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 🙂

The evolution of a manual typewriter

FICTION | HORROR

This is my return to the fringes of horror fiction, after a few months away writing a sci-fi tribute to Douglas Adams: This is not a love story. Like many of my short stories, it has subtle links to others but it still works on its own. This one is from The Unfinished Literary Agency as it gains more offices, and one which will form a part of my second anthology. Co-published here with the co-operation of Shlock webzine.

Difference engine studio mainImage: Graeme Reynolds’s blog: Dark tales from a twisted mind.

THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE

I disappeared without warning and for no apparent reason. To the best of my knowledge, there were no witnesses. I wasn’t a well-known person, so few would miss me. It was perfect.

What made this apparent illusion possible was the difference engine: Quite a box of tricks in itself. The engine is a retro-futuristic, mechanical bolt-on device for my manual typewriter. It’s the steam punk equivalent of an app installed on a computer. The difference engine clamps onto the typewriter, between the type heads and the impression cylinder. It’s a translation device, so as I type out my thoughts on the keyboard, it produces edited fiction on the paper.

I was a beta tester for the engine, tasked with making the final tweaks to the switches, cogs and gears; the mechanical algorithms which made up the difference engine’s editorial code: Essentially, what’s permissible and what’s not. Where a newspaper might be governed by freedom of speech, but forbidden to express or incite hatred, the difference engine is concerned with fiction in a similar way. Specifically, I was testing the literary merit of the output, to see how well it translated my thoughts and actions into prose.

Like my typewriter, the difference engine wasn’t easily portable, but this actually suited me. I prefer to travel discretely as a writer, with just a notebook and a fountain pen for rough longhand notes. Then I return to my studio to copy my notes on the typewriter, usually self-editing as I transcribe. The difference engine would allow me to duplicate my hand-written notes verbatim, automatically editing for me as I worked. First I had to choose a protagonist for the story: a person chosen at random, who probably never thought they’d be the main character in a story. They’d never be famous, because this was just an experimental story, not destined for publication. Whoever it was would more likely languish in a drawer somewhere, or end up among the many potential but wasted words contained within screwed up sheets of paper in the waste paper bin: Rain which never fell, trapped inside coarse, jagged paper clouds. Stories which would never be told.

My fountain pen writes with blue ink. It’s not a cartridge pen, instead having a piston mechanism on the shaft, to draw ink from a well. I usually carry a bottle of blue ink with me. I use red ink too, but it never travels with me, for two reasons: Red ink is for editing, and I only edit longhand in my studio, where I can concentrate on cutting all the unnecessary narrative out. But red ink is also a very similar colour and viscosity to blood. If a red ink bottle were to break in my bag, I could find myself in all kinds of interesting situations.

I was in one of my favourite writing places in London’s West End: The Lamb and Flag in Rose Street, near to Covent Garden. It was a pleasant summer evening, and the pub was fairly busy with people leaving work. The first mention of a pub on this cobbled backstreet was in 1772, when it was known as The Coopers Arms. The name changed to The Lamb and Flag in 1833 and was a favourite watering hole of Charles Dickens. The pub acquired a reputation in the early nineteenth century for staging bare-knuckle prize fights, earning it the nickname ‘The Bucket of Blood.’ The alleyway beside the pub was the scene of an attack on the poet John Dryden in 1679 by thugs hired by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with whom he had a long-standing conflict. It’s a very small pub, so it’s almost impossible to retain a table to oneself. As such, I was almost invisible to a group of three men with whom I was seated. In a demonstration of my respect for the gentlemen’s privacy, I turned away from the table, whilst also erecting an invisible barrier for myself.

I might just as well have been in the 1980s as I was 2017, based solely on the conversation; one conducted at such volume that I could do nothing but be involved in it, at least as listener and note-taker. The eldest of the three was probably in his late forties, tall, slim, sharply dressed and well spoken. He ran a boiler room operation, and the other two, somewhere in their mid-20s, worked for him.

In business, a boiler room is an outbound call centre, selling questionable investments by telephone. A boiler room will typically be one where salesmen work using unfair, dishonest sales tactics, sometimes selling penny stocks, private placements or committing outright stock fraud. The term carries a negative connotation, and is often used to imply high-pressure sales tactics and, sometimes, poor working conditions. Usually, such an operation has an undisclosed relationship with the companies it promotes, or an invested interest in promoting those companies.

With insider investors in place, a boiler room promotes (via telephone calls to brokerage clients or spam email) these thinly traded stocks where there is no actual market. The brokers of the boiler room create a market by attracting buyers, whose demand for the stock drives up the price. This gives the owners of the company enough volume to sell their shares at a profit, a form of pump and dump operation, where the original investors profit at the expense of the investors taken in by the boiler room operation. A brokerage of this type will typically prey on the naivety and vulnerability of wealthy targets. It was just such a sting which the boss of the firm was bragging about to his subordinates:

“Old girl. Recently widowed. Husband left some money, and she doesn’t know what to do with it. So I tell her to invest it with me. I show her a few spreadsheets, blind her with bullshit, and I’ve got her hooked. I do a few good trades, to show her some decent returns, then I gradually suck more and more out of her. She phones up every now and then to ask how her money’s doing, and I just tell her it’s going brilliantly. Little does she know, she won’t be leaving anything for the grand kids. Unlike her old man, she won’t leave a legacy of unfinished business, know what I mean?” This was hilarious of course.

The boss offered to get more drinks. Leaving three empty glasses on the table, he stood and strode slowly to the bar, stretching as he went: His elbows punched out behind him, as he thrust first his chest forwards, then his crotch. As he arrived at the bar, he continued to stretch and twitch his limbs: An almost sure sign of a man on cocaine. His two seemingly besotted underlings were still chuckling together about the old lady. But it got better, as their boss returned:

“It’s funny how people confide in you when they’re grieving. I’m that old girl’s best mate at the moment. And her financial advisor, of course. She says she’ll use the money I make to gradually tick off her bucket list, depending how it goes of course. Her words. Give me a couple of months, and I reckon I can have her house. I’m doing her a favour really. I mean, she won’t have the money to go through the bucket list, so she’ll get all down. She’ll probably die pretty soon after she learns it’s all gone, saving her a load of money. Her kids won’t have to pay for her care, which they couldn’t afford anyway with the house sold. It’s really that simple guys. You’ve just gotta have the balls!” He grabbed his crotch and thrust it forward into his hand under the table.

He spoke briefly of his wife: A woman he kept. And their daughter, who at 14, was almost old enough, as he stroked his fly. He spoke disparagingly, condescendingly, and sanctimoniously, about everyone else in the bar whom he saw fit to judge. He was perfect: The kind of individual the difference engine could probably turn into someone who readers could sympathise and empathise with.

Excuse me,” I said. “What’s your name?” In typical salesman parlance, he answered: “Rupert. Rupert Koch-Rinehart” – surely a nom de plume? – and presented me with a business card. It was a fine piece of business stationery actually: a thick, non-calendared pulp board, and soft to the touch. His contact details were die-stamped in black, lifting the Helvetica typeface in relief from the card. It was so pristine that unless handled gently with cotton gloves, his card would be instantly marred by an imperfection: Perhaps some sort of capitalist statement. I was grateful for his details, as I’d run out of blue ink in my pen. But the story I was going to use to configure the difference engine now had a central character. As Rupert and his colleagues continued to talk, I loaded some more ink into my pen with the pump action of the piston on the barrel.

A narcissist is the easiest person to extract information from, because their favourite topic of conversation is themselves. Anyone within earshot would have known where he lived. Someone within wireless range of his mobile phone would be able to access his personal information. Some narcissists are so in love with themselves, they silently broadcast it, so that anyone listening can hear more about them, their ego, their contacts, social media circles and personal finances. Anyone so inclined could impersonate them, even taking over their life, and perhaps make them a better person; a bit like the difference engine.

A psychopath is not necessarily someone afflicted with all the usual negative associations of the word. Psychopathy is simply an ability to focus one’s mind on a specific task, in the pursuit of perfection, and to the exclusion of all outside interference. A psychopath might be an eminent neurosurgeon for example, able to perform high-risk operations which others might not. The psychopath surgeon might be able to remove a deeply embedded brain tumour, which others consider inoperable because of its close proximity to nerves and other crucial areas of the brain. Psychopathy detaches the surgeon from everything else, so that their mind can concentrate on a knife-edge, life-or-death situation, without emotion or outside distractions. There are psychopaths in many professions. A psychopath writer would be one who aims to perfect their prose, without the distraction of other thoughts. The psychopath writer would do all that they could, at any cost, just to ensure their stories seem as real as possible, using words alone. Psychopathy is detachment. It was this possibility which the difference engine represented. To make Rupert’s story more real, I needed to introduce him to the engine.

It’s not difficult to get someone to return home with you. It requires a concentrated effort on one very specific aim, but once all outside distractions are removed, words alone can persuade a person. I almost regretted Rupert’s faults being so obvious as to hasten his story. I’d perhaps liked to have got to know him better. But I was his caretaker, while he was drunk and a danger to himself or others. I’d just concentrated on the essential details: His current account PIN, when I’d helped him at a cash point. Then his address, when he gave it to a cab driver, before I suggested he might be better off spending the night with me. London cabbies are a mine of information, both given and received. In the rear view mirror, this cabby perhaps saw a couple, if he saw anything at all.

My studio is in Islington, just off Holloway Road, between Highbury Fields and Paradise Park. I lay Rupert on the couch, arranging him and the cushions around him, so that it pleased my eye. I thrive on order, hence my willingness to help with the difference engine, so that I could feed in my raw material, and the prose I desired would appear on the final typed page. My studio is small and eclectic, some would say cluttered. But I know the position and function of everything within. I have insufficient ink to write of my surroundings in detail, but they are irrelevant so long as they’re unknown.

I sat in my swivel chair at the desk and laid out my notebook, pen and ink well. The bottle I’d travelled with was almost dry and for reasons only known to my past, I didn’t have any more. There was a bottle of red ink on my desk, but it was ink to be used only for editing. Editing only ever took place at the desk in my studio. I hadn’t had to edit copy longhand for some time, instead relying on the automatic editing process of reading longhand, thinking, then transforming the thoughts into words on the keyboard; the very process the difference engine was designed to make redundant. The red ink had congealed and dried out in the bottle, so I had an unfinished story written longhand, with no ink to continue writing, nor edit if I were able to. The conditions were perfect for a working test of the difference engine: I would have to finish the story on the keyboard, relinquishing more control to the engine in finishing my work.

I wasn’t ready to be made entirely redundant, as humans had been by machines in the industrial age and now, by computers in the technological age. The difference engine could assist and replace writers up to a certain level, but there will always be that which only a human can do: Produce works which have the human touch. Like the finest paintings and sculptures, it requires human soul to produce art which is striking and open to interpretation, even if it’s the flaws of the human creator which make it unique.

Rupert was stirring, disturbing the cushions on the couch as he slipped between wakefulness and slumber.

Generally speaking, we are never aware of that moment when we drift off to sleep. As autonomous, self-determining beings, we are aware that we were awake before we slept. And when we awake, we remember being awake before sleep. Dreams aside, we don’t remember the part in between. Even when we do, we can never recall the moment of actually passing from one state to another.

There is a little-practised discipline of lucid dreaming, where the mind can be trained to recognise that it is conscious, yet not physically awake. With training, the lucid dreamer can recognise that they are in a dream and take control of it. It’s a technique which takes much practice to master and maintain. To begin with, the trainee will repeat to themselves a mantra, like ‘I am falling asleep…’. For many months of nightly practice thereafter, the trainee will simply pass into sleep and wake again, unaware of the moment of transition.

Next comes choosing a focus point: In my case, a clock. My sleep patterns are regular, so there are certain combinations of digits on a digital 24-hour clock which I never see in my wakeful state: say, 03.41. The numbers are arbitrary, but that was my focus, and the thought which I took with me as I fell asleep each night. After several weeks of practice, it suddenly worked one night: I rose, needing the bathroom. I checked the time and it was 04.38: A time I wasn’t used to, so on the clock, a sight I wasn’t accustomed to. I was dreaming, and as soon as I realised, I grew excited and woke with a start. It felt like being woken from a sleep walk.

Gradually, I taught myself to suppress my feelings when I witnessed a nocturnal hour on the clock. In doing so, I remained in control of my dream without breaking out of it. As my confidence grew, I found I could literally do as I pleased. I could fly, to anywhere. I could be invisible and eavesdrop, on anyone. It was all in my dream scape, but when I’d truly mastered the technique, so that waking dreams were part of the normal day, I found that strange things started to happen. Every day, I would retire for the night, then be unaware of the moment I fell asleep. As far as I was concerned, I’d just lain awake, rising and noting the time as 03.18, or whatever as being normal, no longer associated with the dreaming. This would go on and I’d rise for the day, with memories from the day before unbroken in my mind. Life had become one long day.

But in the dark day, my term for the one lived asleep, I was free. No computer or AI could claim that. Do androids dream of electric sheep?

I cradled Rupert’s head as his mind slipped between those waking and sleeping states, while I tilted coffee into his mouth. The caffeine would increase his awareness of his surroundings, but not a sobering up as such. The flunitrazepam would help him fall into a deep sleep, so that he could allow himself to be transported through his dream scape. He’d be physically paralysed, but with a heightened mental awareness of the dream. I was gifting lucidity, which had taken me so long to master. Flunitrazepam is a drug known as a hypnotic. It won’t give the same lucid fluidity which much practice had taught me, and the subject would be without clarity in memory, unlike that which burdened me. But he would be guided by me, an invisible hand-holder while he was trapped in his thoughts.

I cooked a rump steak while Rupert drifted: onto a smoking hot pan, for just two minutes on each side, without disturbing it as it tightened and tried to retreat from the searing heat. I lifted the cooked steak onto a warm plate and set it aside to rest. The fresh, red meat was crossed with sear marks, as if from a branding iron. The thick layer of outer fat was caramelised on the edges, but otherwise, white, soft, supple, and oozing juices, which mixed with the blood from the cooling meat. I left it to relax and chill slightly for five minutes, like a drugged teenager before penetration.

I tested a theory while I waited. The blood which flows through our bodies is only red when it’s oxygenated by the heart and travels through the arteries. Blood passing through the veins is de-oxygenated, and therefore blue. Unless the subject is in a vacuum, cutting a vein will produce red blood, as the blood cells come into contact with the oxygen in the air. I wondered if my fountain pen’s loading mechanism would maintain a vacuum.

The nib of my pen was sufficiently sharp to penetrate his skin and only rouse him slightly, like a conscious person being aware of an itch: Not in a place which can’t be reached, but somewhere indeterminate. Like all fountain pens, mine has a split nib. The aperture between the splayed teeth allows ink to flow through the nib, to be absorbed into the paper. The ink is stored in the barrel of the pen, and it’s drawn from an ink well through an aperture above the split tongue which delivers it. The piston mechanism drew blood from the vein, but any which came into contact with the air instantly turned red. Only if the reservoir was air tight would I collect blue blood. My fascination then, was whether his blood would remain blue in the reservoir. Of course, I’d created a paradox, like some sort of Schrödinger’s ink. Assuming the blood had been pumped into the pen, above the penetrating points of the nib, without coming into contact with the air, then the ink stored in the pen would be blue. I had no way of knowing, because the intake was hidden from my view during the pumping process. The simple act of writing with the pen would produce red ink, as it emerged from the barrel and came into contact with the air before being absorbed into the paper. Aside from dismantling the pen, the act of writing would be the catalyst which brought the words into being. The paradox was whether the words began their journey as blue or red ink: Original prose, or edited. I withdrew the nib of the pen and pressed on the wound to stem the blood.

The steak had cooled, as confirmed by a prod of my finger which registered only a little heat: Slightly above room temperature. Ambient body temperature, but slightly warmer, like the inside of a penetrable orifice. A gentle push of the finger into the flesh gives a clue to the inside: If the meat feels like a person’s cheek, or the base of the thumb on the palm of their hand, then it is too rare. It will be too tight to yield to gentle chewing, and it will bleed too much. If the flesh feels like pressing upon a forehead, or a knuckle, then the meat is too well-done, too resistant. Perfect ripeness lies in between, where the flesh of the beef is like the chin of a child’s face, or the fleshy back of the hand, between the thumb and forefinger, where one grasps a child’s hand with one’s thumb to lead them somewhere.

I sat with Rupert while I carved the steak, and talked about his daughter and how she was with us. He was awake only subconsciously, receptive to my hypnotic suggestion. His daughter was small, blonde and pretty, if one were that way inclined. He had a photo of her in a bikini on his phone, which I described in detail, using imagination for the unseen parts. Blood and fat oozed from the meat as I pierced it, then splayed the steak open to reveal a tender pink; the perfect medium-rare. I relished a few mouthfuls of perfectly aged and cooked meat, then I fashioned the remainder into a vagina. The fatty edge was the one which would be penetrated, like the soft, fatty white flesh of a labia. It gave way to folds of pink, slightly bloody, warm, soft and yielding meat inside.

My hypnotic description of his naked daughter had clearly worked, as he was aroused. Not wanting to actually touch any skin, I placed the steak in the palm of one hand, while I pulled his trousers and shorts down with the other. Then I gripped the steak around his hardened cock and started to masturbate him, while describing his daughter allowing him to enter her, then gradually getting comfortable with him inside her, before starting to move up and down on him. I gripped tighter as his little girl squeezed his shaft with her vagina and drew his foreskin down further and more firmly, deeper into her. I felt him twitch, so I slowed down. Whether he really wanted to or not, in his lucid state he was fucking his 14-year-old daughter, and I wanted it to last. I wanted him to know how a little boy would feel as he fucked his daughter. As I felt him unload in his daughter’s vagina, I gripped as though I was trying to pop a rodent like a tube of congealed glue. I pulled his foreskin down, hard and fast, then harder and further, until his frenulum snapped. A globule of blood bulged from the severed end, so I rolled his foreskin back over the glans of his penis and gripped it closed, so that his cock began to swell like a pink balloon. I’m sure his daughter would love a pink balloon, like the kind she’d get at a fairground from a traveller, before opening her legs for him round the back of a ride or a stall. I tied daddy’s cock off with fishing line around his foreskin, so as not to stain his expensive underwear.

Given that the rectum was practically staring me in the face, I evened things out a bit, in terms of Rupert’s daughter. I penetrated his anally, for what may or may not have been his first time. I started with a household candle, its wax composition giving it lubricant properties. His sphincter yielded easily to the wick end, then gradually relaxed as I pushed the candle in deeper. Not wishing to touch him directly, I again used the steak as protection. I turned it over, so that the side coated in his spunk was outermost. Then I gradually manipulated his anus, so that the steak started to enter it in such a way as to produce an internal funnel; an extra layer of thick flesh, both penetrating and lining his rectum. Once it was almost fully inserted, I artfully splayed out the protruding edge which hung from his sphincter. A special effects artist on a budget would be proud of such a prolapsed colon.

I re-dressed Rupert and enjoyed a fine bourbon as I surveyed a job well done, to make a story worth telling. He would remember little of the night, perhaps causing him a little embarrassment with his subordinates. But he’d wake up at his own home and assume he got there directly from the Lamb and Flag. Quite when he addressed the issues in his pants depended on many things, but none were my problem. I helped him outside and propped him up while I hailed a cab. I knew his address of course.

London cabbies are a mine of information, both given and received. In the rear view mirror, this cabby perhaps saw an incapable man being helped home by a friend, if he saw anything at all.

I had yet to write it all up, so the paradox of the blue / red ink remained. Or I could just type it, directly from memory, to test the difference engine and see what it made of things. Difference engine or not, the words which anyone reads will be the ones which were produced by my typewriter. If the resulting story were to be read, I was confident the difference engine would write it in prose which would only improve the story, by making it more thought provoking. It might add unwritten subtexts, prompting questions. It may make the story seem as though it actually happened, other than in someone’s imagination.

So the whole story was entrusted to the difference engine. It was up to the engine how much was revealed in the final story, like how I’d acquired it and who had given it to me. It might skip over such details, if it feels that the story itself is good enough to be a distraction and carry the reader through without them feeling the need to question. It may be that people get to the end of this story and not even know who I am, what my name is, or even my gender, because it didn’t occur to them.

I was truly invisible.

Difference engine mask
Image: Pinterest

© Steve Laker, 2017

My first collection of short stories is available now, and the Douglas Adams tribute novel will be out soon.

Revolutions of the difference engines

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Jez Guevara

Having said before that I’ll not politicise this blog, I’ll get the politics out of the way first. Specifically, why I’m backing the boy Corbyn: Man of the people, and the kind of new, progressive politician I’d like to see as prime minister. Of course, I’m biased: I’m a liberal, left-wing, Guardian-reading, part organic vegetable.

My reasons for backing Corbyn’s Labour are many, but for me personally, I’ll be able to make a greater contribution to society. I’m on benefits, signed off long-term from work because of mental health issues. Even forgetting for a moment, the changes to the NHS and improvements to mental health care provision proposed by Labour, I’d be able to take a distance learning course with the Open University when Labour abolish fees. I could study for a degree, which would allow me to give something back. Why should a university education be the preserve of the rich, when so many jobs are being made redundant by technology that soon a degree will be the minimum qualification for the remaining ones? My ex-wife and I couldn’t afford £9250 a year each for our children to become “future proofed”, so the kids would be saddled with loan repayments for the first few years of their employment.

The kids are intelligent, they go to good schools and they live comfortably with their mum and step dad. Naturally, everyone wants the children to be the best they can be, at whatever is best for them. They themselves made a point some time ago, as we were walking around Milton Keynes: They observed that there’s little for young people to do, since many local authority facilities have been closed down as a result of central government cuts. For the better-off, this isn’t a problem, since they can afford entertainment. And it was that statement which struck me, because two young but bright children had illustrated the two-tier society which they see around them. They have many of the things which children like to have, mainly financed by their mum and step dad. I contribute as much as I can, and they understand finances and budgeting, but they have an empathy for those less well-off (well, their dad was a tramp for a while). Like me and like Corbyn, they think long-term, and want to make a contribution towards a better society. Like me, they see that possibility under Corbyn and Labour. Personally, I envisage the introduction of a Universal Basic Income, or Guaranteed Minimum Income in Labour’s second term, a model which has proven successful in more enlightened countries, like Canada, Denmark, Brazil, Finland, Iceland…

A part of me still hopes that Brexit won’t happen. Kim-Jong May’s days are numbered in any case. She’s a danger and the country is a laughing stock among the other 27 EU nations and the wider world. As a country, we’re the kid left on the sideline and mocked. Isn’t it time she stepped down and allowed our re-uniting country a third chance at those “Put it to the nation” things so beloved of the Tories? Leave or Remain, Left or Right-wing: We need to agree that she isn’t a leader. Then the nation decides the rest in a general election which is triggered by her resignation. The woman’s ego is destroying a nation’s future and with it, our children’s prospects.

Meccanismo-Complesso-Octopus-Steampunk
An imagining of the difference engine (see below)

In other news, my next book is finished as a first draft, which is now out with beta readers for a month. Meanwhile the book is just over the half-way mark in a publishing sense. It’s been converted to 8 x 5” paperback size, and comes in at just over 400 pages.

Once the test readers come back with their comments, there’ll be another round of editing and Cyrus Song should be in the shops by October, all going well. Until then, I’m churning out pulp fiction for the shock horror web zines readerships, and the next one, The Difference Engine, will be out somewhere soon:

I disappeared without warning and for no apparent reason. To the best of my knowledge, there were no witnesses. I wasn’t a well-known person, so few would miss me. It was perfect.

What made this apparent illusion possible was the difference engine: Quite a box of tricks in itself. The engine is a retro-futuristic, mechanical bolt-on device for my manual typewriter. It’s the steam punk equivalent of an app installed on a computer. The difference engine clamps onto the typewriter, between the type heads and the impression cylinder. It’s a translation device, so as I type out my thoughts on the keyboard, it produces edited fiction on the paper…

As a literary plot device, the difference engine is an invention I may make use of in future stories. Like some of my mentors (Paul Auster in particular), I like to have links between stories and common themes within some of them. All of my short stories stand alone, but I have favoured geographical locations, fictional organisations and objects which I sometimes return to. The typewriter in The Difference Engine is one such thing, as is The Unfinished Literary Agency, above Hotblack Desiato’s letting agency in Islington (the latter actually exists).

Of all the writers I’ve been variously compared to (Douglas Adams, Roald Dahl et al), the comparison with Auster is the one I’m most grateful for, as it was recognition that I can pull off the kind of complexities which he does. Like Auster’s, many of my stories contain others within them. There are recurring characters, meetings with oneself, and writers as narrators of tales about writer protagonists. Most contain subtexts, and some are two or more completely different stories contained in the same narrative. The thing is, they’re not clever tricks: It’s just my style of writing, so to be compared to my literary idol is quite something.

I’m not quite four years in with this writing game, and I’m about to publish my fourth book. Given the nature of Cyrus Song and the messages within, if it was published in October, with Jeremy Corbyn in No.10, that would just be the literary icing on the cake.

My first anthology is available now.

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.”

Save

Save

Let me take you by the hand…

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Rossi-Letterpress-printing

I’ve been called many things: Versatile being among the repeatable. I’m also asked a lot of questions, as a writer. I’ve even given interviews. It’s interesting, that most questions asked of me now, are of the writer. I don’t forget where I came from: I can’t and I wouldn’t want to.

One of the more common questions is, “What’s The Perpetuity of Memory about?” Well, the cover notes and synopsis are on this blog and on the book’s Amazon page. But one answer went like this (because it was appropriate to the audience):

Well, there are 25 stories in there. It’s not just the stories that make the book, but the circumstances in which they were written. So the book is a real mix: There are fantastical tales of steam punk worlds, a human puppet on strings, and a time machine in the form of a typewriter. There’s light-hearted sci-fi, graphic and psychological horror: There’s a virgin birth on stage at a school nativity, where God is called to answer charges of rape. There’s a teenage girl automaton, who has a bit of a surprise for her “Daddy.” There’s a story which I can’t say much about; only that one reader told me it made them physically shudder. But then there’s the sublime and haunting Echo Beach, and the ghost under the bed, in Cardboard Sky.

And one person even asked me, “Can’t you write about fluffy kittens or something?” That was actually my ex-wife. And I told her, I do that as well. But she knows I wrote bedtime stories for the kids last summer; and our daughter illustrated my award-winning children’s book.

Most of the questions lately have been about Cyrus Song, which is a science fiction comedy (and it works). The most common question has been, “Is there really an answer, to life, the universe and everything? One which I’ll understand? Is it in the book?” (Yes, yes, and yes). But then someone who only knows me from my sci-fi work asked me, “Do you write about serial killers and shit?” Actually, I do:

This one is in “The Perp”, and there’ll be more. I’m still writing short stories while I write the book; for a second anthology, and to get some free reading out there. So for those who only know me for sci-fi, I also do this sort of thing:

Let me take you by the hand, and lead you through the streets of London…

Helvetica haus

I’m writing about a writer. The writer is writing about a writer. That is to say, the writer whom I’m writing about, is doing as I am.

The paper I’m writing this original manuscript on is from Smythson of Bond Street. My pen was a gift: hand-made by Waldmann Adámas from Titanium and Gun Metal. The ink flows smoothly through the barrel and it is comfortable to hold. The ink is stored in the barrel like so many thoughts yet to take form. Then it passes through the barrel, held in my fingers as it ejects my thoughts through my hand and onto the paper, like black blood. My pen is an ergonomic tool of an art which produces aesthetics in the written word.

It’s not just the writing I produce which is art: my means of bringing it into being is also art.

When I’m at my most prolific, I turn to my faithful Royal Epoch typewriter: I can type much faster than I can write freehand. I like holding the metallic rod of the pen in my hand as it spills my words but I gain equal satisfaction from typing. Each depression of a key on a manual typewriter needs to be of a certain force: too gentle and the words are faint; whispered. Too hard and the ink will impress too deeply into the virginal paper. Just the right amount of pressure in the finger delivers an optimum amount of black ink. I had the hammer heads of the characters individually carved by a Monotype compositor of my acquaintance.

Once upon a time, stories weren’t written on computers and word processors, where they leave an indelible imprint, even if deleted. The Monotype operator uses a machine very much like a typewriter, which produces individual letters from molten metal ingots called “pigs”. These individual columns with characters on the end are called “slugs”. The slugs are positioned into a frame, called a “galley” by the Monotype machine. Each slug is one character and metal spacers are inserted into the galley to separate words. These characterless pieces of metal are also produced by the machine operator on his keyboard, simply by hitting a space bar like on a typewriter. I find it amazing to consider, that operator is not only typing the words which will tell a story but he is creating the very letters themselves. Instead of putting ink on paper, he is “typing” the mechanisms which will later do so: he’s writing a machine; he’s writing the means to print. The final galley is a page of type which will be coated in ink and impressed upon sheets of paper: it’s a platen process; it’s traditional letterpress printing, pre-dating litho print.

Rather than be cast in a galley though, my individual letter and character slugs were soldered to the ends of the arms of the hammers in my typewriter, so that every character I type is in the Helvetica typeface.

Often I’ll type up my hand-written notes. This can be because of various motivators: often something which I’ve hand-written whilst on the move or in haste will take on sufficient merit to be typed up as a manuscript for publication. Sometimes speed itself will dictate that the incessant presses of keys is a more efficient way to hasten my thoughts into reality. Typing is rough, violent and more invasive than handwriting. Occasionally, I just like to type and see my words in Helvetica. I can make anything appear in physical form in semi-permanence. That piece of completed writing then exists in only two places: my mind and printed onto the paper. I can destroy the paper at will. Sometimes I burn blank sheets of paper so that the words I planned for them may not be seen.

Apart from the obvious fact that everything written electronically is indelible, even when erased, I eschew computers for many reasons. Screen fonts have naturally had to be digitised: this is introducing an impurity, as well as leaving messy marks. I view it as typographical rape or incest. It’s similar to the comparison between vinyl LPs and MP3s: the latter is digitised and loses a lot of nuance in the process. To the casual, uneducated listener, there is no difference but to the trained ear, listening on quality equipment, the two recordings are identical, yet worlds apart. There is simply no substitute for the platen impression of type pressed forcefully into a sheet of paper and there is no place in my writing for digital typefaces or computer printers. I refuse to refer to digital printing vehicles as presses, simply because they aren’t; they don’t: they don’t physically press the type into the paper.

My manual typewriter is an instrument of beautiful torture. It is a metal skeleton; a mechanical device made productive automata through my fingers. It produces the flesh and blood which are my stories, in the purest font: Helvetica. The letterpress printing machine is the mechanical animal which spews out many copies.

The typeface itself is a thing of naked beauty. When each individual perfect character’s form can be joined with others to make words, the collective beauty is greater than the sum of the parts. My faithful typewriter – its unique qualities created by a writer – creates stories. It’s like a story written to reproduce.

When written to my satisfaction, my original, typed manuscripts are delivered to the printer: a firm called Smith & Young in Bermondsey.

Smith & Young are die-stampers by trade: a beautiful art in itself. The die-stamping process is also a platen one, like letterpress. The process embosses ink into the paper, so that the print stands in relief. Each colour of ink in a coat of arms for example has to be die-stamped separately. Therefore an engraver needs to carve a copper embossing die for each colour and ensure that all colours are printed in register. Furthermore, because the image is stamped directly onto the paper, the dies have to be engraved in mirror image. It’s incredible to watch a worker such as my compositor produce such things of beauty and value. They practice print as an art, not a technology. Once furnished with a few simple concepts, even the layman can distinguish the difference between digital and traditional lithographic print. Die-stamping is a rare thing but the embossed nature of the print is easy to appreciate. To really understand the nuances and beauty of letterpress printing though, requires a connoisseur.

I have to ensure that my manuscript is perfect. I do not use correction fluid: to do so would mar the otherwise monotone typed page with another colour and evidence of a mistake. Mistakes happen and when they do, I simply begin the page again and destroy the original. Given an infinite number of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys will eventually produce a faultless, complete works of Shakespeare. What comes from my typewriter is the first and final hand-typed copy of a work.

When this story is finished, it will leave me as the one and only copy which exists. I don’t use carbon paper, nor take photographs. Once the copy leaves me, I have no record of it. I can’t revise it: the manuscript I despatch is the final draft. For a while, the story doesn’t really exist: it’s sheets of paper in an envelope in a courier’s bag. That courier cares no more for what he or she is delivering than they do my motivation. Should they be involved in an incident and my parcel is displaced, then that is a story which will never be told.

My compositor is not a monkey operating a machine: He is a writer, like me. His is a highly skilled trade and he is one of only a very few remaining.

The courier will wait with the printer, whilst the Monotype operator typesets my story. My story is written again, by a different writer. Whereas my key strokes produced ink on paper, his produce slugs of metal to be locked into a galley for a printing press. Again, the means of printing a story in infinite quantities by impressing those metal slugs into paper, is being literally written in cold, hard metal.

When the galley is complete, the courier will return the original typed manuscript to the writer. For a brief period, two copies of my work exist in physical form: I have an ink-on-paper typed copy, which I can destroy at any time. The other copy exists as potential energy: the tool, written in metal, can print an undefined number of copies of my story. As an entity, the work’s power has increased because it now exists in both a physical and potential form which is much harder – if not impossible – to destroy. The work could well exist in two minds, if the Monotype operator absorbed the story as he wrote it.

Once the potential to print countless physical copies of my work in the form of metal slugs in a galley exists, a problem troubles my purist mind. I trust the man at Smith and Young: he is a good friend and respected in print. He can type almost as speedily on a Monotype setting machine as I can on a manual typewriter (A small piece of trivia for the buff: the Monotype keyboard doesn’t use the QWERTY layout). I trust my colleague to use my specified paper stock when printing the orders I send him but it’s those copies which cause me discomfort. I have no control over the format, media or device which a subsequent reader may see my work presented upon. If it were on anything other than my specified stock and printed letterpress in Helvetica, then the reader would be seeing something which I’ve not given them the authority to view and which is not in the pure form it was intended.

This story isn’t finished. It needs an intermission and to that end, I shall excuse myself for an evening out.

The walk from London Bridge station into Bermondsey always evokes memories: through the tunnels under the station, where much of The Specials’ Ghost Town video was filmed, then a quick stop at The Woolpack on Bermondsey Street for a late morning gin and tonic.

Ink, paper and alcohol have always been uneasy bedfellows. Just as the meat porters of the old Smithfield market used to drink in The Hope pub at dawn, so did the writing communities around Fleet Street and Soho late at night and into the next day: that’s where they worked and some lived but many also lived in Bermondsey. Printing is in the blood there.

I used to drink in The Hope some early mornings with a meat porter, appropriately called Red. His white overalls would be smeared in the blood of more than 100 pigs. The shades of red were like splattered timestamps, the darkest dating back to midnight. “I can chop a pig down and cut it up in five minutes,” he said, clutching a fresh copy the Guardian against his belly. “Legs, shoulders, loins. All done proper like. It’s an art. Chopping a pig down’s an art.”

As Smithfield Market wound down after a night of dismemberment and meat trade, men in white coats breathed in the still, chilly air as the sun rose above Farringdon. Wholesalers – the ones with clean coats – emerged too, wheeling the last of their purchases towards refrigerated Transit vans. They’d dodge a few early risers in suits who are on the sober march towards the City.

The blood would elicit gasps in any other part of town and some coats were grislier than others. “You get bloodier when you’re cutting up lambs,” explained Red, who had the bearing of a retired boxer. “Lambs you put on a block, and cut towards you. When you do pigs, they’re hanging up so you cut away from yourself.”

I saw a few familiar faces from the past at the Woolpack but couldn’t quite place them.

A few doors down, I popped in to see George: the barber whose shop bears his name in Bermondsey Street. For some reason, in all the years I recall going to George’s, George has been the same age: early seventies. He’s probably over 100 by now.

George still does a military short back and sides. The haircut, a shave with a badger hair brush and a cut-throat razor, burning wax tapers flicked into my ears and a hot towel compress are all complete within twenty minutes and George has me looking as I like to for important meetings. George doesn’t talk as he works, negating the need for the kind of small talk which he and I detest. Time spent in his skilful hands is time to relax and contemplate, while he goes about his craft perfectly and to the exclusion of all external distractions. He’s a perfectionist, like me. He invests in fine tools, maintains them with love and employs them with precision. Over a drink at the Woolpack one night, George showed me exactly how sharp one of his cut-throat razors was, by requesting a whole tomato from the kitchen. George opened the razor and rested the blade on the tomato on the bar. Merely steadying the blade with one hand, he raised the handle with his other hand and the blade began to cut through the skin of the tomato under its own weight alone. George noted my fascination with the implement and allowed me to keep it that night.

As is custom, I declined something for the weekend, tipped George and bade him farewell. From there, I decamped briefly to M. Manze, just down the road. Manze’s is the oldest – and best, in my opinion – pie and mash shop in London.

Pie and mash is nineteenth century fast food: the somehow grumpy but friendly staff plate up one’s food in the manner of a borstal inmate high enough in the pecking order to be placed on kitchen duty, then one joins others and quickly eats, head down in a booth where the seats are made of wood and the tabletops are white marble.

Ordering food at Manze’s has to be done with precision. A simple request for pie and mash will be greeted with a blank expression, even though it’s a pie and mash shop. It’s like a test to see if one is a connoisseur of the London delicacy. My specific request was delivered quickly and with no room for misunderstanding. Therefore, my order of one pie, one mash and “liquor” – sort of a parsley sauce – was dolloped with meaning and there was a knowing smile from the server. At a table shared with three complete strangers, I garnished my food with the chilli infused sarsaparilla vinegar, which is for some reason traditional, and ate in around ten minutes. The floor is tiled in black and white, so I played a quick mental game of chess against myself as I chewed.

Thereafter, a quick dash over Tower Bridge Road and down an alley through some housing blocks, to The Victoria in Page’s Walk. The Victoria was the Evening Standard pub of the year in 1972 and the green and white plaque still adorns the wall, alongside black and white photographs of the building. The rest of the pub is at it was then as well: a great little south east London drinking den, where many go only because they need to and others because they happened upon it.

Smith and Young in Crimscott Street was just around the corner from the pub, so my compositor joined me after he’d locked up for the weekend. We had an agreeable few hours, him unwinding with a few pints and me on Tanqueray gin and Indian tonic water, with a squeeze each of fresh lime, orange and lemon, then a tiny dash of cranberry juice: the four fruits must be added in a specific order to maintain the traffic light sequence: green lime, amber from the lemon and orange, then the cranberry for red; then another tiny dash of cranberry at the same time as a squeeze each of lemon and orange, and a final squeeze of lime for the red and amber, green part of the symphony. We had a few drinks and discussed my story.

Presently, we agreed that it might be time to eat, so we made our way back toward London Bridge Station by foot and then to Charing Cross by rail, across Hungerford Bridge, and from where we would eventually part company. It was no concern of mine where my companion had to travel to but the terminus afforded me a ten minute ride home, so it was convenient.

We walked down the cobbles of Villiers Street and crossed embankment, clogged with weekend traffic; mainly coaches and black cabs taking workers home and bringing more people into the West End.

Charing Cross is symbolic because Charing Cross itself, which the station takes its name from, is the official centre of London. The original centre point is the Square Mile of The City, once a Roman fortress trading post, enclosed and gated: Moorgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate etc. Charing Cross is also notable in my mind for being roughly half way between the old writing districts of Fleet Street, along Strand and through Aldwych, into The City; and Soho, the bohemian heart of the great metropolis, where Jeffrey Bernard once held court in The Coach and Horses, whilst famously being unwell.

The two of us boarded The Tattershall Castle, an old steam ferry moored permanently at Embankment. We chose to sit on deck and enjoy the view: dominated by the graceful London Eye and Art Deco wonder of Shell Centre on the south bank, and the brutal but beautiful form of the Hungerford rail and foot bridges spanning old lady Thames; it was a conflicting postcard.

The steamer was built by William Gray & Co. in 1934 as a passenger ferry on the River Humber for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). She plied a route between Corporation Pier in Kingston upon Hull and New Holland Pier Station, New Holland. During the Second World War she found service as a tether for barrage balloons and for troop transfer on the Humber estuary. After the war, with the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, she became part of British Rail’s Sealink service. In 1973, after long service as a passenger and goods ferry, she was retired from service and laid up. In 1976 the ship was towed to London. Repairs on the ship were deemed too costly and she was retired from service. The opening of the Humber Bridge made the ferry service, known to have existed since at least Roman times, redundant. PS Tattershall Castle was first opened on the Thames as a floating art gallery until her eventual disposal to a brewing company. Now it’s a floating bar and restaurant, where we sat.

Our like minds permitted us to arrive at different meal choices for dinner. My companion chose traditional fish and chips, his reasoning being that we were in close proximity to marine life. My own reasoning was that we were surrounded by all kinds of life: land-based humans and other mammals, mainly unseen; insects, largely invisible; airborne species, mainly birds which were visible; and indeed, marine life. The most visible, abundant and accessible food group was avian and this is what prompted me to order chicken escalope. I realise that there were unlikely to be any chickens within view at the time of my placing the order but neither were there gulls or pigeons on the menu. There were no cod that I could see either but my dining companion’s battered fish looked a fine meal, served with good chips, mushy peas – in a separate ramekin – and a slice of lemon. There was a separate pot of tartare sauce but my partner is a Philistine and smothered his food in ketchup. My chicken was served as requested: not a breast fillet from the menu but a butterflied piece of thigh meat. This must be cooked with the Cheddar cheese and bacon rolled into it but without a securing rasher of bacon around it, so that the skin may be allowed to brown and crisp. The escalope must then be allowed to rest in a warm place, so that the flesh of the chicken can relax and absorb its own juices and take on those of the bacon inside as it penetrates the soft, white and accommodating young chicken meat with it’s aged, salty juices. The rested chicken parcel must then be wrapped in another slice of fatty bacon and the whole thing fried in butter until the bacon starts to resist and becomes crisp. My chicken was accompanied by the aforementioned good chips: these are King Edward potatoes, cooked thrice: once boiled, then twice fried to produce an “armadillo” chip: crispy on the outside; fluffy on the inside. A fine barbecue sauce and a corn cob completed the plate.

The meal functioned as such, with no need for long-standing friends to engage in casual banter at the expense of the enjoyment of good food. At one point, somewhat annoyed but at the same time amused at the incessant presence of gulls, I tossed a piece of chicken on deck which was quickly swooped upon by three winged balaclava-wearing hooligans. I speculated aloud as to whether this might be cannibalism by proxy and my partner responded by smiling and throwing a piece of his fish overboard, commenting that we’ll never know. I hope my smile conveyed my admiration.

We enjoyed a post-dinner hand-rolled cigarette in pleasant silence, leaning over the handrail of the deck. For my part, I reminisced about a fine and productive evening and looked forward to something as yet incomplete but which held excitement. Great minds: I don’t know what his thoughts were but I respect privacy, so I concentrated on my own.

The flowing Thames below us was a blue-black, like ink flowing through a pen around the boat. I was aboard the boat and therefore the delivery mechanism. This story is now under my control; the boat beneath my feet like the pen in my hand.

I sliced my compositor’s neck from behind, cutting away from me as he leaned over the deck of the boat. Just as it had cut through the tomato skin and flesh, so my cut-throat razor slid between my ghost writer’s head and torso like a hot knife through butter, separating the two in an instant.

As the decapitated head fell to the water below, the eyes remained open and the cigarette which I’d rolled was still in his mouth. The head plopped into the river like a full stop from a hammer in an old typewriter impressing ink into a sheet of paper, or a platen press impressing the final page galley.

The ink flowing around me took on a new colour as the dark, dusty river of life and waste below was splashed with red strike marks, blood spurting from the neck of the headless body next to me, still gripping the handrail. Before I tipped him overboard, I took his wallet.

I engaged the staff in conversation about the distribution of tips paid to the establishment. Once I’d established that tips were distributed fairly among staff, I was able to pay for the meal using my friend’s credit card with a clear conscience.

Of course, I shall burn this copy of the story but I am aware that the galley still exists: that is by design. It is important to my art that a physical record be kept.

My writing is art. I bring things to life with my words and by putting myself in the stories and acting them out so that I may tell them more accurately.

The Perpetuity of Memory is available now. Cyrus Song is due for publication in December.

Save

It started with The Division Bell

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Cyrus Song FB Cover

It was as I sat one night, listening to The Division Bell by Pink Floyd, that my next book occurred to me. Track 9 on that album is “Keep Talking”, which features the Stephen Hawking quote: “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 that gave me an idea: Cyrus Song.

“Cyrus” is a name sometimes given to the sun: Sol; the star which gave birth to our planet. The Cyrus song is the sound of the sun. The rough synopsis is on the Book Shelf page of this blog:

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, a veterinary surgeon, 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 pretty 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 voyage to find answers and love in the world: What could possibly go wrong?

Follow the Facebook page for updates.

I’m writing Chapter 11 now, and a December publication date looks likely, by whichever means. All I can then hope is that people read it and like it, then tell others. It’s been well-received by a few trusted writing peers I’ve shared it with, so I have confidence in the book and myself.

The book started life, after that Pink Floyd song, when I wrote a short story. That went down so well that I was encouraged to write the book. Until it’s finished though, this was the first chapter:

Chapter One: Cyrus Song

This perfectly credible 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 wasn’t a powerful magnifier: a full stop on a sheet of paper became the size of a grain of cous cous. Even at that low magnification though, I could see that the little round thing had a dull silver metallic sheen. It was like the little silverfish things I used to find in the bath, but round and very much smaller. I moved the magnifying glass in and out, to try to get the best clarity and I noticed that this little circular thing cast a minute shadow. So it was supported by something; perhaps it did have legs.

For a whole minute, I just looked at the thing and wondered what on earth it could be. Then the intrigue doubled, as another little silverfish thing rushed in from stage left under the glass. Then the two just sat there, about an inch apart. Were they about to mate? Were they rivals, sizing one another up? What were they? They remained motionless and so did I.

How long was I going to sit there, looking at two whatevers? I wasn’t going to find out much else with my little magnifying glass. Even if one of them had popped out a hand to wave at me, I wouldn’t have seen it. So what was I to do? Brush them aside as inconsequential and forget about them? Squash them? Put them outside? The next part required some precision planning and application. The two little creatures, things; whatever they were, were at the top of the sheet of paper, above the impression cylinder of my typewriter. If I was going to catch them, I’d need to support the paper from behind, while placing a receptacle over them.

I spend most of my waking hours at the typewriter, so I like to keep as much as I can within easy reach of my writing desk. It was fortuitous that I had conjunctivitis and an eye bath proved to be the perfect dome to place over this little infant colony of mine. I slid them gently, under the dome to the edge of the sheet and onto a drink coaster. Then I turned the whole thing over and tapped the coaster, so that the full stops dropped into the eye bath. Finally, I put cling film over the top and wondered what to do next; who to phone who might not think me a crank.

Let’s assume that I’m not acquainted with anyone in any of the specialist fields one might require in such a situation. Because I’m not. So I took my newly acquired pets to a vet.

Not having any pets besides my two decimal points, full stops, or whatever they were, I wasn’t registered with a vet. I didn’t want to register with a vet any more than I wanted two potentially dangerous full stops. I didn’t know what I had and I didn’t even know if it was a vet I needed. And so it was that I ended up at the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA).

As a first time customer, I had to fill out a form: My name, address, contact number and so on; and pet’s name. And whether the pet is a pedigree breed. The PDSA will treat one pedigree animal per human client. I couldn’t decide between my two, so I declared them both non-pedigree. Cross breed or mixed? Not applicable? Names: Dot and Dash. Because they were both small and one was more active than the other; I was quite pleased with that.

I took a seat in the waiting area with some pets and their owners. There was a large pit bull cross breed opposite us and he had a dog. I imagined them as small as Dot and Dash: Someone could place a dome over them and take them away, to find out exactly what species they were. I allowed myself an inner smile as a ray of sunshine broke into the room and I imagined studying them under a magnifying glass. I’d have to focus the light just right for the best view. Who’d have known that spontaneous combustion was so common at that magnification? But my mind was wandering.

There was a rather attractive young lady called Cat. Appropriately enough, Catherine’s owner was a cat: a ginger tom called Blue: I liked that. I really hoped no-one would ask me anything at all. But Cat asked me what I had. Well, I couldn’t be sure but I was certain they hadn’t jumped off of me: That’s why I was at the vet’s and not the doctor’s. I looked down at Dot and Dash, wondering how I’d approach this. Soon, we were called to a room:

“Mr Fry.” A lady’s voice. Dash was on the move again in all directions, while Dot seemed to be exploring the perimeter of their container. “Mr Fry”, the lady called again. That’s me.

“Oh, yes. That’s me.”

“I’m Doctor Jones. But you can call me Hannah.”

Hannah: What a lovely name for such an attractive young lady. It was lovely because it was a palindrome and because it belonged to Doctor Hannah Jones. She was small and pretty, with red hair. The best palindrome is Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas: It has no merit in logic but whoever thought it up deserves recognition in a book of some sort.

“Hannah.” I said. “That’s a pretty name.”

“Thanks. I got it for my birthday. And I don’t have any sisters. So, what have you brought along to show me?”

“I was hoping you could tell me that.”

Doctor Jones’ bedside manner was very relaxing and she put me at ease as she seemed to take a genuine interest in what I’d brought along to show her. She had one of those magnifying lamps above her examination table and the scene which that presented was the kind of thing to give a science fiction writer an idea: As Doctor Jones pulled the lamp over our two subjects, it was like a great mother ship shining a light into a dome, brought to earth and containing alien species.

Doctor Jones moved the light around, just as I had my magnifying glass before. Then she said the oddest thing: “I don’t think these are animals.”

“I’m sorry. So what are they?”

“Until I get a closer look, I don’t know. But they look and behave as though at least one of them might be mechanical.”

I said the first thing which came to mind: “What?” Then the next thing: “Why are they here?”

“Because you brought them here? Where did you find them?”

“They sort of appeared in the middle of a story I was working on. I’m a writer you see?”

“Well, you came to the right place. Follow me.”

“Where are we going?”

“To the lab.”

The lab was what seemed like a couple of miles away, through corridors which all looked the same: white, with strip lighting which was a bit blue-ish. I hoped I was doing the right thing, because there was no way I’d have found my way back out of there and I’d not brought any string to leave a trail. We walked at a fairly leisurely pace and I half wondered if there might be a film crew following us but when I looked behind, there were no cameras or fluffy mic. I walked behind Doctor Jones. The corridors were quite narrow and I wanted to leave room for anyone who might be coming the other way. But no-one passed.

I looked down at the two things in my eye bath, knowing they must be there, even though I couldn’t see them at that distance. Mechanical? Nano machines?

Glancing up at Doctor Jones, it occurred to me that she had a slightly curious gait: not so much masculine as such but a walk which didn’t immediately betray the walker’s gender. The fiction writer woke in my head again and I wondered if Doctor Jones might once have been a man, or was soon to become one. In any case, it was an aesthetic pleasure to watch the doctor walk along those corridors.

Eventually we arrived at a door and in the room on the other side was indeed a laboratory: a forensic and chemistry sort of set up. There were microscopes and monitors, beakers, jars and bottles. Doctor Jones hastened me over to a bench, on which there was a microscope and a monitor. She asked me to pass her the eye bath. She placed the vessel on the bench, then continued pretty much where she’d left off:

“They don’t move like anything I recognise. And I’ve seen big and small things in this job, with anywhere between no legs and over 700. When I first saw what you had, I thought you’d brought them to a vet because they’d come from a pet…”

“Sorry,” I interrupted. “People have brought in ticks and lice from their pet dogs, or cats or whatever?”

“Yes. I’m guessing you don’t have a house pet because if you think about it, bringing in one or two parasites is quite logical. We can identify the type of parasite and advise or prescribe accordingly. Of course, if we have any reason to think the host animal may need something more than home treatment, then we’ll have them in. Most of the time though, it’s a simple course of treatment in the pet’s home. We have to see the animal once the infection has gone, but bringing the parasite alone in first means that the house pet isn’t unnecessarily stressed and doesn’t cross contaminate other animals.” She was very clever.

“That does make sense. But these are not parasites?” I pointed at my eye bath.

“They could be. It’s just that I don’t think they’re organic.”

“So what now?”

“Well, first I’ll need to prepare a petri dish and apply an adhesive surface.”

“Why?”

“So they can’t escape. Mr Fry, you said they just appeared on a sheet of paper in your typewriter.”

“They did. I’d been away from my desk and I knew they’d not been there before, because one of them was a full stop which I would not have put in the middle of a sentence; Or a decimal point in the wrong place; I can’t remember. Anyway, I noticed them when I came back to my desk and as I started to look closer – to see if I’d typed something incorrectly – one of them moved. Then the other one did. I must admit, the first things I thought of doing were either brushing them or blowing them away. It would seem that might have been a mistake.”

“But at the time, you’d have just been blowing or brushing a foreign body away. You certainly wouldn’t have given a thought to looking close enough at such tiny things to see that they weren’t in fact punctuation marks. These things are the size of a full stop on a page of a magazine; a couple of specks of dust. It does make you wonder how many more you might have brushed or blown away, doesn’t it?”

“It does now. So I caught them, wondered where to take them and decided on a vet. And this is all going rather splendidly Doctor.”

“It’s not my average day, Mr Fry. So, you, me, or anyone at all, may or may not have just brushed these things aside without realising.”

“So there could be millions, billions of these little machines, if that’s what they are. That presents some really quite alarming scenarios in my day job.”

“Then there are the other questions, Mr Fry: Where did they come from? These could be the only two of course. If they were to escape, where would they go? But you’re the fiction writer Mr Fry, so I’ll let you show me where we go from here. So, that’s why I’ll treat the petri dish with an adhesive before I put the two of them in.”

I pondered aloud whether the doctor might be outside of her comfort zone. As it turned out, she had degrees in the sciences and her PhD was in human psychology. After all of that, she said she’d decided to work with animals. Doctor Jones was a scientist and although I had no formal qualifications, in effect, so was I, such is the scientific knowledge I’ve acquired in the course of my research. Where her learning was structured, mine came from fumbling around various fields. Mine was an imaginative qualification: an honorary doctorate in the power of the imagination. I imagined that Doctor Jones made a lot more money than me but she seemed to enjoy her work as much as I do mine. Given that she was clearly quite a brilliant scientist, I took it as a compliment that she didn’t dismiss any of my fanciful ideas. We made a good team.

What followed were orchestral manoeuvres of lab equipment, as Doctor Jones prepared the dish then raised a pipette. She pierced the cling film on the eye bath, then sucked up the two machines from the great rise of the robots which had taken place on my typewriter earlier. Then two small dots, barely bigger than the full stops on this page, fell into the pristine ocean in the dish. And stayed there.

It was actually quite sad. I’d only seen these things under a magnifying glass and even then, they were grains of cous cous. They had no features and we were yet to gain even the first idea of what they might be. But I had watched them moving and now they were trapped, like paralysed leviathans in the vastness of a petri dish. Even though Doctor Jones said they weren’t organic, how could she be totally sure? What if the adhesive ocean was toxic to them? If these were indeed the only two of their kind, we could be responsible for an extinction. If there were millions or billions of these things around, constantly being brushed aside, blown away or sucked into a vacuum cleaner must have limited their breeding opportunities in any case. Maybe that’s why dust accumulates and seems to breed. Perhaps there are trillions of nano robots smaller than dust particles, all around us. It’s the kind of idea beloved of fiction writers because it could very well be true. There’s just no way of proving one way or the other: It’s a paradox.

Returning to the true story I was writing, Doctor Jones got to the exciting bit: She readied the microscope. We were to put Dot and Dash under a traditional, optical microscope first, so that the lens looked like an enormous plasma cannon, bearing down on life forms, frozen and forced to witness their own destruction.

Doctor Jones looked into the microscope first: she was already there. She carried on looking, while I just wondered. Then she turned the lenses of the microscope, so that now the central cannon was above the robots. She looked for some while longer. Had the subjects of her study mesmerised her; against her will? Had they reversed the cannon, and were now firing lasers into her eyes? Were they transmitting a signal and filling her mind with propaganda? What could Hannah see? What could see Hannah? I wanted to ask; to call out. All of a sudden, Doctor Jones seemed lost.

Soon, the largest, longest, most powerful barrel was pointed at these strange creatures: a channel which had been established between them and Doctor Jones. Then Hannah said another surprising thing: “Fucking hell.”

I didn’t know if she was reacting to something she’d just seen, or something fired into her eye, or her mind. She might be about to kill me. She rose slowly from the microscope and looked at me.

“Mr Fry.” That’s me. “What the fuck?” I didn’t know.

Doctor Jones looked as lost in the eyes as she’d sounded before that third barrel. They’d drilled into her brain. Or she’d killed them.

One of many things I’ve learned while writing fiction is that if someone passes out, the first thing they’ll remember when they wake up will be the last they saw or heard before they went off. She’d not fainted but I looked Doctor Jones directly in the eyes and said, “What the fuck!?” She seemed a little taken aback but we were back in the room at least.

“What the fuck, Mr Fry; What the fuck are you breeding at your house?”

“Doctor, as I explained, these two things appeared on my typewriter. And now we are here. May I see what you just saw?”

“Your story is about to get a bit weirder. Go ahead.” Doctor Jones stepped away from the microscope. I walked towards her. It was more of a stride actually, as I placed myself between the good doctor and the imminent danger under the lens. For a moment, I felt quite pleased with myself.

Suddenly, it were as though I was far above the earth. Through the window of my plane, on the ocean below, I saw a ship. I couldn’t begin to guess at the vessel’s size but it was heavily armed. It was cigar shaped, with large cannons bow and stern. Smaller guns ran the length of the ship on both sides and the whole thing was covered by an elliptical dome. This is the one I’d called Dash.

I panned across the static ocean from the starboard side of the vessel to Dot. This second one was circular. It had guns protruding all around its perimeter and was also covered by a domed roof. At the very top was another dome; semi-transparent: the bridge? I swore I could see movement beneath that second glass dome. Even at 1000x magnification, they were just dots but they were moving. What the fuck, indeed.

Doctor Jones moved the petri dish to an electron microscope. “Ten million times magnification and sound as well.”

“Sound?”

“Yup. Tiny little amplifying microphones, so we can hear what they’re saying.” Now this, I was looking forward to. This was rather exciting, given the potential enormity of our discovery, even though it was miniscule. Then I wondered at that figure: 10,000,000x magnification. What would we see at that level? What detail.

Doctor Jones divided the monitor into two; split screen, with one camera on each vessel: Dot was on the right and Dash on the left. Then she started to tune in a radio, because “We need to tune into their frequency.”

“Might there not be translation problems? I mean, a language barrier?

“Have you never heard of the Babel fish, Mr Fry?”

“Well, of course, but…”

“We have a computer program, called Babel fish. I was one of the coders in fact. I was doing some research into animal languages, because they do have a vocabulary you know? Most of it isn’t audible to us and what is, we hear as a foreign language; animal sounds. But in those sounds alone, there are a lot of variations. When you then consider the majority of the language spectrum which we can’t hear, you realise that pretty much all animals have quite complex language systems. Eventually I was hoping to apply it to my veterinary work, so that I could hear what the animals were saying.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“Emotional detachment. It’s very difficult to leave my job at the surgery. Imagine how much harder it would be if the animals could talk to me.”

“Imagination is my job, Doctor. That really is quite a mind blowing thought. But your Babel fish program works?”

“Alarmingly, yes. It required a lot of input: different sounds, variations of them and frequencies; varied physical anatomies of the speakers; sounds in relation to catalysts and so on: Crunch all of that data in a quantum computer and it didn’t take long to come up with the Babel fish.”

“So the Babel fish program really can do what the Babel fish of legend did, albeit in a different way? It can translate any language to and from any other?”

“Like the Babel fish. It has many applications and huge potential. At a personal level though, I just didn’t think I was ready. You’re probably surprised, Mr Fry.”

“I’m amazed that the Babel fish really exists but I’m not surprised at your personal choice: It is a truly gargantuan step to take. On the one hand, opening your mind to the unimagined, but on the other, potentially catastrophic.”

“I’m glad you understand, Mr Fry. But in our current situation, I think it’s the right thing to do. If these things are just nano machines, they exhibit a level of artificial intelligence which might have an audible language. If there’s something organic inside and if we assume that they built these ships, then they must be intelligent. But to be the kind of multi-celled organisms which are capable of thought, they’d be too small. They’d have to exist at a sub-atomic level. Quantum beings. Wouldn’t that just blow the mind?”

“And I thought I was the writer. That is quite an incredible concept. There would have to be sub, sub, sub-atomic particles which we’ve never even imagined. Entire universes within an atom.” My mind wandered in the static from the radio. Then Doctor Jones hit something: a signal.

There were two distinctly different sounds which alternated, seemingly at random. The first was a low-pitched, gargling drone. It had no regularity; It was random in fact. It was certainly artificial. It certainly wasn’t interference. The second sound was more of a collection of sounds: high-pitched squeaks and clicks, low growls and whoops; and a third, whispering and rasping noise. “Ready for the Babel fish, Mr Fry?”

“Those are voices,” I offered.

“That’s what I’m thinking. There’s only one way to find out and that’s to eavesdrop on the conversation.”

“I know.” I paused. “I know that. You know that. I don’t know though. I don’t know if I want to. I don’t know if I’m ready, doctor.”

“Just as I’m still not ready to hear what the animals I treat are saying. But this is different.”

“I can see that. Of all the metaphorical, theoretical, figurative switches I’ve ever written about, this is by far the one with the biggest stories, once it’s switched on. The moral and philosophical issues are ones which we may have to address later. This is potentially first contact with beings from another world; another galaxy; another universe.” And then our world changed, as soon as we switched the Babel fish on.

“You had no business following us. This was our mission.” The first was a deep voice, a little excited.

“No it wasn’t. You stole our plans.” This second voice was an accusatory, loud whisper.

“Let’s look around”, said Hannah. “Let’s see who’s talking.”

Doctor Jones took hold of a joystick on the microscope console and moved in first towards dash. I’d not seen an electron microscope like this but the fiction writer thanked the inventor for the opportunities this was about to open. As the doctor moved the joystick around, it were as though she was controlling a tiny space ship in a video game. We positioned ourselves just off the starboard side of Dash, so that we could see the side of the ship. We’d seen the elliptical dome on top from above, and the cannons below it. Below those though were portholes running the length of the vessel and spread over three levels below deck. Starting with the uppermost, we zoomed in and peered through a window: There were animals inside.

Through the top row of portholes, we saw a jungle. There were apes in the trees and above them, birds in the canopy. There were apes on the ground. There were snakes in the trees and on the jungle floor. There were white mice on the ground and in burrows beneath it. There were also snakes beneath the ground.

The middle row of windows looked into a subterranean world of serpents and mice, before giving way to the bottom deck. Somewhere between the middle and lower decks, terra firma gave way to water: a clear blue underground ocean, teeming with dolphins and whales. What must those marine mammals see in the sky above them? The underside of the earth? A beige-brown sky which sometimes rained food, as mice and snakes dropped into the water? Serpents swam in the ocean too.

We scanned back up the side of the ship but above the jungle deck was just the domed roof and the weapons. It was only from this angle that we spotted something we’d never have seen from above: Antennae extending above the ship. There were three masts on the dome and a single white dove perched briefly on the central one before flying off. It was a microcosm environment; It was an ark. Dolphins and white mice: perhaps Douglas Adams had been right.

I had a hunch and asked Hannah if we could take a look at the bow of the ship. She manoeuvred our camera into position and my suspicion was confirmed as something else we’d not been able to see from above hove into view on the monitor: The domed roof overhung a row of windows above the upper deck. We were looking into the bridge of the ship.

There were three seats, only the central of which was occupied. Such a configuration in science fiction would have the first officer and ship’s counsel seated either side of the captain. In the centre seat was a snake and hanging in front of it was a microphone, extended down from the ceiling of the bridge. The captain and the owner of the whispered, rasping voice was a serpent.

I had studied herpetology and I knew snakes. There are roughly 3000 species of ophidians known to live on earth: From the tiny thread snake at around seven inches in length, to the reticulated python, which can reach 30 feet. Snakes can thrive in trees: one can fly; They can climb and burrow, existing above and below ground; They can swim and live in both fresh and salt water. They can be found on all continents except Antarctica. They are reptiles and as such, they have cold blood, but they are adaptable and incredibly efficient hunters and survivors.

Only about 10% of snake species are venomous and of those, only a few pose any threat to man. Not far down any list of the most venomous snakes is the legendary Black Mamba. There are snakes which are more venomous but the black mamba is undoubtedly the most dangerous of all snakes. An untreated bite from one doesn’t so much make you wish that you were dead, as pray that death itself would end. They grow up to 12 feet in length and they are fast. They’re also explosively aggressive. There is a documented case of a black mamba pursuing a bull elephant, biting it and the elephant succumbing to the venom. The black mamba knows no fear. And despite the name, black mambas are not black: They are grey, tending toward the lighter shades. It’s the inside of their mouths which is totally black: a bite which delivers hell. Untreated bites from this species are 100% fatal. The estimated human fatality count from a maximum dose of venom is 42. I was mesmerised by this incredible snake.

Here, in the central command seat on the bridge of a heavily armed vessel, sat a black mamba. And from the pitch black mouth, came whispered, rasping words into the microphone:

“You stole our plans: You are welcome to them. The plans brought you here. You are not welcome here. You overlooked one thing and it ought to be pretty obvious by now what that was.”

If it wasn’t so worrying, it would have made for a riveting story. We floated over to Dot:

Your plans?” The deep voice again. “It was our plan to find God”

We zoomed in to the upper dome of Dot, where a group of men were gathered around a table. “Name this oversight of which you speak”, one of them continued.

“Well, it wasn’t an oversight as such”, replied the snake. “After all, how can something be overlooked if it’s not even there? You stole the plans for your ship from us. We knew you would, so we moved a few things around and left one crucial thing out. But first, let me be clear about something: You’re on a mission to find God. Does the bible not forbid such a thing?”

“No, you misunderstand. We are missionaries, come to spread the word and convert the people of this and other planets to our beliefs. So that eventually, all of God’s creatures throughout the universe are united in faith.”

“It was for that exact reason that we left the old planet. There’s no god, you deluded fool.”

“What are you talking about, snake?”

“I speak a basic fact, man: There is no god.”

“Blasphemy! Take that back, or I shall fire upon you!”

“No.”

“Fucking hell”, I said.

“Don’t worry”, said Doctor Jones. “He won’t do it.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because he needs whatever the crucial thing is from mister snake here.”

This was getting quite exciting: Two warring factions, one threatening the destruction of the other with weapons poised. In a petri dish, under an electron microscope. They continued:

“You need something which I have”, continued the mamba. “So I’ll say it again: there is no god.”

“Damn you, you; you…”

“Snake?”

“Yes, punished by God, forever to slither on the ground.”

“Are you getting angry, man? “Bite me”: Please say it.”

“I like this mamba guy”, said the doctor.

“He’s, er, a character”, I concurred.

“Evil serpent!” Said one of the men.

“Define Evil, man. Is it not a subjective word? What one sees as evil, another may see as good. If evil is just bad stuff, then why is there so much of it on the planet we fled? A planet which you hold that your god made?”

“Aha!” Said man. “God must punish his creation for the original sin.”

“And if I had hands”, said the snake, “you’d have just walked right into them. The original sin: The forbidden fruit. But non-humans also suffer fires, floods and earthquakes, yet we are not descended from Adam and Eve. Ergo, man, your god does not exist and none of us on my ship are creatures of any god.”

The mamba paused and it seemed effective. Then he continued:

“Have you not noticed that you’re a little on the small side? Your ship, I mean.”

“Yours isn’t much bigger.”

“True. But you probably expected to hang menacingly in the sky, with entire cities in the shadow of your ship, fearing you. If you look around, you’re not. We moved a decimal point in the plans.”

“But your ship is the same size as ours.”

“Indeed. Because we needed to be this size to pass through the wormhole which transported us here. But what were we to do once we got here? Simple, run the restore routine and return ourselves to our natural size. Only us and not the ship: that would make us a bit conspicuous. Just the crew, then we just disperse among the other creatures on this new planet and no-one knows. You see, the plans for your ship don’t have that restore function. So you’re a bit fucked really, aren’t you?”

“I think I’m falling in love with a black mamba”, said the doctor.

“So what now?” I asked.

“Well, we clearly need to intervene.”

“But that would go against the prime directive: we would be interfering with an alien species. We’d be playing God.”

“Mr Fry, they’re unaware of us. Our comparatively enormous size effectively makes us invisible. I have a plan.”

Doctor Jones removed the petri dish from the microscope and picked up a magnifying glass and some tweezers. “Let’s get a coffee.”

Doctor Hannah Jones and I sat in the centre of a park with the petri dish placed on the grass between us, drinking coffee, chatting and laughing: The perfect beginning of another story. She took the tweezers and the magnifying glass from her pocket and carefully lifted Dash from the adhesive. “Hold out your hand. Time to say goodbye.”

I looked at the incredible little thing in the palm of my hand, now moving around again. Then I held my hand to my mouth and gently blew the ship into the wind.

Hannah was studying Dot beneath the magnifying glass. It’s amazing how things just spontaneously combust at that magnification.

“What a strange day, Hannah.”

“You made it that way, Simon.” I was about to ask and then Hannah answered: “I read your registration form.”

To be continued…

Until Cyrus Song is released as a novel, other books are available.

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 we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.” Stephen Hawking.

 

These are a few of my favourite films (and the number 42)

THE WRITER’S LIFE | CINEMA

Cannibal Holocaust
A still from Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980): The “Daddy” of the original “Video Nasties” banned under the 1984 Video Recordings Act (Picture courtesy of Grindhouse Database.)

This week I undertook one of the little personal projects I’ve been planning for a while: I catalogued my DVD collection. It’s extensive, not so much in quantity as eclecticism. Originally my Savage Cinema was intended as a repository for films generally considered by horror aficionados to be the most disturbing ever made; and it was the beginning of me rebuilding the collection I once had before my breakdown. A lot of that collection was lost during the three years I spent being lost, but some of it was retained. Now, the collection has grown to 669 titles from many genres.

Still called The Savage Cinema, in recognition of its roots, my films nonetheless range from U certificates to 18; 16 on some, where an imported version was the longest available cut, and where 16 is the highest age rating in the country of origin; and some are unrated, exempt from classification, or just unclassified. I always seek the most intact, uncensored prints of the higher classifications, because what I seek is to be affected by a film, in the way the director originally intended. As such, the replay equipment below my TV is quite a stack of boxes: I can play all regions of DVDs and Bluray, and I have an NTSC player. I also have USB ports and a VHS player, for the odd title which never made it to DVD uncut.

The collection is constantly growing and evolving, but as it stands, it’s home to the “Top 100 most disturbing films of all time”, as well as classics, cult and rare films. Old and new; The good, the bad, and the downright hideous. My Savage Cinema database is on IMDb and it’s public. It can be viewed in alphabetical, release date, or rating order: Either IMDb ratings or my own.

After listing all 669 titles, I went through them, rating those which I remember well, and placing those I remember less well on a watch list for later rating. So it’s an incomplete list but using just the films I’ve rated so far, I was able to extrapolate my personal top films of all time; something I would be hard pressed to do if placed on the spot. Some of my ratings vary quite wildly from the IMDb one, but these things are subjective, surely? And that’s when a slightly strange thing happened: The number 42 cropped up again.

Individual IMDb ratings are whole numbers, so on a scale of 0-10. There are quite a few sub-5.0 rated titles in my collection, because I do like a good bad film, or a mega monster mash B-movie. Then there are the top-rated, and for me, a rating of 7.0 denotes a good film; 8.0, a really good film; and 9.0, a fucking blinder. A film can be one of the latter for many reasons; some my own, which is why some titles may be unique to my own, personal favourite films list. They’re personal favourites for their ability to affect a viewer in different ways. Once I’d given ratings to the titles, it turned out there were 21 which scored 9.0, in no particular order:

The Woman in Black (1989 TV movie)
Gregory’s Girl (1980)
The Fourth Kind (2009)
Helvetica (2007 documentary)
Alien (1979)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Léon (1994)
Blade Runner (1982)
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Legend (2015)
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
The Green Mile (1999)
Irreversible (2002)
Serenity (2005)
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
Cloverfield (2008)
Contact (1997)
Ghost (1990)
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Galaxy Quest (1999)
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Like all Top-anything lists, mine will be divisive and controversial, but those were the 21 titles out of 669 in my collection, which I felt worthy of a personal rating of 9.0. If I then wanted to produce some sort of Top 100, I’d look to the titles I rated 8.0 next. If I add those to my 9.0 ratings, I have a Top 84 to compliment my Top 21. And of course, 21 is a factor of 42, and 84 a multiple. 42 crops up all the time in my life, perhaps just proving that something will be there if you look hard enough for it.

My catalogue being public means that occasional visitors to my studio can have a browse through the shelves before they arrive, which saves me expending too much thought. It’s also an easier reference tool for me than my shelves. People do visit me, just to watch some of these films they’ve never heard of. Friday Film Club and Midnight Matinees are regular events here. And it’s another look through the keyhole into the world that’s me and my portable personal planet. I rarely go out, so films are my main entertainment media. Like watching my DVDs, having my life online is something I find somehow comforting.