A timeless plot device

FICTION

In one of the stories in The Unfinished Literary Agency, a writer loses his most cherished possession: a pen. Even though I prefer to use a keyboard (I can type faster than I write (neatly, at least)), and although I refer to my laptop as a typewriter, the pen (or pencil) is the most basic, portable and enduring tool of the writer. And so it is in this other story, where it’s used as a plot device. A previous draft of this appeared on this blog, but this is the final version, from the book.

I used to think I might one day be a prominent scientist or writer. When I became neither, I decided to be a sci-fi writer, and apparently I’m quite good at that. This story was co-written with my son (13), who knows about as much of what he wants to do with his life as I did at that age. One of his many aspirations is to be a writer, and although I’ve advised him not to take the route I did, I’ll encourage him only if he decides that’s what he wants to do. Whatever he does, he has a story in a published book with an ISBN, which grants him some sort of immortality. He’s got a copy of the book, but he’s a teenager, so it’s easier for his peers to read it on a screen…

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THE BEST LAID PLANS

The reason no other animals evolved like humans, is they watched what we did. Then instead of copying us, they concentrated on the important things, like their basic needs and expanding their minds, to eventually speak telepathically, all the while unbeknown to us. It was quite brilliant in its subtlety.

Animal people live alongside a different race: sentient, non-organic, technological beings. And the robots are correct, that they came from the stars, as did we all, and that theirs was a slow evolution with a sudden growth spurt.

There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on their own home world. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Her son once wrote a plan, presumably one of many, as this was ‘Plan 96’, and all in longhand, using an old silver and black pen. At the time, he’d said it was a story he was working on, but he wasn’t sure where it was going or how it would end. So he left it behind when the humans left Earth. Now the boy is grown up and lost on the home world, wondering what happened to it.

On Earth 3.0 for the most part, industry is confined to the cloud cities, while the planet itself has been left to nature. In 2142, The Shard is a glacial Christmas tree, abandoned by humans a century before and now a towering forest, as nature quickly moved in.

As Eve walked over London Bridge, the locals – known for their tameness – were keen to greet her arrival. Beavers looked from their dams on the Thames, and a group of crows congregated on the handrail. As a collective noun, they were more a horde than a murder.

Hello, human,” one of them said.

“Hello,” Eve replied.

“What’s your name?” The crow asked.

“Eve.”

“Oh no, not again,” the crow said. Then the horde departed, without any enquiry of her business there.

In Threadneedle Street, the old lady slept under a blanket of ivy, as the Bank of England sat on vaults of human gold. The Old Bailey was tightly wrapped in green vines, where various birds conducted industry, and squirrels and monkeys picked fruit. The British Museum somehow looked as it always should, the building itself now preserved as a record of humanity and maintained by wildlife. The British Library too, where all of mankind’s writing is archived, everything with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Goswell Road is still long, but now a wide, wooded path to Islington, and Hotblack Desiato’s old office.

A winding wooden staircase took Eve up to The Unfinished Literary Agency, a small, dark room on the top floor, with a crudely-cut window, about the size of a letterbox, at waist height on the far wall.

Inside was surprisingly clean for an office vacated a century before. Eve wondered who’d maintained it, or perhaps who’d remained after the human exodus. She sat at the desk and tried the lamp. It worked.

The walls were full of shelves, with manuscripts stacked a foot high. More were piled on the floor, and in the tray on the desk. There were hundreds of unwritten books, all untold human stories.

Eve looked in the drawers of the desk: Pens, notepads and other stationery, some candles and a tobacco tin. Then she found a name plate, the Toblerone sort that sits on a desk. In Helvetica black upper case, the name proudly proclaimed itself:

PROF. J.C. HESTER

Eve picked up a bound manuscript from the tray and began to flick through it. Someone had gone to the trouble of drawing a flick book animation in the bottom corner, a simple space rocket taking off in a cloud of smoke, with a person’s face looking from the only porthole. After this five second stick cartoon, the manuscript was entitled ‘So long, and thanks for all the humans, by MC Katze’. It was the story of a man and his cat, in which the cat takes her human to another planet, so that he can see the utopia awaiting mankind in the land promised to them. The twist in the tale is, the cat was an agent of Erwin Schrödinger, who told the human she was operating the spacecraft from inside a box on the flight deck, when she was actually flying it by remote control, and not in the box at all.

Eve heard a noise she wasn’t expecting, which worried her more than it would if it was expected. Her ostiumtractophobia (specifically, a fear of door knobs) was rooted in childhood, when someone (or something) outside had tried the handle of her locked bedroom door. The sound of keys in the door – perhaps ones she’d lost earlier – would be more paralysing still, if it were her door the keys were in.

The already-unlocked door of the office slowly swung open, and a character from one of the Earth 3.0 documentaries she’d watched on the home world walked in.

Looking very much professorial, in a tweed three-piece, topped with a flat cap and a monocle, a chimpanzee walked upright into the room.

“Greetings,” he said, not seeming at all surprised to find Eve in his office. She must have looked puzzled. “It’s the Babel fish,” the chimp said. “Well, it’s not a fish,” he continued, “but that’s what started it. I assume that’s what you’re wondering, how you can hear me?”

“Erm, yes,” Eve replied, “I’ve heard of the Babel fish…”

“Well,” said the chimp, then paused. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m Jules.” He offered a hand.

“Jules.” Eve shook his hand. “I’m Eve.”

“Yes,” Jules said, “short for Julio, see, Jules I mean? Except it’s not, it’s still got five letters. It’s just quicker to say, with only the one syllable. Here’s a funny thing…” Jules lowered himself onto a pile of manuscripts.

“Would you like your chair?”

“Oh no, that’s not my chair. That was here when I arrived, so I’m sort of squatting here now. Besides, sometimes it feels more natural like this. Instinct I suppose.”

“So,” Eve sat back, “this funny thing?”

“Oh yes. Just one of many anecdotes left over by the humans. You’ll be aware of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I assume?”

“Yes, he invented the world wide web.”

“Clever chap, yes. But here’s the funny thing. The words, world wide and web, are all one syllable. But abbreviated, it’s double-you, double-you, double-you. That’s nine syllables, which is a lot. But I read somewhere that someone suggested he called his invention ‘The Internet Machine’. Well, abbreviated, that would be TIM. And apparently, he was such a modest man, that not only did he give it away for free, he didn’t seek fame or fortune, he just did it for the greater good. It may be apocryphal, but we like it. It’s a rare example of man’s humility, and the web was altruism which could have saved many species. But it all went a bit King Kong didn’t it?”

“It did,” Eve paused. “But you were saying about the Babel fish?”

“Oh yes, I was, wasn’t I? Well, the name just stuck, in a tributary way. You know, not like the geographical river ones, but an historical – and it is an an, with a silent aitch – tribute. But now it’s the universal translation system for the world population.”

“But how can I hear you?”

“Oh, I see, yes. Well, it’s not an implant or anything now, no. No, without getting too technical (not my area), it’s carried in the wind, in radio waves, which are only audible to the subconscious. The upshot is, everyone speaks the same language. And really, that was mankind’s biggest mistake.”

“One of them.”

“Yes, there were a few. But there’d been researchers and ethics committees, scientific essays and peer-reviewed papers, and they all agreed that giving universal translation to the public would generally be a bad idea. Then Google just did it anyway.”

“And others followed.”

“Many. Then everyone.”

“So,” Eve wondered, “the professorship?”

“Oh that. The prof is in English, language, yes. Before that, my doctorate was in human psychology. I think the way the world changed was what guided me more into the languages, you know, in case they died out, with everyone using the Babel fish and all, and technology always hurrying them along. And the thing about being a professor is, I teach teachers how to teach teachers to teach, which I rather like. Took a jolly lot of work though.

“But next, I want to do something different. I’m studying history, so I can teach the teachers about how it all went wrong. Because although the humans are gone, their past can teach us a lot.

“I’m not a religious man, but whenever someone said everyone shouldn’t speak the same language, they might have been right. It’s a good thing if you’re a species evolved enough to debate, but take away certain barriers and an immature race will abuse it, with some using it for their own gain and not for the greater good. Someone was always going to package it up and sell it as a religion, or make it some kind of privilege, when it was around all the time. Us animals – as you used to call us – us people, had been communicating for many thousands of years before humans came along. Then the humans found out and wanted it for themselves.

“It’s a tragic story but it’s a lesson from history which I’d like to tell others about, and of how that led to the evolution of the planet we see around us now. So it was all for the good really. I only hope humanity took that lesson away with them.”

“It might be too early to tell,” Eve said.

“How are things over there?” the professor wondered.

“Lonely.”

“That’s the thing with humans. When we look at your monuments, buildings, and many follies, you are capable of such beautiful dreams. But within those are some terrible nightmares.”

“I know, Carl Sagan said something similar.”

“Who’s she?”

“He. He was a scientist, a thinker, and an inspiration.”

“A dreamer then? And that’s the sad thing. Humans who dream are ridiculed if they speak of their visions. They become suppressed. But allowed to explore and discover, those people can transcend accepted human wisdom, in things like politics, which was a human invention anyway.

“Anarchy is not chaos, when people are trusted to be individually empowered. An evolved race will sort it all out. But the ones who rise above it all are feared by those who govern and rule, and that leads to conflict. Conflict gets no-one anywhere, but debate can increase mutual understanding to find peaceful solutions. Too many humans were greedy, not just financially but morally.

“I studied human politics for a while, and I had to conclude, it was quite a waste of time, for the humans. All it did was hold them back. It was a system which kept radical thinkers beyond its borders of conditioning. And the radical thinkers were only just getting a voice when everyone else did, so it got deafening.

“If you ask me, I’d say most humans are essentially left-wing by nature, only becoming conditioned otherwise. Wherever you lie (or tell the truth) on the political spectrum, beyond that, you’re all human. Yet the one thing you all have in common is the very thing which drives you apart. Individuality is to be encouraged, but you can’t think as one. You’re generally a socially aware species. It’s just a shame there were so many who didn’t qualify by that credential.”

“You have a deep understanding of the human condition,” Eve said, looking around the room.

“Sometimes it helps not to be one to know one.”

“Do you have a theory, on why the Babel fish was the catalyst?”

“I think there’s one thing it will never be able to do, because it shouldn’t, and it ought to remain impossible. That thing, would be the interpretation of messages, of how they’re perceived by the receiver, which of course is completely subjective on the part of the individual, regardless of the intention of the messenger. Words only have meaning for some people if a specific person says them. The Babel fish is a translation device, not an interpreter. Too many humans, in their cut-off personal worlds, their microcosm universes, their ignorance and laziness, quite literally took too many things far too literally. And a breakdown in communication is conflict by any other name.

“But even more fundamental, was humans’ sense of entitlement. A progressive race, but for their own gains. I know there are millions of exceptions, and it’s equally tragic that their voices were silenced. But back in human politics, that would be a victory for the right. More of you need to find your left wings, outside of your politics. You need to metaphorically fly free, or be allowed to, without those wings being clipped.

“There’s a passage I’ve memorised, from one of your films. ‘I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone’. It was a film one of the crows showed me. Her ten-times-great grandfather had a cameo in that film. He’s uncredited though.”

“That was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.”

“Yes, very good too. Now there was a human who used an unfair situation which had been forced upon him, to do good for others, to blow a whistle and bring down a dictatorship. He quietly went about a longer plan, rarely drawing attention, then escaped the tyranny. I suppose we miss those kinds of people, the free in spirit. We are all spirits when we sleep, after all, with the means for the enquiring mind to explore the universe.”

“Some more than others,” Eve added, looking out of the window. “When all we needed to do was keep talking.”

“Quite ironic really, isn’t it?”

“Looked at like this, yes.”

“But you’re looking at something no-one’s seen for some time. For you it’s nostalgia.”

“It’s a feeling of being home. And you speak of humans quite sentimentally.”

“Well, I felt I got to know a few, through my grandfather’s stories from the zoo.”

“He was in London Zoo?”

“Chester actually. We moved down to London when the zoos closed. All my family as far as I can trace, were captive bred, as they used to be called. But my great, great grandfather was an immigrant from New York, and he’s the first I can find with the family name Hester.”

“Er, how?” Eve turned to Julio.

The professor stood up and stretched. “Well, Boris – that’s my great, great grandfather – was rescued by a writer called Hester Mundis. She found him in a pet shop when he was young. She bought him, not as a pet, but to liberate him, and he lived with her and her eight-year-old son, in their apartment in Manhattan. I know Hester was expecting another child, so she found Boris a home with other chimps in Chester, and I gather he was on TV a few times. She wrote about him too, so he was immortalised in books, which must be a nice thing to have happen to yourself.

“So we took her name, because she became mum to my orphaned or kidnapped great, great grandfather. If it wasn’t for her, I might not be here. I may never have been.”

“And you didn’t mind being in captivity?”

“I worked a lot of other things out there. You do, when you have the time and your basic needs are taken care of.”

“You didn’t feel imprisoned?”

“I’d never known anything else. I was never in the wild. Perhaps one day I’ll visit my own home country, but I learned a lot when humans were in charge. There are lots of arguments for and against on both sides. Those are less relevant now, but future historians will have plenty to write about. For now, I have plenty to write of here.”

“Why’s that?”

“Let’s rewind a little. A long time ago, a human said that given an infinite supply of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys would reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. And it stands to reason that, given those resources, they would. But we wondered, why? What would be the point?”

“It was a human thing?”

“It was. But there was a flaw in that original plan.”

“Which was?”

“The monkeys. No offence to those with tails, but what it really needed was apes. You don’t even need an infinite number of them.

“So after we’d finished reproducing Shakespeare’s works, we got started on the next plan. Then we quickly realised we might need more writers. Not an infinite supply, but far more than we have. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible.”

“What’s not?”

“Plan 96 is to discover and write the answer to the ultimate question, that of life, the universe and everything. But infinite apes aside, I don’t think humans are looking in the right place.”

“So where do we look?”

“Look into your heart, and don’t be afraid of yourself, because people might like that person.

“This was only your temporary home. You were squatters here before your nomadic race continued their journey, to find themselves. For now, you are gone from here, and you need to return to yourself. But there’s a record of how it all started, and how things panned out, right here, where it began.

“It all started with a simple device: an old pen, and it’s a story close to my heart. But now it’s yours.”

Jules reached into his breast pocket and handed Eve a silver and black pen.

© Louis Laker and Steve Laker.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

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Throw off your paper chains…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Don’t crack up, Howard Jones once counselled. He went on to advise bending your brain, seeing both sides, and throwing off your metal chains. This is an old and new song…

Paper Chains

Just lately, I’ve felt myself starting to feel at home as a writer. I’m into my fifth year of being one, and I’ve lived at the studio for almost two years. But it’s lonely and I’m socially anxious, so I’ve started getting out more in a virtual way. It’s still a bit like standing on the edge of the playground in the first week of school though. Welcome to my world. Or put another way, this is my world and you’re welcome to it.

I wrote previously of how everything seemed to conspire in a solitary Christmas and New Year, when I used the time to re-evaluate a few things. I’ve met new people, who don’t have time to read the last five years’ posts, so long life story short, I got drunk, upset a lot of people, had a moral responsibility to put things right, did. This was almost five years ago and those who’ve been here for some time (who met me online) will know some or all of it (like most of those I know in the real world, including some new ones). There are those from my old (offline) life who seem to begrudge my recovery, and most are simply too ignorant to learn, preferring to remain in their made-up state of mind than actually talk to me.

All they know is what’s in their heads, put there by themselves and their fellow conspirators: I got drunk, lost everything and it was all my own fault. Let’s take that as a given. So now I’m an alcoholic, and that’s pretty much all they want to see. They don’t understand alcohol dependence syndrome, PTSD, or any of the other diagnoses on my medical record. But the people who don’t understand a functioning alcoholic are the same as those who can’t tell the difference between a paediatrician and a paedophile. They want to see me fail. Well I’d never do that to anyone, least of all myself, and most of all because it would be for someone else’s vindication.

Despite being anxious and paranoid (conditions hardly helped by those people), I had to conclude – after all other avenues were exhausted – that it’s their loss, if nothing else then for the sake of my health. I can unify science and religion, yet I can’t reconcile myself with those kinds of people. I’ve asked myself more than once since I sobered up, saw things differently and opened my mind (weed helped), did the whole world change while I was gone, or is it just me?

On the sideline of life, like the edge of the playground at school. Watching the kids I wish I could teach: the blinkered, the conditioned, the bullies who don’t listen. Now I see all these new kids, some are like me, and I want to introduce myself.

I’ve been hanging around the edges of various social media groups, with other writers and sci-fi types. I don’t have to know them personally, as they’re already kindred spirits, like the other bloggers who follow me and I follow back. Ours is very much a sharing community, with exchanges of links, advice and help, and other writers wondering why even their closest friends don’t seem all that interested in what they do. It’s something I’ve considered before, because it’s quite depressing. But like so many things, I’ve not taken it personally. More on that, as I consider a question posed to that collective: Why do you all write? It’s a good question, especially when us ‘Indies’ get so little attention. It suits a socially anxious person, but when that’s a writer, it can make them paranoid.

For my part, it’s therapy, and a coping mechanism for all that goes on in my head with depression. But why I write, breaks down into many other reasons, including empathy with others. So when I consider the question of why so few of our friends buy our books, I swap roles.

If I was asked what most of my friends do, I wouldn’t know. But few of them are writers. Unless they have an interesting vocation, I’m not interested. Many people simply aren’t interested in writers. They think it’s cool that you are one, but friends or not, unfortunately few people buy books. My frustration as a writer is a reflection of life: I have much to say, but no-one has the time to listen. As writers, we’re lucky we have a means to bang on in vain hope. When you’re a good writer, you long for other people to tell you that you are. It’s not vanity, it’s frustration. Why do I write then?

I can rewrite the past, or imagine futures. I can take myself back to situations and place myself, not only in my own position but those of others. I can create people and worlds, situations too, both good and bad (I can play the atheist god). Sometimes I visit the places and characters I’ve created, because in my mind at least, they really do exist. I’ve been known to have an entire conversation with one of my characters and publish it as a story.

I have many trademarks, which are what get me some of the little recognition I do enjoy. Talking to myself is one I use rarely, but I do inhabit all of my stories. Whether it’s a mannerism in a character, or a place from the depths of memory, there’ll be a part of the writer in each story. I’m said to have a deep understanding of the human condition, which isn’t surprising given my mental health and the life I’ve lived. My ability to “…hold a black mirror to the soul,” is born mainly of the time I lived on the streets. Whether they’re science fiction, horror, or some other genre, my stories tend to have a psychological element (I strive to make them affecting).

There are crossovers in my writing: Characters from stories already told, popping up in others, sometimes with significance but often just walk-on parts. In real life, I’ve dealt with many young people, and I was one myself in the 1980s, so I take myself back there sometimes. I have recurring themes and places, often time-shifted (the most obvious would be The Unfinished Literary Agency). I can see utopian and dystopian near-future and far-away scenarios. I can evoke the sentience in animals and AI. These are not my words, but what others have said (and all documented).

I’ve written five books so far, by my own admission, each better than the last. I’m an honest writer, and I wouldn’t want anyone to feel in any way unfulfilled. That’s why, on my Typewriter page, I aim to make every purchase of my books an informed one. I realise that a book is a financial outlay and I make mine available in libraries (on request), because I realise not everyone can afford books, but I want as many people as possible to read mine, as there’s so much in them that might help others (the answer to life, the universe and everything is in Cyrus Song). I spent many of my homeless days in libraries, so it’s my way of giving something back.

When I found myself on the streets with nothing to show for my life, then life gave me a second chance, I felt obliged to return the favour. As I’d sit writing in various venues, I resolved to be the best that I could be at that which I enjoyed the most. That way, I could give the most back.

I’ve been lucky enough to receive my fair share of plaudits, in person and through reviews. Those are rare and well-earned, but we have to realise that even fewer people than read us will take the trouble. It’s a lonely world, but we have each other. If only more people were listening.

One day, someone will notice us fringe writers, independents, self-publishers, and many other undiscovered talents. Like all the arts, writing is huge and democratised, so there will always be many trying to be heard. Writers are at a disadvantage because what they do shouts the quietest and takes longer to hear. If we wrote songs, we’d need a few minutes of someone’s time; if we made films, a couple of hours; but a book requires days, if not weeks, and it’s usually a financial outlay in a world flooded with free stuff and always in a hurry. And with so many books out there, why choose ours, especially as we’re outside the mainstream and not on a lot of shelves? Some of us might not even be discovered while we’re alive, but we’ve immortalised ourselves already. Even if we are plucked from obscurity, we may only be fashionable for a while, and it’s a very rare artist who becomes a household name.

So we seek recognition at least with our peers. But we can’t all be expected to read each others’ books, any more than any one person is likely to buy all of ours, or lots of people just one or two. The best way is as part of a collective, so that we at least have company in our lonely quest.

What can I do for other writers, and what can I give them to better help me? I figured this blog post might be a good start. People deal with people and it takes one to know one. I’m already liked and followed, on Facebook, Twitter and this blog, and I reciprocate. I always want more, and I want to be shared, so that I have a better chance of being heard. And I want to tell all my followers about other writers I myself read, whose voices I recommend they listen to. The best tips are qualified.

I figured I’ll pick a book a month, either at random, or on the basis of something which piques my interest. We can’t all be market analysts, and many book purchases are on impulse anyway. But if I want anyone to do anything for me, I have to give something back. So I’ll buy someone’s book, read it in a considered manner, then post reviews wherever appropriate: On the book’s Amazon or other retailer page, in the peer group where that person lives, and on this blog.

I’m not one for posting links on every thread, so I hope this might be enough to persuade others to look further at what I do (and what I’ve done already). If one of them buys a book and takes the time to review it, it’s a favour returned and a qualified recommendation.

The reason those people from my past can’t find me, is I’m simply not there. I moved on and moved out. If they’d care to look me up now, all they’d have to do is Google my name. By doing no search engine optimisation at all, by paying nothing for ads, and just by being what I am, I get a Google ‘Answer box’: When people search for my name, Google assumes most are looking for the author now.

That’s what I am now: a writer. It says so on the internet. Pleased to meet you. That’s my world and you’re welcome to it.

I’m socially anxious and I don’t get out much, but I crave attention. As a writer, I’m good at blurring the lines between real and virtual worlds, when the latter is the one where I feel most comfortable. I’ll always try to make time spent here at my place time well spent.

To those new to me, I’d recommend two of my own books to get to know me more: My critically-acclaimed “sci-fi RomCom”, Cyrus Song; and my latest collection of short stories, The Unfinished Literary Agency. Those are the books I hang my novelist’s hat and writer’s scarf respectively on. Signed copies can be arranged with me in private, and I’m almost confident enough to offer a money-back guarantee on my books. The only thing preventing me, is the anxiety I need help in overcoming, by people reading my books, realising I really can write and telling other people.

This is a song to all of my friends
They take the challenge to their hearts
Challenging preconceived ideas
Saying goodbye to long standing fears

(‘New Song’, Howard Jones, 1983).

The day I farted Stardust

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Two years ago today, I woke to the news of David Bowie’s further travels. Ziggy Stardust, the thin white duke, the cracked actor, Major Tom was a starman again. The news was delivered by text message from one of my best friends. Ashes to ashes, funk to funky…

Ziggy Stardust cover art

It was news I wasn’t prepared for. David Bowie was immortal (but of course he is, just like the rest of us). He was back with the stars he came from, exploring further (“Knowledge comes with death’s release…”). It was poetic that I received the news as I did. Short of getting a telepathic message from the Starman himself, my friend was the best sentinel I could think of.

We’ve been friends for the best part of 40 years, we went to school together, and on my 40th birthday, he gave me a very personal gift: Bowie in Berlin; a book by Thomas Jerome Seabrook, which tells the story of the three-year period when Bowie made some of his most intensely creative music. We grew up with Bowie together, and there’s an inscription inside the book:

To my old friend,

These three albums [Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger] struck a chord with us, when we were younger. I remember smoking, playing pool and hanging out, with Bowie in the background. ‘Soundtrack to our lives’: Let’s live to it again.

Your old friend, T x

Along with my hi-fi separates and my signed copy of Diamond Dogs, the book is one of my most treasured things. When I was ill, had my breakdown and ended up on the streets, my ex-partners looked after my belongings until I found my own place, for which I’m forever grateful.

At some point during that period of homelessness, I dreamed that I’d one day have a place I could call my own, with copies of my own books dotted around. It was a daydream, as I sat in McDonald’s scribbling in a notepad (I probably still have it, as I managed to retain most). I knew I’d most likely never work again, so I wondered, “What the fuck…”

I was street homeless for three months (in winter), sleeping in garages and on benches (and once in a bin). Then for six months I had the squat, and a further seven months of sofa-surfing followed, before I took the tenancy above the pub. After a year of suffering that landlord, I was offered the place I have now: a small studio in a quiet village, and with a social (legal) landlord. After my first year as a tenant, I was given an indefinite rolling tenancy. It’s the nearest someone who doesn’t own their own place can get to actually having one.

All of that covers a period now just into its fifth year, and all documented on this blog. As I’ve noted several times, I needed to have a base before I could really sort myself out. Conventional wisdom works the opposite way, but if you give a human shelter and take care of their basic needs (like food and warmth), the rest will follow.

The day between Bowie’s birthday and the day he left, has become a day of reflection. Last night, I sat and looked around my little place, thankful for all I have and all I’ve done, and for the guidance. Because if you believe in the universe, it will talk to you.

I picked up The Unfinished Literary Agency from my coffee table, and I had a flick through: It really is a very good book, of which I’m proud. It’s my fifth, published on the fifth day of my fifth year as a writer, and my shit don’t stink.

We can all be heroes, even if it’s just for one day.

“And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor.” (Five Years, David Bowie).

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

My human existential crisis

THE WRITER’S LIFE

When much of humanity is in its own self-made restrictive bubble, I try to transcend and look in. Although I’m prone to existential crises of the personal kind, I also think of the extinction of the human race (and not just for pleasure). These are the things which occupy my mind, in real life and as a science fiction writer.

supercalifragilisticEXISTENTIAL-CRISIS-1440x810

Much has been written about the end of humanity and what form an extinction event might take, and some of it by me (the writing, not the event). The most immediate threat to an entire race and their planet is a nuclear war, but my money’s on AI or plastics (or cats), assuming we’re all still here in a couple of weeks. In any case, there’s no harm in speculating, and now is as good a time as any.

The saddest human legacy will most likely be that we used the technology we created to destroy ourselves, when we could have used it to explore and discover. But even with the accelerated technological progress we’re seeing now, there simply might not be time. It will be centuries and not decades for example, before we can reach stars beyond our own. Unless our species changes quickly, I don’t see us making it that far. A nuclear holocaust would be over in days.

Closer to home, the UK is very much a developing Les Miserables. In near-future fiction and in satire, I’ve foreseen an eruption of the unrest currently developing in the real world, where sections of the population are made sick and tired by the current ruling class. I’ve written of how a third party intervention might be the only way to stop an arrogant, self-serving, destructive government. Perhaps there’ll be riots on the streets and the government imposes marshal law. Then an anonymous blackmailer suddenly holds the nation’s communications to ransom: ‘Hold a general election and let the people decide, then we will return your internet.’ It would be effective. Well, one can live in hope.

The internet itself is a danger in the wrong hands. In an age of fake news, and gullible readers too ignorant to check facts and sources. These people are blind to their own manipulation and conditioning, but it’s in the wider realms of technology that the more existential threats lie.

Artificial intelligence is quite literally that: An intelligence which has been manufactured. There are those who believe this gives sentience to some AI (in Japan, technological beings are treated as a species), and some AI themselves might argue that we all came from the Big Bang, it’s just that they had a long incubation followed by a gradually exponential growth spurt.

Currently, artificial intelligence is being set to task on a number of projects, quite literally thinking about a problem. They are self-learning and have far greater processing capacity than a human brain. So given the time, AI could think of a cure for cancer. It took Deep Thought 7.5 million years to come up with the answer to life, the universe and everything as 42, but with the development of quantum computers, another answer might take just a few minutes to calculate. In darker science fiction, a quantum AI could conclude that the human condition is an incurable one and that we’re a waste of resources. Self-replicating nano machines could wipe out our race in seconds.

And then there’s plastics, possibly mankind’s most destructive invention, potentially more so than a global nuclear conflict, with much irreversible damage already done. After decades of producing this toxic alchemy, we’re only now seeing the destruction, down to micro particles in our oceans and in our drinking water. We are all part-plastic, toxic waste, and we know not what the long-term effects might be. Because we were in so much of a hurry and we didn’t think.

I can’t help thinking (among other things), that our own planet (the one we share with the animal people) might be glad to see the plastic population go, and some of my recent and current writing is based in post-human theatres. The end could be long and painful, or it might be so sudden that we don’t even realise.

Unless we make some changes pretty quick, unless we hurry up and think differently, we’re a bit fucked really, aren’t we mankind?

I have a book out next week, telling tales of all these things, and together they tell a longer story. I already wrote a novel which gives a perfectly plausible answer to the question of life, the universe and everything. Hopefully people will be around for long enough to read them.

The greatest threat of all, will always be those who seek to suppress the thoughts of others.

Eating pizza by the roadside

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I rarely make resolutions at any time of year, because I’ve normally resolved to do something long before I actually do it, only then congratulating myself quietly. Some will be known, because I’ve said so (I’m going to publish a book), but others I don’t speak of, when they belong to someone else. I’m always picking up the pieces, but I’m dropping things all the time.

Pavement pizza

Sometimes the problem is knowing where to start with the eternal conflict in my mind, which is why it helps to be a writer, especially when one is depressed and anxious. The problem with both, is that those of us with the most to say take the longest to learn about. Sometimes I need to proverbially throw up.

If I made films or music, I might be easier to understand in a shorter form. But I’m a writer, mainly of books, which require a greater investment of time. I write short stories, of course, and I’ve even given poetry a kicking, but fewer people read than listen or watch.

I’ll deal as quickly with Christmas here as I did at the time: Quite simply, Christmas didn’t happen, despite my efforts to arrange something around family. A combination of displacement and disinterest conspired to allow everyone to have their own Christmas, whether or not that was what they wanted. Unless I misread something in a greetings card from my old sister, who uses a calligraphy pen for such occasions: It was like reading a page of ambigrams, which I daren’t hold to a mirror for fear of invoking a curse. I have a pen for every occasion, so it’s one to revisit.

The main festivities were politics (specifically other people’s), and my younger sister (Courtney), who became a mum just before Christmas. As a vulnerable young adult with a history of personal issues, she’s needed help with many things for as long as I’ve known her. And since not long after I met her, I’ve been one of those the authorities contact when things go awry, mainly her (once, in the middle of a pool tournament, two police officers walked in because she’d run away (again). We found her in the end). Long story short, with much effort over the festive period, she was given a place for herself and her daughter, and there is much still to do.

I can speak and write about it now, because it’s happened. But for six months, myself and others worked to make sure things went the way they did. We claimed no credit and sought no reward. The birth itself was marred only by a third party with a sense of entitlement, gatecrashing the delivery room and awarding itself accolades on social media. Such selfishness didn’t sit well with a new mum who was already stressed enough, nor her own mum, or her grandmother. Those of us who’d actually done something constructive (quietly, in the background) didn’t feel the need to displace Courtney’s closest relatives in what we’d effectively made possible, let alone claim false credit or reward for undoing all our doing. As a demonstration of self-discreditation, it was text book (or rather, Facebook, as the interloper’s self-flagellation was performed in public). More on that another time perhaps.

Facebook breeds guilt and paranoia, it’s full of personal agendas and selfishness, and I’m spending gradually less time there for those and other reasons. It’s a soap opera with a willing audience, when better coping mechanisms for life can be found in less judgemental spheres. It’s an existential crisis, and it’s recording.

I have many crises of my own, and other people’s to help them with, which I don’t publicise or seek recognition for. The reward is simply seeing a plan come together for the greater good. It only becomes public when others choose to tell their own story (or give me permission), and every story has two sides. Facebook doesn’t allow both or all to be presented equally. It’s a place of conditioning and formed opinions when debate and mutual understanding might be better aspirations.

Sadly, this is more a recent phenomenon, and not one born of my own anxiety and paranoia. A people fractured by the politics which govern them, has become divisive and divided at a personal and social level. Rather than be a part of it, I’m always looking for ways to change things, and Facebook lacks activists in its main infrastructure. Developing…

Most of the friends I have on Facebook, I know in real life, and some of the latter wouldn’t exist were it not for social media. Most of those pay little attention to anything outside the Facebook timeline (they don’t even see it skewed by algorithms), but they have different agendas, and they’re not writers.

Where I’ve found connection with kindred spirits – in the virtual and real worlds – is in the places of shared interest, in public and private groups, away from the main crowd. Stirring up someone else’s personal business is of little interest to me, when there’s a whole world out there to poke at.

97% of Facebook users make very little difference to the world, because most don’t look beyond themselves and that inner web of conditioning. Most time on social media is wasted.

By contrast, I look at life in the blogosphere, with its sheer scope and depth. Although my following is modest, and mainly made up of people I’ve never met, there’s more community here. It’s a borderless place, which permits greater liberty for citizens of the earth. It’s where I can write, lay down my heart and be heard. It’s a place I find much easier to make my own. There’s more debate than conflict, greater understanding and acceptance (and comment is free, should anyone decide to use the facilities provided here). This is where others write too, and I enjoy reading and learning about them.

I didn’t write much here over Christmas, instead using the solitude to work on other things. There’s still much on my mind, and there always will be. There’ll forever be few who understand me, because they don’t question or get to know me (myself included, before this latest internal dialogue). There’ll rarely be many who read what I write, but if I keep writing the words, more might (including me).

I know only 3% will read this blog, but they’re the ones who matter. If opinions differ, those are the enquiring people, who are more likely to seek common ground and co-operation than conflict, or at least agree to differ but with a mutual understanding. Such a thing requires a level of intellect sadly lacking in many, almost allowing themselves to be radicalised by social media, regurgitating little of substance and sharing their own pavement pizza.

Some of the best debates I’ve had as a science fiction writer, have been with actual scientists. As an atheist, I enjoy the odd theological sparring match with friends of various persuasions. We’re able to be friends despite fundamental differences, because we talk and we understand, rather than accept nothing outside that which we’ve been taught (I’d question, by whom?) I received a new year pleasantry from one such evangelical friend on Facebook messenger, and thought it a good time to pay him due respect in return:

It’s fair to say, I gave a lot of consideration to your book (the Bible, when I was homeless). I think we can agree that gods and aliens can be interchangeable and co-exist. Therein lies the left-wing way to consolidate science and religion. If we don’t talk and understand, that breeds conflict. We may agree to differ on some things, but the best way to learn is to keep talking. Have a good one x

It being Facebook, that got a thumbs up.

The thinkers play a long game, and that’s evolution. Life revolves and evolves around worlds, not individual people. But it’s not just physics which makes the world go round, it’s the people who make up that world, at large or in microcosm.

All we need to do is keep talking, and that’s a resolution for everyone. I need to be able to tell more people what I’m thinking, so I’ll just keep writing. This is where people come to find me, so I can talk to them.

For my own sake, I resolve to speak more personally, about that which I’m able to. The thing which connects all of this, is what I’ve always written about anyway: The life of a writer with depression. It’s only now that I’ve come to terms with the former that I can talk more openly and honestly about the latter.

There’s much I never wrote about life on the streets, and while an autobiography is some way off, I can face those things again, without using the medium of fiction and with the benefit of hindsight. Many of those experiences are, after all, the bases of my many PTSD diagnoses. I have a third anthology planned, completely separately, and I’m already finding that unlocking more internal doors can reveal other depths in a wider context, and not all dark.

It was a writer friend who told me not to be ashamed to be proud, and it was David Bowie who always said it was okay to be different. I just needed time to think about that. I kicked some new year poetry into the gutter while I sat there:

Monkey Black heart NY

Thank you for taking the time. When I’m so often the one picking up after others, it’s nice to have somewhere to spill my own heart.

Hitching through the pages

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Christmas was a time to lay some things to rest, while contemplating what lies ahead, both figuratively and literally. I’m in the final pre-publication phase of my next book, with foundations in place for the one which follows, and many places to visit (although not in person). Still though, sometimes I wonder how I got here.

HHGG Whale

Four years ago I was homeless, and now I write books. The next – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is an anthology of twenty tales, all of which stand alone but tell a longer story together. The collection can be dipped in and out of at random, or read as a whole, making it effectively two books in one.

I’ve kept the dedications and acknowledgements simple:

For those who are courageous enough to tell their own stories, and for the ones who can’t be heard. And for those who read, and make the life of the writer a less lonely one.

To those who encouraged me to keep writing, friends, family, and other writers. And to those who like to explore and discover, who’ve listened to my stories.

I out-sourced the back cover text, which was written by another genre author:

These are collected tales from an author variously compared to the surrealists Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, the horror writers Kafka, Lovecraft, King and Poe, and with Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Roald Dahl and Paul Auster.

“A writer who can hold a black mirror to the soul, and who has a deep insight into the human condition,” these are stories of fairy tale fantasy, plausible and whimsical science fiction, near-future vision and surreal dreams, with drops of dark humour. Tales of post-human landscapes mix with everyday slices of life to tell a longer story with a dark heart.

“A weird and thought-provoking journey…”

I liked it, I changed nothing and no money was exchanged. So I asked if they’d like to say something nice “About the author”:

Steve Laker is a divorced father of two, living in a wonky studio above a coffee shop in a Kent village, where he writes.

His critically-acclaimed science fiction novel – Cyrus Song – was described by one critic as “Like the surrealist writers Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, with a substantial nod, of course, to Douglas Adams, who can make the impossibly strange seem mundane and ordinary. Steve Laker pulls this extraordinary juggling act off admirably well, producing a very good, thought-provoking, page-turning, and also at times darkly comic read.”

This is the author’s second short story collection, with the first – The Perpetuity of Memory – described as “Like a Black Mirror for the page, these stories flit between dark sci-fi and psychological horror but are always underlined by a salient sense (and deep understanding of) the human condition.”

Steve Laker has also written an award-winning children’s book – A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie – and continues to publish short fiction in magazines and online.

So that’s all nice.

The final stage is one last re-read of the whole book, before sending it off for a press proof, then it’ll be on various shelves in a couple of weeks. The next main project is Silent Gardens, and I have short stories in progress for various publications and a likely third anthology. Later next year, I’ll begin Cyrus Song II.

I’m fully committed, at least to myself and to writing, for the whole of 2018. That’s a nice place for a writer to be, but I’m very aware that in 2019 I’ll be the same age Douglas was. He once said, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

I got a lot of help from people I met along the way as a hitch hiker. Now, it’s the people who hitch with me who keep me going; the followers, the likers and the readers. So thanks for being here.

All of my books are available from Amazon and other book sellers.

Adventures in Nan’s dentures

FAMILY LIFE

With my next collection of short stories finished (and published in a couple of weeks), I’ve returned to the book which will follow. When I left it, my dad was a chimney sweep, so I’ve been back to childhood to pick up from there, trying to leave my dark fiction writer self in the future.

Desk and skull

Sundays at Nan’s followed roughly the same routine: Lunch and a long walk, then tea, and any remaining jobs Nan had listed for dad (after he’d swept the chimney). Sunday tea wasn’t so much quintessentially English as idiosyncratic, with Nan normally taking her afternoon drink with a slice of toast, browned under the grill on one side only. No-one can remember when Nan lost her lower set of dentures.

For reasons known only to those who took me there, we’d sometimes pop in to see Nan’s next door neighbour, in an adjoining war memorial bungalow. I remember very little of the discussion, but Nan’s friend Franie (Frances, I think), lived alone, and sat for the most part at her dining table by the window overlooking the front garden onto the road, and on the other side, the farm. She liked to “watch the folk go by…” quite a lot.

The farm opposite Nan’s was Simmons’ Farm in those days, run mainly by the brothers, who all had occupational nicknames. The most fragrant was ‘Spuddy’, whose brother (‘Digger’) had a son in my class at secondary school. There were fewer things to occupy teenage boys’ curiosities in the 1980s, so producing a severed turkey’s foot from one’s school bag was guaranteed to draw attention, especially when the foot had tendons attached, allowing it to be operated as a puppet claw. Acquiring such niceties was a simple matter of walking over the road from Nan’s to the farm around Christmas time.

We were very close to our food in those days, with most that fed the family taken from the land. At Oldbury Place in Ightham, dad would sometimes escort his boss, Mr Byam-Cook, on shoots, both on his own land and further afield. ‘Mr. B.C.’ had a black Labrador gun dog (Beta) and dad was his human beater, scaring game from the undergrowth with a stick.

Many were the days us children helped mum in the kitchen, plucking pheasants, skinning rabbits, and picking lead shot from various unfortunate Beatrix Potter characters. These would be served with vegetables, fresh from the kitchen garden. Having little money didn’t mean going hungry when the boss was a wealthy altruist with a gun.

The main landscaped gardens (by Dad & Co.) were host to a tennis court, and many visitors on weekends when the main house was open to members of the public with an interest in history, or where their neighbours lived. There was at least one occasion when I opened the door of our annexe stable cottage to a curious traveller, who no doubt grew gradually confused when she was shown around the wrong house by an over-eager kid.

The whole estate – the houses and the grounds – were an adventurer’s playground when we were young. The big house was ridiculously so, with rooms bearing names I never knew existed. It had separate rooms for general dining and taking breakfast, supplied by a cathedral-like kitchen, with its own walk-in larder and a maid’s room. There was a library, a games room and a drawing room, which I never saw anyone drawing in (there was also a scullery, but no skulls). There was a main living room and a vast bathroom, and a chequered corridor ran throughout from the main reception hall. That was the ground floor, then there were two storeys above and one below.

When the owners of the big house were away, mum would sometimes let us go with her to the mansion in school holidays, when she was cleaning or cooking. I dare say it caused her more stress than we ever knew, as she worked downstairs and we were two floors above, strangely silent among treasures but still very much in someone else’s house. Wealthy people too, who had real treasures.

These were people who were well-travelled, so there were various curiosities from around the world strategically placed. Where we had a family photo album, they had oil paintings of ancestors on their walls. But even though I was only young, I questioned these. Although they were fine paintings by talented artists, to me they were unreal, at least because they weren’t as honest as a photograph.

There was the subterranean level too, in the wine cellar. No doubt there were many great vineyard vintages ageing and increasing in value down there, but to a kid, it was yet more adventure.

And then of course, there were guns. But these were locked in a cupboard, within a locked room, which was out-of-bounds to all but Mr Byam-Cook. I recall at least one time, when he came to our door at night, and there’d been intruders in the big house. There may have been far more anecdotes to recall, if those guns hadn’t been so responsibly kept. Or maybe not, if we’d all died.

Seven days a week it seemed, mum and dad both worked. Even days out were usually wrapped around something which someone else needed doing, and my parents would take us kids along. But I recall no resigned shrugs or kicking of heels, because even the working days were adventures for enquiring minds whose lives didn’t depend on it. We depended on our parents and it was both of them who worked and made sacrifices to put food on various tables.

Despite my research spanning several centuries for parts of this book, and the many old houses that’s taking me to, the mystery of Nan’s missing dentures remains thus far unsolved.

Silent Gardens will be published in March.