A prelude to the Cyrus Song

THE WRITER’S LIFE

So, there’s going to be this book. I may have mentioned it once or twice. That’s because it’s a good book, and it’s not just me who says so. And everything surrounding the book has just happened, by weird coincidence and by virtue of the number 42.

AuthorBookPosterDate

Coincidences are there to be found in many things, if you look enough. It just so happens that Cyrus Song took about seven months to write. Since then, it’s gone through another two months of compiling, editing and re-reading. In my own eyes, it’s perfect. There are one or two reviews due back from test readers in the next few days, but the reviews so far have been good:

I don’t think I’ve read anything else which is as funny as it is deep.”

A worthy tribute to Douglas, but it’s totally its own thing.”

Very, very clever.”

I love all the little tributes buried in here.”

And so on (names and addresses supplied).

There’s much more besides, happening on my own planet and in the wider world, but I’m pre-occupied with getting this book out. I’m still suffering separation anxiety from my characters while they’re in the care of the beta readers. So what about when the book is published, and Simon fry, Hannah Jones et al, are in the hands of (hopefully) many readers? By then, they’ll be characters I’m proud of enough, and confident in, to send out into the wider world. I love them anyway: They’re people I created, including all their problems, and they’re people I care about. While they’re still with those remaining test readers, they’re still effectively out on approval. They’re like my children on the first day of pre-school.

Many people reading the book, may actually learn a lot. Not just from the story itself, but from all the factual information in there. I always do a lot of research, and that’s certainly true of this book. All the science is plausible, and many of the places actually exist. When it comes to London Zoo, the animals in the book are the animals actually at ZSL Regent’s Park at time of writing: Kumbuka, the silverback gorilla, is real, as are the pair of black mambas in the reptile house. And there are many others, from Aardvark to Zebra.

Now that the manuscript is otherwise complete, and the book proofed, I can take a stab at a publication date (which adds up to 42): 17.08.17. Whereas – like Douglas – I’ve previously loved the whooshing sound a deadline makes as it passes, this may be one where I can jump off of the train while it’s still moving, and hit the platform running: If anything, Cyrus Song should be released by that date, so possibly before. I’m sure I’ll find a way of making 42 from whatever numbers they are.

And now that the time approaches and I’ve had almost all feedback, I can write a longer synopsis to the one on the back cover of the book:

Simon Fry is convinced that the answer to life, the universe and everything, is in the earth itself. Specifically, he believes that if he could talk with the animals, he’d find the answers. Or at least, the questions which need to be asked for the answer to make any kind of sense. Doctor Hannah Jones is a veterinary surgeon. She has a quantum computer, running a program called the Babel fish: Like its fictitious namesake, the Babel fish can translate any language to and from any other. Elsewhere, Mr Fry considers what might be possible if historical scientists were able to make use of all that would be new to them in the 21st century. Having watched Jurassic Park, he is fairly sure he can make this a reality. So begins one man’s quest to find answers to questions he doesn’t know yet. Cyrus Song is the story of Mr Fry’s ponderous mission to find answers to questions he never knew he had, about himself, life, the universe and everything. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s a story of boy meets girl, but it’s not a love story. But in a way, it is, because the book is a greater story: Animals talk; There are pan-galactic microscopic animals; and there are white mice. There’s a rabbit, because all rabbits always look like they want to say something. We find out the truth about many animals, including what the cats are up to. There’s an accidental human clone, a large supporting cast of characters, and many tributes in cameo roles for people whom I admire. I’ve buried some Easter Eggs in the book too.

And there is an answer. There’s an answer to life, the universe and everything, besides 42 (although 42 does get a mention). It’s a tribute to Douglas Adams and I saved the best review till second-to-last:

This is a worthy offshoot of Douglas’ books, and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A tribute, but very much original.” (Name and address supplied).

It’s science fiction but it’s plausible; It’s deep in meaning, and very funny. I can’t say much more beyond the extended synopsis, because of what’s in the book. People may read this book and choose not to give too much away: A bit like the film, The Cabin in the Woods, talking about it could reveal spoilers. That’s what I hope for most: for those who’ve read it to say to others, “You just have to read it.”

Soon my creation and my characters will be out there in the wider world, and I have every confidence they’ll do well. You have been listening to the prelude to the Cyrus Song, brought to you by the number 42.

How the fuck did you think of this? Where did you get the idea?” (With my imagination).

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The waiting game (long- and short-game strategy)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Over the last four years, there are four personal philosophies which I’ve learned to follow for a reasonably contented life:

  • If you’ve done something wrong, you have a moral responsibility to put it right.

  • Being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it.

  • Try to be the best that you can, at something you enjoy.

  • Don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today, because if you do it today and you like it, you can do it again tomorrow.

waiting

Since my breakdown, those rules and others have served me well in life.

The first rule is one which can be applied to mankind and the damage we’ve done to our host planet. This and other themes are covered in my upcoming sci-fi novel, Cyrus Song. The book is still out with test readers for the next couple of weeks and I’m hoping that no news from them is good news.

I’m waiting on two more beta readers, with two having already reported back positively. There have also been a few comments from others who’ve read the manuscript in a “non-official” / friend capacity:

The weirdest, most intriguing story I’ve ever read: I fucking love it!”

Douglas would be proud.”

You’ve written a new fucking bible!” (Well, I suppose if I add another six simple rules to my four at the top, I’ve written ten suggestions (I’d never command)).

Where the fuck did you get the idea? How did you do this?”

You are part fucking alien!”

That, is one very funny, very deep book. It made me think, a lot. I don’t know anyone else who writes like this. It’s very deep, very clever and very satisfying. I cried!”

(Names and addresses supplied)

Obviously, most of these can’t be printed on the cover, although they are encouraging. But the two opinions I’m waiting on are from people I’m involved with contractually, so I need to wait for those before I can do anything more with the book. I’m expecting only minor changes between now and final publication, so September is still looking good and I’m confident the book will do well. Like all writing, its success will be down to word-of-mouth. If I can move publication forward to the end of August (without detriment to the story), it would be rather poetic, as that’ll be nine months after I started writing the book.

I’m assuming no news is good news from the remaining beta readers, because I don’t imagine it would take anyone this long to give negative feedback (the manuscript has been with the readers for three weeks now). If I were in their position, I’d have opened the manuscript as soon as it arrived, if only to have a nose at the first page. And it’s that first page which is all important when writing a book: The first line needs to hook the reader; the first paragraph, intrigue them; and the first page has to have “Turnability”: If a reader doesn’t want to turn that first page, I’ve not got them. Based on that assumption, I would imagine the test readers are indeed reading the manuscript, as opposed to not reading it. I’m speculating, and time will tell: The next couple of weeks in fact. Apropos of nothing much, here’s the first page only (from the 8 x 5” paperback):

Chapter 1: Two little things

This perfectly plausible story begins very unexpectedly, with a decimal point. As with many stories, this one involves something being out of place. In this case, that was a decimal point.

I’d left my desk to make some coffee, and as I came back into the study, I thought I saw something move on the sheet of paper in my typewriter. I was writing a little fantasy science fiction story for a magazine and I’d hit a bit of a block near the beginning, so I’d taken a break. It’s funny how things work in fiction sometimes and having that little pause was what I needed to start the story properly.

Before I continued writing, I re-read the little I’d already typed: something wasn’t right. I checked my research notes, wondering if I’d misinterpreted something but nothing sprang out. I looked back up at the paper in the typewriter and that’s when I noticed a decimal point had moved. I looked more closely and my original decimal point was still where I’d put it, so this other one had just appeared. Then it moved again: The one which had simply materialised, walked across the page. It didn’t have discernible legs but it moved nonetheless.

I picked up my magnifying glass from the side table to get a closer look at this little moving thing.

It’s more aesthetic in layout in the printed book, with the paragraphs indented and less spaced, like you see in a book. Hopefully, that first sentence will hook; the first paragraph, intrigue; and the reader will want to turn to page 2. After that, I’m hoping the book is as enjoyable to read as it was to write.

I posted recently in a writing peer forum about suffering separation anxiety from my characters and among the coping mechanisms suggested, one was “Write a sequel.” I’m already planning it, and should start actually writing it once I’ve gauged the reaction to Cyrus Song itself. The sequel will most likely be called Cyrus Song II: Because I’m so radical and original, but also because I have confidence in the first title.

And while I’m waiting, I’ve been writing, which isn’t entirely surprising.

A few weeks ago, an idea slip was posted for my Unfinished Literature Agency. It was a big brief for a short story but I’ve got it all into what will probably be a 6000 word fable. I’ve been on and off of it for the last week and now I’m buried in it, and loving writing it. It’s kind of an ancient aliens / time-travelling voyage of discovery and evolution, spread over 8000 years (no, really) and with a paradoxical biblical sub-text. The Afternaut (working title) should be published on my favoured web zine in about a month, then possibly in their print quarterly later. I’m grateful to the donor of that idea, and hope they’ll enjoy reading their published story.

And for anyone who’s read this far, thank you. Because this is also a public thank you to all my friends and families, from all eras of my chequered life; old and new, readers and followers, who are still here and who continue to support and encourage me since I emerged from my darkness and decided I’d be a writer.

Thank you.

Postscript
I’ve been wearing a black headband now for over a week and it’s become a part of me and the way I look: More myself. I own a headband 🙂

Rise of the toasters

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Toaster Red2ToasterToaster Blue
They have a plan

The headline refers to Cylons (“Toasters”), for anyone unfamiliar with Battlestar Galactica, and the opening title cards:
The Cylons were created by man. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan.”
Like many sci-fi fans, I speak as though science fiction is actual history: It’s a geek humour thing, and it can make us seem exclusive to some, usually gathered in a corner somewhere. Excluded might be a better term.

My main distraction lately has been my next book, Cyrus Song: I’ve written much about it recently but now that I’m at a certain stage, it’s become a lot more. Essentially, it’s a tribute to Douglas Adams: Taking a couple of his ideas, expanding on them and adding complimentary ones. One of the ideas in my book is that The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a factual historical record, adopted by some races as religious scripture. It’s a book which I’m getting very good feedback on from people who matter, with one even telling me, “Douglas would be proud.” But it’s not the exclusive preserve of those of us who gather in corners: Anyone who knows nothing about Douglas Adams or The Hitch Hiker’s Guide, will still understand Cyrus Song. It’s a book about life, the universe, and everything. There is an answer besides 42. It’s a book for all ages and above all, it’s funny.

As is usually my practice, I wrote the ending of the book long ago. I’m now at a stage with the main narrative that it’s coming up to meet the ending. When that’s done, I’ll have a completed first draft manuscript. I still have competing tentative publishing offers, which I may yet explore, while I go through editing and redrafting. If I do end up self-publishing for any reason, I have the tools. I’m confident that the book will get picked up at some point, but it’ll be word of mouth that really sells it. I’ve been told that it’s the kind of book a reader will definitely recommend. I’m so confident of that that if I do self-publish, I might offer a money back guarantee. And if I self-publish, I’m in the company of around 80% of top contemporary writers, all of whom started out by doing it themselves.

And there is a great deal of pleasure to be derived from the editing and publishing process. I never could have done half of it a year ago: It was the gift of my typewriter (a Windows 10 laptop) from the mother ship, because she “…thought it might help with your writing.” That, my dad telling me he’s proud of me, and my kids thinking it’s “awesome” to have a writer as a dad, is what makes me personally proud.

It was my birthday recently, so I received the mandatory social media greetings and niceties. I was touched to pause upon a few personal messages: It’s nice when people give a small gift of some thoughtful time. It’s a practice I’ve observed myself for a while now: For those who I know well, or to whom I’m close, I’ll always take the time to post something more than “Happy birthday mate” on someone’s Facebook timeline. Instead, I’ll write briefly of a memory I’ll have with that person, or even a brief eulogy. I don’t do traditional cards, but it doesn’t take much to give someone some time and make them pause among the many other standard greetings.

It’s been nice to be encouraged so much lately, and by so many, in what I do and what I’ve become. So now I’m 47: a prime number. If I only make it as far as Douglas did (49), then at least I’ll have written the book which I was somehow meant to write. And as I’m approaching the end of the first draft of the novel, some numbers are appearing: As it stands, Cyrus Song will be 320-340 pages and it’s split into 24 chapters (24 is of course 42 transposed). If I can get the book to be complete in 336 pages, that’s a multiple of 42. And at roughly 300 words per page, that’s 100,800 words: 2400 x 42. I should be able to pull those Easter eggs off, proving that the number 42 does mean something, although I know not what.

There’s so much more I’d like to write in this “Dear Diary” entry: Everything else that’s been going on while I’ve been concentrating on Cyrus Song. But then I might as well just duplicate my Facebook timeline, which is public anyway. It’s mainly political, satirical and scientific posts, too numerous to clog a blog with.

Once the first draft of Cyrus Song is complete, I’ll take a month off: From the book, not from writing. During that time, I’ll entertain the free-to-read markets with some short stories. I have many planned for a next anthology. But the next book out with my name on the cover will be Cyrus Song, by the end of this year.

In giving the real answer to the big question, my book proposes ways towards a better world, both internally and the world around us. By the time it’s out, I’m hoping to see radical changes in UK politics, for the better: It’s no secret that I’m a Labour / Lib Dem supporter (I read The Guardian) and all of my thinking around the subject is on that Facebook timeline above. What I’ve come to realise is that I was looking at our politicians as I’ve been conditioned to. In Jeremy Corbyn, I see a different kind of politician: a person in touch with the country and a person of the people.

I see an uprising. I see a gradual lifting of a veil.

The citizens were created by politicians. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan.”

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Who’s afraid of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings?

THE WRITER’S LIFE | POETRY

Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings

Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings was a poet who wrote the worst poetry in the universe. In fact, her poetry is still considered to be the worst in the Galaxy, closely followed by that of the Azgoths of Kria and the Vogons, in that order. Well, we’ll see about that…

I’m between chapters and at a transitional stage with writing my next book, where Mr Fry is currently awaiting the arrival of a package from Norway. I’m aware that I need to write more to find out what happens next, but sometimes I take a break between chapters to review things. On this particular sojourn, I took a wander around the part of my brain labelled Douglas Adams / John Hegley, writing “poetry”, like this:

The difference between cats and cars
Not many cats have windows
and not many cars have fur
When you stroke a car it’s not very likely
that it’ll purr

If it’s got wheels it’s probably not a cat
and if it’s got claws it’s probably not a car
It’s not a very good idea to fill a cat
with four star

The difference between cats and dogs
Cats meow
Dogs don’t
Dogs do as they’re told
Cats won’t

A cat is not a dog
And a dog is not a cat
They’re like people
It’s as simple as that

The difference between dogs and cars
You can’t sit in a dog
and drive it
If a dog runs you over
You’ll probably survive it

And finally, my epic: Road Trip…

Road Trip
I like a satnav
If I’m going on a trip, I plan it
So if I want to go to Whitstable
I don’t end up in Thanet

You’re welcome.

All we need to do is keep talking

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Rabbit
All rabbits, always look like they want to say something

It started with a song: Keep Talking by Pink Floyd. And Stephen Hawking, sampled on that track: “For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk.” And a book was born.

Of course, talking animals have been done before. Pretty much everything has. There are a finite number of plots in fiction but the imagination of a writer can turn them into original and wonderful things. And so it is with Cyrus Song, my next book.

From that simple idea has sprung what will eventually be a deep, insightful, philosophical look at life and love, but above all else, it’s funny. As someone has already commented:

This is a book for when you want to look at life, the universe and everything: To question it, have a conversation with it, and end up having a fucking good laugh with it. There are deep and heartfelt messages in here but there are genuine “LOLs” too and I doubt I’ll be able to read this quietly on my morning commute to London.”

If just one person is kind enough to say that of the book when it’s published (end of this year / beginning of next), then hopefully someone will be listening. Eventually, people might buy my book.

It’s a book which is proving very easy to write, simply because it’s so much fun. It does have a lot of deep meaning and thought provoking stuff in the overall story, but along the way, there is much comedy, mainly through error.

The story follows Mr Fry, a man who wants to be either a leading scientist or writer. Instead, he’s a science fiction writer. As such, and given the levels of research I myself conduct as a writer, it proposes plausible science. I posted a brief synopsis previously, but I’m limited with what I can fit on the back cover. So the story basically goes like this:

It starts with a full stop: Two in fact, when Simon Fry notices two tiny dots moving across the paper in his typewriter. Unsure of what they are or what to do with them, he takes them to a vet. Doctor Hannah Jones, a veterinary surgeon, has an electron microscope. She’s also invented a quantum computer program called The Babel Fish, which can translate animal sounds into human language (This book is part Douglas Adams tribute). In Doctor Jones’ lab, she and Mr Fry discover that the dots are actually microscopic spacecraft, one of which is full of animals: Not just an ark, but crewed and commanded by a menagerie.

Mr Fry is an intelligent and well-read man, who takes great pride in the research he undertakes to make his writing real. Like all humans, he is not without fault (many, in fact), and sometimes he overlooks the obvious. He is convinced that the answer to life, the universe and everything, is in the earth itself. Specifically, he believes that if he could talk with the animals, he’d find the answers. Or at least, the questions which need to be asked for the answer to make any kind of sense. Unfortunately, Doctor Jones is reluctant to use her own invention, for fear of becoming emotionally involved with her patients. But she allows Mr Fry to operate quietly in a corner of her lab, while she attends to the animals which are brought to her. This provides the setting for many insights into the thoughts of various animals. Most of these, and their humans, have at least some basis in people whom I admire. In writing this book, I’m permitting myself to meet some of my heroes. Some encounters are tragic, while others are amusing: There’s a girl called Amy and her terrier, Frank; There’s Derek and his cat, Clive; and many more. In various attempts to make more use of the Babel Fish, Mr Fry acquires two white mice: Douglas said they were the most intelligent beings on earth; and a rabbit: Because all rabbits, always look like they want to say something.

Elsewhere, Mr Fry considers what might be possible if historical scientists were able to make use of all that would be new to them in the 21st century. Having watched Jurassic Park, he’s pretty sure he knows how this works. He makes contact with Gilbert Giles, a Norwegian scientist earning a living as a tour guide around Norway’s coast (which of course, makes him a fjord escort). Gilbert’s main research though, is extinct fossilised invertebrates beneath the Norwegian ice: His aim is to resurrect them, to provide food for animals further up the food chain, and all as part of a project to reverse some of the damage done by mankind to the planet. Mr Fry sees a potential in this for saving the human race, if ever it were faced with extinction: He volunteers his own DNA for cloning. Overcoming some moral, ethical and practical issues (all explained with science fact), there is a scenario where just one clone embryo might survive the cloning process. If that was because it contained some sort of “Life key”, then that might be used to clone others, thereby ensuring the survival of humanity. As is often the case, Mr Fry has overlooked the obvious: A human embryo has a severely limited life outside of the parent. He needs a human host.

Mr Fry is a reluctant housekeeper: Following his discovery of the microscopic spacecraft in household dust, he fears that cleaning might spell existential disaster for many species. With a cloned embryo of himself sitting in a test tube in his studio, and his studio potentially full of microscopic extraterrestrial life, what could possibly go wrong? A man as intelligent as Mr Fry would never do something as irresponsible as leaving the lid off of the embryo, would he?

So begins one man’s quest to find answers to questions he doesn’t know yet. Cyrus song is the story of Mr Fry’s voyage to find answers and love in the world, in a slightly idiosyncratic way.

I’ve written five chapters so far (40-odd pages and just over 20,000 words). I have a full plot, a chapter plan and I already have a very powerful and pleasing ending written. Now it’s just a case of writing the remaining 250 or so pages.

It’s a science fiction story with its feet in science fact. There’s been a tentative offer of publishing but I’m reluctant to get into anything restrictive, dictated by someone else. I found out long ago that the only person I can work with is myself. There are benefits to having a publisher, of course. As an “emerging talent” though, there’s little to no chance of an advance; I don’t do this for the money anyway, even though that would be nice. No, it remains a fact that a large percentage of successful published authors started out self-publishing: It’s relatively easy and although still associated by some with “vanity publishing”, like others, I prefer to see it as confidence in one’s own work. If a mainstream publisher picks it up later, so much the better. If not, word of mouth is the best sales tool and even a cult following would be gratifying. So in the six months or so it’s going to take me to finish the book, I might punt it around some more. But if nothing to my liking is forthcoming, I already have the tools and a track record.

It will get noticed. It will be talked about. If people buy it. It will be talked about leading up to publication through any pre-publication marketing I do. Hopefully word will spread and there’ll be people wanting to buy this book as soon as it’s printed.

Because as Stephen Hawking said in that same quote in Pink Floyd’s song, “All we need to do is keep talking.”

Follow the book’s Facebook page, and my Book shelf for updates.

A fish in your ear

FICTION

babel fish
The original Babel fish

This is the third story in the Cyrus Song series of short stories, which I’m now working on as a novel. The two stories which precede this are in my anthology. For those unable to buy my book, original versions of both stories are still on this blog.

Why do I give my writing away for free? For my own benefit, so that others may get a taste of my style, then perhaps buy my books, which contain more. And of course, it’s exposure, in the hope that one day someone might notice. But more importantly, it’s sharing something which I enjoy doing. If people get something from reading my stories, that’s worth more than money. If the odd reader feels they’d like to donate to my cause by buying a book, that helps.

If I could give everyone a gift, I’d give them the means to understand what I’m trying to say. I’d give them a Babel fish…

The Babel fish

“If you want to see differently, listen.”

I always dine with a guest, and tonight’s was obsession. Given the nature of my work, I normally dine alone, but the guest is one chosen from the many who share my mind. I can live with many, but can only question one at a time to find out if it’s the best pursuit of my aim: To talk with the animals.

I tried to place the enormity of the previous day into some sort of context. But even though I’m a writer, there were insufficient words to explain it, no matter how numerous and intertwined I made them. Less is more in literature, suffice it to say, I’d listened to animals talking. I’d heard white mice speaking:

“If only they could hear the dawn chorus. All those voices: The sopranos in harmony with the baritone of the sun: Earth’s choir. Then they’d hear the whispers from the trees, the humming of the clouds and the ghosts in the wind. But they don’t listen.”

It’s always after the event that you realise what you should have said, or asked. Of course, by then it’s too late: An event has been created and there’s no way of going back to change it. Such is the nature of life and of space time: Both are the natural scheme of things, intricately woven together.

The night before the morning I found myself writing this, this story could have been so different. Mine was a story with a protagonist but without a hero. I’d returned home with two white mice and Doctor Hannah Jones had gone on somewhere else; I didn’t think to ask where that might be and she didn’t think to tell me. Every story needs a hero and I certainly wasn’t it. I hoped the doctor wasn’t mistaking my obsession with the Babel fish for one with her. There was everything to admire, including her invention of a universal translation device in said fish.

The Babel fish was a computer program, named after the fictional universal translation device invented by Douglas Adams. Simply put, it could translate any language into any other, including animal languages. Using a wide frequency range, the Babel fish could hear animal sounds which are inaudible to humans. Either that, or it read minds. In any case, the upshot was that it could translate any animal language into any human one. The reversal of this was still at a research stage, but there was nothing to make me think that it couldn’t translate my words into ones which each different animal would understand. If so, I would have something which I could devote my life to writing about. Hannah had something which could win her a Nobel prize, but she’d need persuasion to even continue her research.

Who might be a hero to Doctor Jones? She herself was probably in her late twenties or early thirties. She was small: short and slim. She had long, red hair, which gave a fiery frame to a pretty bespectacled face. She was intelligent, intuitive and witty; She was perhaps a little guarded, maybe introverted. I was an extrovert on paper: I could be anything in the words which spilled from my typewriter. If anyone were to read those words, they might find me. As it stood, I was just like Hannah but without the red hair and probably less intelligent, intuitive and witty. The only thing I had over her was about 10-15 years.

I wondered how my two white mice might perceive the situation. I wouldn’t know because I couldn’t hear what they were saying without Doctor Jones. If I spoke, would they understand me?

“You see”, I said. “The thing is. Well, the things are, I suppose. I wonder if I should be writing about all of this. I’m not even sure what I’m writing about, let alone what it might become or where it may end up. It has so much potential, yet I’m not sure I’m the right person to be in charge of something so important. Should I let go, just walk away and let someone else finish what I’ve started? What might someone else think of all this? Would they use it for their own gains, or simply dismiss it? The latter remains a problem, even if I do decide to write about it.”

The mice carried on being mice, so I decided to sleep on it.

When I awoke, it was still there: The next day, the problem still existed. And so did the mice.

I couldn’t just blunder into the PDSA in New Cross again. I’d done that twice already, most recently with the two white mice, Victoria and Julie, and I’d heard them talking. Doctor Jones also had an electron microscope, for looking at really tiny things, like viruses and bacteria: There were clues that there might be whole other universes in the sub-atomic world. I looked around my studio: I hadn’t cleaned the place for a couple of days and it was getting quite dusty. I was reluctant to do the housework, for fear of the consequences which might befall countless microscopic things, which may or may not be there. I couldn’t take my entire living space to Doctor Jones. The logical thing to do would be to ask Hannah over. But I couldn’t do that as the studio was so dusty. I had reached an impasse in my story. I decided to phone the hospital.

Doctor Jones was unavailable. I asked if I might perhaps call back when she was free. Doctor Jones was unavailable for the rest of the day.

Was Hannah unwell? On annual leave? Abducted; killed? Paranoia now joined obsession at the dining table.

“Doctor Jones isn’t available all day”, said reception.

“Will she be back tomorrow?”

“We don’t know. Is there a medical emergency? We have other vets.”

No other “Vet” would do. Might one of these “Other vets” be in Hannah’s lab at that very moment? In the very same room as the Babel fish?

“Is there a medical emergency?”, reception said again. “Mr Fry?” That’s me.

I looked at Victoria Wood and Julie Walters in their cage. I could perhaps argue that those two being in a cage was an emergency. But what would be the point of going to New Cross anyway, if the doctor I needed to see wasn’t there?

“She’s on house calls today, Mr Fry.”

I’d been rumbled. I hung up.

House calls: Care in the community. It was a logical progression of the little I’d learned up to then about Doctor Hannah Jones, although somewhat counter to her ethos of leaving work at the workplace, for fear of becoming even more emotionally attached to the animals. It was that fear which prevented her from using the very device she’d invented: The Babel fish. But in this respect, I supposed it was entirely different: She still wasn’t getting too attached to the patients by hearing them speak, then not being able to leave them, or feeling she had to take them home with her: She was visiting them in their own homes, where she couldn’t hear them speak. The fact remained that wherever she was, it wasn’t actually her that I needed, it was the machine.

But the Babel fish / Doctor Jones situation was a self-perpetuating one: One needed the other. It was like the TARDIS and The Doctor, with the Doctor refusing to get in the box. I had the makings of a story, but for that reluctant passenger.

It didn’t matter. What difference would it make if the story was never told? In my hands, none at all.

By a strange coincidence, none at all was the level of chance I’d assumed I had of hearing from Doctor Jones that day. Suddenly and for no apparent reason, my mobile phone rang: What were the chances? Probably one, to the power of the caller’s number, against. It was the animal hospital.

“Simon Fry?” That’s how I answer my phone: There’s always an upward inflection in my voice, which annoys me. It’s as though I’m questioning who I am.

“Mr Fry, it’s Doctor Jones.” Having just used my first name, I wondered why Hannah hadn’t introduced herself with hers. I guessed she was maintaining professional protocol. “From the hospital”, she said. I knew that: It was the hospital’s number calling me and I knew that Doctor Jones worked there. She really was professional. “You called.” I had.

“Erm, yes. There’s something I’d like to show you.” Actually, I had nothing to show Hannah but if I’d merely said I’d like to talk to her about something, she might have suggested we did that over the phone, or dismissed me completely.

“Is it a patient?” She asked.

“Yes”, I said. What on earth was I thinking?

Doctor Jones had appointments for the rest of the afternoon, but if I’d like to go to the hospital, she said she’d try to fit me in.

The waiting room was busier than before, with half a dozen patients besides me and my rabbit. I’d heard other animals speak when I’d used the Babel fish before, but it was rabbits that intrigued me. Because if you look a rabbit, any rabbit, directly in the eyes, they really look like they want to tell you something. All the animals could speak and I could hear them. I hadn’t discounted Douglas Adams’ theory on dolphins and mice, and I’d not yet heard a dolphin’s sounds translated, but for me it was rabbits. Much as I admired Douglas, I wondered if he’d missed something. I was continuing his work. I believed that it was the rabbits who could tell us the answer, to life, the universe, and everything.

I pondered a little riddle to bide the time, about the animals in that room: Here were six animals and between them, they had 18 legs. If there were no means of seeing the animals in the room, what might people suppose them to be, based on the collective number of legs alone?

There were two cats in baskets: One was a tabby and the other was black, with a white chest: It looked like it was dressed for dinner, in a black suit and white shirt.

There were two dogs, from the polar extremes of the canine world: A huge, furry beast, the size of a small horse, and a tiny little Chihuahua cross breed thing. It looked like it probably yapped a lot, and as though it’s bulbous eyes would pop out if it was squeezed firmly enough.

All domestic dogs share a common ancestor in the grey wolf and as such, any canine can cross breed with any other. Theoretically then, given a step ladder, the little dog could mate with the larger one in the waiting room and produce offspring: What curious things those would be.

The other two patients were a Mynah bird in a cage and a Burmese python around a young girl’s shoulders. Given the Mynah bird’s famous ability to mimic human sounds in captivity, I wondered if the Babel fish might be redundant if I were to have an opportunity to listen to the bird. The python looked to be quite young, at around ten feet in length. Docile and inquisitive, as those snakes are, it was tasting the air with its forked tongue. I’d taken an instant dislike to the small bug-eyed dog and I crossed my fingers for no reason at all.

“Mr Fry?” That’s me. It was Doctor Jones.

“Yes, that’s me.”

Hannah didn’t even wait until we were on the other side of the door before she said the sort of curious thing I’d heard on my previous visits. In fact, I clearly heard her mumble it as soon as I stood up: “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Charles was quite reluctant to cross the room on his lead, so I picked him up and carried him.

As we walked into Doctor Jones’ examination room, she was reading from her notes: “Charles Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. A rabbit. Really?”

“Well, I had to think quickly as I filled out the form. You see, I only picked him up on the way here.”

“He’s on a fucking lead.” For someone so pretty, she had a very potty mouth.

“Yes. He’s a house rabbit. Actually, he’s a flat rabbit: I live in a flat. I don’t have a garden and even if I did, I wouldn’t want him all cooped up in a cage outside. Then I’d have to call him David Soul.” Doctor Jones looked at me with a slightly surprised face. “Because”, I continued, “then he’d be Starsky in a hutch you see?”

“Oh, I see. Believe me, I see.”

“He just looked so sad in the shop, like he wanted to tell me something. And I couldn’t carry a hutch here, so I got him a nice lead. It suits him, don’t you think?”

“He suits you, Mr Fry.”

“Yes, so I thought I’d bring Charles for an initial check-up.”

“Really? Nothing to do with the Babel fish then?” She was very clever. “Fine.”: Result. “I do have other patients to see, Mr Fry. Charles looks like a fine rabbit to me. Same as before: You sit in the corner and try to just,” She paused. “Not be here.”

A splendid plan.

The first patient was the cat in the DJ: His name was Eddie, and his human was a lady, probably in her late 40s, called Liz. Liz would perhaps have been a little unconventional outside of Lewisham, or London for that matter: Clearly a little eccentric and perhaps a tad over made-up, but completely at ease within herself. She wore a bright red tunic with a faux fur collar, over a frilly white dress shirt, the cuffs extending flamboyantly from beneath her coat. She had hair which was jet black, but for a white streak which ran through her parting: Whether it was exposed roots or a flourish of peroxide, it didn’t matter. Liz wore tight black leather trousers, cut short at the ankle to accentuate her ankles, furnished with a silver anklet. She wore bright red shoes with stiletto heels and she tottered a little.

“So what’s troubling Eddie?” Hannah asked.

“Well, I don’t know really”, Liz said in a surprisingly masculine voice. Liz was just as at home in himself as he was in this part of London, or anywhere: What a wonderful person. Liz continued: “He’s just not been going out so much.”

I was so enamoured by Liz that I almost forgot to put the headphones on. The microphone was either still above Hannah’s table from the last time I’d been there, or she’d replaced it in expectation of my making a return visit.

I switched the Babel fish on and heard a familiar static feedback as I typed in “Cat”. Then I slid the mouse pointer across the screen, before picking up Eddie’s voice:

“…drilling.” Eddie’s voice was male but effeminate. I only caught the last word and it sounded like “Drilling”: For what? Eddie continued: “Pour tout ce qui est derrière le mur. Vous ne le sentez?”

How naieve I must have been to assume that all animals spoke in English. Eddie was drilling for whatever was behind the wall. Surely just a cavity? A dead mouse perhaps.

“So, he’s normally an outdoors chap?” Hannah had a remarkable ability to anthropomorphise animals. Eddie was certainly a “Chap”.

“All the time, except when he needs food.”

“Je suis un, ‘ow you say, chat de ruelle?” Alley cat. “Vous pensez que vous me entendez ronronnement. Je perce.” You think you hear me purr: I drill.

Hannah conducted the familiar physical examination of a cat: Lifting Eddie’s lips to check his gums and checking his nostrils for moisture. Humans owned by cats frequently ask if a dry, warm nose means their cat is sick. The short answer is no. A healthy cat’s nose can vary between wet and dry several times over the course of a day. And there are many reasons a cat can have a dry, warm nose that have nothing to do with health.

“Elle est très jolie.”

Next, Doctor Jones squeezed Eddie’s belly, picking his rear end up so that his front paws remained on the table. She was checking his gut for blockages or perhaps a twisted colon.

“Je suis un chat, pas une brouette.” If ever there were a feline Star Trek, Eddie would play Doctor McCoy.

Then Hannah lifted Eddie’s tail to check for signs of worms.

“Oh l’humanité!”

“I can’t see that there is anything at all wrong with this young man”, Hannah said to Liz. He’s a cat. He looks like the kind of cat who just likes being a cat. I’d just let him get on with doing that. If he shows any obvious signs of not being himself, by all means bring him back in but for now, I can’t see anything at all to worry about.”

“Okay”. Somehow, Liz didn’t seem at all surprised. Eddie made his own independent way into his basket.

“Ma couverture. Tapis magique. Emmenez moi au le Catnip.” Eddie was on drugs: What a fantastic cat he was.

I didn’t get a chance to speak to Doctor Jones. Not long after Liz and Eddie had left, Hannah returned with an elderly lady and the Mynah bird.

Part of the starling family, Mynah birds are remarkably intelligent, and famed for their ability to mimic the sounds they hear around them. “Myna” is derived from the Hindi language mainā, which itself is derived from Sanskirt madanā. I was especially intrigued by this patient, because it’s mimickry of the sounds around it may be just that, or it could be that the Babel fish was able to translate its voice into something different; perhaps something entirely unexpected.

I tuned the Babel fish in: “….Yes dear”, was what I heard through the headphones as the bird said “Yes dear”.

Doctor Jones looked at her notes, then at the old lady. “So this is Ronnie?”

“Yes dear.” Said the lady.

“Yes dear.” Said the bird.

“And what’s the problem?”

“Well”, said the old girl. “He’s got a problem with his foot.”

“Foot, yes.” Said the bird.

“He keeps holding it up all the time.”

“Time, yes.”

“It’s like he’s in pain”, the lady said.

“Pain, yes”, said the bird. He clearly had a condition known in humans as Echolalia.

“And it’s always the same leg?” Hannah was being intuitive again.

“Leg, yes.” Said the Mynah bird.

“I think so”, said the old lady.

I was a little bored to be honest, so I twiddled with the controls on the Babel fish. Doctor Jones continued to ask the old lady questions and the Mynah bird kept repeating the last few words the old dear said. For a moment, I completely lost the conversation. Then as I tuned back in, the Mynah bird said something quite unexpected:

“…unexpected, yes.” I couldn’t be sure if I’d heard that through the headphones or in the room. I didn’t even hear a diagnosis or a prognosis. I was figuratively floored.

Hannah, the old lady and the Mynah bird had left the room. I remembered Charles Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, on the floor. I looked down at him and he looked up at me. He had that rabbit look, like he really wanted to say something.

I grabbed the microphone and typed “Rabbit” into the Babel fish. I pointed the mic at my rabbit: Nothing.

“Well?”, I said.

I lifted his ears and laid the microphone on the floor in front of him: Nothing. Surely he’d heard me? Did I have an ironic deaf rabbit?

Hannah was out of the room, so I unplugged the headphones. Maybe they were faulty. Perhaps Charles was trying to say something and I hadn’t heard him.

I turned the speakers on the computer up to 11. I blew into the microphone to make sure it was working: Charles didin’t even flinch at what sounded like a clap of thunder.

Aren’t you going to tell me the answer? To life, the universe and everything? Or explain why the answer is 42? Because we’ve been asking the wrong questions? Isn’t the earth just one big organic computer, designed to work it all out? I’m carrying on Douglas’ work. I’ve listened to mice. I’ve not translated dolphins. But the mice said the answers could be heard in nature: In the dawn chorus, in the wind, and all around us. And that’s beautiful music, but it’s not a voice. The planet must have a voice. So I theorised that the answer lies with rabbits, and the way you all look like you want to say something. And now I’m talking to you, and you’re all ears. And now I’ve got a deaf and dumb rabbit? What’s anyone supposed to ask you?” I was shouting at a rabbit, and the rabbit still looked like it was about to say something. But it didn’t.

Eventually, I left: In frustration, I left the room and I left that cloth eared rabbit there.

I walked along the corridor between the examination room and the waiting area. As I got closer to the exit, I could hear Hannah’s voice but it was mixed up with others. Then someone, somewhere, said the oddest thing:

“I don’t really know how to say this.”

Cyrus Song (the novel) is due for publication in early 2018. Follow the Facebook page for updates.

This life, version 2.0

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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There are a lot of amazing feelings which come from publishing a book, just as there are in writing one. Obviously the writer has complete freedom if they are like me: Working mainly for myself and only in my own styles when I’m hired for freelance work. But I’ve written plenty about the writing part. What’s occupying me the most now is the post-publishing stage of a book.

The publication date was coincidentally poignant for more than the reason I’d already realised. It was three years to the day since part one of my life had ended. It was the day of Trump’s inauguration, and there’s a fairly barbed Trump reference in one of the stories. And it was the day my friend from Catford was laid to rest. It was a fitting date and it all happened by accident.

I like to play with numbers, to keep my mind always busy. It struck me that my last post was on what would have been day 1126 of me writing this blog. If you add all of the digits of that number, you get 10. If you add the 11 to the 26, you get 37: A prime number. Reversed, it’s 73: Another prime, and Doctor Sheldon Cooper’s favourite number for that reason and more: 7 and 3 are also both prime numbers. If you add those together, you again get 10. 10 is 2 in binary (well, 10 is 10 in binary, but you get my drift) and 2 is a prime number. It’s a lot of overthinking things on my part, but it demonstrates a point: Strange coincidences are there in real life. Some just take more effort to find. 42 is, of course, the answer to life, the universe and everything. When mankind couldn’t understand that answer, the point was made that in order to understand the answer to something, one must first understand the question. The question in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was extracted from Arthur Dent’s brain was, what do you get if you multiply six by nine? And it is 42. If you use mathematical base 13. We’re just not thinking radically enough.

Weird coincidences do happen in real life, as they do in fiction. Often, life’s happenstances are stranger than those told of in fiction. The fiction writer has to be wary of accusations of stretching chance too much. Such an accusation might be made of some writers (not mentioning names, but one which rhymes with “ban drown”) but most will make things believable without too much stretching of the imagination. But it is true that stranger things happen in real life. Paul Auster commented on this in a recent interview with The Guardian:

“People who don’t like my work say that the connections seem too arbitrary. But that’s how life is.”

As if to prove it, between 1999 and 2001 he took part in the National Story Project on American public radio, in which he read out yarns submitted by “ordinary people” across the country – “true stories that sounded like fiction”. His original call was for tales “that defied our expectations about the world, anecdotes that revealed the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives”. It was a success; thousands of stories were submitted and a selection published as True Tales of American Life. Auster found confirmation that “reality is truly as strange and incomprehensible as I thought it was”, and that others too felt the pull of improbability: “I’m happy to report that I’m not alone,” he told the Paris Review. “It’s a madhouse out there.”

“I borrowed some things from my own life, but what novelist doesn’t?”

None of the stories in The Perpetuity of Memory rely on unbelievable devices. Even the more fanciful and fantastical ones have a grounding in science and some of my background research is explained within the contexts of the individual stories. There are elements of me in most of them but probably only recognisable to those closest to me. As fiction, they are good stories.

The truth is, so much has happened in my life that there are many stories to adapt and tell as fiction. “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them”, after all. This entire blog is the story of most of my life – non-fiction – or at least what I’m now calling part two of my life.

At the end of part two, I’ve published two books: The Paradoxicon and The Perpetuity of Memory. The Paradoxicon is a partly semi-autobiographical story, written in a hurry, in an effort to commit things to history. As a flash fiction novella, it’s a good little book (I’m told). The Perpetuity of Memory though, is the book I’d like to be judged on as a writer. It represents the three years during which my life was first in transit, then settled and contemplating. It’s a story in itself: 25 collected tales, one book, wrapped up in another story: that of my life, version 2.0. I’m contemplating and writing many more stories, for the webzine, magazine and anthology markets, then there’ll be a second volume, probably in about a year, and with the working title of Recollections of the Future (not final). I’ll also be re-writing The Paradoxicon as an expanded, full-length novel, incorporating a fictional account of the real autobiography I’ve found too difficult to write.

My book is out there. I’m earning royalties in various currencies as it’s bought around the world. The royalties are almost irrelevant to me. I have a modest, comfortable (if not luxurious) life and I have all that I need around me. So as not to complicate my benefit payments (writing is recognised by tribunal judges as being therapeutic for my depression and anxiety), most payments from my books will go to my usual charity benefactors. That, and just the knowledge that my books are out there, is why I do it. People are buying The Perpetuity of Memory and reading it. Friends are sending me photos of my book in situ in their houses.

It’s a good feeling; This life, part three, or version 2.0.