Home of silent propaganda


propaganda-e1498947894270The Department for Work and Pensions’ definition of each benefits claim

A 47-year-old, able-bodied, straight white British man, has begun a campaign against himself, because what he stands for is different to what his appearance represents. With diagnoses of PTSD, depression, anxiety and personality disorders, the man’s protest aims to highlight invisible disabilities to those who make fitness-for-work assessments in benefit claims.

Lee Verstak (not his real name), a little-read left-wing writer, explained: “Everyone thought I was jumping on bandwagons, supporting everything I’m not: BAME, LGBT, and everyone else who’s discriminated against. I tried inventing minorities, transcending them even. But when I made a case for pan-sexuality being someone who understands, even if they don’t take part, people got confused. How are you supposed to participate in a debate if you try to think for everyone?

“So to prove everyone wrong, I’ve started this protest against me doing that sort of thing. I’ve always been capable of actually walking a short distance, but I never enjoyed doing it anyway, because of my paranoia and anxiety.

I handed out some leaflets locally, with me on them, telling people what I was doing. Before long, people stopped taking them, and eventually ignored me altogether, saying I should be in a home or something. So I sent myself home.

I found out that technically, you can arrest yourself, in a logical extension of the powers of citizens arrest available to us all, to prevent a further breach of myself. I’d encourage others to do this, to help the system so that we may be more easily dealt with and ignored.

I’ve told the authorities where I’m holding myself, but even the departments for indifference and ignorance can’t help, so I’m just sweating it out. I’m on strike from being me, sort of like a hunger strike, but without anyone to force feed me. I might have wasted away in a few months: Problem solved.

Meanwhile, it’s an opportunity to reflect on how others see you. For me, it’s going well: I fucking hate myself. Hopefully I’ll get through it, like I did the last two tribunals, and I’ll feel even more dehumanised and with an even lower opinion of myself.

“Yeah, it’s quite life-affirming really. Then I might write a book or something, about finding a way out when life traps you: Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: how do you get out? Well, you could stop imagining, or you could use your imagination.”

My critically-acclaimed, Douglas Adams tribute sci-fi novel is also now an eBook. My latest anthology is available in paperback.



Thinking more of the writer


I’m getting to know myself, and more of who I am, all over again. Occasionally my solitary life forces me to do that, like a brain reboot after a depressive episode. It’s happened before but it’s one of those traumatic things you tend not to remember until it hits again. It’s becoming reacquainted with the whom…

IcebergAbove and below the waterline: what I write, and what’s in my mind.

It’s a meeting convened inside the mind, between factions who have to always occupy the same space, so dialogue and understanding become survival, when a lesser mind might wish to end the conflict by giving up on life. I’ve been there before, when a voice constantly reminded me of the inevitability of death. But then I went off to learn what happens when we die from science, and I wrote about it. For this latest encounter, I became mediator of my own mind again.

For the conversation to start, I needed to withdraw to the theatre of conflict: My brain. And therein is where I needed to go, to work out what’s been up with me lately, as the field I surveyed was quite empty: I actually didn’t have enough on my mind to keep it functionally occupied. Just as I’m capable of seeing most situations from an outside perspective (in fiction, and the issues others have), sometimes it’s hard to transcend my own mind.

An above-average IQ is nice, but it can be a poisoned chalice and sometimes the host of the mind can’t see the woods for the trees (The Girl with the Snake Scarf is a fairy tale about finding a third way: A coping mechanism for others, and for me as I wrote it. Sometimes my own stories help me as a reader to look into my mind, to see how it was on a previous setting.) My problem was, I’d split into two. The writer had become separate from my depressed other self, and had separation anxiety from its own ideas factory.

Inside myself is not a good place to be if I don’t have enough thoughts to distract me. It makes the issues I need to address more stark. That inner world travels with me and if I’m only thinking of myself, I’m paranoid of my surroundings and the people therein. But if I go out and my inner writer is working on various projects, I feel more personally confident. So I am. The writer interrogated the other mind’s depths, and came up with some stories. I confronted the thoughts, rather than flee. I had to, as they were in my head and there’s a writer in there too, who can help get them out.

I’ve plotted and begun writing three new shorts, coming to an eZine soon, and included in a third anthology I’m planning (as yet untitled). There’s a tale of human consciousness as a virus (perhaps you wish could be cured, so you didn’t have to think about how awful your species is). There’s another, where life on earth is an accident, and no other life exists anywhere in the universe. Depressingly dark ideas on first inspection, but they’ll be tales with likely twists or surprises, as happens when the author spoke into the black mirror of a cracked mind.

Cyrus Song (the eBook) got taken up on the free offer a few times on World Book Day: Not huge numbers, but enough to tell me that someone is reading it, a complete stranger, somewhere unknown. And that’s a kind of magic, that’s why I write.

What would be the point of leading the rest of whatever life I have left, in a quiet and orderly manner? None at all. Life is not a singularity, and even the most introverted ones want to be shared.

An active mind fuels my insomnia, but rather a lucid mind than a dead one, empty of all but inward reflections. Inside my head is a universal microcosm. If I feel low about myself, that encourages the paranoia I have of how others see me. It’s a self-propelled paradox.

I’m writing this late at night, and working on those new short stories. I’m actually sitting in a scene I could imagine for a story, but which I don’t have to, because I’m in it: A writer, sitting in front of a window, illuminated by a desk lamp and writing on a typewriter. The moths look in, and seem eager to read what I’m writing.

We make our home under piles of words, we make friends amidst the pages of books and we find comfort in between a full stop and the next capital letter. We feel in italics and reflect in capitals. With an obsession for the written word and words dangling from our fingers, yes, we’re writers.” Aayushi Yadav, from “Inside A Writer’s Mind”.

Any day begins with mourning


“Grief is the price we pay for love, it’s what happens when the love has nowhere to go”. When I first read that quote, I was surprised to learn that the author was Queen Elizabeth II. She had a point, and she’d know. I’d add that each day lived alone, is a day of mourning. Not just a personal sentiment, it’s how many others might try to explain depression on a daily basis.


The roots of my daily guilt are the fallout I caused from my drunken breakdown. I hate the person I was, so much that I compare him to the current UK government: a selfish, self-serving fascist, wilfully inflicting self-harm on all around me. Long since forgiven by most, those blackouts of the mind in the past frequently return to haunt the conscience of the present self.

Depression is as individual to the carrier as the vessel which tries to contain it. Having an above-average IQ can be a poison chalice, but it means I can write. These are just the things which manifest mine, but how they make me feel is much the same as anyone else trapped in the nothingness, alone.

When you care about so many people, every non-reciprocation or forgotten acknowledgement of a good deed feels like an insult and further punishment. When you long for someone to call you, just to say hello, but they probably hate you because you never call them, not wishing to impose. But I fear instigating something, or establishing a precedent, a friendship I can’t maintain.

Life is a daily trial, missing people who used to play a bigger part in mine. Thanks to my drinking, I never got to see my kids grow up. For a whole year, I didn’t see them at all, and now I see them once a month, as geography and finances dictate. I’m sad most days, as each is another when I didn’t see them, because I got drunk.

I caused my parents more grief than most. Bridges were rebuilt long ago, and they’ve even gone so far as to say they’re proud of me. But since I robbed dad of his liberty by reporting him missing (lost) in his car, I’ve not seen him. That event came in the midst of his treatment for fluid on the brain – now better – but he’ll have to re-apply for his driving license (which I doubt he will). As a result, I’ve robbed him of his freedom, mum of transport, and my auntie and myself of visitors. No-one will ever know if I saved his life that night I reported him, because he got picked up by the police and taken home safely.

As I find getting out difficult, I’ve not done a lot to help myself see other people. Rather than one who thinks they’re the life and soul of the party, I’m the one who comes with a mental health warning. I travel with my own atmosphere, and I feel like the elephant in the room, so I don’t impose, which makes me seem uncaring.

We don’t feel sad, we feel empty. We find it difficult to talk, because we don’t understand it. We act irrationally too: We’ll psyche ourselves up to walk two minutes to the supermarket for food, then admire the food we’ve bought, or think about what we can do with it, before it’s out of date and we throw it away, unused. That makes me feel guilty.

It’s because I think about things so much, perhaps with a tendency to overdo it and complicate matters unnecessarily. All of which stirs up my paranoia, and convinces me that I’ve done the world a disservice, but no-one will tell me what I did. It may be irrational, but it’s how I and many others feel, every single day. Welcome to our lonely planet.

It’s that poison chalice again, the double-edged sword. It’s the mind which effectively allows me to commune with the dead through scientific faith, but which prevents me from talking to live people. Writing is my only outlet, and readers among my few friends.

No-one owes me anything, and there will never be enough time to pay back what I owe. Every day starts with mourning, and tomorrow is just another one.

We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them.”

-Somerset Maugham

A small phantom bereavement


It’s very difficult to move on when you’re a fish in treacle. Once, I drank myself into the gutter, but I got back up. All depressives have episodic attacks, and my most recent was the longest I’ve known. Now I’m trying to get beyond a few things, but they’re matters guaranteed by their nature to trouble my mind, so it’s more a case of working out how to deal with them while they’ve moved in. When I have few to talk to in physical life, writing is a coping mechanism.

Butzi StageEmily Mann: “When a theater goes dark for the night, a stagehand leaves a lighted lamp on stage… Some old timers say it is to keep the ghosts away. Others say it lights the stage for the ghosts to play. Whichever theory one adheres to, most people agree: A great theater is haunted.” —PHOTO BY PAUL BUTZI

Depression is subjective, and as individual to the person as the character it inhabits. For me, it’s more a feeling I’m about to lose something, than grieving something which is gone. It’s an amplification of the usual anxiety which tells you there’s a shit sandwich in the mail. You don’t know what it is, and often it doesn’t show up, but you know it’s coming. Frustration sets in, and the unknown can become a fear, like all which we don’t understand. I try to look in from the outside to find answers.

There was a time (while I was drunk) when I was more aware than is normal, that my life will inevitably end somewhere. It’s a certainty, it became an obsession, and once there was a voice to constantly remind me. I tried to take my life at least twice, just to shut it up, if living meant having to listen to it every day. I still get the odd anxiety attack from nowhere in particular, but like the cracked actor in my head, those became dark friends for a writer.

If I spent time in my outside surroundings, I have a whole village, with much that might improve life (a park, library, charity shops, coffee shop, pubs, restaurants), but irrational fear keeps me away. It’s a separation anxiety from home, when that’s such a precious commodity, not quite agoraphobia. It’s a constant insecurity.

Buzzfeed recently ran a poll, which asked people which fictional location they’d most like to live in. I’ve used existing fictional homes to shape my own, both in fiction and real life, and my studio is a small version of Matthew Broderick’s room in WarGames, with a bit of Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter’s apartment from The Big Bang Theory. It’s the partial basis for Simon Fry’s flat in Cyrus Song, and bits of it are in other stories with parts of me. It’s filled with music and my Savage Cinema film collection, and it’s where my desk is, so it’s life in a box. It’s a box which is both physical and virtual, like one which might house a Schrödinger’s cat.

I thought I had life, the universe and everything tied up, and I do in theory (it’s all to do with quantum entanglement), but sometimes this life reminds you what an arse it can be, before you can move on to the more interesting stuff, once you’re free of your physical body.

My dad’s recent illness reminded me of the frailty of life. Friendships too, as I’ve lost some, yet gained others.

The youngest of the young people I used to counsel at the squat is just turning 18. The last time we spoke, she was on the threshold of a new relationship. Like all before, I advised caution, as I do with anyone, including myself (the reason I’m resolutely single). There’s someone for everyone, one person can make the difference, and everyone should be allowed to leave their baggage at the door, as I preached at the squat.

They’re all adults now, and hopefully they learned enough from me to not make the same mistakes I did. I’m still friends with one of the others, and it’s been rewarding, to see her settle into life as she’s got older and grown wiser, with help when it was needed. A ghost from the past, who still revisits. 

I continue to write sci-fi, where I imagine future humans (if there can be such a thing; if we can change) as organic-technological hybrids, who’ve transcended current humanity, so that they can resolve issues by understanding and without conflict. All we have to do is step outside ourselves to see a bigger picture, and from there we can be more objective.

I read and learn more about science as it progresses every day, fuelling the fiction author. I write of AI, wondering what it’s like to be human, and humans wishing for all the answers, when those might be in a merging of the two. For as long as I still occupy a physical form, I’ll also haunt computers.

I have many physical ailments pending medical diagnosis, but I fear going to hospital. I need to, as I’m approaching a time when I may have to fight again to prove that my mental health is a disability anyway, as I reapply for Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

I’ve been through the dehumanising process twice, was refused twice and appealed, and both times I took my case to tribunal and won. This time I have physical conditions to add to the list, which might even get me the mobility element of PIP as well as the daily living. It’ll only be based – as it always has been – on what the doctors say, even if government out-sourced assessors think they’re better qualified than a GP and other specialists, and I have to waste more of taxpayers’ money with another tribunal.

I fear the whole process, and the last two made me more unwell than I am. It’s a process designed to wear the applicant down, it’s about six months away, and will last at least six months more. It’s nice to think I might hold it together over the coming year, with the help of those still around, real and virtual.

My blog is a reflection of me on the other side of the screen. It’s nice to have people looking in and along for the ride, as I come back every now and then to address the grief, a phantom in my head. The writing desk is a dressing table, where I get ready for the next part: Tomorrow.

A many-mirrored mind


I did a lot of thinking while I was waiting for news of my dad and not writing much, and I let myself go a bit, mentally. I got fed up with being the only person around here who cooks, does the shopping, pays the bills and cleans the place. I live alone, but still…

Kusama-Yayoi_Infinity-Mirrored-Room-Hymn-of-Life_2015_1500x1000-980x653Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – Hymn of Life, 2015

The sole occupant of a life can have a tendency to over-think things, especially when so many other people inhabit their mind. When that person has mental health issues, those can become self-pollinating. And when the person’s a writer, some might think that makes things easier. It does and it doesn’t, because writers think more than average, they have a reputation to maintain in reporting those thoughts, and the more they think about the right prose, the more they’re obliged to think. It’s the proverbial vicious circle and yet another paradox in the life of the writer with depression. Sometimes I feel I should just go out and meet people. Then I remember, I don’t like many people and I don’t enjoy going out. My life, in a box, which I decided to take a look around.

Writing is a very lonely game anyway, more so when you’re someone with many different people in your mind. Some might think a writer with depression is a sadomasochist, but when you have anxiety too, it’s the only way to live. If I’m to keep living, I have to keep writing. It’s a self-propagating paradox.

I thought I’d found some kindred spirits in a few Facebook writing groups, then the one I favoured closed down because of an admin’s family bereavement, and paranoia tells me everyone I touch turns to shit. It’s a reflection of my real life, where I erect barriers to prevent anyone getting too close. Sometimes I let the barriers down but end up kicking people away, when they subsequently invade my personal space, inadvertently because they’re on my mind.

Some of the writing groups were challenge-based, and I’m stuck for words as often as I have too many to put into decent prose (very much the manic depressive, bipolar writer). Sometimes I set my own targets, and have nowhere to put them, so they go here. When I’m working freelance, I’m in charge, and with so many people in my head, it’s easy to find one to boss. Other times, I’m lost for words, let myself down, and simply lost in life.

I wouldn’t return to drink, as I never found myself there, only when I dried out. As well as losing all that I did before (and more, and on a more permanent basis), I’d lose this whole new brain function I’ve found, but which sometimes drives me to distraction or to switch off. I do have a drink to hand (I’m a functioning alcoholic), but I prefer a nice cup of French coffee and a croissant, sometimes with a cannabis joint, and I think some more. Sometimes, good fiction will arise, and others a full-blown existential crisis. My life in the mirror.

I’m 48 this year, which means I’ll have caught up with Douglas next year. I was born in May 1970, and it occurred to my reflection that in 2020 I’ll be entering my seventh decade: Conceived in the 60s, born in the 70s, grew up in the 80s, lived the 90s, married the noughties, and finally found myself in the teens. It was 2013 when I found myself on the streets, before becoming counsellor and friend to all those young strays who found the squat.

Last time I checked, there were only two or three people who truly understand real me: My kid sister, Courtney, and a couple of the young girls who adopted me in lieu of a father figure in their lives when I was on the streets. These are the ones the plastic police and defective detectives used to wind themselves up about, as they imagined what went on in the squat (if they’d bothered to come in themselves, like the real police used to, they’d be wiser). Those were mutual adoptions, which have proven symbiotic since. We remained friends, because I let my barriers down and didn’t feel a need to raise them again. These are friends I trust, because they placed so much trust in me, and who can read me as I can them. Courtney can listen to a list of perceived issues I have – A, B, and C – then suggest option D: That I’m being paranoid, and invariably she’s right. Those girls can somehow get me to look inside myself in a different way to my everyday.

There are barriers, of course, even if what we were once suspected of is legal now the girls are older. They’re still young girls, so it’s a one way street: I give a shit about them, but I don’t intrude on their private lives unless they bring them to me. It’s a life of ‘Do not disturb’ (I’m disturbed enough already), but I welcome the odd disturbance.

In writing, my peer groups are reflective of real life too: Never a core member of many things, but on the fringes of many more. Cyrus Song was me reaching out, when every day of guilt laden sobriety might cause a less occupied person to lapse. It’s a good job I have writing, but I need people to read, so that more might understand me and help me understand myself. All writers hope that what they do is worthwhile.

Barring another wobble, I have a lot lined up, if I can keep my mind on the job. I’ve got some short stories planned, and some already drafted or in process; I have a list of research projects for later blog posts; and now that dad’s on the mend, I can get back to the family history book, albeit now with a revised publication schedule.

I’m still a bit lost, in life and in writing, but both are the same, just as my real and virtual lives blur and merge. So I carry on in my writer’s life because what other is there? I seem to thrive in captivity, like a snake.

I was interrogating Captain Mamba, as I’m plotting Cyrus Song II as well. We discussed the snakes’ future plans for humanity, and as today is Valentine’s, we discussed snake and human birth control. We agreed that we both already employ an effective method: Being who we are as people.

The mind is a many-mirrored room when you look around it, then just write it down as you see it and read it back.

Breaking the mind cycle


I said I’d be more open when I could, and now I can write more honestly about a few things which have been keeping me quiet lately…

Break the cycle

Top of the vox pops has been my dad, who’s been unwell. He’s home now and all the evidence suggests he’s much better. Long story short, he was having problems with his memory and sense of direction. It had been a process so gradual that it was barely noticed by those closest to him, until one night when he went missing.

A keen and able driver with 60 years of incident-free motoring behind him, and a man who would invariably be early for any meeting, appointment or gathering, it was unusual for my dad to be late home. So when my mum phoned me to say dad was an hour late, alarm bells began to toll in the distance.

I spent at least ten minutes on the phone to mum, during which she kept popping outside the front door to see if he was coming up the road. It was getting dark and it was a Saturday. Dad was never keen on driving in the dark, and there’d be something on TV he’d scheduled to be home for (probably a transport, engineering or emergency services documentary), now finished.

Eventually I phoned the police, and in doing so, I knew I was robbing my dad of his main liberty: his car and the freedom to drive it. I was also taking away my mum’s ride, and their means of visiting me and others. I asked mum several times if I should grass the old man, when there might be a perfectly valid reason for him being late, but none seemed likely. I knew – and I told mum – that as soon as I reported dad missing, the police would put out an alert, dad would trigger an ANPR camera and probably get a TPAC by three fed cars (I watch a lot of police procedurals myself). After a couple more checks on his whereabouts outside, she agreed, better that than a starring role in 24 Hours in A&E.

As it turned out, it wasn’t that dramatic. Dad did indeed trigger a camera, and was soon lit up by blue lights from behind. He pulled over to let an emergency vehicle pass, then quickly realised it was him the police were after. “Your son reported you,” they’d said, so that was nice of me. One officer then drove dad home in his car, tailed by her colleague in the Battenberg. I found this all out when dad phoned me when he got home, to thank me for getting him there. But I knew there’d be fallout.

Dad’s 75, so his slight doddering might have been put down to simple ageing. But when it became life-affecting, thoughts turned to senility and degenerative neurological conditions. I’d been aware of his ongoing decline when I reported him, and dad’s health had been one of the police’s concerns. He was at the consultation stage at the time, but it was serious enough for him to have to surrender his driving license, for his own safety (and that of others). I felt like shit.

Further tests and scans revealed a build up of fluid around dad’s cerebellum, causing pressure on his brain. Dementia couldn’t be ruled out, but it was likely that relieving the pressure would restore his cognitive functions. This was at the end of last year, so any treatment would be in the new year. I’d displaced my whole family over Christmas, as my dad was the only one with a car. Everyone was going to have a shit Christmas, because of me.

Early this year, dad had the first of two operations, initially to drain the build up of fluid around his brain stem. Later he may need a stent, but the first procedure was a success. Very soon after, dad regained a lot of himself, and he was reading, watching TV, and even got some fine-detail colouring books. It was quite incredible to witness someone return so suddenly from something which had been so gradually debilitating. Then it all went tits up.

Just a few days after returning home, dad was hit with an infection, specifically at the site where the excess cerebral fluid had been drained (he’d had a spinal tap, after all). Infections are never welcome interlopers, but the ones who attack the brain and central nervous system can be particularly worrisome. Earlier dad had been picked up by a police car, now he was being carted away in an ambulance (to the best of my knowledge, my parents don’t play with matches).

Dad was in hospital for three weeks and I didn’t see him once. It would be a five-stage journey for me, by public transport or taxi. Social anxiety aside, I simply couldn’t afford it, and I had no-one to give me a lift. But in some respects, I’m glad I stayed away, if only to witness my parents becoming much closer. Mum gets free travel, so she was at the hospital every day and I spoke to her as regularly as I thought appropriate, caring, but at the same time, not wanting to be in the way. Now dad’s home, where he can recover quicker, and after 50 years of marriage, him and mum are still very much in love.

I’m told I shouldn’t feel guilty for taking my dad’s liberty, and that I’m not to blame for his ill health (his cognitive decline brought on by my breakdown and subsequent conduct), so I must just be paranoid.

Paranoia breeds and cross-pollinates my other neurological inflections, anxiety and depression, and together they form the unholy trinity in my mind, which many others suffer. I live alone and I’m left alone, so few have to suffer me.

I’m an alcoholic, who lives with a guilt complex. I could probably get utterly pissed and get away with it, and no-one would notice because few call or visit. But I made this situation, by not wanting anyone too close, so if I lapsed, I’d be the only one who noticed.

It wasn’t because I lapsed in anything other than myself, that this blog has been less dynamic than usual lately. Now that I have my greatest fear – that of losing my father – lessened, I can start to make plans again. Among those plans are to write more, so that I’m less alone now that my mind isn’t so tied up with myself.

Like my dad, it’s like I can hear myself again. I hope others can too.

This blog has wall sockets


For a long time now, I’ve defined a typewriter as a musical instrument with keys. My keyboard of choice is my laptop, and it’s been a kind of living, retro-futuristic and steam punk device, in the various incarnations of The Unfinished Literary Agency, my fictitious writing bureau which tells the stories others can’t. Words and writing are art, just like music, and my typewriter made the Cyrus Song audible.

cat using laptop

I took a fearful plunge a week ago, when I decided to publish Cyrus Song as an eBook. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t do it before. I explained in my last blog post how I’m a traditionalist who reads books, but it was the Kindle and other devices which democratised publishing, and I was ignoring all those readers (sorry). Just like the answer to life, the universe and everything, it was under my nose all the time.

I’ve got old Cambridge Audio hi-fi separates and Mordaunt Short speakers for listening to uncompressed music. I’ll always prefer records and CDs over MP3, and I’ll still always prefer physical books myself, but I’ve democratised one of my own, because it’s the one I’d like people to read the most. I like doing things unplugged, and by unplugging Cyrus Song and plugging it into all those e-readers out there, I’ve made the novel I’d willingly be judged on as an author available to many more people.

My blog is where I come to be myself, and where expression is freedom. Right now I imagine I’m in a room, just as I am for 99% of my real life outside the blog. I’ve written before, Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: how do you get out? Assuming the subject would even want to, they could stop imagining. Or they could use their imagination.

The walls in this room definitely have ears, as it’s where I come to be heard, and hopefully liked and followed. Some people come here because they actually want to hear what I have to say. For a socially anxious writer, that’s the imagination required to get out of the room, to escape my physical self and all of its doubt, and occupy my virtual space instead.

This room also has a skirting board all around the perimeter, but in this virtual room, I don’t have to skirt around myself. I can use the plug sockets in those skirting boards to plug – on this occasion – Cyrus Song.

The book had reviews on Amazon and in Schlock web zine before it was converted to an eBook (and it’s always available as a paperback), and I’ve received a couple of email compliments in the past few days. Hopefully it’ll gather more reviews as the current readers finish it and still others pick it up. For now, the best and most informative review was the one in Schlock, by Stephen Hernandez, a translator and interpreter. Given that Cyrus Song centres around talking animals, there seemed no better professional critic to plug the book:

CYRUS SONG BY STEVE LAKER reviewed by Stephen Hernandez

The book begins with a bizarre, Kafkaesque occurrence. Although, in this book, the author would not be Kafka but Douglas Adams, the untimely late, famous author of ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, a book which is central to, and has a great bearing on this book – sorry, if this is all getting a bit complicated, but then we are dealing with ‘The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’.

Simon Fry, the hero of this novel, is faced with perhaps the same problem as Arthur Dent, the hero in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: saving humanity from itself and discovering the meaning of life, which is, of course: 42. So, back to the bizarre occurrence: A writer [it is he, Simon Fry], is staring absent-mindedly at the page he has just written on his typewriter, whilst listening to Pink Floyd’s album, ‘The Division Bell’, in particular the ninth track: ‘Keep Talking’, and the quote contained therein by Stephen Hawking: ‘For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk…’ (the full quotation is also central to the theme of the book), when he notices two random marks on the page, a dot and a dash, which he could not remember typing. He notices the characters are moving across the page, seemingly in a self-determined fashion denoting some kind of intelligence. He captures the minute ‘creatures’ and takes them to a veterinary clinic [as one would].

The vet, Hannah [a palindrome] Jones, examines them under a microscope and makes a surprising discovery: The apparent microscopic creatures are minute warships, and are inhabited, or crewed, one by animals commanded by Black Mambas, and one by humans. It is then that the vet reveals to Fry, something even more remarkable [but entirely plausible]: she has invented a very powerful and unique piece of software called The Babel fish (after the translating fish in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), which interprets animal languages. She lets him use it in her clinic so he can ‘listen’ in on the patients, something she refuses to do as she feels it would take away her objectivity with regards to treating the animals.

In between listening in on animals and looking at alien spaceships through a microscope, Simon Fry manages, along with a Norwegian coastal tour guide and micro-palaeontologist named Gilbert Giles, or in shortened Nabokov terms—Gil Gil, to make a clone of himself (Simon Fry II), and also to take the Babel Fish out of the lab and into the wide world like a latter-day Dr Doolittle (which he is, in more ways than one).

The three of them form an unlikely trio, and with the Black Mambas’ help they attempt to somehow save the planet and mankind.

If this all sounds a bit weird, that is, because it is. But it all somehow works, and knits together in the manner of surrealist writers like Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, with a substantial nod, of course, to Douglas Adams, who can make the impossibly strange seem mundane and ordinary. Steve Laker pulls this extraordinary juggling act off admirably well, producing a very good, thought-provoking, page-turning, and also at times darkly comic read.

Who knows—if you’re looking for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, you might just find it here, or in the ‘Cyrus Song’ of our planet. In the meantime, taking Steve Laker’s and Stephen Hawking’s advice, we all need to ‘keep talking’, and as long as there are books like these—keep reading.

It is indeed a very deep book, but it’s accessible and I’ve made it more so by plugging it in for e-readers. There really is a perfectly plausible answer to the ultimate question in that story.

The original review featured in Schlock web zine. Cyrus Song is available now.