• Tag Archives scifi
  • My Top Reads of 2018 – Fiction

    As the end of the year approaches, it’s time to look back on what’s been good in 2018. I’m going to start with fiction – not necessarily books that came out this year, but ones I’ve read and enjoyed over the past twelve months.

    The Wounded Kingdom Trilogy by RJ Barker

    This year saw the release of volumes two and three of RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy – Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins. Age of Assassins was one of my favourite books of 2017, so I had high hopes, and RJ absolutely lived up to them.

    Girton Clubfoot is an assassin, his skills all about killing. When he and his master are called upon to save a life instead of ending one, they become drawn into the politics of a court at war with itself in a country ravaged by dark magic. Everybody has their secrets, from the king down to the stable hands. Some of them are willing to kill to keep those secrets safe, and it won’t be long before Girton finds himself on the sharp end of a blade.

    This series consists of three murder mystery political thrillers set in a medieval fantasy world. There’s war, magic, crime, and intrigue aplenty. But what makes it stand out is the characters. With the books set years apart, we get to see them maturing and their relationships changing. They both shape and are shaped by the kingdom around them. Villains become heroes while heroes lose their way. The protagonist goes from a fumbling apprentice to a master of his craft. And through it all, there’s an exploration of family – what it is, what it means, and how it shapes us.

    I don’t want to say much more, for fear of spoiling the series’ splendid twists and turns. While the first book was compelling, it’s the finale that makes it powerful. These are smartly written, compelling novels. If you enjoy fantasy at all, you should give them a go.

    Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky

    Rex is a good dog. All he wants is to do what his masters tell him and be rewarded with their love and gratitude. Unfortunately, Rex is also a seven foot tall muscled monstrosity, genetically engineered as one of the world’s deadliest killing machines. So when things start to get confusing for Rex, when the boundary between enemies and innocents becomes unclear, there’s trouble coming.

    Dogs of War is a stand-alone sci-fi novel about the abuse of power and what it means to be a person. In Rex, it has one of the most perfectly written, perfectly heartbreaking viewpoint characters I’ve ever experienced. The difference between his innocent worldview and reality is skillfully implied from the very start, making for a really emotional read. And as the story shifts, digging deeper into the fate of creatures like Rex, it raises intriguing questions about how humans cope with the consequences of what we create.

    I’ve been reading a lot of Adrain Tchaikovsky’s work recently. So far this is the standout story, a great book from a great writer.

    The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

    Years behind my friends’ recommendations, I’ve finally got started on Jen Williams’ Copper Cat trilogy and it was well worth it.

    Another fantasy series, the Copper Cat trilogy follows a band of mercenaries whose attempts to make a living drag them into saving the world. What starts as a gritty story of lowlives in scummy taverns slowly escalates into an epic of gods and monsters in which mortals struggle to save the innocent from destruction.

    Like all the best stories, the characters are what drive these books along. There conflicting motives and personalities ensure that there’s always trouble brewing, but their friendship pulls them together in battles against the odds. Sharp dialogue and lively action scenes become a conduit for those characters, not a distraction from them.

    I haven’t yet read the last book in the series, but based on the first two, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. And I can definitely recommend the first two, starting with The Copper Promise.

    The Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal

    Imagine the early 19th century but with magical art that crafts illusions. That’s the world of the Glamourist Histories.

    At the heart of this series is Jane, the narrator and protagonist. A young woman born into the English gentry, she starts out looking for all the things we expect from a Jane Austen character – love, marriage, a secure future. But Jane is also a skilled glamourist, able to use her art to bring beauty from thin air. If she can find a way to pursue her art, then life promises much more for Jane, even if she can’t see it.

    Though character is the consistent thread of these books, it’s the variety of settings within them that I particularly love. One is a Jane Austen pastiche, the next a Napoleonic espionage thriller. We spend time with the reformers of London, the glassblowers of Venice, and the slaves of the Caribbean plantations. A lot of the themes of real 19th-century history are explored in the space of five fantasy novels.

    I finished this series this year on audible, where the books are wonderfully narrated by the author. They’re a very different take on fantasy from most of what I read, drawing on different threads of history and society, rich with social tensions and the challenge of change.

     

    So those were my top reads this year. What were yours?


  • The Doctor Will See You Now – a flash scifi story

    The shutters were down across the door of the clinic and however hard I tried my key wouldn’t open the padlock. It was too early in the morning to call anyone else in, but not too early for patients to need a doctor. Fortunately, I had bolt cutters amid the jumble of tools in the boot of my car. We could buy a new padlock. Not everybody could buy time.

    Inside, I was greeted by a waft of trance music and the smell of lemons. Someone had left a computer on overnight, pumping out sounds, smells, and a light show that brightened the peeling paint of the ceiling. I switched it off, opened up an examination room, and waited for patients to arrive.

    It didn’t take long. First was a woman in overalls and steel-toed boots, her face pale.

    “Think I’ve got the flu, doc,” she croaked, pausing to blow her nose. “Need signing off work.”

    “Are you feeling any aches or fever?” I asked.

    She nodded.

    “When did it start?”

    “This morning.”

    “This seems pretty advanced for such a short time.” I peered at her pupils. Sure enough, there was a telltale wideness to them. “Did you know that there are sickness simulators on the web, sites that will bring on symptoms without giving you the illness?”

    She looked away. “Why would someone make that?”

    “Why indeed.”

    “You know, maybe it’s just a cold. I’ll get some medicine, see if I can cope with work.”

    “You do that,” I said.

    Four more patients came in before the receptionist arrived. Two of them had simulated symptoms – one on purpose, the other thanks to malware. They both got the same instructions – turn off the internet for three hours, then come back if they were still sick.

    I wouldn’t be seeing them again.

    “You’re not Dr Rowe,” the receptionist said as she peered in at me.

    “Dr Rowe couldn’t make it,” I said, stifling a yawn. I hadn’t been getting much sleep lately, hadn’t planned on being here today. It was going to be a long shift.

    “Waiting room’s almost full.”

    I nodded. “I’m trying, but you know how it is. Too many sick people, not enough doctors.”

    “Hm.” She gave me a quizzical look, then headed out of the room. I could hear her starting a phone call as the next patient came in.

    “I think I’ve for the flu,” the man said.

    We went through the motions, but I could already tell that it was another simulation. He was too lively for a man on the edge of collapse.

    I was just about to send him away with his no-internet prescription when something caught my eye – a scratch on his forearm, swollen and red.

    “Did you get that recently?” I asked.

    “Couple of days ago.”

    I peered at it more closely. Clearly infected. This guy was probably running a real fever beneath the fake one and I’d almost sent him away without treatment. What sort of doctor was I?

    “You’ll need a tetanus booster,” I said. “And something to fight the infection.”

    I opened a cupboard and realised that I had no idea where anything was. This was the first patient who’d needed more than painkillers or my signature on a renewed prescription. I hadn’t had to find anything else.

    Everything was so unfamiliar. Had I not worked here before? I thought I had, but clinics all looked alike after a while.

    I found a drawer of bottles and started looking at them, trying to find one with the right label.

    What was the right label again? What would deal with this sort of infection? The tiredness was making it hard to think straight.

    “Are you alright, doc?” the patient asked.

    “Fine,” I said. “Just give me a minute.”

    I flung open cupboards and drawers, waiting for anything to jog my memory. Doors banged open as I became more frantic.

    There was a knocking and the door to the room opened. A man stood in the hallway, a stethoscope around his neck.

    “Yes?” I snapped.

    “I’m Dr Rowe,” he said. “I’m on duty here this morning. Who are you?”

    “I’m doctor… doctor…” Somehow it didn’t seem right, putting my name after that word. It didn’t quite fit.

    The patient looked nervously between us.

    “What’s going on?” he asked.

    “Could you just give us a minute?” Dr Rowe said.

    The man hurried out and Rowe shut the door behind him.

    “I presume you read The Lancet?” he said.

    “Of course,” I replied.

    “Did you see the article last month about computer-simulated illnesses?”

    “Must have missed it.”

    “Apparently they can simulate symptoms of mental as well as physical illness now. Hyperactivity, depression, even delusions.”

    “Shocking,” I said. Somewhere in the back of my head, a thought was screaming for attention, but I couldn’t make it out.

    “You look tired,” Rowe said. “Let’s get you away from computers for a bit, see how you feel in a few hours.”

    * * *

     

    If you enjoyed this story, you might also like my science fiction collection, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves. And if you want even more, you can sign up to my mailing list to get free fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.


  • Special Delivery – a flash science fiction story

    “You can’t do this!” I screamed at the phone screen. “We need those meds!”

    “I’m sorry, Ms. Mendoza, but we don’t deliver to your region any more.” The man from Aldercon kept his face neutral, but I could hear the disdain in his voice. It wasn’t the region that was the problem.

    “This is prejudice,” I said, lowering my tone to an angry growl. “You’re refusing to sell to spacers.”

    “It’s just business,” he said. “The electric storms around the mountains have worsened, so our drones can’t get through. If you lived somewhere else then-”

    “We can’t afford to live somewhere else!”

    “Then Aldercon can’t deliver to you.”

    “Please. No-one else makes these meds.”

    “Rightly so. The governor gave us the exclusive contract.”

    I took a deep breath.

    “I read the contract. It says that you have to deliver everywhere in the colony.”

    “Everywhere we safely can. And that does not include storm-struck mountains. Good day, Ms. Mendoza.”

    The screen went blank. For a long time I just sat staring at it. Finally, I found the will to force myself up from my chair, out of my room, and down the clear plastic tunnel to the communal dining hall. Through the walls, I could see dust swirling and lightning flashing as the storms bounced ceaselessly between the mountains. Maybe one day we would understand what caused them, but only if we lived long enough to finish the work.

    With every step, I felt an ache deep in the muscles of my legs. That pain was reflected in the faces of my neighbours as I joined them in the hall. After generations living in space, our people’s bodies weren’t used to being planetside. But our old home was gone and this colony was our only hope.

    I didn’t have to speak. They could see from my face how the call had gone.

    “Sorry, Nita,” Jacko said, reaching out to squeeze my hand. “And thank you for trying.”

    In a corner of the room, a child started crying. Her mother joined in with a low, broken sob.

    “Fuck trying,” I said. “You’re a chemist, right? Could we make this stuff ourselves, with what we have out here?”

    “Maybe,” Jacko said, tilting his head to one side. “If we can find the right elements in the soil. But we’d have to be real lucky.”

    “Good enough,” I said. “Let’s get to work.”

    It took a month to get things set up. By then, several of the kids were bedridden, their bodies unable to cope. I’d taken to using a walking stick to make trips around the habitat bearable. But we had what we needed.

    I was careful about how I phrased the sales page. Nothing directly saying that we’d replicated Aldercon’s Groundease pills, just talk of medicine to make a spacer’s life on the ground bearable. I offered to sell it to people in the mountains at cost and to others at half the price of Groundease. The page said that sales would start in two weeks, once the first batch was ready.

    Within two hours, the call came through. It was the same Aldercon executive I’d argued with before.

    “You’re breaking the law,” he said. “Infringing upon our exclusive contract.”

    “I’m just trying to help people,” I said.

    “We’ve obtained a cease and desist order.” That was fast. But then, big companies usually had judges in their pockets.

    “I’m not doing anything illegal.”

    “Like hell you aren’t!”

    “I used to be a lawyer,” I said. “On this colony, a cease and desist order has to be delivered in a physical, printed form. So until I see that-”

    “You’ll see it alright.”

    “Packages can get lost so easily…”

    “Ha! Try pretending you don’t see the order when it’s delivered by a dozen drones, all with cameras. And if you don’t follow it, we’ll sue you for whatever crap you space-head losers-”

    I killed the call. The blank screen that followed was the most satisfying thing I’d ever seen.

    When I called him back the next day, he looked as smug as only a corporate executive could.

    “I got your cease and desist orders,” I said. “All dozen of them, ordering us to stop making your drugs.”

    “And?”

    “And we can’t stop because we’ve never made them. Do you know how lucky we’d have had to be to find the ingredients?”
    I heard knocking on a door. He looked up, irritated, towards someone beyond the camera.

    “Who the hell are you?” he snapped.

    “Probably an officer of the court,” I said. “Come to collect footage from a dozen drones, all proving that you can safely deliver through the electric storms.”

    To his credit, he held back whatever insult he wanted to throw at me. He forced a smile and I smiled smugly back at him.

    “The contract,” he said. “Of course. No need to go to court, Ms. Mendoza. Let me arrange a delivery for you now.”

    * * *

     

    This story was inspired by some interesting coverage of the intersection between commerce and politics – see this article on Amazon deliveries and this Twitter thread. I’m sure there’s something deeper to be written on the subject, but I only had a thousand words, so deeper can wait.

    If you enjoyed this story, you might like to sign up to my mailing list, to get free fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.


  • Age’s Terrible Toll – a flash scifi story

    Sarah sat back in her armchair, eyes closed. She turned an old zippo lighter over in her hand, its familiar shape a comforting distraction.

    “You shouldn’t smoke,” the nurse from AlderCon said as he rolled up Sarah’s sleeve. “You’re never too old to get lung cancer.”

    “I quit decades ago,” Sarah said. “I keep this around to remember why.”

    “Fair enough. You ready?”

    Sarah nodded, eyes shut tight. The needle wasn’t big but she still flinched as it pricked her arm. She squeezed the lighter and forced herself to sit still.

    She trusted AlderCon and their staff. Thanks to their security division, there were no more teen gangs roaming the city’s streets. And thanks to their treatment, she’d barely aged since she hit fifty. These injections were adding decades to her lifespan.

    Still, she couldn’t bring herself to watch the needle going in.

    “How does it work?” she asked, as the nurse put the syringe away.

    “It’s complicated,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

    “I was a research chemist for forty years. I think I’ll understand.”

    The nurse blushed and looked away. “Alright, you’ve got me. I don’t know how it works.”

    “Not even how it’s made? Your office is on the same site as the factory.”

    The nurse glanced around, then leaned in close and lowered his voice.

    “Let’s just say there’s a reason you don’t see many teenage troublemakers around here.”

    Sarah squeezed the lighter again. As a student, she’d campaigned against child labour in China. Was this young man saying that it was now on her doorstep? Or was he just making up wild stories to impress clients?

    If there was one thing she’d learnt in her career, it was that you had to have evidence before you tackled a problem.

    “Thank you,” she said, rolling her sleeve back down. “Same time next month?”

    *

    The electronic lock on the factory door clicked open, letting Sarah slide inside. In her forties she’d dated a corporate spy, a wild-eyed Australian by the name of Shona. It hadn’t ended well, but she’d learnt a lot along the way, including techniques for tackling security systems. Given the ache in her hip, avoiding the guards had been tricker than getting through the doors.

    She crept along the corridor, past offices and storerooms, towards the main processing plant. The factory kept working at night but its clerical staff didn’t, making this the easiest way in.

    She’d brought a better camera than the one on her phone. Hopefully she wouldn’t need it. She’d just find young people on apprenticeship schemes, making pharmaceuticals instead of hanging out on street corners. But if she saw school age children, or if conditions here weren’t good, then she would want leverage to make the company improve. Life was long and she didn’t want to spend it carrying around a weight of guilt.

    The next lock was easier, as internal security measures often were. She opened the door just enough to slide through into the shadows at the edge of the factory floor.

    She froze, one hand still holding the door.

    There were young people here alright. Hundreds of them, sitting in orange boiler suits on plastic chairs. Many were in their late teens, while some were too small and smooth-faced to be more than twelve years old. All were strapped into their seats, staring glassy-eyed into the distance. Plastic tubes ran from strange machines to the needles in the young people’s arms.

    So many needles.

    Sarah slid her hand into her pocket and squeezed the familiar shape of her lighter.

    *

    “What I don’t get is why you burned the place down,” the detective said, looking across the desk at Sarah. Beside him, a light blinked on the police station’s digital recorder. “I mean, that’s where you get your drugs from, right? Other people in your neighbourhood too. Are you so sick that you want to hurt your own community?”

    “My client has not admitted to any act of arson,” Sarah’s lawyer said for the third time.

    “She was found watching the place burn, holding a lighter and a bottle of home-made accelerant.” The detective shook his head. “How stupid do you think we are?”

    “Surely AlderCon’s security tapes will show you what happened inside the factory?” the lawyer said.

    The detective frowned. His partner snorted.

    “For victims, they’re surprisingly uncooperative,” he said.

    “Perhaps they’re just incompetent,” the lawyer replied. “They did just misplace a hundred young offenders from one of their secure facilities,”

    “They told me to ask you about that too.” The detective gave Sarah a puzzled look. “Any idea why?”

    Sarah shifted in her seat. The ache in her hip was growing. It would only get worse without her injections, as would the other symptoms of age. The next few years would be cruel ones.

    She squeezed her hand tight, but there was no lighter there. Just the memory of how it felt, and of a flame bursting from it for the first time in years, blazing in the shadows of the factory.

    “I have an old friend who’s a journalist,” she said. “Watch the news tomorrow and I think you’ll find some answers.”

    The detectives looked at each other, then back at her.

    “What are you on about?” one asked.

    “These days, I never really know,” Sarah said, smiling and tapping the side of her head. “Age is taking its toll.”

    * * *

     

    I don’t remember exactly where this idea came from. I found it in an old notebook, among various scribblings from last year. I think it might have been influenced by a body horror piece by Steve Toase, about people being used by medical business. Judging by the orange boiler suits, I also had Misfits on my mind, but then I often do.

    If you enjoyed this story then please share it with other people – there are social media links below. And if you’d like to receive free stories straight to your inbox every week, consider signing up to my mailing list.


  • Elite Versus Community: The Nature of Sci-fi

    In his 1994 book Science Fiction in the 20th Century, Edward James cites Farah Mendelsohn as suggesting that science fiction could be viewed as a form of elite fiction, written for a technocratic elite rather than the literary one that a certain strain of high-brow fiction aims for.

    I can see where she was coming from. Most sci-fi is written for a particular audience, one that’s often tech-savvy and which has the experience to decode science fiction’s tropes and assumptions. What makes a thrilling story to an experienced sci-fi reader, with the skills to wrap their head around sci-fi writing, would be bewildering to some other readers.

    But I don’t think that elite is the right description for this group. I think it’s better viewed as a community, a selection of people with shared tastes and interests. Some do regard themselves as an elite, made superior by their grasp of the genre, but that doesn’t make them better sci-fi fans, it just makes them snobs.

    Sci-fi might aspire to be for an elite because that’s how literary fiction presents itself. But again, I call bullshit on that. The ability to appreciate literary fiction means you have a particular set of skills that most people don’t. So does the ability to build a dry stone wall, plumb a boiler, or play the violin. Those skills are awesome but they don’t make you better than other people, as the word elite implies.

    Sci-fi is for a particular community, one that can choose to elitist or inclusive. I know which I prefer.


  • The Emotional Puzzle of a Shared Universe

    A lot of the most powerful storytelling happens in the moments between scenes, the pieces we put together to fill the gaps. If someone has died and then we see a relative rebuilding in the aftermath, we fill in the trauma of loss. When the happy couple ride off into the sunset, we feel happy for their future life together.

    In a shared creative universe, there are even more of those gaps.

    There are lots of shared creative universes out there. From the half-dozen interlinked Star Trek shows to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the insane sprawl of DC Comics, they’re something most people are exposed to. Maybe you just dip in and enjoy a little of what they offer, but for the hardcore fan, they’re a rich treasure trove. The more you consume of a single universe, the more of those gaps and connections you see. You fill them in through imagination, conversations, and fanfic, exponentially expanding that universe.

    I used to think that the satisfaction in this was comparable with referencing in other parts of our culture. Looked at this way, recognising a Captain America character’s cameo in Ant-Man is like spotting a reference to Shakespeare in Stoppard – the satisfaction is all about feeling smart. You’re in on the reference. You’re part of the game.

    But I now think that there’s more to it than that. Because these references exist within a continuity, there’s an extra layer of emotional meaning that those Shakespeare references don’t have. We’re not just recognising Agent Carter as a character from another film. We’re seeing how she’s aged, learning some of what she’s been through over the years, filling in gaps in her story. We feel for her. High culture references, with their focus on intellectual satisfaction, don’t do that.

    Marvel’s Infinity War is full of this. It pulls in characters from so many other films, while leaving their familiar families and friends out. By the end, it only takes the slightest drift of imagination to start filling gaps elsewhere in this world, with tragic results. I’ve seen reviews that say the film is accessible to a Marvel outsider, but for someone who has been following these films, its impact stretches on and on.

    I’m not arguing for the superiority of shared universes. Like any form of culture, they have advantages and disadvantages, can be good or bad. But their references have an extra layer of meaning that some others don’t. They don’t just hit you in the thoughts. They hit you in the feels.


  • The Ghost of a Life – a flash sci-fi story

    I’d given up on waiting for a chance to go home, settling instead for a life in this version of Leeds. I found a job in a coffee shop, where my lack of provable experience wouldn’t stand in my way. The work was monotonous, but I’d already lost the life where my passions lay, and anything would seem like a pale imitation by comparison. This way I could embrace my new station.

    That changed one morning in September. The early rush was over and we had a few lone customers reading papers or using our wifi. Behind the counter, I was emptying mugs from the dishwasher.

    “Hey, Holly.” Seamus spoke quietly. “Check out the dude in the armchair.”

    There were only two seats in the place grand enough to count as armchairs, battered old constructions of padded leather. They faced each other across a low table by a window. A guy was sitting in one of them, staring blankly out into the street. His clothes were loose and crumpled, his beard unkempt, and his sunken eyes stared fixedly into the distance.

    “What about him?” I whispered.

    “He hasn’t moved in half an hour. Not even his face. Don’t you think that’s creepy?”

    I shrugged, content to let Seamus take my gesture as agreement. But now he had my attention, I started noticing other things about the stranger. The faint swirling scars on his forearm, as if he’d been caught in a half-collapsed dimensional portal. The telltale callous on his little finger, like the one where my portal control ring had sat.

    He was a Traveller, just like I’d been.

    Milk poured across the floor as I crushed a plastic bottle.

    “You alright, Holly?” Seamus asked.

    “Gonna get a mop,” I said, making an excuse to get out from behind the counter. I skirted the edge of the room, staying as far from the Traveller as I could, and took shelter in a cramped closet. I didn’t even switch the light on, just stood in the darkness, catching my breath.

    Who was this guy? A local figure of authority hunting down outsiders? A flunky of the people who stranded me here, sent with the mission of finishing me off?

    Maybe he hadn’t noticed me or seen the connection between us. Maybe if I kept my head down I could keep things that way.

    Except…

    If I was ever to get home, I needed to take any chance I could.

    And I did want to get home.

    Didn’t I?

    I emerged from the cupboard, mop in hand, and cleared the milk from behind the counter.

    “Might as well do the floors while I’ve got the mop out,” I said to Seamus.

    “Whatever.” The coffee machine hissed as he made drinks for a customer.

    I mopped my way systematically over to the chairs by the window, then leaned in close to the Traveller.

    “You’re not from around here, are you?” I whispered.

    He turned to look at me. Eyes widened as he caught a glimpse of my calloused finger.

    “There’s a ghost of a portal,” he said, pointing out of the window. “Just a remnant, but if I can get it open, I can get home.”

    His voice, too loud for the coffee shop, drew brief, uncomfortable stares from the other customers. I cringed as Seamus looked over, one eyebrow raised, but I persisted in my conversation, lowering my voice further in hopes the Traveller would take the hint.

    “Do you know how to open it?”

    “I need more data first. That’s why I’m watching.” He tapped the side of his head. “My memory is special.”

    I didn’t doubt it for a moment. People with eidetic memory were great for gathering intelligence off-world. It explained how someone this awkward had got recruited to a portal team.

    “Everything OK?” Seamus called out.

    “Fine,” I said, waving a hand. “Just talking TV.”

    “No,” the Traveller began, “we were-”

    “Never mind.” I snatched up my mop and walking away.

    I had a life here now. The ghost of a life maybe, but better than nothing. If this guy made that difficult, or worse yet got me fired, then I would have nothing.

    “Don’t you want to go home?” the Traveller called out. “To see the golden seas again? To spend time with your family?”

    A thousand images flashed through my mind. Births, weddings, parties, funerals, wild nights on the town and quiet afternoons in the country. My heart thudded in my chest.

    Seamus was picking up the phone. It wouldn’t be the first time we’d called social services to help with an emotionally damaged customer. I doubted that half those customers got the care they needed, but at least they stopped being our problem.

    I reached out to stop Seamus.

    “Guy just needs some company,” I said quietly. “Let me take my break. I’ll calm him down, see how it goes from there.”

    “You sure?” Seamus asked. “Dude doesn’t seem right.”

    He tapped the side of his head.

    “I’m sure.”

    I set the mop aside, took off my apron, and made myself a cappuccino. Then I pulled the other armchair around next to the Traveller and sat with him, staring out of the window.

    “What are we looking for?” I asked.

    * * *

     

    Given how much time I spend in coffee shops, it’s a wonder I don’t set all my stories there. If you enjoyed this one then please share it with your friends. And if you’d like more like it, please sign up to my mailing list to get a free story straight to your inbox every Friday.


  • Marooned – a Flash Sci-Fi Story

    Terra kicked open the door and scrambled out the buckled side of the space shuttle. She slid down the wing, fell off the end, and sank up to her waist in a slop of rotten fluids and wobbling flesh. The stench made her stomach heave.

    Smoke spewed from the flaming engine as she waded to the edge of the awful swamp and up a curved slope of something white, slippery, and yielding. She was almost at the top when the shuttle exploded, the blast flinging her over the rise of the hill. She went tumbling down the far side, where she landed once again in a heap of biological waste. At last her stomach gave in and she vomited.

    She wiped a hand across her mouth and looked around. The stellar cartographers hadn’t been kidding when they’d labelled this planet a biological refuse heap. As far as the eye could see, everything was putrid fluids and discarded flesh.

    How was she going to find help around here?

    A few miles ahead were two rows of something like high ground. She started wading towards them.

    After an hour, she glimpsed movement to her right. Daring to hope, she scanned that direction for signs of life. Maybe this place drew scavengers who could take her home. At the very least, it might have animals she could eat while she waited for rescue.

    A geyser of old organs sprayed into the sky, propelled by gasses from the rotting swamp. So much for life.

    Terra trudged on. As she approached one of the ridges, the swamp grew shallower. She emerged dripping onto what passed for dry land – a high pile of old and mouldy meat. Where did all this come from?

    The answer came a moment later, as a shadow passed over her. She looked up to see a vast haulage ship. She waved her arms frantically and screamed for rescue, but the transport just kept going.

    She was soon glad that it hadn’t stopped. Its underside opened and millions of tons of waste cascaded out, streaming down the other ridge. Then the doors closed and the ship ascended out of sight.

    The ground beneath Terra seemed to move – probably just the waste shifting after the recent arrival. Wearily, she kept on up the hill.

    At the top, the loose waste had slid away to reveal the pinnacle of something larger. It must have been the body of a vast beast, because its leathery hide covered dozens of meters before it was covered by other waste.

    Terra sighed and sank to the ground. She’d been counting on rescue, but who was going to find her here? She was on a planet no right-thinking creature would set foot on, alone and doomed.

    Seeking a brief moment of solace, she reached for her hip flask, but it wasn’t in her pocket.

    Cursing herself for leaving it behind, she looked back at the smoke from her ship. The wreckage was hidden from view by that first domed hill she had crossed.

    The white dome moved, revealing the black disk of a vast pupil. A giant eye stared at her. A moment later, the other ridgeline rose, revealing a giant webbed hand. It waved.

    A low sound of greeting filled the air and shook the ground.

    Terra gaped at the sight.

    At least she wasn’t alone.

    *  *  *

     

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  • Dealing with Difficult Books – Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem

    The phrase “difficult book” is such a loaded one, it’s hard to even say it without feeling weighed down. There’s an implication that this won’t be fun but that if you can’t get through it, then the problem is with you as a reader. That’s a puritanical approach to culture that I just can’t get behind.

    An Important Book?

    The Three-Body Problem comes loaded with that baggage. One of the most popular science fiction novels ever published in China, it was translated into English by American author Ken Liu. Its publication by a mainstream anglophone publisher was a groundbreaking moment. When the translated version won a Hugo award, it felt like recognition of the importance of international voices. Within sci-fi circles, that makes The Three-Body Problem a big deal.

    As I started reading The Three-Body Problem, I could tell that it wasn’t popular for its accessibility. The prose and pacing feel old-fashioned. The structure is strange and sometimes uncomfortable. The exposition is sometimes intrusive.

    The Chinese context adds to the challenge for a western reader. The first tenth of the book is set during the Cultural Revolution. For Chinese readers, the significance of events would be obvious. Western readers will need the footnotes and I’m sure I missed many implied connections. Once the story skips forward to the modern era, life in China is just alien enough to put bumps in the western reader’s road.

    Then there’s the science. This is a book about physics. The science is central to the story and the protagonist achieves his goals by grappling with it. Though the author explains enough to make it comprehensible, it’s still challenging in places. This is hard science fiction in both meanings of that phrase.

    This book has earned great prestige within western sci-fi circles but will be challenging for most western sci-fi readers. It’s practically the definition of a difficult book.

    My Reading Experience

    For me, difficult books are usually an emotionally unengaging experience. The more I’m challenged by the book, the less I’m engaged with the characters. Stopping to make sense of it all doesn’t make for a smooth read. They can be useful in learning technique, but they aren’t often much fun, and I like my leisure time to be fun.

    This one wasn’t like James Joyce’s Ulysses, where I wanted to throw the book across the room, and which I’ve not finished after 19 years. But I certainly wasn’t feeling the thrill of reading, wanting to dive straight into each new chapter. I only cared about one character, and he was a grumpy cop cliché.

    And yet, despite my cynicism about difficult books, I found this one rewarding. I don’t read a lot of hard sci-fi, the works focused on science rather than futuristic adventures. It was satisfying to read something clever with science at its core. It was also intriguing to see recent Chinese history through the lives of these characters and to read a story set in an unfamiliar society. The story didn’t engage my emotions as much as an author like John Scalzi does, but it really got its hooks into my brain. I left feeling unsettled yet intrigued.

    Sometimes it can be good to read the difficult books. Not because hard work makes you better or gets you into some imaginary club of well-read readers, but because any book people place value on must contain something of interest. In the right frame of mind, that something can be well worth your time. I had to set aside my comfort-seeking brain to read this one, and that’s not something I want for all my reading. But I’ll be doing it again soon to read the next one in this series, feeling both thrilled and daunted at what I’ll find there.


  • Summer in the City – a flash science fiction story

    That summer, the city planners set up giant fans on the rooftops east of Grand Street. Vast sails of painted steel spun through the air, powered by the same sunlight as the heatwave. It was an insane solution, using a broken environment to mitigate its own worst symptoms. But those were the times we lived in.

    Using a rope and grappling hook, I climbed the last dozen feet from the fire escape to the rooftop. I felt dizzy just looking at the buildings around me, never mind at the ground far below. But I had to get up there. The heat in the city was melting my brain. I couldn’t get any work done, and soon I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. Like ninety percent of people in the city, I couldn’t afford air conditioning, but up here there was an alternative.

    This close, the wind from the fan was almost enough to knock me off my feet. Its cooling effect was glorious. I sat cross-legged beneath it, pulled out my laptop, and started typing.

    For the first time in weeks, the words flowed.

    “You can’t be up here.”

    I turned at the voice. A uniformed security guard stood at top of a stairwell, glaring at me. She waved a taser.

    “Please,” I said. “Just let me have this.”

    “Too dangerous,” she said. “These fans could blow you right off the edge. Even the birds have flown away.”

    Now that she said it, the absence became obvious. Most city rooftops were covered with pigeons, but not this one.

    “I’ll take the risk,” I said.

    “Not on the city’s insurance.” She took my shoulder and started dragging me toward the door.

    I didn’t struggle. She was stronger than me and she had a taser.

    In the elevator to the ground, we talked about the weather and the state of the city. But inside, I was planning my return.

    *

    The second time, I took a different route up to the roof, using pitons as well as rope. At the top, I paused for a moment to enjoy the glorious blast of the fan, then settled down to work.

    Ten minutes later, the security guard was back.

    “You again.” She shook her head. “Come on, you can’t stay.”

    “Please,” I said, hands clasped beseechingly. “I’ve got more done in the past ten minutes than in the whole of the past week. I need this place.”

    “These fans get surges sometimes,” she said. “Like sudden violent gusts of wind. You want to be blown off the edge?”

    “I’m willing to risk it.”

    “Even the pigeons aren’t that dumb, and they could fly if they got blown off. All you’ll do is make a stain on the sidewalk, and that seems like a waste.”

    “I’m not going.”

    “I could make you.” She raised her taser.

    “You’d really do that?” I blurted out.

    She looked me up and down.

    “Maybe not,” she admitted. “But I will call the cops. So do you want to be arrested or do you want to come with me?”

    I put my laptop away and trudged to the stairwell.

    This elevator ride, we talked about books and TV. It turned out she was a Chandler fan too, just not a fan of trespassers on her rooftop.

    *

    The third climb was the toughest. I planned it out carefully, based on where I’d seen security cameras. If I could avoid them then maybe the guard wouldn’t know that I was there.

    At first, it seemed to work. I settled down with my laptop on my knees and started typing.

    I’d been at it for an hour, the air blowing past me in glorious cooling gusts, when something caught my eye. A seagull was soaring on the artificial wind, a hundred miles from the sea yet somehow here, showing off as it swept through the air currents.

    “Time’s up,” said a voice beside me.

    I looked up to see the security guard. Despite myself, I smiled. She was getting to be a familiar face.

    “Spotted me on your cameras at last, huh?” I asked.

    “Something like that.” She nodded toward the stairs. “Come on, trouble.”

    I sighed, put my laptop in my bag, and rose to my feet.

    “Enjoy it while it lasts!” I shouted to the gull. “She’ll chase you away soon too.”

    The guard laughed.

    “Holy crap,” she said. “Didn’t think the birds could cope up here.”

    “Different sort of bird,” I said. “Shall we go?”

    She hesitated, then sat down, took off her cap, and wiped the sweat from her brow.

    “Screw it,” she said. “It’s too hot in that building anyway.”

    “Don’t we need to…?” I pointed toward the door.

    “Nah,” she said.

    “What about the risk? Getting blown off the roof?”

    “Just stay back from the edge. And if I look like I’m going, you grab hold of me, you hear?”

    I nodded and sat down next to her.

    “I’m Adi,” I said. “What’s your name?”

    “Becca,” she replied. “Don’t wear it out.”

    We sat chatting, enjoying the cool breeze and watching the seagull soar. Work could wait.

    * * *

     

    It’s been insanely hot in Britain this summer. I haven’t climbed on any rooftops to get away from it yet, but it would be tempting.

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