went to look at the processor. “Still not finished it, huh?”

“Do I look finished?” Toke kicked at a rusted can.

“I don’t know, but you’ll do this. You’re like the phoenix, always rising from the ashes.”

“The what?”

“It’s this thing I found in a book. I think it’s a bird they used to have, back in the High Age. When things go bad, it keeps coming back, see?”

“Unless you can find a condenser, this project’s never coming back.”

Froy pulled a curling length of tube from her bag.

“Might this help? I’ve seen it in old condenser diagrams. It could plug in here.”

She opened a valve on the side of the processor and pressed the pipe against it. Oil leaked out of the gap, thick and dark, with a sweet yet unsettling scent.

“Stop that!” Toke leapt to his feet, pushed Froy back, and slapped the valve shut. “Now I’m going to have to trade for machine oil again. Do you have any idea how much that costs?”

“Sorry.” Froy stepped back and hung her head. “Just trying to help.”

Toke closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then opened them again.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I can’t find the parts I need anyway.”

“Then make the parts you’ve got do more.”

“That’s not how…”

Toke’s voice trailed off. Did Froy have a point? If he stood the condenser on end then he could use some piping and a gravity feed to send the chemicals round again. It wasn’t as quick as two condensers, but it might just do the job.

“Grab that side,” he said. “Let’s get this off the cart, quick.”

They got the apparatus up on end, with its outlet pipes stood in a pair of old buckets, like dented steel feet. Rust flaked away from sections of metal to reveal the pockmarked plates beneath, while other parts shone in the sunlight, smooth surfaces lovingly burnished to a bright sheen.

“Give me that.” Toke snatched Froy’s length of pipe, unwound it, and opened up the side of the machine. He whistled as he worked, replumbing the interior to a new design. For a while he was lost in a world of moving parts, only to emerge half an hour later, oil-stained and grinning, and slam the hatch shut.

He practically bounced his way to the cart, retrieved a drum of sludge taken from a High Age factory, poured it into the processor’s inlet, and flipped a switch.

These were the moments Toke lived for. When fragments of ancient machinery stirred for the first time in centuries, combined by the careful instincts of the junker’s craft. When dead devices were reborn as something new.

The processor clunked and whirred as the drum inside it spun into action. The whole machine vibrated. There were glugs of chemicals streaming through the pipes.

At last, the first extracts emerged from the outlets, with the distinct and promising smell of oil.

“That’s it!” Toke shouted. “We’ve got it!”

Fire flashed in one bucket and then the other.

“No no no no no!” He grabbed a blanket from the cart and flapped at the flames. The blanket, already soaked with oil, caught fire, and he flung it away. Smoke was pouring from the processor. The whole thing was shaking as it lifted from its buckets on blasts of bright billowing flames.

Froy shot a hand out and switched off the machine. The thuds, glugs, and vibrations stopped. As the flow of chemicals died, so did the fires, and the processor settled back into its buckets with a thunk.

“Ruined.” Toke stared, open-mouthed, at the blackened remains of his work.

“I’m sorry,” Froy said, brushing soot from her sleeve. “Maybe this isn’t your phoenix. But your next project will take flight, I’m sure.”

“Will what now?”

“It’s that phoenix again. It flies out of the ashes, see?”

“Flies out of the ashes…”

Toke looked at the blackened tubes protruding from the chemical processor. It had lifted off while those fires were blazing, had almost taken flight like machines from the myths of the High Age. He had never dreamed of anything so grand, and yet…

He flung his arms around Froy.

“This is it!” he exclaimed. “No more moving from one piddling project to the next. If it takes my whole life, I’m taking us back to the heavens.”

He pointed at the sky, his face feverish with excitement.

“Are you OK?” Froy asked, her brow furrowing.

“I’m more than OK. You and me, Froy, we’re going to build a phoenix!”

***

This story came out of a date.

That might seem like an odd start, given that it’s about two people rummaging around in refuse, but when you go on a date with someone who works in environmental academia, certain issues come up. You start thinking about the damage we do to the planet, how people in the future will cope with it all, and how anyone might recover from the mess we make.

That sort of conversation can be a downer, but I’m a great believer in human potential, in the fact that we can rebuild out of pretty much anything, given time and determination. And so came this story, in which two humans try to rise out of the refuse.

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.

***

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.

The Lovelorn Lawn – a flash scifi story

I loved my house. It had the perfect combination of rustic chic and high tech gadgets, like the wood burning stove that I could light remotely during my commute. Anti-static surfaces meant I never had to dust and the front garden was host to a parasite that kept the lawn neat. Low effort, high style, and total comfort. Go me!

Then came Valentine’s Day, when I walked out the front door to find a heart-shaped bald patch on the lawn. I pulled out my phone and called my most recent ex.

“What the hell have you done, Matt?” I yelled into the receiver.

“What?” he mumbled sleepily.

“My lawn, you dickhead. What have you done?”

“Whatever you’re screaming about, save it for someone who cares.”

The line went dead.

I was about to dial again when the lawn started moving. Blades of grass writhed and twitched, turning the heart shape into a number four, then the letter U. Finally, a cluster of buttercups came squirming across the grass then dropped at my feet like a tiny bouquet.

I rubbed my eyes as I tried to work out if I was even awake.

“Lawn?” I asked. “Did you just bring me flowers?”

The grass shifted and the bald patch became a smiling face.

“Thanks, I guess.”

I picked up the flowers. I could talk to the parasite’s manufacturers later and check if it was meant to act like this. For now, it would be nice to arrive at the office with flowers on Valentines Day.

*

At first, I didn’t mind that the company wouldn’t replace the parasite. It was sweet watching my lawn rearrange itself into smiley faces and delivering tiny clusters of flowers, all while keeping itself neatly trimmed. The night it delivered a pile of worms to my doorstep was a messy one, but what boy really understands romantic gifts?

Then I started seeing Jamie and things got weird. Every time he came over, a clump of the lawn died. He caught me out there in the morning talking to the grass, stroking its leaves and trying to reassure it that it still had a place in my life. One night we came home to find a pile of earth in the shape of Jamie’s face, the top caved in with a dirt axe.

“Either that lawn goes or I go,” he said.

I sighed. For all his flaws, Jamie was passable in bed and responded well to suggestions. But…

“The lawn completes my garden.”

“It’s a parasite!”

“Says the twenty-eight-year-old still living in his mum’s spare room.”

“You bitch.”

And that was that.

*

The next morning, I sat down with the lawn.

“You’re an important part of my life,” I said. “But this has to stop.”

A sad face appeared in the grass.

“I’m a woman, you’re a dirt-based parasite,” I explained. “It would never work out.”

The sad face turned into a Disney logo.

“Yes, I know about Beauty and the Beast,” I said. “But that’s different.”

Now a question mark and then, just as I was about to lose my temper, a winky face.

“Fine,” I said with a laugh. “One date. And if it doesn’t work out, you drop this. Agreed?”

The smiley face came back. That would have to count for a yes.

*

After a decade of dating men, I wasn’t surprised that my lawn arranged a better first date than most. It greeted me with roses from the flower bed, escorted me to a cushioned patch of moss under a tree, and used its own cold dirt to chill the bottle of wine I’d brought to see me through this. Even communicating in pictograms, it was a better conversationalist than Jamie or Trevor, the scrum-half I’d dated during my rugby fan phase. I laughed, I sighed, I brushed my fingers across the impeccably trimmed grass. It was as close to perfect as a date with a parasitic swarm intelligence could be.

“This has been lovely,” I said at last. “I have to go now.”

“WAIT.” The letters appeared amid the grass.

“Sorry, but it’s getting late.”

A sad face with a single tear.

“Really, this has been nice, but I have work tomorrow.”

The response was a series of images – the letter “I”, a heart shape, then a “U”.

“Seriously, you’re making this weird,” I said. “It’s only been one date.”

It was the first time I’d seen grass form animated images of a calendar counting away the months. Perhaps I should have been impressed, but instead I was getting annoyed.

“Look, it’s not you, it’s me. I’m a human and that’s not what a lawn parasite needs.”

The Disney logo appeared again.

“Enough with the Beauty and the Beast crap! This is real life.”

Frowny face.

I took a deep breath and forced a smile as Mrs Copperwheat from number twenty-two walked by with her dog.

“We’ve had the date,” I said once the coast was clear. “And I’m sorry, but there’s not going to be another. You said you would drop this if that happened, so are we OK?”

A sad face again, then a slowly emerging thumbs up.

“Alright,” I said. “Thank you for a lovely evening. Goodnight.”

*

I loved my house, but the company who provided the lawn parasite wouldn’t get rid of it. They didn’t care that it made inappropriate messages for months – first passive aggressive pleas for another date, then angry signs and images, then just patches of dead grass to punish me when I didn’t respond. According to them, it wasn’t their fault that I was living with an angry ex on the doorstep. After all, what sort of woman dates a parasite? Never mind that they’d made it what it was.

Reluctantly, I put my perfect house on the market. Someone else could deal with the lawn. I was going to find a new one, and this time I would buy a mower.

***

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.

***

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 as a Kindle ebook via Amazon.

The Power Plant Paradox – a flash scifi story

By the light of a small torch, Claudine set her explosives against the base of the generator. She glanced around but there was no sign of the power plant’s guards, only Philippe staring vacantly at the machines.

She shook her head and pulled out a fuse. If they relied on Philippe, then France would be occupied by the Nazis forever. But the British agents who supplied their explosives expected to talk to a man, and so…

A light flickered and she looked up in alarm. A man in denim trousers and a t-shirt stood beside her, behind him a bearded figure wearing chainmail and carrying an axe. The one in the t-shirt touched her shoulder, there was a flash, and the world spun away.

Suddenly, it was daylight. The three of them were in a jungle clearing, the air thick with the smell of flowers and the calls of birds. Claudine dropped her fuse and leapt to her feet.

“What the hell?” she asked, staring at the two men.

“Hi.” The one in the t-shirt waved a hand. “My name’s Joel. I’m from the future. This is Durwin. I borrowed him from Kent in 1064.”

Durwin’s mouth hung open as he watched a pair of parrots fly past.

“Take me back,” Claudine demanded. “I have a mission.”

“It’s OK,” Joel said. He looked down at a gadget in his hand and started playing with its dials. “I just need you for a few hours for my art installation. Once I’m done, I’ll take you back to the moment I borrowed you from. You won’t even remember any of this.”

“My country has been occupied by the Nazis.” Claudine grabbed Joel by the scruff of his neck. “I don’t have time for your damned art project.”

“It’s OK.” Joel smiled and put on a calming voice, like he was trying to sooth a toddler. “I couldn’t have picked you out of the time stream if your actions mattered. All the records show that Philippe Blanc destroys the power plant at Grandville.”

“The only thing that pretty boy could destroy is a baguette. Now take me back!”

“I just need to pick up one more-”

Durwin tapped Joel on the shoulder and said something Claudine couldn’t understand.

“Seriously,” Joel said, looking back and forth between them. “Neither of you matters to history. This is your chance to contribute to the world of art.”

“To hell with art.”

Claudine snatched the device out of Joel’s hands. It had clearly been adapted, with electronic components spilling out of its original casing. Joel stared at her aghast.

“Give that back.” He grabbed the device but Claudine wouldn’t let go. They tussled over it while Durwin’s protests grew in volume. Joel twisted, jerked, and wrenched the device from Claudine’s grip, leaving her with a handful of loose components.

“Oh fu-” Joel began, staring in horror at the dangling wires.

The world seemed to ripple around them. One minute they were standing in the jungle, the next on a snowy mountainside overlooking a herd of mammoths. More ripples and they were in a city of glass and chrome, a sandstone fortress, a cluster of tents in a desert oasis. Claudine’s stomach churned. Durwin stared, mouth hanging open again.

“Shit shit shit.” Joel worked frantically at the device, twisting wires together, clipping components onto each other, prodding at buttons. At last the world went still, leaving them on a hillside at night, listening to the rumble of traffic on a multi-lane road below.

Claudine wanted to scream for a dozen different reasons. Instead, she held her wonder and her frustration inside, as she always had to.

“Send me home,” she said, fighting to keep her voice steady.

“Fine.” Joel rolled his eyes. “But you could have been part of something special.”

“I already am.”

Durwin spoke, the sounds low and guttural.

“Yes yes, you’re part of something special too,” Joel said, patting the baffled looking warrior on his shoulder.

Joel pulled a card from his pocket, slid it into the side of the device, and turned a dial. Suddenly they were back in the factory, right where Claudine had been planting her bomb.

She glanced around. Still no guards or soldiers. Down the machine hall, Philippe was frowning as he pushed too many wires into his bomb.

“Happy now?” Joel whispered.

“Piss of now,” Claudine replied. “I have work to do.”

“Your loss,” Joel said. “Not that you’ll remember.”

The world rippled and Joel and Durwin were gone.

Claudine looked down at the bomb she had been planting. Why was she standing up? And why hadn’t she put the fuse in yet? Time was of the essence. If the Nazis caught them it would mean disaster.

She opened her hand, revealing a fistful of electrical components she didn’t recognise. No fuse.

Well, she would just have to improvise. With a few of these wires, her watch, and the batteries from the torch, she could make something work. There was still time before the guards came round again. Just enough time.

* * *

Over on Twitter, I often talk about what I’m writing today. Sometimes this leads to weird combinations that leave you wondering what sort of story they’d make, and sometimes friends challenge me to write that story. Which is how I ended up with a time travel story involving a Saxon warrior, a 20th-century saboteur, and a jungle trek (alright, I left out most of the trekking, but I think this still counts). I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please share it with friends and maybe sign up to my mailing list to receive weekly bursts of fiction.

The Good Trip Getaway – a flash sci-fi story

We took our last spare cash to a street pharmacist, a guy in a stained coat selling hard drugs and soft lies down in the scrap district. Light and sound blazed from every building, music cascading into the streets from a thousand new year parties. In the heart of the city, you could always lose yourself if you needed to.

“I want to escape all this.” I pointed to one of the rockets towering over us, a remnant of the years when humanity had flown to the stars, when there had been a brighter hope. “I want to feel like I’m flying, to know what it was like in the old days.”

“History offers no take backs,” the guy said, pulling a pill from his pocket. “But I can offer this. You’ll fly and so much more.”

Pill for cash, deal done in the moment between the beats of the music. I swallowed the pill dry and twitched my arms, eager to take off.

“And you?” the pharmacist asked Ailene.

“Just something to relax.”

Another payment, another pill, another quick swallow on the road to relief.
Muscles spasmed between my shoulder blades. I felt as though I was bursting. Then suddenly I had wings and they were flapping, carrying me into the air.

“Check it out!” I shouted to Ailene. “I can fly!”

“Check out a mirror,” she shouted back.

I looked in the window of one of the buildings, saw myself reflected back in the glass. I didn’t just have wings. I had claws, feathers, a beak. I was a bird.

Laughter shook my fragile avian body. This was some serious shit. I really did feel like I’d taken flight, like those feathers were mine.

Another spasm. I fell to the ground and found myself legless, writhing in the body of a snake. Then I was on all fours, furred and panting. I let my tongue hang out while I looked around for a stick.

“Wow, man,” Ailene said staring at me. “How’d you do that?”

“Quantum, see?” the dealer said. “Becoming different lives he could have been. In the end, he’ll come back to whatever he most wants.”

Ailene ruffled my fur and laughed. I barked happily.

“He’ll be back soon enough. He wants to be with me, don’t you?”

I barked again. I was a good boy and I was with Ailene. How could the world get any better?

* * *

If you enjoyed this story then you might like to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get free flash fiction straight to your mailbox every Friday, as well as updates on my books and comics.

Out Now – All the Beautiful Sunsets

My latest book, All the Beautiful Sunsets, is out today. Collecting 52 flash stories I published on the blog this year, it covers a wide range of settings, from ancient history to the far future.

A fairy noble hunting for spies. A soldier digging for his life beneath a battlefield. A man learning the cost of renting out his brain. Meet all these characters and more in fifty-two short stories set in worlds beyond our own.

All the Beautiful Sunsets is available as an e-book from all good stores.

My Top Reads of 2018 – Non-Fiction

Continuing my review of the year in books, here are some of my favourite non-fiction reads from 2018. They didn’t necessarily come out this year, but now is when I found and enjoyed them. If you’ve particularly enjoyed a non-ficiton book this year, tell me about it in the comments – I’m always on the lookout for more.

Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Francesca T Barbini

To say that modern society faces problems with gender and sexuality would be an understatement up there with “King John seems a little bit off.” As half of society tries to adopt a more nuanced, egalitarian attitude, the other half kicks back, desperately clinging to binary divisions and patriarchal structures. Movements like gamergate and the sad puppies have turned geek culture into a battleground on gender issues, spewing angry invectives and threats of violence at people who question the status quo. “How dare they fill speculative fiction with gays and women?” the trolls cry out. “It was fine being all about straight white men!”

In that environment, it was particularly pleasing to see a British Fantasy Award go to Luna Press’s excellent collection of articles on gender and sexuality in speculative fiction. Articles in this book cover a wide range of topics, from the myth of meritocracy in publishing to the remarkable improvement in gender representation in the Magic the Gathering card game. These thought-provoking pieces by smart writers address both the content of our fiction and the process surrounding it, encouraging readers to look at gender and sexuality in geek culture from a dozen different angles.

This is academic writing of a relatively accessible type, aimed at wider readers with an interest in the field. It takes some effort, but if you’re interested in issues of social justice or the state of sf+f then it’s well worth a look. It’s a book whose existence and well-earned plaudits will help shift our culture in a more positive direction.

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

Speaking of gender, I wrote back in June about Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War. Six months later, it still haunts me, one of the most remarkable history books I’ve read in my life, never mind this year.

Researched and written in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this book details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. It reveals a side of the war that fitted poorly with official accounts and heroic re-tellings, showing the vital place of women on the Eastern Front and the awful realities they faced. Despite its huge significance, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war, it’s a powerful testimony to the experiences of soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. But it’s not just about the moments of violent struggle. It’s also about the transformation of civilians into warriors, of women into men’s roles, how that changed them and how it affected their lives once the war ended. It’s also an account of Alexievich’s own mission to uncover these hidden stories, the way she related to the women she interviewed, and the way they viewed the war decades later.

The phrase “we have always fought” has become a rallying cry for the re-examination of women’s place in history and in the fiction influenced by it. The Unwomanly Face of War provides the ultimate evidence of how tragically true that phrase is.

Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton

Another unconventional look at the Second World War, Milton’s book delves into Britain’s covert operations. When Churchill called out for Europe to be set ablaze in resistance to the Nazis, these were the people who built him a bigger match and worked out where best to light it.

The book covers three aspects of their work. First, there were the mad inventors of the weapon’s making division, men like Cecil Clarke and Stuart Macrae who invented the limpet mine using condoms and aniseed balls. Then there were the trainers, men like Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn, the professional sharp-shooter and former police commander who taught men to kill with their bare hands. And finally, there were the operatives themselves, sent on dangerous missions deep in occupied Europe, committing acts of sabotage and assassination in the name of freedom.

Unlike The Unwomanly Face of WarChurchill’s Ministry sometimes glamourises its subjects, both the people and the missions. There’s a sense of boy’s own adventure in places that’s at odds with the true ugliness of events. But the overall tone is one of exploring the extraordinary, from the ingenuity of inventors to the courage and determination of undercover operatives. It’s an unexpected and seldom discussed niche within much larger events, compelling as much for the odd characters as for what they achieved.