My Terrible Choices of Great Books

Social distancing has given me a chance to do more reading, which has turned into a mixed blessing. The books in my to-read pile have all proved excellent, but boy are they bleak choices for troubled times.

First up, as I discussed last week, there was Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s a dense, engrossing novel about a prisoner at the tail end of human civilisation, a man trying to get by as the world collapses around him. There’s even a section where he’s locked up alone. Definitely no bleak parallels with the present there…

Once I got through that, I read another of Tchaikovsky’s books, a new novella titled Firewalkers. It’s set in an environmentally ravaged future in which the rich are escaping into space, leaving the poor to die. I read that one just as stories were emerging of politicians making investment choices based on coronavirus while not acting to prevent it. Apparently people really are jerks like that.

And now I’m onto Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, which begins with the moon exploding and so dooming human life on Earth. It’s well written, crammed full of fascinating detail, and at 861 pages it should keep me entertained through a lot of time alone, but blimey, it is no way to escape the bleakness.

Is there a message to all of this? Well, I suppose there’s “be careful what you wish for” – I wanted more time to read and now I’ve got it. But once I’m done with this lot, I think it’ll be time to head back into an old, comforting favourite. Winnie the Pooh is calling me from the bookshelf, and I know he’s got nothing sad to say.

A Star Called George – a flash science fiction story

I love nights like this, when the air is clear and you can see the stars scattered across the sky. If you look hard, you can almost see all the way back to Earth. That’s where we were born, your grandma and I. It’s where we all came from, the first people on this planet.

Image of a night sky.

You see that star over there, in the Great Ship constellation? That’s the one we call George. Doesn’t sound like much of a name for a star, does it? But there’s a reason we gave that name to the brightest star. Do you want to hear it?

Of course you do.

OK, so George was the co-pilot on the Endless Voyage – that’s the ship the Great Ship is named after, the one that brought us here from Earth. He wasn’t a great guy. He was brooding and surly, didn’t like spending time around people, could never let anyone else have the last word. If I’m honest, none of us really liked him, but he was a gifted engineer as well as a pilot, and that got him a place on board.

George wasn’t on duty when the meteor hit. Captain Vance had the honour of piloting our final flight into orbit, and I think George was pissed off that Vance had pulled rank. While the rest of us were watching our new home appear in the view screen, celebrating the fact that we’d made it at last, old George was sulking in his cabin.

Except that it turned out we were celebrating too soon. There was a crash and the Endless Voyage shook like mad. I tried to call Vance over the intercom, but there was no response. Then I saw the debris we were trailing. The bridge had been destroyed.

The controls were gone, the captain gone. We were hurtling towards landfall with our nose smashed open and the ship tearing itself apart. Bad as things were back on Earth, this was the most terrified I’d ever been.

Then George’s voice came over the coms. He told us that he’d jury rigged a control system from his cabin. He was bringing us in but he needed us to listen.

It was the first time we’d ever been glad to listen to George. Half the escape pods had been trashed along with the bridge, so he sent the kids and parents to the ones that were still intact. The rest of us were sent to the cargo pods and told to strap ourselves in.

I was one of the last into the pods. Standing in the doorway, I could feel the ship shift around me. I looked out and realised that George was turning us around, pointing our unbroken rear towards the planet.

I got him on coms, my voice still shrill with panic, and asked if we could even make atmosphere like this.

“Better than we can with our torn front end first,” he said. “Now get in that damn pod and lock the door.”

I did like he said and strapped myself down on a big heap of bags full of seeds. The ship was shaking, the whole frame screaming as it tore itself apart. People were praying, crying, holding each other tight.

I looked up at the ceiling and promised that if we got through this I was buying George a drink. I would put up with his nonsense for as long as he wanted, I was that grateful for him giving us a chance.

We were into the upper atmosphere by then. The air was getting hot. The shaking was so bad I chipped three teeth and my mouth was full of blood.

Then George’s voice came over the coms.

“I’m going to detach you all now,” he said. “Good luck.”

There was a thump and my cargo pod stopped shaking. Gravity took hold as we fell straight towards the planet, hurtling ever faster towards death.

Then I was jerked back in my straps. The parachutes for landing cargo had kicked in.

Those tears and prayers turned to whoops of joy. We were going to make it.

I got on the coms to tell George that we all owed him a drink, but there was no response. Then I remembered, he’d been controlling the ship from his cabin. George, the surly swine who no-one liked, had stayed behind so that we could live. He’d died to save us.

When I landed and got out of the pod, I could see pieces of the ship burning up across the sky. I cried at the thought that one of those pieces was George.

That’s why I come out here on clear nights. I look up at the star we named for him and I offer up a drink.

I’ll be gone soon. Ninety years feels all too short when you’re leaving behind the people you love, but it would have been a lot shorter without George. So I want you to come out here once I’m gone, look up at that sky on clear nights, and raise a glass to George, because we’re going to owe him a drink forever.

***

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***

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.

Setting the Tone in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Cage of Souls

I might as well begin with a jaunt on the river; sounds jolly enough, no?
– Adrian Tchaikovsky, Cage of Souls

I could write for days about Cage of Souls, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel about a prisoner in a dying civilisation. I could discuss its inversion of Heart of Darkness, how it plays with prison drama tropes, what it takes to build a dying world. But instead I want to talk about one thing – how perfectly Tchaikovsky sets up the book.

Stefan Advani, Most Unreliable of Narrators

Set in the distant future, Cage of Souls is told from the point of view of Stefan Advani. We first meet Stefan on a boat heading for prison through an ungovernable swamp. As the story progresses, we learn more about Stefan’s past and his experiences in the prison, all seen through the filter of his perceptions. And as the book makes clear from the beginning, Stefan is not a reliable narrator.

“Where to begin?” Those are the very first words of the first chapter, and they set the tone for Stefan’s narrative. He’s making choices about what to tell us, in what order, and how to tell it. He’s framing the story to his own ends. He doesn’t even care whether we see him as reliable, sarcastically introducing his river trip as a jolly jaunt. He’d rather be seen as erudite than as honest.

This sets the tone for everything that follows. Stefan recounts his adventures as if they were true, but as readers we can never trust him. Another character even calls him out on this near the end of the book, accusing him of misrepresenting them. And the nature of Stefan’s unreliability tells us a lot about his character and what he values, including both his intelligence and his public image.

Stefan cannot be trusted, and the very first page makes that clear.

The Tension of Subjects

In a certain sense, this is also a book that can’t be trusted. For over a hundred pages, it dwells in the prison where Stefan is held. It builds up a claustrophobic drama about life in this one dreadful place, like some sort of post-apocalyptic Oz. But it’s not really about that one place. It’s about the whole of human society, in a future where that society seems on the brink of death. It’s a story that embraces Stefan’s whole world.

That tension between the immediate and wider subjects of the book is again set up on the first page. Stefan contemplates the topics he could start with – a criminal underworld, a rioting crowd, a parched and deadly desert. By offering up these possibilities and then snatching them away, Tchaikovsky hints at a much wider world and makes us want to know more about it. We’re sat waiting for the next 130 pages, stuck in prison while knowing that there’s a wider world to see, just like Stefan.

That introduction to other topics holds out a promise of what’s to come, and it’s a very important promise. If a book changes tack partway through, this can throw readers. Whether they like the new subject or not, they may feel confused and frustrated that the story is no longer what they expected. It’s possible to avoid that sensation by foreshadowing what’s to come.

Game of Thrones has perhaps the most famous example of this. Before heading into a grim, grounded story of political intrigue, George R R Martin provides a single encounter with something fantastic and monstrous. It’s easy to forget that chapter once you’re drawn into the story, but it puts a pin in the map, a marker that says “here be dragons, and they be coming back later”. It gives us reason to believe that there’s more to Westeros, and primes us for high fantasy elements to come.

The start of Cage of Souls does the same thing. It prepares readers for later sections of the book, when Stefan’s story will roam outside the prison. It creates tension, expectation, and an acceptance of what’s coming later.

Distance

Distance is one of the key themes of Cage of Souls. The distance between Stefan’s world and ours, between the prison and the city, between society’s wealthy and the criminal gangs living underground. And of course the psychological distance between very different characters and communities.

There’s a sense of distance in the way the story is told. By talking directly to us on the first page, Stefan doesn’t bring us closer. Instead, he creates a greater awareness of his presence as an intermediary. The book holds us at arm’s length, and those arms belong to Stefan. Though Tchaikovsky’s writing style creates moments of incredible immediacy, sucking us into action scenes and confrontations, he always comes back to Stefan eventually, holding us away.

That sense of distance is reinforced by the way Stefan relates to events. He misses many of the most important incidents in the book, and only survives because of that absence – this is the story of a dying civilisation, and our narrator lives by narrowly missing its death throes. He sees their aftermath or passes on the accounts of others – of course retold, removing any risk that they might be entirely true.

This distance reinforces something that could easily be missed – that Stefan isn’t really the protagonist. There are many scenes where he’s just the observer to others’ struggles, from the power plays of gangs to a deadly duel. Even in the overarching narrative, this isn’t really Stefan’s story. It’s the story of his civilisation, and he’s just the eyes we see it through. Though a reader can’t see this at the start, it’s all set up in that detached tone.

Decay

Cage of Souls is a story about decay. This is signalled in the descriptions of the first scene – an antique boat, festering jungle, ragged and stinking prisoners. A page and a half in, the word “decay” itself has already cropped up. The choice of where to start, a choice made within the book by Stefan and around it by Tchaikovsky, sets the tone for everything to come. Even though we won’t see what passes for civilisation for over a hundred pages, its rot is there from the start.

As I said at the beginning, I could write for days about this book. Fortunately, I don’t need to. The keys to the story are there from the start.

Farmhand – A Story of Mad Science and Environmental Harm

There aren’t a lot of comics dealing with how humans affect the environment. In some ways that’s weird, because the potential for striking imagery is huge. In other ways it’s less surprising – this is a difficult issue to face. That’s why a less direct approach is sometimes valuable.

Farmhand by Rob Guillory doesn’t read like an environmental parable. It’s a weird sci-fi story of a farmer who finds that he can grow human organs on plants, transforming and even saving lives through vital transplants. But as odd things start to happen, it becomes clear that the past is catching up with him and that there’s more going on with these plants.

Farmhand is worth reading just for Guillory’s lively, angular art, which made Chew such a memorable read. But if you’re looking for comics that talk about humans and the environment then there’s more to be seen.

This is a story in which people are directly affecting their ecosystem. The plant-grown organs amount to a genetic experiment, and one that’s leaking out into the world. Life can’t be contained, no matter how humans try, and their creations have gotten into the wild, creating effects they couldn’t have predicted.

There are also unpredictable effects on human beings. This is one of the things that we don’t talk about enough with environmental harm. Pollution doesn’t just poison animals and plants, it hits humans too. It’s affecting our immune systems, our food, the air we breathe. Even if you don’t care at all about nature, you can’t avoid its consequences.

And then there’s that tale of the past catching up with the characters. What better metaphor could there be for our relationship with the planet? Decades of abuse are catching up with us as forest fires rage and ice caps melt.

Farmhand is a great piece of storytelling and comics art, but it’s also more than that. It’s a timely reminder of how much is at stake.

The Hall of Ideas – a flash science fiction story

Alec walked into the Hall of Ideas and took a seat at a terminal. A shiver of excitement ran through him as he took a data chip from his pocket and inserted it into the machine.

Today was the day. He’d been working for months on his design for a public mural. It was bright, vibrant, taking a whole new approach to the art style of public spaces. He had the vision. He had the materials. All he needed was approval from the algorithms.

For several minutes, he sat staring at the screen, clasping and unclasping his hands. Around him, other people went through the approvals process – designers, musicians, public planners, all taking their ideas to the machine so that it could compare them with billions of pieces of data and determine what people would want. Only then, once the machine had proved that an idea was wanted, would they receive permission to proceed.

At last, the screen flashed. A message appeared:

“We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.”

Alec sagged, despondent, in his seat. He’d been so certain. He loved the design, why wouldn’t other people?

With a sigh, he got up and headed out of the door. He would just have to try again.

*

Alec walked determinedly into the Hall of Ideas and slid his data chip into a terminal, then took a seat while he waited for it to assess his idea.

The new mural design was even more inventive than the last one. Bold juxtapositions of colour and shape, a bright and enlivening pallet, a valuable message about what it meant to be human. It had to be worth doing.

Inside the machine, the AI sifted through its vast data store, looking at what people did, what they bought, what they had said about past works of public art. The totality of electronically recorded experience went into its decision.

The screen flashed and a message appeared:

“We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.”

Alec frowned. There must be a mistake. He took the data chip out, put it back in again, and waited for the AI to process the design.

The answer flashed up the same – a clear denial of his dreams.

“What then?” Alec snapped. “What do you want if not this?”

People turned to look at him, alarmed and confused by someone disturbing the calm of the Hall of Ideas.

Alec blushed. He took the chip out of the machine, got out of his seat, and strode out of the hall.

Next time, he would get it right.

*

Alec thrust the data chip into the terminal. Around him, the Hall of Ideas was busy, as it had been six months before, and six months before that. A year wasted on reinventing his design twice over. There was no denying that the mural would be better for it, as he had refined every last detail, creating something so extraordinary that the people he showed it to gasped in excitement. Still, the lost time frustrated him.

The screen flashed:

“We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.”

“No!” Alec leapt to his feet. “You’re wrong, you stupid heap of junk. All you know is what people did before, what they liked before. You want everything the same as it’s always been. But we can dream bigger. We can do better. We can try something new!”

Around him, people watched in shocked silence.

Alec snatched the data chip out of the machine.

“You’ll see,” he bellowed to the rafters. “This thing doesn’t know shit.”

He stormed out of the hall and into the sunlit street. To hell with machine decisions and official approvals. He had the paints, he had the brushes, he had the design, and he knew a blank wall going spare. He would show the machine and everyone behind it that art didn’t have to match what had been loved before.

Back in the Hall, people turned back to their screens. A few began to wonder, could they try something new?

***

This story was inspired by an article by Cory Doctorow on the inherent conservatism of AI. Doctorow is a great commentator on technology and where it’s taking society, so his work is well worth a read.

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.

Real Food – a flash science fiction story

It was the gun that got Liz’s attention. She hadn’t seen many guns in her life, had seen none at all in the protein plant before, and this was very definitely the first one to be pointed at her. The darkness of the barrel had a hypnotic draw that almost made her ignore the man behind it.

She raised her hands and stepped back, legs trembling, sweat breaking out across her brow. Her back pressed against the guard rail, hard and cold even through her overalls, and she found herself trapped, caught between the three terrorists and the vats below.

“We are the Real Food Front!” the leader of the terrorists bellowed. “We demand that you switch off these machines.”

When she looked back on it later, Liz realised that she should have just said, “yes, of course, right this way…”, but in the moment, her brain was lagging somewhere behind the dangers of reality.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because people should be people,” he said. “They should eat real animals and plants, not some synthetic protein pooped out by bacteria.”

“That’s not really how this-”

“Silence!”

He waved the gun. Liz clamped her mouth shut, terrified that he might accidentally pull the trigger. It would be bad enough to get shot over this goop, never mind dying because some idiot’s finger slipped.

They stood staring at each other, both waiting, while his comrades peered down into the gently bubbling vats.

“I said switch it off,” the terrorist said.

“Oh!” Liz blinked, then laughed uncomfortably. “Sorry, I can’t. I don’t have that level of control.”

“Then you’re no use to us.”

He shoved her hard and she fell over the guard rail with a shriek. For a moment, the air rushed past, then she landed with a splat in the vat below.

Liz flailed wildly, trying to swim through a morass of bacteria, water, and the proteins they were making. Each breath was a desperate gasp as she felt herself sinking.

Then she remembered how shallow the vat was. Blushing with embarrassment, she got her feet underneath her and stood, chest-deep in goop.

“You will provide a warning to the world of the danger this place has unleashed!” the terrorist shouted, his voice echoing through the factory. One of his comrades held up a phone to film Liz. “As genetically modified bacteria dissolve your body, the world will see how deadly their food is, why they should return to the good old ways of real food.”

Liz raised her hand.

“What?” the terrorist asked.

“You know this won’t work, right?” Liz said. “These bacteria don’t eat anything but hydrogen. Even the ones that dissolve plastic can’t-”

“Of course I knew that! This was, um, a test, to show that you’re a real employee here. And now the world will see your face as we poison your precious artificial protein. No-one will be able to eat your barbaric products, as they bring the same death to the body they bring to the soul.”

One of the others had taken off a bulky backpack and pulled out a plastic sack. He ripped it open and poured white powder into the vat.

Liz raised her hand.

“What?” the lead terrorist snapped.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but that won’t work either. There are so many filters in this system that whatever you’ve put in, it’ll probably be taken out. And if not, it won’t make it past quality testing. Regulations are even tighter for us than for other food.”

The terrorist leaned forward, one hand gripping the guard rail. His face was red.

“I didn’t want to do this,” he said. “But you people have pushed us to it. For the sake of future generations, we must return to real food.”

He unzipped his jacket, revealing a mass of plasticine-like blocks and trailing wires. One of those wires let to the switch he pulled from his pocket.

“I may die,” he declared, chest thrust out as his comrade stepped back to film him, “but by sacrificing myself to destroy the very vats that poison our people, I bring this place to a halt and prove to the world that life is worth more than this.”

Liz raised her hand, but it was too late. The terrorist ran along the gantry, vaulted the guard rail, and landed with a splat in the next vat over, out of sight from her.

There was a muted thump. A fountain of bacteria-infused goo blasted into the air, then pattered down like a thick, pink rain. Liz, already coated from her fall, watched with a smile as the remaining terrorists tried to shake off the slime.

Then the doors burst open and the police ran in.

An hour later, Liz was sitting under a blanket beside the vats while a woman from HR failed to comfort her.

“This is going to be a disaster,” the woman said, shaking her head. “Never mind cleaning the vats, the publicity from it all-”

“We sell food powders with all the taste and glamour of plasticine,” Liz said. “Until today, we were as cool and edgy as a children’s TV presenter. Now our food has survived a terrorist attack.”

She got up and started looking around for new overalls.

“Unlike the Real Food Front, I think we’ll survive.”

***

A story inspired by real attempts to make food using gas and microorganisms. Because the world is a wild and wonderful place.

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 Future of Food Gets Weirder

Our relationship with food is changing fast. As new technologies and ethical considerations take hold, it’s becoming rich territory for speculative fiction.

I wrote about food a couple of times last year – one an article about how food isn’t explored much in sci-fi and the other a flash story about the effect of changing diets. Only a few months later, the news has leapt ahead from my ideas.

A couple of weeks ago, Finnish scientists announced that they had found a way to make protein out of air. It involves soil bacteria and splitting water, and the end result is a tasteless, textureless powder with all the culinary appeal of sawdust, but still, if it works then this is huge.

If you’re going to pick out a single nutrient to synthesise, then protein is surely the most important. It’s what our bodies use to build, grow, and repair themselves. In the absence of fat and carbohydrates, it provides a source of energy. It’s why meat, fish, and dairy are so valuable in a diet, and why you have to be careful to get a good balance of simpler proteins if you go vegan.

Traditional protein is also relatively land- and resource-intensive to produce. Feeding an animal up to provide meat, eggs, or milk takes a lot more space, energy, and resources than growing vegetables or grain.

As the middle class grows around the world, wealthier people seek out more protein in their diets, and those who’ve got it aren’t giving it up. Some in the west are moving over to plant protein to reduce their environmental impact, but the pressure farming puts on the ecosystem is still huge.

That’s why George Monbiot, one of Britain’s most famous commentators on green issues, thinks that the Finnish technology could save the environment. Even if it’s not all that tasty, protein flour could provide millions of people with nutrients they need and that many lack. And because it takes far less space and energy, it could be a blessing for the environment, especially if it’s powered by solar energy. Just imagine vast vats on the edges of the Sahara, turning sunlight into precious food.

Compared with what I was writing about in No More Milk, this is a radical change, both in its practical potential and in its aesthetics. Protein flour grown in bacterial vats is some real sci-fi weirdness by current food standards, far more so than just eating beetles. The transformation this could bring is staggering, and it lends itself to some weird people, places, and events, from obsessive bacteriologists to vast food-processing vats to new organisms growing from the food sludge. The possibility that this might take off makes some previously wild speculation seem more real and will encourage sci-fi writers to move away from food as we know it.

The future of food is vital to society. Now it could be dramatic too.

Silver Sails – a flash science fiction story

Helena stared open-mouthed at the silver sails drifting across the black of space. They moved like a flock of vast and shining birds, flowing back and forth in V-shaped formations hundreds of kilometres across, blown by the solar winds between the binary stars. As they turned, one face or another would catch the light, their bright tissue rippling and folding in invisible currents.

Space

“How do they even exist?” she whispered.

Johar shrugged and steered their shuttle towards the edge of one of the flocks.

“No-one knows,” he said. “Just be grateful that they do. They’re our way out of this system.”

The nearest sail shone brightly as Johar manoeuvred them in behind it. Tweaks of the thrusters, using up their precious supply of fuel, brought them in line behind that sheet of silver.

“Your turn,” he said.

Helena rubbed her hands against her thighs then wrapped them around the grappler’s controls. Her skin was tingling, her heart beating fast, but she tried to ignore that and focus on the task in hand.

She lined up the target finder on one corner of the sail and pulled the trigger, but a jerk of her hand left the shot misaligned. The grappling cable spooled out across the void, missed its target, and trailed limply like a heavy grey thread.

“Come on Helena, you’re better than this,” Johar said. “I’ve seen you practice.”

“It’s different out here,” she said, setting that grapple to wind back in while she reluctantly lined up another one. “They’re so beautiful, it doesn’t feel right to trap them like this.”

“They’re not people, not even animals, just a strange quirk of the cosmos. They won’t know that they’re trapped.”

“I will.”

Johar sighed, unstrapped himself from his seat, and floated across the cabin to her.

“You can do this,” he said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I believe in you. And I believe in us. We could never afford the fuel to escape the system with rockets, but with a sail and a couple of cryo cans we can go wherever we want. It’s a whole new life for you and me.”

Helena couldn’t bring herself to look at him. Instead, she focused on the target finder, lining up the grappling shot like she’d practised so many times. Johar was right, this was their dream.

And yet…

“What if it goes wrong?” she asked. “What if the sail tears or we can’t find somewhere to settle or the place we find is dreadful or… or… or anything?”

Johar took a deep breath before he spoke.

“Sure, any of that could happen,” he said. “But if we don’t try, we know what will happen. We’ll live here our whole lives, stuck in dead-end jobs for an uncaring corporation. I’ll live through that for you, if that’s what it takes to be together. But couldn’t we have more?”

Helena looked out across the flocks of silver sails swirling against the black. She had never known such beauty could exist, never mind that it could exist here. Did she embrace that? Or did she leave it all behind, hoping that the universe might hold something more?

“Everyone I’ve ever known lives here,” she said. “Family, friends, all the places we share.”

“If it’s too much, we can stay.” Johar let go of her shoulder and drifted back to his seat. “Sell the ship, buy a little apartment instead, get by with what we have.”

His fingers stabbed at the controls, setting a course back home, then hovered over the thruster switch.

Helena imagined that apartment, the two of them raising kids in one of the city tower blocks. She imagined snatching a few hours of leisure each week with family, treasured moments between the long hours of her job. She could live with that.

The sail they were following turned with the rest of its flock. Like vast silver birds, the sails soared through the void, shining with borrowed light. The wonders of the universe were laid out before Helena.

She stilled her trembling hand and pulled the trigger. The grapple caught a corner of the sail.

Maybe she could live with this place, but she would rather dream of something more.

***

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.

Invisible – A Flash Science Fiction Story

This whole thing started for me when Gazetech brought out their smart glasses. You remember, they were the first with filters to separate out real human faces from the imitations on screens, machines, and billboards. A shortcut for the brain.

Glasses on laptop

Everyone was getting burnt out by then. The internet of things meant an endless succession of appliances trying to engage with us, using fake faces to grab our attention. Just walking down the street became a road to mental fatigue, trying to work out who was human, who wasn’t, what any of them wanted and why. You’d see tired parents and exhausted executives picking fights with holographic bank machines. Our silicon helpers were killing us with friendship.

Then came Gazetech with their solution, because apparently the fix to broken technology was more technology. A pair of glasses that would detect and blank out fake faces.

It worked. The people who bought them reported greater happiness and productivity. Within weeks, more factories were being built. Vandalism against public-facing machines plummeted.

And people started ignoring me.

I didn’t realise at first. We’ve all had people who jump ahead of us in queues or try to barge past in the street. When it happened with acquaintances, I started to think I’d done something wrong, even became a bit depressed. Then a colleague bought his first Gazetech and stopped responding to me around the coffee machine. Finally, I worked it out. I had the wrong sort of face.

Gazetech uses a variety of filters to detect fake faces – excessive symmetry, surprising stillness, average features for your gender and skin tone, stuff like that. One of them alone won’t trigger the glasses, but hit all those buttons and it’ll think you’re just another device or an advertising board.

I’d never been exceptional looking. Good enough to get dates, not so handsome that I drew admiring crowds at parties. Now I knew why – I was the definition of average.

At first, it was amusing, a novelty to tell people about, but as the glasses became ubiquitous, it became a pain. I had to keep reminding everyone that I was in the room, or I’d be entirely ignored. It was as frustrating as being a teenager.

Then came the revelation.

We’d just finished a team meeting and I was sitting alone in the conference room, feeling sorry for myself. The others had walked out, all wearing their Gazetech, gossipping away, forgetting about me. Then a couple of the company’s directors walked in for a meeting of their own, both wearing Gazetech. They closed the door, sat down, and started talking like I wasn’t even there. To them, I wasn’t.

Oh boy, the things I heard. Projects and investments that no-one else knew about. Details of a planned restructuring. Who was sleeping with whose secretary. I kept quiet and took notes.

That evening, I bought shares in one of the companies they were planning to take over. Within weeks, those had soared in value.

After that, I did it on purpose. People had got used to not seeing me, so they didn’t notice that I wasn’t at my desk. I spent my days in the corners of meeting rooms, hoovering up the company’s secrets. Most of it was useless for anything other than blackmail, and I didn’t have the streak of cruelty it took to go down that route, even against people who had stopped seeing me as a person. But there were gems amid the muck.

It took me a while to foster a contact at a rival firm. I had to prove that my information was good, without giving away how I’d acquired it. I built trust slowly, giving away crumbs so I could sell them the whole loaf.

At last they were convinced and the work started in earnest. Every month, I received a substantial transfer from an anonymous bank account. Every month, I sent an encrypted email from a secret address. Every month, our rivals made a move just in time to thwart my firm.

Eventually, management realised that they had a mole. A witch hunt started. I had one day of roiling, gut-churning panic before I realised that I didn’t need to worry. No-one was going to blame me. They had forgotten I was there.

Over the next year, the company’s fortunes plummeted while mine soared. I made canny investments based on their planned next moves, doubling what I earned from my other employers. I didn’t even have to hide my grin, because no-one saw it.

Then came the fateful day. I was sitting in the corner of a board meeting, learning about their desperate, last-gasp plans to turn things around.

The chief executive let out a deep sigh and admitted that it wasn’t going to work. She was exhausted, battered by the winds of fortune, barely holding herself together. She took off her glasses, rubbed her eyes, and looked straight up at me.

Nobody called the police. Instead, security guards brought me down here, to a quiet, windowless room in a corner of HR, for a discreet little chat. And I can be discreet. I think I’ve proved that by now.

So here’s the thing. You could finish firing me and hand me over to the police. Or you could go grab my laptop. I’ve been working on a job application for a rival firm. I can get through the doors there. I can find my way onto the inside. And then…

***

This story was inspired by a friend of mine who works in academic psychology. She went to a talk on how processing the presence of other people, trying to work out their thoughts, feelings, and intentions use up our brainpower, even when those people are actually just objects that look like people. She wondered, in a grand way, about its sci-fi potential.

Then I took the idea and made something seedy out of it.

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.

Tone Versus Content – The Star Trek Revival

With Discovery now two seasons in and Captain Picard about to return to our screens, Star Trek is having a big TV revival. But is it doing what Trek does best?

Let’s get this out of the way first – I am totally on board with these shows. Discovery‘s diverse cast and bold storytelling are things of joy. The idea of seeing an aging Picard back in action makes my heart swell.

But the tone of Discovery, and by the look of its trailer Picard too, is very different from what Trek was. Both in the visuals and in the storytelling, things are darker, more ambiguous, less hopeful. There’s an emphasis on long-term storytelling that’s at odds with the original episodic format.

This isn’t surprising. Sci-fi TV saw a significant shake-up in the wake of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, which took existing trends and expanded on them to create a gritty show with squabbling crewmates and deep, troubled characters. Much of what’s followed has tried to recapture that, and it’s led to some great TV.

But this isn’t what Star Trek was about. It was a show in which the crew fundamentally got on, in which the right decision could be made, in which the universe was a hopeful place. And it looked like it. Even Deep Space Nine, the darkest of shows from the second wave, kept that underlying tone and built its ongoing plots on the solid foundation of episodic storytelling.

The new shows have content and continuity carried over from before, but they don’t have that tone. The universe is a shadowy place, visually and morally. In Discovery, episodic storytelling takes second place to ongoing arcs, squeezed into the corners of even the most stand-alone episodes. There’s every reason to expect the same from Picard.

That doesn’t mean that it’s bad sci-fi. Far from it, there are some great stories here. But there was a Star Trek shaped gap in our viewing schedules, a place for hope and brightness in contrast with the post-BSG shows. Star Trek could have brought that and it didn’t. For better or for worse, it’s a very different beast now.