Why Aren’t the Stars Burning? – a flash scifi story

The sky beyond our starship was streaked with light. The bright beams of lasers, the blazing flowers of exploding warheads, the glowing wakes of crippled engines and flames tearing through ruined hulks.

My eyes watered from the acrid smoke. Breathing made my throat ache but it was better than the alternative, just like being on the bridge of the Remus was better than being anywhere else in the fleet. We sat at our stations, trembling hands working the controls that still functioned, caught in one last moment of defiance. If we could smell the burning systems from here then we would all burn soon.

“Fire everything you have!” Admiral Salter yelled. “Every beam and torpedo, every bullet and bomb. Make the bastards bleed!”

“We’re doing it, Admiral,” I replied, wiping the sweat from my brow.

“Then why aren’t the stars burning?”

I swallowed and forced myself to face him.

“The stars still blaze, Admiral. Their light is hidden by the battle.”

“Why don’t they blaze brighter, Tollard?” He glared at the red console above my station. “Why aren’t they bursting apart to swallow up this wretched mess? Why aren’t we going down by the light of the Never Bombs?”

I shrank from the intensity of his stare.

“What good will killing the system do?” I asked.

“It will teach others to fear the wrath of the Republic. You think we built this weapon to sit on it? Launch the bombs!”

Gripping the back of my seat, I stood to face him. A fearful, lizard part of my brain betrayed me, one hand reaching for the controls. Obedience had a power beyond thought, but I forced my hand back and forced myself to stand firm. My fingers gripped my sidearm tight, the bite of cold metal reassuring me of my body’s obedience.

The priests said that I was damned if I disobeyed a superior, but I was damned if I was killing planets of minions. Better to ride the wave to Hell alone than to be flung down by furious ghosts.

 “The war is lost,” I said. “Never Bombs won’t stop that.”

Across from me, Gonda looked up from the shield controls, wide-eyed with shock at what was playing out. Her fingers darted across her console, redirecting the last dregs of energy, keeping our defences from collapse. I wasn’t going to waste these last minutes she had bought us.

“Do as you’re told, Tollard.”

The Admiral drew his sidearm and pointed it at me. Despite everything, the blackness of its barrel filled me with dread. When all you have is moments, they become more precious.

“No.”

“Then stand aside and I’ll do it.”

I drew my own sidearm.

“I won’t let you.”

I heard a thud and felt pain rip through my shoulder a moment before my own finger tightened. My shot hit the floor and I fell, blood streaming across the deck.

I forced my shaking hand up, trying to aim for the admiral, but it was too late. In three swift strides he had reached my station. His foot clamped down on my forearm and he reached for the Never Bomb controls.

“If the Republic burns, then we’ll burn the sinners away too,” he said.

He flipped switches and twisted dials. A countdown began, sixty second to give a commander thought before unleashing total destruction.

Tears streamed down my face, drawn by more than the smoke. There was only one way out of this.

Every millimetre of movement filled with pain, I raised my wrist and pointed my sidearm. I squeezed the trigger. There was a thud and Gonda sprawled across the shield controls. A second shot smashed those controls apart.

Alarms howled. The ship shook as shields collapsed and enemy fire hit.

Bright light blazed across the viewscreen.

“The stars are burning,” Admiral Salter said with a wide grin, oblivious to the clock running down behind him. Thirty seconds until the failsafe passed and he could launch the bombs.

Long enough for us to die.

Another flash and the screen went dead. A bulkhead gave way and smoke billowed onto the bridge.

“The stars are burning,” Salter repeated like a priest reading from the Great Verse.

I sank limp onto the deck. In the final moments, stars blazed across my vision, but the universe around me was safely dark.

***

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.

About “Communication Breakdown”, My New Short Story

Individualism. Communication. Responsibility. There are some big themes underlying Communication Breakdown, my new story in Metaphorosis. So how did I end up writing about them?

The answer lies in part with the character of Julian Atticus. As a character, Atticus is over a decade old. He sprang onto the page, world weary and sometimes drunk, back in 2006, when I wrote the first draft of Our Man in Herrje. That story, which eventually saw publication in Jupiter, was all about communication. Atticus, a professional liar, had to deal with an alien culture that despised untruth. It was a story about a cynical man dealing with more idealistic people and about the value of untruths, from entertainment to conspiracies.

Since then, Atticus has become a go-to character when I want to write stories centred on communication or personal responsibility. Being responsible really isn’t his thing, but he will reluctantly rise to the occasion when forced, or when his conscience takes over, as happens more often than he would like.

This time though, the voice in the back of his head isn’t Atticus’s conscience, it’s an alien that’s sharing his body for a diplomatic encounter. We get very protective of our sense of individual identity and how it ties to our bodies. We see a clear cut distinction between ourselves and the outside world, even though the boundary is actually very hazy. Ideas drift in and out of our heads. We can receive other people’s organs and still be ourselves. And of course, the question of when we become people is a fraught one that blurs the temporal edge of our existence.

Atticus was the perfect choice to face a further breakdown in that distinction. With a parasite in his body, he loses some of his control, some of his self. How will this encounter shape his life? And will he get to go back to his “true” self at the end?

You can judge for yourself in Communication Breakdown, out now in Metaphorosis. And you can read more about Atticus in Diplomatic Baggage, a series of connected flash pieces, or in my short story collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.

The Opposite of Beauty – a flash scifi story

“Tell me the truth, Mister Atticus,” the Dangveli President said, waving a mucus-covered tentacle. “Do humans even like my people?”

I followed her between blister-red trees, stepping carefully to avoid the oozing potholes of the formal gardens. It gave me an excuse to look away while I prepared my words. There was a lot at stake here, both for my career and for Britain’s space-faring efforts.

“Would we have asked to share a corner of your world if we didn’t like you?” I asked, faking a sincere smile in case she knew human expressions.

“I find the ways of aliens confusing. Often, they accept our offer of space on the carbon plateau eagerly, then become unhappy and hostile. No-one stays. They just dig up diamonds and leave.”

Her sixty-seven limbs all drooped and the stalks of her eyes lowered. I felt an urge to admit the truth – that everybody left because the Dangveli were so ugly, so foul smelling, and so objectionable in their behaviour that no-one could bear to share their planet. That their ongoing search for an intergalactic love match would forever remain unfulfilled.

But no-one gets into diplomacy to tell the truth.

“I’m sure they all had their reasons for leaving,” I said. “But humans will be different.”

“Will you?” She stopped by the railing at the edge of the raised garden, looking out over the city. A breeze hit us, carrying the stench of seven billion Dangveli from the city below, and I fought back the urge to vomit.

“Humans are the most adaptable species in the galaxy and the British the most tenacious of humans. Whatever has caused others to run away, we’ll stick with it. We’re eager to establish a special relationship with the Dangveli.”

Digging up their precious minerals could be a very special sort of relationship.

“We have been disappointed before,” the President said, turning to look at me, her eyes as big and innocent as those of a monstrously deformed puppy. “Can you swear that it will not happen again?”

It was hard to keep this going when faced with such sad desperation. But I had a duty, to my country and to my Christmas bonus. I opened my mouth to speak.

The President touched a tentacle to my lips. Mucus dripped onto my tongue. My whole body clenched. Was it possible that this moment was as grotesque to her as to me? Surely not.

“If you cannot tell the truth, please do not speak at all,” she said. “Do you really like us?”

All I could think about was the ooze on my face, the grotesque violation of my mouth.

“I… We…” The words got stuck in my throat. “Of course we don’t like you! No-one does!”

I took three steps back, sank into one of the holes, and staggered out of it with my leg soaked in corrosive sap. I spat into the bushes and wiped my mouth with my sleeve, while trying to ignore the itching sensation creeping up my shin.

The President stared at me.

“How dare you. Coming to my planet, saying these hurtful things!”

“You asked for the truth, you got it! You people are ugly. You stink. You’re vicious, mean spirited, and make constant demands on other species, which we all tolerate because of your wealth. Anyone who sends settlers discovers their limits and runs screaming.”

“This is what you call diplomacy? I will have you thrown into the burning vats. Guards!”

The garden rustled as more Dangveli approached.

The shock of her touch had worn off. My whole body slumped as the reality of what I’d said sank in. Of all my fuck-ups, this was the most fucked.

It didn’t matter that she’d asked a dozen times – no-one wants to hear that they’re the monster.

The guards’ slimy tentacles wrapped around my arms. I contemplated which would be worse, drowning in itching ooze or facing the wrath of my boss back at the embassy on Herrje. A terrible death was terrible, but at least it had an end.

“No-one speaks of my people like that,” the President said, tentacles spread wide in fury.

“Only because the others don’t have the courage to face the truth.”

“You make your fate worse with every word.”

“The truth about themselves.”

“The truth about what?” Her tentacles curled in just slightly.

“That we’re all just as grotesque to each other. Look at me, I’m a ridiculous pink stick with weird patches of fur. My limbs are angular and inflexible. I must look awful to you.”

“Well, yes, of course.”

“You and I, we can be honest about that. If your people came to my planet, they’d soon hate it and leave. The same will happen here. But if we accept that, if you let us send more settlers when the previous ones give up, then maybe we can make this relationship work. What do you say?”

The President stroked her neck ridges.

“You find all aliens monstrous, and they you?” she asked.

“Of course.” I set aside thoughts of the elegant Velanth, the beautiful Simdap, and the adorable hamster-like Quertzels. “Don’t you?”

I didn’t know if she could see the truth, but I knew when someone heard a lie they could live with.

“Guards, release him,” she said. “We have a treaty to arrange.”

As the grip went from around my arms, she held out a tentacle.

“I believe you humans like to shake on a deal.”

“No touching,” I said, holding up my hands. “We’re both just too gross.”

***

Here he is again – Julian Atticus, cynical PR officer and public face of the British in space. Not only here, but in a new story, “Communication Breakdown”, published today by Metaphorosis. If you want to read more, then head over to their website.

If you enjoyed this story 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.

21st Century Chic – a flash science fiction story

The minute I walked into the bar I knew I was going to regret it. It was a 21st century theme place, some alien brand manager’s attempt to evoke humanity in the Age of Outrage. I liked irony as much as the next over-educated civil servant, but you could have too much of a good thing. And let’s face it, the early 21st century wasn’t even a good thing.

I slipped the six-armed bouncer a cash card worth enough to pay for her next ten tattoos.

“I’m Julian Atticus,” I said. “We spoke on the phone. Where is he?”

A discreet twitch of her antennae directed me towards a corner booth, underneath a screen showing flashing memes of cute dogs accompanied by dumb captions.

“Get him out quick,” she chittered, “or I’ll have to throw him out.”

I walked over to the booth and stood, arms crossed, looking down at Warren. He was wearing an old-fashioned suit, just like always, and his tie was trailing in a puddle of beer.

“Shouldn’t you be writing press releases?” he said.

“Shouldn’t you be running security at the embassy?”

“S’my night off.”

“And you decided to spend it proving that humans are loud, drunken arseholes?”

“You’re the arsehole.”

I looked down at the menu. It was made up of listicles. “10 Drinks You Should Try Before You Leave!” “15 Starters to Get Your Tastebuds Buzzing!” Utter garbage. Yet for some reason this place had become popular. There were press outside watching for celebrities and politicians to drag through the dirt. Warren wasn’t either of those things, but it wouldn’t look good for embassy staff to be caught out like this.

“You hear me?” Warren bellowed. “Arsehole!”

The screen behind him picked up the shout and flung the word into a social media flow that sprawled across the walls and ceiling. Then some AI started arguing with itself about who the arsehole was. The AI was more articulate than Warren right now, even though it was playing the role of 21st century social media star.

“Fine,” I said. “Stay here. Get seen. Get fired. You’ll make my job easier in the long run.”

I turned, ready to stalk away.

“Knew it!” Warren bellowed. “Ambassador doesn’t care. Government doesn’t care. You’re all arseholes.”

I pressed fingers against my eyes and took a deep breath. I could feel a headache coming on already, and this was only going to make it worse. But I couldn’t leave Warren out like this.

I turned back to the table.

“What’s the matter with you?”

Warren looked up with bloodshot eyes, then he pulled out his phone and waved it at me.

“She’s finished with me,” he slurred. “Said I’m not available enough.”

“You did take a job light years from home.”

“Thought you’d be on my side. Thought you were my friend.”

“What on Earth made you think that?”

I barely had time to hear the words before I regretted them.

“You’re an arrogant wanker,” Warren said, wobbling to his feet. “But so’s everyone in this city. Politicians and pundits and fucking, fucking, fucking trade delegates. Wankers, the lot of you!”

Half the beings in the bar had turned to look at us. Years of training and a complete indifference to other people’s opinions kept me from blushing, but I was intensely aware of how bad this situation was getting. I needed to get him out, but there was no way he’d do what I asked.

Which left one option.

“You’re the wanker!” I yelled and shoved him in the chest.

Warren wobbled, almost fell, then staggered from the booth. As I backed away he followed, fist raised.

“You scrawny little fucker, Atticus. I’m going to give you the beating you deserve.”

“Oh yeah? You and whose army?”

I backed across the room. In the entrance, the bouncer I’d bribed pulled the door open.

“My army.” Warren lunged at me. If our blood-alcohol levels had been any different he would have knocked me flat, but I managed to leap aside and then shove him out the door.

Lights flashed. Seeing some sort of disturbance, low rent reporters came to see what was going on.

I hailed a cab and gave Warren another shove.

“You’re a shitty security guard,” I said loudly. “And I don’t need facts to prove it.”

Warren looked at me, confused.

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Questions are for experts and chumps. The people want to hear the truth!”

“But you just said-”

“Truth not facts!”

The cab rolled up next to us and its door slid open with a hiss.

“You’re such a wanker, Atticus.”

Warren took another swing at me. I ducked, then barged him in the midriff. He landed with a thud on the back seat of the cab and a seatbelt immediately latched onto him. As he struggled to get free, I straightened up and turned to the assembled press.

“Ladies and gentleman, I hope you’ve enjoyed our reenactment of the unique debating style that was 21st century human politics. For more of the same, please come to the British embassy for our events celebrating Earth History Month!”

I leapt into the cab, pulled the door shut behind me, and let it carry us away.

With a sigh of relief, I sank back in my seat. Warren, still grappling with the child-proof catch of the seatbelt, looked up at me, his face crumpled.

“What’s Earth History Month?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But do think any of that lot will turn up?”

“I would come,” the cab’s robotic voice said. “I enjoyed the video feed of your lively debate.”

I groaned and put my head in my hands.

“It wasn’t even a good century the first time around.”

***

It’s been a while since I’ve written a story about Julian Atticus, cynical PR officer and public face of the British in space. But I have a story with him in coming out in Metaphorosis next month, so it seemed like a good time to come back to his life on Herrje. If you want to read more, the first of his stories can be found in Lies We Will Tell Ourselves – more details below.

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.

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.

Instructions for an Escape Pod – a flash scifi story

small space ship

Thank you for choosing the Tanahashi emergency escape pod. At Tanahashi Corp, your comfort and safety are our first concerns. In the event that your space transport develops a terminal fault or suffers from irreparable laser fire, please follow these simple step by step instructions.

Step 1: Securely close the hatch of your escape pod, ensuring that the vacuum seals align with the outer rim of the door.

Step 2: Fasten the seat belts across your legs and chest. These may feel a little restrictive, but there’s no need for concern. They are just a normal measure to address safety concerns raised in a recent negligence claim.

Step 3: Press the red button marked “Pod release”. You should hear a thud as your escape pod detaches from the stricken vessel. Your beacon will activate and you can await rescue.
If the pod does not detach, continue to step 4.

Step 4: It appears that your release clamps have become stuck in the body of the main vessel. There is no need to panic. All Tanahashi escape pods of the Deluxe edition and above are fitted with a backup release mechanism.
You did buy the Deluxe edition, didn’t you?
Please stay calm and continue to step 5.

Step 5: Pull the yellow lever below the pod release button. You should hear a loud hiss of escaping air, but there’s no need for alarm. This is simply your emergency oxygen reserves venting as they blast away the docking clamps. You won’t need that oxygen anyway if you can’t escape the ship.

Step 6: Your pod should safely float away from the stricken vessel. Your beacon will activate and you can await rescue.
If the pod remains attached to the vessel, and that vessel is still heading for a terminal disaster, continue to step 7.

Step 7: It appears that the release clamps have become jammed. If you survive, please return your escape pod to the nearest Tanahashi supplier, who will happily provide a replacement.
If you are a Tanahashi Executive using our Super Exec Model X, please continue to step 8.

Step 8: Reach under your seat. You will find a strap connected to the Thermal Removal Device, a unique feature of the Super Exec Model X Escape Pod. Please pull this lever.

Step 9: Your escape pod is now on fire, the flames consuming your body along with the remaining oxygen. Tanahashi Corp’s engineering department apologises for any inconvenience caused by your untimely demise. Next time, don’t try to replace our jobs with robots, you penny pinching corporate bastard.

***

This story was inspired by a creative writing exercise about writing an instruction manual by someone who wants a bad outcome. I have to admit, it was a lot of fun to write.

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.