Dystopian Fiction (We’re Doomed, Doomed, Captain Mainwaring)

Dystopia – an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. (Oxford Dictionaries)

There are times, and they seem to becoming more and more frequent, when I wonder whether the world we inhabit today might be described as dystopian. War, terrorism, genocide, famine, epidemics, climate change… No, I’m not going to get all political, but it’s difficult sometimes to watch footage of the latest bombing or gun massacre and not wonder what sort of world we live in.

This isn’t about doom and gloom of the actual sort; it’s about fictional doom and gloom, though it’s often impossible, without being deliberately obtuse, not to comment on how one mimics the other.

Yet dystopia doesn’t need to be gloomy; at least, not all of the time. Take Ready Player One. I consider myself a seventies child, but I was still in my teens during the early eighties and loved spotting the references in the novel to eighties pop culture. It’s very much a dystopian world that our hero inhabits, caused by an energy crisis – people living in on-the-cheap apartment blocks made from trailers stacked one on top of another due to rocketing overpopulation; terrorism; food shortages – gloom aplenty, but it’s how people escape their otherwise drab existence where the fun comes in. And it’s a lot of fun. An almost limitless virtual universe, a vast interactive game, that sounds so appealing that we might, if given the opportunity, seriously consider sharing their deprivations if we can also join in their means of escape.

Of course, most fictional dystopian worlds aren’t places we’d want to live. That’s kind of the point. One of the first dystopian novels I can remember reading was when I was a teenager. It was written in 1948 and the author simply reversed the last two digits of that year to come up with a title. Aspects of the novel seem eerily prescient today. Take a walk around any city or town centre and you’ll be recorded by any number of CCTV cameras; records exist of your phone calls and texts, of your online browsing habits. Big Brother is watching you. And what about ‘Doublethink’ and ‘Newspeak’? Orwell’s terms have morphed into today’s Doublespeak. Again, I don’t want to get political, but Doublespeak is as prevalent today as wannabe celebrities. Alternative facts, anyone?

Since you’re visiting a site devoted to writing and reading, there’s a fair chance that you feel the same way about books that I do. If I had to give up every form of entertainment except one, I’d heave a heavy sigh of regret at losing films, sport and music, but I’d keep my books. It’s because of this deep love of the written word that I found myself squirming at times while reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. For anyone who doesn’t know, the title comes from the temperature at which books burn. No spoilers, but this presents as grim a future as any other book mentioned here and is, for me, up there with Something Wicked This Way Comes as my favourite Bradbury work.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood tells of a future USA, or a part of it, taken over by a new order under which women are subjugated. The handmaid of the title’s role is to breed, and nothing much else. The novel reminded me of 1984 in generating that brooding sense of menace, of being constantly watched. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World imagines a future where breeding programmes eliminate disease and deformity. It is quite a long time since I read either of them, but in my memory they are the sorts of story that make you think shit, this could really happen and hoping fervently it never does.

It was also a long time ago that I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, the book upon which the film Blade Runner was based. My memories of the film are stronger, but I do recall enjoying the book and feeling that the film took all that was good of the novel and built upon it.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is set in a world filled with poverty and malnourishment and overpopulation. Global warming is making matters considerably worse and, on top of all that, there is war between various superpowers. Once more, it is impossible not to see parallels with today’s world; while we haven’t quite reached the levels of despair experienced by the characters in Le Guin’s novel, are we really that far from it? I would dearly like to think not – or that we will somehow turn aside from the path of self-destruction we seem hell-bent on pursuing – but the more pessimistic part of me doubts it.

I’m going to finish with two novels by that famous author Richard Bachman. Although set in grim, dystopian worlds, they both tell tales that enthralled and thrilled me in my late teens.

The Running Man is a rollercoaster of a story about a desperate man driven to enter a futuristic game show in an effort to raise funds for something that I’ve forgotten (medicine for his wife or child?). If you’ve seen the film version starring Arnie, don’t be put off the book – it’s far superior.

The Long Walk is about an annual event where a hundred teenage boys set off on a walk. It’s not a race, as such. They will keep walking until there is only one left standing and he’s the winner. Doesn’t sound that bad until the reader realises what happens if the competitors’ walking pace falls below 4mph. It’s a gripping and, in its way, horrific tale, and I find it compelling. It’s long overdue a film adaptation.

Those are some of my favourite dystopian novels. I haven’t included post-apocalyptic books, which will get their own post. I know, I know, virtually all post-apocalytpic tales arguably also qualify as dystopian, but I don’t think the reverse is as often true.

(I intend posting two-weekly from now on, so I’ll be back in a fortnight with news of my latest release – the sequel to The Elevator. Oh, and a quick note about the sub-title – it’s a nod to Private Frazer, one of my favourite characters in the old BBC sitcom, Dad’s Army.)

Sci-fi & Fantasy Book Bonanza

The Elevator is included in a multi-author promotion this week of around 100 science fiction and fantasy books offered free in return for mailing list sign-ups.

Details of the promotion here.

Even if you already have The Elevator or are already on my mailing list, it might still be worth paying the promotion page a visit as there may be other books there that take your fancy.

And if you don’t already have The Elevator or aren’t on my mailing list, why the heck not, might I ask? (I’m teasing, but can’t work out how to add those smiley face things on here.)

Let It Snow

Okay, so I enrolled my Christmas collection of dark tales—Ghosts of Christmas Past—into a promotion of Christmas-themed books, without really knowing (or considering) what sort of books the others would be. Turns out, the others are mostly romances. My cover of snarling skull reflecting in a glinting bauble stands out like a eunuch at an orgy amidst the rippling torsos, adoring couples and flowing ballgowns. It’s doing the equivalent of sidling to the corner of the room, wondering whether to sneak out when no one’s looking, or brazen it out with a beer in hand and a confident expression that says, “Gatecrasher? I’ve not heard about any gatecrashers.” Yeah, I know—it’s okay to snigger.

Anyway, if you visit the promotion page—here—you can enter for a chance to win an Echo Dot, one of those voice activated thingies. And there look to be plenty of good books to browse, especially if you like romance or cosy stories.

And, hey, you could always click on my trying-to-blend-in-against-the-odds cover and pick youself up a dark read. No ripped torsos or bodices, I’m afraid, but you will encounter the odd ghost, vampire and a host of walking corpses.

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 2

‘Two nations separated by a common language’. That quote, or something very like it, is usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw and refers, of course, to the differences between English as spoken and written in the UK, and the version spoken and written in the USA. (I am aware that the term ‘America’ includes a heck of a lot of countries, but for the purposes of this piece I am going to use ‘American English’ as shorthand for the spoken and written word pertaining to the USA only.)

Everyone—and we’re alking about adults, not children—knows there are differences between British and American English, right? It surprised me to discover that there are people who don’t. It came to my notice a few years ago through a review of one of my books. The reviewer said that the book was ‘littered’ with spelling mistakes. (Note: this is not about having a pop at reviewers. I’m incredibly grateful for each and every review my books receive, even the less-than-stellar ones of which I have my fair share. I mention it only because that’s how I became aware of this issue.)

The review puzzled me. Whilst I aim to have my books completely error-free, I accept they may contain the odd error that was missed during the editing and proofreading stages. But littered with spelling mistakes? I knew that couldn’t be right (and read the book again to be sure). It took me days to realise that the reviewer clearly wasn’t aware of the differences between British and American English, and the mistakes ‘littered’ throughout the novel were actually words spelt in British English.

I want to talk a little about those differences, but I don’t intend to list every one I’m aware of—there are plenty of places where you can find such lists, if you’re interested (e.g. here). I’d rather mention a few that amused (and sometimes continue to amuse) or surprised me when I discovered them.

Take the word ‘fanny’—a fairly innocuous word in the States, but with quite a different meaning here. The first time I came across the American usage was, I think, in a Stephen King novel many years ago. When a male character patted a female character on her fanny, I almost dropped the book in shock. I mean, he’s noted for his horror, not his erotica. It took me a while to work out that in American English the word refers to the backside. I still can’t see the expression ‘fanny pack’ without it causing a juvenile snigger.

Then there’s the word ‘pissed’. To us Brits that means drunk, intoxicated, inebriated, sozzled. In American English, it means annoyed. We also use it to mean annoyed, but only when adding the word ‘off’: I was so pissed off, I felt like getting pissed. It was probably in a SK novel (since he was the American writer I mostly read as a teenager and beyond) that I first came across the American usage. When he described a character as being ‘pissed’, I understood him to mean that the character had been drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Strange that he’d failed to explicitly mention the drinking; even stranger that the character was behaving normally (in an annoyed sort of way), without slurring or stumbling about or trying to hold conversations with the furniture. The penny has long dropped, but I still have to sometimes pause when I come across the word in a novel and remind myself whether the author is American before deciding if the character is annoyed or drunk. It’s not always obvious from context.

There are some words in American English whose variation from British English is minuscule and yet they always give me pause while my mind adjusts. Take the simple little word ‘spit’. In American English, it doesn’t appear to have a past tense. In British English, it’s obvious in which tense I’m writing: ‘The boxers spit out blood’ versus ‘The boxers spat out blood’. In American English, they’d both read exactly the same and, unless obvious from context, ‘The boxers spit out blood’ could mean that they’re doing it now or did it yesterday.

I can’t read the American English words ‘math’ and ‘aluminum’ without wondering what they’ve done with the ‘s’ or the ‘i’; the first time I saw the latter, I thought it must be a new kind of metal that I hadn’t heard of. I had to rely on context to realise that a ‘bullhorn’ is what we call a ‘loudhailer’; a ‘cell phone’ is what we call a ‘mobile phone’ (easy if the word ‘phone’ is included, otherwise I’m relying on context); a ‘pacifier’ is what we call a baby’s ‘dummy’, not some sort of cattle prod as I first thought.

Some American English words I prefer to their British equivalents. There’s something far more colourful to my ears about a stroller than a pushchair. When I first read the name ‘tic-tac-toe’, I thought it sounded like a delightful new game to discover; I was disappointed to learn that it’s merely noughts and crosses, with a less literal but more fun-sounding name. And what about the American English ‘fender’, as opposed to the British ‘wing’? No contest, unless someone, employing ‘wing’, can think of a better phrase for a minor road traffic accident than a ‘fender bender’.

For years I read (yet again in SK’s books) about some mysterious object called in American English a ‘Twinkie’—note the spelling; in Britain, a twinky is something else entirely—without having any clue what a Twinkie is. I was eventually able to deduce from context that it was something edible and, from the capital T and it being a SK novel, a brand name. It took many more years and ease of access to the internet before I discovered quite what they are. As an aside, I’ve also read the claim that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, Twinkies are likely to be one of the only non-tinned (that’s non-canned in American English) foodstuffs that will survive, but I don’t know how much truth there is to that, and hope never to find out.

‘Bangs’ is another American English word that confounded me when I first came across it. I suspect that everyone these days knows that the word refers to the humble fringe but, seriously—bangs? If it wasn’t clear from context, how the deuce was a British reader in the pre-internet days (and, yes, if you’re of a certain youthfulness, there is such a thing as ‘pre-internet’ and it wasn’t that long ago) supposed to work out what that meant?

On one of the online forums I frequent, where writers from the US are the majority representatives, I happened to use the word ‘fortnight’ that we Brits use without even thinking about it to mean a period of two weeks. This was quite recently and I was taken aback when some folk from the US didn’t know what I was talking about. Not all of them, by any means, but enough to show that the word I assumed was in common usage throughout the English-speaking world isn’t even widely used in one chunk of it (a big chunk, granted).

Another great source of confusion, at least to me, is the American way of referring to the ground floor of a building as the first floor, although there is a lot of sense in their method. So a lift (elevator) in a six-storey (that’s ‘story’ in American English, which mkes a lot less sense) building in the States has buttons marked 1 to 6, whereas a British one has buttons marked 1-5 and another marked G. I prefer the American way in this instance.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Knowing that these differences in usage and spelling and grammar exist is vital for any writer, either side of the Atlantic; at least, for any writer who is looking to sell his or her books internationally. It may also be a good idea, for the benefit of readers who aren’t aware that the differences exist, to somehow make them aware. Some authors insert a note in the front matter stating that the book is written in British or Canadian or whatever English, which varies in some aspects of usage, spelling, etc from American English.

I haven’t done that (yet), preferring where possible to employ a subtler approach, such as having the characters in the novel mention the variations; this is much easier where the book includes both British and American characters. It is an issue that I now keep in mind in all my writing, even going so far as to name a recent novel The Elevator. There is actually a good reason for calling it that, which has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but I’d be lying if I said that the possibility of there being some (a tiny minority, I’m sure) American readers who’d think a book called The Lift is about ice skating didn’t feature in my reasoning.

It’s Only Make Believe

So, fantasy novels. As suggested in the title, by ‘fantasy’ I mean speculative fiction that has no basis in technology, no matter how far-fetched the technology might be, and doesn’t fall firmly within another genre, such as horror. That’s still a huge range of sub-genres and I’ll barely be scratching the surface. Incidentally, I don’t know if you’re like me—some people seem to obsess about this stuff—but I try not to stress about into which sub-genre a particular novel belongs. In truth, the only time I pay much attention to these subtleties is when uploading a book to Amazon and having to choose the categories in which it’s to be published and which keywords are to be linked to the book. Otherwise, the broader genres such as fantasy and science fiction will do me, although even then there are stories which do not sit comfortably within just the one category.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I came to fantasy at an early age through the works for young children written by Enid Blyton. She was later supplanted by books like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles and Richard Adams’s Watership Down. But I want to mention others I’ve enjoyed from my teens onwards. They include two books that would comfortably make it into my top ten of all-time favourite books in any genre.

Let’s begin with the book that many readers list as their favourite: The Lord of the Rings. I’m not going to say much about this because it will already be so familiar to most, either through the book or the films. Suffice to say, I discovered it in my teens and have read it every few years since. One of my favourite books ever—a re-read is overdue.

At around the same time that I first read LOTR, I discovered another fantasy writer: David Gemmel. I read (over and over) his Legend series, although this was in the dim and distant past and I don’t clearly recall a great deal about them now except how they made me feel: thrilled about escaping to a fantastic and dangerous world, cheering on Druss (I think that was the hero’s name) and fighting his battles alongside him (as if he needed my help).

Another series I enjoyed was Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind. At least, I enjoyed them to a point. I can’t remember how many sequels I read, but think it was at least three, before I moved on to something new.

In my early twenties I read a book called Shadowland by Peter Straub. It was dark, involved magic and entranced me. It contains a line I can still recall today: Once upon a time, when we all lived in the forest… I was already one of Stephen King’s Constant Readers so when he and Peter Straub teamed up for The Talisman, I had to read it. I wasn’t so keen on the sequel that came out years later, but return to the original every five years or so. Another one that’s overdue a re-read. Sigh. Too many new books to read first…

When I was a child I hated sprouts and loved a fizzy drink called Dandelion & Burdock. Now, in my fifties, I love sprouts and one whiff of Dandelion & Burdock makes me want to projectile vomit. Our tastes change over time and that includes our reading tastes. As years have rolled by, I’ve moved away from the more traditional high fantasy of wizards and elves and the like and sought out darker or humorous tales.

They don’t come much darker than The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. Without wishing to spoil anything, the main character does something dreadful early in the first book which made me loathe him. And he never through the ensuing books endears himself. Yep, he’s a man with problems, and comes across as one of the most unlikeable people you’d never want to meet. Despite all that, I enjoyed the first three books. There is something intriguing about the land which Covenant visits, something compelling about the characters he encounters and the predicaments they find themselves in. And there’s a scene—don’t ask me in which book because I can’t remember—involving the fate of the giants which was so heart-rending it made me want to cry.

I read the second trilogy; with diminishing enjoyment, it has to be said. When I found out there was a final trilogy, I hesitated but I’m a glutton for punishment. The final three books in the series are as heavy as bricks and focus on a character who is possibly, though it hardly seems possible, even less endearing than Covenant himself. I have the ninth book in the series sitting in my bookcase taunting me to read it. I’ll have to psych myself up to do so and will get to it eventually. But I don’t care how many more instalments Stephen Donaldson might write, this will be the last I’ll endure. (Oh, bugger. Thought I’d better check there are no more books before finalising this piece. You’ve guessed it: there’s a tenth book. I know I said that I’m not interested in reading any more, but I shall have to see how much of a struggle I find the ninth book before deciding whether to get the tenth. I mean, I’ve put this much effort in already and if the tenth is really the last one…)

As for the humorous, they don’t get much better than the Discworld series. In my late twenties when I discovered them, I have since read and re-read them. They are my go-to books when I want to escape into a whacky and endearing place where if everything is not possible, it feels like it is. When Sir Terry passed on, it felt like losing an old friend. I’ll post a link to one of my many favourites in the series.

Another enjoyable, light-hearted series involves the adventures of Thursday Next, literary detective, is by Jasper Fforde and begins with The Eyre Affair. Wonderfully imaginative and a great deal of fun.

I still keep my hand in with the more traditional type of fantasy. I’m slowly working my way through Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea quartet. Read two so far and enjoyed them both, but probably won’t be embarking on the third for a while.

Another novel I feel worthy of mention is Audrey Niffenegger’s (try saying that after a few beers) The Time Traveler’s Wife. Although, as the title suggests, this is about time travel, it belongs within my definition of fantasy because there is no technology involved. I found it to be an incredibly moving tale, a love story doomed by the man’s tendency to disappear into another time period, often at the most inopportune moments.

The final series I want to mention is Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Before I get to the negatives, I enjoyed the early part of the series, probably the first four or five books. By the sixth, I felt a little jaded. By the seventh—the original final book (there has since been another published, which I haven’t read)—I was feeling a little dark-towered-out, but girded my loins and embarked willingly enough along the home straight. So to the negatives. I’m not in any position to offer advice to Mr King as to how he writes his books, but he indulges in such an outrageous piece of author intrusion in the seventh book that it threw me completely out of the story and left me feeling reluctant to continue. I’m guessing he knew he was risking such a reaction amongst his readers and made a conscious decision to take that risk. Well, for me, it backfired. Nevertheless, I pressed on to the end. When I got there, I wish I hadn’t bothered. I’ve mentioned before that I think endings are his weakness. Well, everyone has to have at least one weakness, right? His novels are more about the journey than the arrival and I love most of them, even those where I think the ending could be stronger. But the end of the seventh Dark Tower book? Made me want to throw the bloody thing at the wall. I won’t say any more—if you haven’t read them and you enjoy fantasy, you’ll enjoy this series. You may even like the seventh book. We all have different tastes and different levels of tolerance, thank goodness. The world of books would be a dull, sanitised place otherwise.

To my final book; the second one that would, along with LOTR, comfortably make it into my all-time top ten favourite books of any genre. I read Clive Barker’s Weaveworld and enjoyed it enough to seek out another of his books, Imajica. Oh, wow! What a breathtaking work of mind-blowing imagination. I don’t want to say too much because, spoilers, so will merely say that if you haven’t read it, hurry and do so. You’re in for a treat. (Unless, of course, your tastes differ from mine…)

To end, that dangerous game (dangerous because I’ll probably forget someone) of a mention of some online friends who write fantasy. I haven’t read books by all of them, and haven’t met them in the flesh, but they come across as mighty fine people in the cyberworld. So, if you’re in the mood for some indie fantasy, check out some of the works of J.D. Hallowell, Jade Kerrion, Ch’kara SilverWolf, P.L. Blair and L.W. Browning. Keep making stuff up, guys!

Size Isn’t Everything

At the start of the twenty-first century, I had a completed novel (since published as The Village of Lost Souls) and had started writing the second (published as That Elusive Something). This was long before the e-book revolution and the only ways into publishing back then were through the traditional or vanity routes. I had neither the inclination nor the funds to pursue the latter so embarked on trying to break into the former. For those too young to know or too old to remember, this involved querying London agents in an effort to obtain representation. I must have spent a fortune in posting the first three chapters of the novel and the obligatory stamped addressed envelope large enough to hold the chapters on their inevitable return journey. They sometimes thumped back onto the doormat in such pristine condition that I doubt they’d even been read.

But this isn’t a post bemoaning the querying process. In case you’re wondering about the title, neither does it have anything to do with sex. This is about short stories.

During those endless rounds of posting a query and waiting for its return so that I could send it to the next rejector, I developed an itch. (And, no, this still isn’t about sex.) It grew and grew into an overwhelming urge to see a piece of fiction I’d written in print. More than that, I needed to know what it felt like to have complete strangers reading something I’d written.

I pressed on with the second novel. When I’d finished it, I embarked upon the by-then-familiar, but no less fruitless and demoralising, querying process. Different novel, same results. If anything, the thud of the returning envelope hitting the doormat made the itch intensify. I had to find a way to scratch it or go out of my mind. My solution was to write short stories.

I didn’t think short stories were easier to write than a novel, and still don’t, but they are undeniably quicker to complete. And I had a lot of story ideas sloshing around in my head that would not be suitable for the long treatment of a novel, but might make half-decent short tales. Any that didn’t, well, I’d only waste hours writing them instead of the couple of months or so (depending how much writing time you have) of commitment required for a novel.

There was another significant consideration: I don’t know whether it remains the case today, but back then there were a number of small press magazines which accepted unsolicited short stories for consideration. It didn’t matter to me in the slightest that these magazines didn’t appear on the shelf of my local W.H. Smith or that their readerships might only number in the hundreds—the point was to have my work appear in print and be read by people who didn’t know me from Adam.

My first published work of fiction was the short story Celesta. It appeared in the now defunct Cambrensis magazine in September 2002. I can still recall the sheer thrill of holding my copy (my author copy, no less) and seeing my words in print for the first time. It was followed by publication of another four short stories in various small press magazines—I was even paid for a couple of them.

That was that particular itch scratched. I continued, and continue, to write the occasional short. Novels are my preferred form, but I enjoy the variety, and different challenge, of penning shorter work from time to time. Those early published short stories can now be found, amongst others, in my collection Pond Life. I have another two collections: Strange Shores and the recently published Ghosts of Christmas Past. Others can be found in various anthologies.

But I’m digressing. The purpose of this piece isn’t to publicise my works—though I oughtn’t be hesitant about doing so; it’s my bloody website, after all—but to trumpet the value of short stories and to mention a few of my favourites by other authors.

It’s not very often that we hear of short story collections becoming bestsellers. There are, of course, exceptions. Stephen King’s collections, for instance, usually shoot to the top of most charts. But for the lesser-known writer, they can be a hard sell and often end up being heavily discounted or given away, considered as little more than a means of funneling readers to longer, more lucrative works.

That’s a shame. A well-crafted short story is as worthy of praise as a tightly-plotted novel—the same level of skill has gone into both. And in today’s world of, we’re told, ever-decreasing attention spans and shrinking mobile devices, you’d think that short stories would be the ideal format for today’s hectic lifestyles. You’d think. Maybe their day will come, but I shan’t hold my breath.

Anyway, enough wistful thinking. What about the short stories I’ve enjoyed over the years? There have been far too many; too many to remember, let alone discuss here. I’m just going to mention a few.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that Stephen King is one of my favourite authors. No surprise, then, that I’m going to start with one of his short stories. Survivor Type appeared in his collection Skeleton Crew and tells of a surgeon washed ashore on a tiny, deserted island after a shipwreck. How he attempts to survive—no spoilers, but the clue is in his profession—horrified me in a gleefully fascinated way.

While we’re at it, another of King’s short stories that has stuck with me many years after I first read it is Quitters, Inc, which appears in his collection Night Shift. If, like me, you’ve embarked on numerous failed attempts to quit smoking, this story will resonate.

All You Zombies by Robert Heinlein is a mind-bending tale about the paradoxes of time travel. Difficult to say too much without spoilers so I’ll only say that the number of characters who populate the story turns out to be far fewer than appears at first sight. The story was turned into a film called Predestination, starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook, and a cracking job they made of it, too.

Another Heinlein short that’s stuck in my mind is And He Built a Crooked House. It’s another mind-bender, not to mention space-bender, about an architect who designs a house based on an unfolded tesseract (the four-dimensional analogue of the cube). When an earthquake causes the cube to collapse, Heinlein—and the reader—has great fun with the consequences.

A quick mention of an American short-story specialist, Raymond Carver. I’ve enjoyed a few of his collections, such as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. His stories are often little slices of life, usually dark and always poetic—he is also known as a poet and it shows in his fiction writing.

Finally, I couldn’t talk about short stories without mentioning Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. It’s a collection of science fiction stories linked through the animated tattoos on the body of a vagrant. If you like science fiction and short stories, this is the perfect union—go read it.

That’s merely a small taster. There have been many, many more stories I’ve read and enjoyed over the years. There are many, many more I’ve yet to sample. The beauty of short stories is that if you come across a dud, you won’t waste much time on it, and when you come across one of the countless gems hidden amidst the rough, you’re in for a thrill and delight. Happy reading!

(The above links will take you to the Amazon.com store only. I did have a fancy piece of code installed which took clickers to their local store, but it seems to have been lost in a recent upgrade of the site. I shall remedy it shortly. In the meantime, if you’re not based in the US, sorry, but that’s where the links will take you.)

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

The title comes from an REM song that was a minor hit in the UK in the early nineties. It’s a good song by an excellent band, but that’s by the by. It’s the phrase I want to talk about: the end of the world as we know it.

To me, it succinctly sums up the attraction of post-apocalyptic fiction to both readers and writers. The world hasn’t ended in the sense that it’s been blown to smithereens and Mars has become the third rock from the sun. The world is still here, but it’s a version that we don’t recognise.

Apocalyptic events come in all shapes and sizes: meteor and asteroid strikes; deadly pandemics; nuclear war; disastrous climate change; attack by extra-terrestrials; plagues of undead. What they have in common is the wiping out of a large chunk of the planet’s population, and a struggle by the survivors in a world where the previous rules no longer apply.

In the immediate aftermath there is no law and order, no society, no culture, no international boundaries. There are no checks and balances. What morality remains has to struggle to assert itself amidst anarchy. Humankind is reduced to its basest, most bestial form.

There’s the attraction for the writer. A blank page that can be filled however he (or she, but can we take ‘she’ as read?) chooses. The writer may open the story with the apocalyptic event itself. Or he may jump forward a hundred years, or a thousand, to whenever he wants, and leap right in at a point where new rules are already established, new orders have arisen, new currencies are being traded or fought over.

The writer can develop goals and conflicts that are unlikely to arise in the world as we know it. Maybe the acquisition of uncontaminated water will be the overwhelming aim of survivors in the new world; or arable land; or sanctuary from mutant enemies; or dry ground; or a cure for disease; or shelter from deadly solar rays. The possibilities are endless.

The reader will take delight in entering a world where all bets are off. He will relish trying to identify the new rules, if indeed there are yet any, and putting himself in the place of the protagonists. How would he, the reader, cope if thrust into such a world? Might there even be, whisper it quietly, something desirable about inhabiting a world where there are no conventions?

That was how I first became attracted to the genre. I was a young boy, probably around nine or ten, and watched the film The Omega Man on television one Saturday evening. I can still recall the thrill I felt at seeing Charlton Heston enter a department store and pick out any clothes that took his fancy without having to pay for them. I imagined being in his shoes, walking down a litter-strewn, deserted high street, calling into every toy, sweet and gun shop that I passed (they were always toy, sweet or gun shops—I was nine) and simply helping myself. I was the most dangerous sweet-sucking, gun-toting, toy-laden critter in town. Of course, I was the only sweet-sucking, etc. critter in town but didn’t let that get in the way of a good fantasy. My childish self conveniently ignored the downside to finding myself in such a scenario: the loneliness, the desolation, the abject despair.

Those aspects were brought home to a slightly older version of me with the BBC television series The Survivors. I only vaguely remember the original (it was remade a good few years ago), but recall it being grey, gritty and downright miserable. It nevertheless cemented my love of the apocalyptic story.

Around four or five years later, I read Stephen King’s The Stand. This still ranks as one of my favourite post-apocalyptic books (along with Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Cormack McCarthy’s The Road—more on them in a future post). I especially enjoyed watching the apocalyptic event unfold and seeing what happened in the immediate aftermath (elements, along with a deadly virus, that I use in my own apocalyptic novel The Cleansing). Having wiped out most of the population of the United States—we never see what is happening in the rest of the world—with a manmade superflu bug, Mr King could have taken the story in any one of a multitude of directions.

There is so much conflict inherent in an apocalyptic scenario that the writer doesn’t need to invent more. The mere struggle for survival is compelling in itself: the competition with other survivors for scarce resources, threats from predators old and new (animal and human), establishment of new bonds that will determine whether the human race can continue. But that’s the beauty of stories about the end of the world as we know it: almost any new element—spiritualism, the supernatural, mysticism, the extra-terrestrial, and so on—can be introduced to add even more spice to an already tasty dish.

Mr King could have shown the surviving humans in The Stand struggling to adapt to their new world without introducing any extra conflicts, and no doubt it would have been a cracking tale. As it was, he opted to have the survivors gravitate to one of two camps (figure-headed by the ancient and pious Mother Abigail, and the charismatic and deadly Randall Flagg) and constructed a ripping yarn about good against evil, while retaining all of the basic conflicts mentioned above.

There are many more books and films in the apocalyptic genre that I have enjoyed, as well as computer games like the Fallout series, so it was inevitable when I began writing fiction that sooner or later I would turn my hand to an end of world tale of my own. Like many writers, I write the sort of stories that I enjoy reading (and watching and playing).

Apocalyptic books, films, games, they all provide the reader, the viewer, the player, with the vicarious terror of experiencing a horrifying situation and wondering what he would do next. Run for the hills? Give up? Fight back? But in contrast to being actually thrust into such a scenario, the reader will derive great pleasure from the journey without suffering the accompanying deprivations and heartaches. He will feel relieved or even smug that he will never, hopefully, have to undergo such an experience in the real world.

And that brings me back to the title of this piece. It’s not quite correct or, at any rate, complete. The full title of the REM song is It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) . Now the title sums up the attraction of the apocalyptic genre more fully. It explains it all.

The writer will pen tales that involve the deaths of millions or billions of people; he will place the survivors in yet more jeopardy (as if the poor buggers haven’t already suffered enough); he may offer them the flimsiest hopes or the thinnest opportunities to escape ever more desperate situations; he may force them to champion the cause of mankind against overwhelming odds (give them a break, for goodness’ sake).

The reader will sit on the sidelines, watching the tale unfold with increasing incredulity or awe or horror. He’ll sympathise with the survivors; gasp as they face each new challenge; root them on when there’s nobody else on their side; laugh and cry with them.

But neither writer nor reader have to die with them. And maybe, only maybe, we end up appreciating the world we know, this world, just that little bit more. Perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as it sometimes seems. The apocalyptic tale shows us that it could be a whole lot worse. It might make us feel, even if only subconsciously, a little better about our world and ourselves.

And that can only be a good thing.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

On 20th October 2017, I am releasing a new collection of short stories: Ghosts of Christmas Past and Other Dark Festive Tales. As the title suggests, each story has a Christmas theme and each is from the dark side. It will only be available in e-book format, but can be purchased from most mainstream online retailers (see links below).

Here is the cover:

Within you might encounter the occasional ghost, perhaps a vampire or two. Oh, and zombies. One tale is set in the Earth Haven universe, at the time of the start of The Cleansing. And there’s a bonus story, one which has previously been published in a Christmas anthology, also set in the Earth Haven universe.

Here’s the blurb:

‘Four festive tales of the supernatural, apocalyptic and blood-sucking variety—an antidote for anyone who occasionally finds Christmas overly sentimental or commercialised and likes to escape to somewhere darker.

In Ghosts of Christmas Past, a newly-wed couple spend every Christmas in the same remote country cottage. It’s their ‘thing’ and they’re not about to let tragedy get in the way.

In I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, a small boy creeps downstairs to see his mother in the embrace of a crimson-robed stranger. But Jake’s not convinced: since when did Santa have long teeth and red, glinting eyes?

In Rottin’ Around the Christmas Tree, Nia decorates the tree while her parents look on. But this is not just another Christmas—it is the time of The Cleansing, the time when family life and the world as we know it are ending.

In Christmas ‘Midst the Zombie Apocalypse, two survivors sit out winter on the edge of an overrun city. Their efforts to enjoy Christmas Day as normally as possible turn out to be a mistake; a potentially fatal one.’

Finally, here are the links to purchase:

Amazon

Kobo

itunes

Barnes & Noble

Ho, ho, ho!

When I Was Three, I Ate Mud

There’s a meme doing the rounds on social media that goes something like this: the average three-year-old can switch on an i-pad and stream videos; when I was three, I ate mud.

Makes me chuckle every time. Not that I can recall eating mud as a toddler, but I might have. I can certainly recall, at about that age, munching on dog biscuits. Never did me any harm. Rowf-rowf. Whatever ways I found to entertain myself when three, I was soon to discover a new form of delight that has never left me since. I refer not to eating chocolate, but to reading.

In earlier posts, I’ve touched upon some of the books I loved as a child. There are so many, I thought they deserved a post of their own. These are the books I grew up reading. There were plenty more, but these are the ones I still recall clearly all these years later and which must, therefore, have made a profound impression on me back then.

Let’s begin, as it began then, with Enid. A few years ago, I wrote an article for Mass Movement magazine, which I called Enid Bloody Blyton. In the article I called her books for younger children ‘insufferably quaint’ and wondered what she had been stirring into her tea while she wrote them. Although it might sound like I was having a dig at her, in fact it was quite the opposite—I felt then as I do now: I owe her a great deal of gratitude for opening my eyes to the unboundless possibilities of the imagination and to the delights that can be found within the pages of a book. That sense of wonder has never left me and is as strong now as it was forty-five and more years ago.

As soon as I learned to read—I’m guessing at the age of four or five—I began to devour her books. The Enchanted Wood, The Magic Faraway Tree, The Folk of the Faraway Tree and Adventures of the Wishing Chair. Read them over and over until they began to fall apart. Bought new copies for my first-born and read them to her.

I graduated to her books for older children. She wrote tons of books aimed at children between the ages of six and ten, but there were two particular series that I adored: The Famous Five books and the Adventure stories.

Five on a Treasure Island is the first of twenty-one books recounting the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy. In case you didn’t know, George was a tom-boy whose full name was Georgina and Timmy was her dog. (One of the books involved George being captured by the baddies who made her write a note to the others whom they also wanted to capture. George alerted them to their peril by signing the note ‘Georgina’, something she’d ordinarily never do. That so struck the six-year-old me as a clever ruse, I remember it still.) At the start of each school holidays I’d nag my parents to take me to W.H. Smith, where I would spend my pocket money on the next book in the series. Some of those books cost as little as £0.30. Inflation, inflation. I’d take the book home and finish it that day. I collected the entire series and, again, read them time after time.

The Island of Adventure is the first of eight books in my other favourite Blyton series. (Yes, I can have two favourites—it’s my website.) These stories were about four children—Jack, Lucy-Ann, Philip and Dinah, the obligatory pet sidekick coming in the form of Jack’s parrot, Kiki. I had all eight books and, you’ve guessed it, read each of them umpteen times.

Looking back with the cynicism of adulthood, the plots of these books were outlandish, involving unlikely spy rings and treasure maps and, memorably, anti-gravitational wings being secretly manufactured in the depths of a hollow Welsh mountain—you know, I’ve lived in Wales for most of my life and haven’t once heard anyone add the words ‘look you’ to the end of a sentence like the Welsh characters did in The Mountain of Adventure. But never mind the ludicrousness of the storylines or the stereotypical supporting characters, I was seven and lapped it all up.

Not, I should add, that I was a boy for spending all my time indoors reading. I played outside with my friends at every opportunity. We played football, went hunting for slow-worms, scrumped apples, built dams. But this is the UK; we can have weeks of continuous rain, even in summer, so there were ample opportunities for reading. And even during sunny weather, there was always bed time. I was the sort of kid who was more than happy to go to bed half an hour earlier in order to read.

That’s enough about Enid. There are too many others to mention. Books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, wonderful stories about car-driving toads and talking rabbits. The works of Roald Dahl—amongst my favourites were Danny, the Champion of the World and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The heartwrenching time-travel tale Tom’s Midnight Garden and a story about two boys, a yacht and the rescue of stranded soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, The Dolphin Crossing.

I enjoyed the Twain adventures starring the eponymous heroes Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge about a boy’s adventures in preparatory school in the 1950s and 60s. I also dipped into the Just William books, but didn’t take to them as well.

Run For Your Life by David Line is a paperback I have no recollection of how I acquired, but is a book of which I have the fondest memories. It’s about an unlikely friendship between two boys. When they witness a murder, they are forced to flee across the wintry Norfolk countryside with the murderers hard at their heels. No matter how many times I read it—needless to say, rereadings occurred frequently—the tale never failed to grip. I just checked on Amazon and it appears possible to pick up second-hand copies. Whilst there, I checked out the reviews: the reviewers mostly seem to be of the same mind as me—a fantastic read for boys of around the age of ten. I wish I knew what has happened to my well-thumbed copy because writing this is making me want to read it again. Nothing like a bit of nostalgia.

When I was nine, one afternoon in school our teacher gathered the class around, took out a book and began to read it to us. It was about four children who are sent away to the countryside as evacuees in World War II to stay with an eccentric uncle in a rambling old mansion. I was instantly captivated. The book was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and so began my lifelong love affair with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I couldn’t wait for the teacher to finish the story in class; I had to get my hands on my own copy. When I discovered there were another six books in the series, I probably went into raptures. I’ll never forget the teacher who introduced me to them: thank you, Mrs Davies.

Quick aside: I often stayed with my grandparents as a boy. Their spare room contained an old wooden wardrobe. Yep, I used to step into it, remembering to leave the door ajar behind me since sensible children never shut themselves inside wardrobes. (Crikey, it must be fifteen or more years since I last read The Lion… to my younger daughter, yet that line popped into my head as though I’d read it yesterday.) I’d push through the clothes hanging there—never fur coats; my grandparents weren’t rich—and tap forlornly at the wooden back, hoping it would give way beneath my fingers and become a chilly passageway leading to fir trees and snow and fauns and white witches who handed out Turkish Delight. It happened every time in my imagination.

When I was three, I ate mud. Maybe, but when I was five and upwards, I devoured books. I only hope that despite all the modern distractions that I didn’t have, there are children today deriving as much joy from books as I did as a child.

Reach for the Stars

It is so long since I read my first science fiction novel that I can no longer recall the title or author. It was something to do with space travel to a distant planet, possibly Mars, and that’s about all I can remember. However, I do recall the way the book made me feel: it fired my ten-year-old imagination, struck me with awe not so much by the suggestion of man reaching for the stars, but of the boundless possibilities for inventing stories about such exploits. Whatever that long-forgotten book was, it made me fully realise that even if there are limits on what we as a species can achieve, there is no limit on what we can imagine and convey through fiction. I’d like to say that this was the moment of epiphany, when I realised that I had to become a writer as nothing else would ever feel as fulfilling, but I’d be lying; that wouldn’t come until years later.

Here’s a mention of some of my favourite science fiction novels; at least, of the ones I can remember.

There’s a crossover between science fiction and fantasy—sometimes the line between them is a blurred one indeed—but I’m confining myself to stories where the fantastical element is based on some form, no matter how far-fetched, of technology, as opposed to magic, or mythical creatures like elves and centaurs, or imaginary worlds reached through magical portals. Of course, aliens and imaginary worlds reached through faster-than-light space travel qualify, which just goes to show how artificial these distinctions can be.

Oh: as usual this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list— there are too many books I’ve read, let alone the thousands I haven’t, to even attempt such an ambitious undertaking. And these are my views, based on my tastes, with which you are free to agree or disagree as you wish. Just don’t take it personally if I happen to like a book you hated, or vice versa.

Oh, part 2: I’m excluding apocalyptic and dystopian novels because they’ll get their own piece at a later date, along with fantasy and a few other genres.

Oh, part 3: I don’t want to say too much about any of the books I mention in case I inadvertently spoil it for those who haven’t yet, but intend to, read them. So, of necessity I talk only superficially about the works.

To the first book, then, a perfect illustration of the marriage between science fiction and fantasy: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. How can this be science fiction, do I hear you ask? It’s about gods of eastern mythology, like Buddha, Vishnu and Krishna. And so it is, yet their powers (or ‘Attributes’) in Zelazny’s wonderful imaginings are technology based. I read this recently and wondered why I hadn’t read it years earlier. It’s the sort of book that’s so breathtakingly good, most writers will read it in awe and wish they’d written it.

Despite some rather antiquated (that’s putting it mildly) outlooks on women and their place in society, I’ve enjoyed most of the Robert Heinlein books I’ve read. (There’s a notable exception: Farnham’s Freehold; as well as his usual misogynistic touches, there are some aspects about race that make uncomfortable reading to a contemporary audience.) Here are some of the better ones: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Door into Summer, Tunnel in the Sky.

In a previous post, I mentioned Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, probably my favourite book of his I’ve read, but another I enjoyed was The Man in the High Castle. It’s a dystopian tale presenting an alternative reality in which Germany and Japan have won the Second World War, and are competing as the world’s superpowers. I didn’t find it the easiest book to get into, but am glad that I persevered.

I haven’t read a great deal by Arthur C. Clarke (too many books, blah blah blah), but one I thoroughly enjoyed is Childhood’s End. It slightly depressed me, with its gloomy outlook for the future of the human race (I don’t always like to be reminded of man’s fallibility when reading for pleasure), but is a greatly entertaining read that also makes you ponder, and despair, a little.

Apologies to any hard science fiction fans looking in, but that branch of the genre doesn’t overly interest me. (‘Yeah, anyone who’s read your books can tell that, you techno-doofus,’ I hear someone say.) Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed works of hard science fiction, but pages of detailed exposition on how a plasma blaster or anti-gravitational device works tend to make my eyes glaze over. I’m less put off by detailed world building, however, politics and all. I’m thinking of two tremendous series I’ve dipped in and out of over the years: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Iain M. Bank’s Culture series. If you’re a fan of science fiction which involves power-struggles and cultural clashes and political machinations on an intergalactic scale yet have never read either series, you’re in for a treat. (I suppose I could include the Dune series, but didn’t enjoy that as much after the first book.)

The next book was written by an author who some readers boycott due to his controversial views. This isn’t the place to go into those views; suffice to say I strongly disagree with them, too, but that didn’t stop me greatly enjoying his novel Ender’s Game. The whole book was good, but the ending, which I completely didn’t see coming, was a real Wow! moment.

I couldn’t write a piece about science fiction without mentioning The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It became a ‘trilogy’ of five books, but it’s the first one that I am fondest of and re-read from time to time. It’s wacky, irreverent and pure genius.

Finally, a quick shout out to some fine indie authors I have met online who write science fiction: T. Jackson King, Linell Jeppsen, John Patin and Michael Brookes. (The trouble with doing this is that I’m bound to forget to mention someone. If that’s you, I apologise from the bottom of my absent-minded soul. Feel free to send me a rude e-mail.)