Monthly Archives: May 2014

Carpe diem as a political response

A personal post, for a change…

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I used to be committed.

I used to think that there was a future in collective action, that we were in a process of coming to understand the impact our resource-hungry species was having on the planet and maybe we might just find a solution that would give us some hope of a future. Some kind of liberal, hippyish blend of technology and changed lifestyle might just emerge.

I worked with campaigning groups, I supported the right charities, I lived what was my best attempt at a sustainable, ethical lifestyle. Perhaps the culmination of this was nearly ten years ago when I stood in local council elections for the Green Party, not with even the remotest possibility of getting elected but in the belief that by having candidates in every election in the country we were helping establish the credibility of a growing political force.

No more.

After that election I started to withdraw, to lose faith. For me it became increasingly difficult to sustain any belief that we were heading for anything but calamity. I’ve written about the kind of near future I see in a couple of novels (forgive me, but this isn’t a crass marketing post – my marketing posts are far more obvious than this – but more a case that these two novels are where I’ve explored my position most thoroughly; to back that up, I won’t even name the novels): in these books Europe is torn by the growing pressures of climate change, resource depletion and the resulting mass migration and conflict.

As things get tight, we’re faced with choices. Push forward for sustainable change, or close in and exclude? In my increasingly pessimistic vision, as explored in these two novels, we turn inwards: we close the national boundaries to the Other, we turn against the weak and anyone we can label as different; our resources are *ours* and we will defend them at all costs. “English jobs for the English”, as a particularly vile election leaflet recently pushed through my door stated.

Increasingly believing that this future had become inevitable I stopped my campaigning, unable to see any way forward. Instead, I chose simply to appreciate what we have now. This world really is an incredible place and I’m often struck by the sheer beauty and magic of nature. Let’s enjoy it while we can; enjoy the world’s literature and art and fabulous cultures before we lose that option. And hope against hope that in fifty years, a hundred years, people will still be able to do that and won’t just have been busy burning all their bridges in a short-sighted frenzy.

Selfish? Hell, yes.

Realistic? I think so. We live in an amazing world, we’re an amazing species – even if we can’t save it, we really should appreciate what we have.

But am I really advocating carpe diem as a political response to the rise of fascism today’s European election results show?

I don’t know. I really don’t know.

In the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of these elections some of my friends have talked about the noble choice of abstaining from voting in a system they see as corrupt. My argument then was that for anyone who has any kind of decent ethical convictions not voting is simply giving a voice to the fascists. As they say, if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.

A bit hypocritical, given the shift in my own political commitment, huh? Even though I’ve always voted, I’ve been abstaining from actual political involvement on a far larger scale, after all.

But what else can we do? I really struggle to see…


New: The Bone House Gang – haunting horror for 9-11 year-olds from Nick Gifford

A dark and wickedly funny story by “the king of children’s horror” (Sunday Express)

The Bone House Gang by Nick GiffordThere’s no such thing as ghosts. Everyone knows that.

Twelve-year-old Jools Bone lives in a run-down mansion, surrounded by a large collection of treasures gathered by his family of explorers and adventurers. When a TV crew arrives to film a new hands-on history series, Digging for Dead People, family friends the De Veres come to help, along with their three children, Ned, Helen and Billy.

As filming starts with the search for an ancient burial mound in the forest surrounding the Bones’ family home, the gang learn of the ancient legends surrounding the tomb of the lost prince, including tales of hauntings by the spirit of the prince himself. The children are much too rational to believe the stories: there’s no such thing as ghosts, of course. But when one particularly grim legend threatens to come true, the kids are faced with a life and death rush to prevent history repeating itself.

Buy this ebook from: Amazon US – Amazon UK
Buy this book in print: Amazon US – Amazon UK – CreateSpace

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Extract

1. The Legend of the Lost Prince

Jools Bone came to the edge of the wood overlooking the house and saw the TV people arriving. Over the next few weeks they were going to film the search for the tomb of the lost prince, but this evening they were all getting together for a party.

It was early spring, and Jools was home for Easter. He had spent the day exploring the pine forest and the open heathland, keeping out of everyone’s way. It had been a good day, but the peanut butter sandwiches he had made himself for lunch seemed a long time ago now.

He watched the people arriving. The Bone House was Jools’s family home. All this land surrounding it was Bone land. These people were taking over his territory and he didn’t like it at all.

But there would be party food in the house…

“There will be all kinds of people,” his mother had told him that morning. “There’ll be … oh, I don’t know … that girl from Eastenders and I think there’s a newsreader coming. And there’ll be Fanny Albright, of course.”

Celebrities he’d barely heard of didn’t hold much interest for Jools, but the party food was calling louder and louder to his grumbling belly.

He watched more headlights coming up the long, straight drive. He’d never seen so many expensive cars.

Jools stepped out from the edge of the wood.

This was his house, and so it was his party, and his party food. He would go down and have something to eat, but he wasn’t going to be at all impressed.

~

Jools pushed at the front door and went inside.

After the woods everything suddenly seemed bright and loud.

People stood in small groups around the big entrance hall. The wide double doors through to the dining hall were open, and Jools could see more people through there.

The front door swung open again behind him and two people swept through. The man wore a black dinner jacket and the woman wore a long, sparkling evening dress.

Jools turned away from them.

Then he looked back.

That man … Surely he was Darren Beasley? He had spent two years in the Arsenal reserve team before joining Norwich City. Darren Beasley!

And the woman with him. She was a singer. The podgy one in Nite Gurlz who couldn’t mime. Or dance. Or, for that matter, sing.

They came up and stopped by Jools. He knew his mouth was hanging open. In fact it was so wide open his jaw must be resting somewhere in the middle of his rib-cage by now.

The woman – the one who had problems with tight clothes and who couldn’t sing or mime or dance – smiled at him. She took her wispy jacket off and dropped it in Jools’s arm. “There’s a dear,” she said.

Darren Beasley did likewise, except he said nothing and his coat was thicker and leatherier and not at all wispy. Then the two turned away and headed on into the house.

Jools stood there, touching the coat that had touched midfield supremo Dazzer Beasley.

He closed his mouth and remembered that he wasn’t going to be at all impressed. He turned and dropped the coats on a wooden chair.

He remembered that he was hungry, too, and so he followed Dazzer and wotsit from Nite Gurlz through into the dining hall.

All around him, people were kissing the air by each other’s cheeks and exclaiming loudly as if they hadn’t seen each other for a century or two. Jools was sure he recognised most of the people here. There was a weather man from breakfast TV, and someone who used to host a gardening programme. Even the people he didn’t recognise acted as if everyone should know who they were.

He spotted a plate stacked high with tiny triangular sandwiches and took seven. From a bowl he scooped a handful of nuts which he tipped into a pocket, and then he took some more sandwiches.

He saw his mother with her hair done up like a pineapple, laughing with a famous-looking man in a bad wig.

With them were two people Jools vaguely recognised from old family photographs.

The woman wore jeans and a Simpsons tee-shirt. The man wore cords and a badly-fitting tweed jacket. And muddy wellington boots. She had neat short hair. He had straggly grey hair and a big shaggy beard that was probably full of wildlife.

These were the De Veres, Jools remembered. Mack and Jenny De Vere had been at Cambridge with Jools’s mother Judith and his father, the late Sir Christopher Bone. Like his father, they were archaeologists, which explained their appearance.

Jools looked around and realised that there were other earth-grubbers here, too. This entire gathering was an odd mixture of shiny media types in designer outfits and without a hair out of place, and … well … the archaeologists.

Jools liked the archaeologists most of all. They knew what it was like to be out there in the real world. They knew how people lived, and how people had lived long before. They were real people with mud under their finger nails, and usually smeared over their faces and through their hair, too.

Jools tried to puzzle out how to eat his sandwiches when they were stacked up high in both hands. He could find somewhere to put them down. Or he could just try to tease the top sandwich from the stack with his teeth and his tongue and … slight misjudgement there … his nose.

He didn’t know what was in the sandwich, but getting the filling up his nose certainly made his eyes water. He rubbed his nose on his shoulder, dropping three of the sandwiches as he did so.

“Darlings, darlings!” called a woman, whose voice Jools thought he recognised.

He backed away into a corner of the room where a girl of about his age and an older boy stood guarding a plate of flaky pastry things.

“Darlings,” called the woman again, and Jools remembered that this was Fanny Albright. Fanny had first come to public attention as the posh one voted out of the Big Brother house. She had lasted about half of the series before viewers had had enough of her. Since then she had appeared on a variety of TV shows, some of which had even lasted into a second series.

Her new programme, Digging for Dead People, was a big break for her. Prime time TV on one of the main channels with Fanny as the host.

“Darlings,” Fanny bellowed again, as if she was struggling to remember all the other words she wanted to say.

Jools stretched, and saw the top of Fanny Albright’s head through the crowd. It didn’t help that she was so short. It was always hard to stamp your authority on an audience when you were looking up their nostrils.

Suddenly, she loomed over everyone. Someone had found her a chair to stand on.

“Darlings,” she said again. Jools wondered if that might be all she would ever say.

“Thank you so much for coming to this darling little party,” said Fanny, suddenly remembering some of the other words that made up the English language. “And thank you so much to darling Judith Bone–”

That’s my mum, that is, thought Jools.

“–for hosting this party in her darling little country home.”

Jools looked around. There weren’t many “darling little country homes” with a dining hall that could comfortably hold a hundred guests, and with so many spare floors and wings that most of the place was locked up and covered in dustsheets.

“And thank you so much to the heroes on my production team – you know who you are – for this party marks the start of work on a series that will mark a revolution in the history of factual television. My new prime time series, Digging for Dead People, will do for the dusty old world of archaeology what nobody has done before!”

“I can hardly wait,” muttered the girl guarding the flaky pastry.

Jools braved another sandwich, careful this time not to get the filling up his nose.

When he looked up, Fanny Albright was holding what looked like a vase in the air over her head, as if she had just single-handedly won the FA Cup.

It wasn’t just any old vase, Jools saw.

It was an earthenware pot, reddish brown with a thick lip. You could see the lines around it where it had been built up from rings of river clay and then smoothed over. The top was sealed with a clay plug.

This was ancient – Neolithic, Jools thought. Probably Bronze Age.

It looked very much like one that Jools had seen in his father’s collection upstairs.

It would be priceless. Not that you would ever think of such a thing in terms of how much it was worth. It could never be replaced, that was for sure.

And Fanny Albright was waving it around as if she’d just snatched it off a stall at a jumble sale.

“Meet the Lost Prince,” she said, shaking the pot for emphasis. “Here we have the star of the first programme in my new prime time TV series, Digging for Dead People . Here: in this jug. The Lost Prince’s ashes.”

“It’s not a jug. It’s a funerary urn,” mumbled the girl with the flaky pastries.

Jools couldn’t help but agree with her. She may be hogging the pastries to herself, but she certainly seemed to know her Neolithic earthenware.

“According to local legend,” Fanny Albright went on, “somewhere nearby, deep in the darkest deep gloomy bits of the forest, there lies the tomb of the lost prince. The prince himself lived thousands of years ago, and even though he was only a boy he led his tribe to victory in a great battle while his father lay on his sickbed.

“The battle was won, the tribe was saved, but tragically the prince lost his life to the disease his father was recovering from. He was buried a hero and given a tomb fit for the king that he never became. Somewhere…”

Fanny clutched the pot one-handed and used her free hand to wave out, beyond the walls of the Bone House to the forest.

“Somewhere out there…”

The gathering had fallen silent as Fanny told this tale.

Jools knew the story, of course. His father had told him of the legend often enough.

“Darlings, the first programme in my new prime time show, Digging for Dead People, will tell the story of the lost prince. We’ll be filming here in the forest as my team of valiant researchers seek out the prince’s tomb. We aim to uncover it for only the second time since the prince himself was buried.”

A man somewhere near Fanny cleared his throat. “Ms Albright?”

She smiled at him.

“You just said this would be the second time the tomb had been opened?”

She nodded. “Several hundred years ago,” she said, “when the Vikings were doing all those things the Vikings did. You know. Well, anyway… All that time ago, a group of Vikings found the tomb and dug their way in. Probably hoping for gold and jewels and all that.”

“What did they find?”

“There may have been treasure. We don’t know for sure. But what they did find was the cremated remains of the brave prince – his ashes.”

As she said this, Fanny Albright raised the earthenware pot above her head again. “This pot,” she said, “has belonged to the Bone family for generations.”

That would explain why it looked so much like the one Jools had seen in his father’s collection, then.

“It is the pot stolen from the tomb of the lost prince,” said Fanny Albright. “It is…” She paused, and looked around the crowd. She waited.

This was clearly meant to be a dramatic pause. You know the kind. But Fanny left it too long. Long enough for people to start looking at each other, shuffling from foot to foot and wondering if she had actually finished what she was saying. Or had, perhaps, forgotten what she was saying.

Finally, she continued: “It is the pot that contains the ashes of the lost prince himself!”

She leaned forward, with the pot held high.

Which wasn’t her smartest move, considering the fact that she was standing on a chair. A rather wobbly chair, at that.

As Jools watched, he saw her expression change from one of fierce intensity to … eyes widening, mouth opening … surprise, panic.

As she tipped forward, the chair’s wooden legs made a loud groaning sound on the dining hall’s stone floor.

She gasped.

She cried out.

She threw her hands in the air and spread her arms to catch herself on the people right in front of her.

The earthenware pot!

Jools tore his eyes from the falling TV personality and saw the pot flying high across the room. It was a big thing, about the size of Jools’s head.

Which was a good comparison, because it was flying directly towards Jools’s head.

Fast.

Somehow, he managed to duck, drop the remaining sandwiches, and raise his hands at the same time. A great weight suddenly struck his palms.

He looked up. The pot was there, in his hands.

“Nice catch,” said the girl with the flaky pastries. “Shame about the jumper, though.”

Buy this ebook from: Amazon US – Amazon UK
Buy this book in print: Amazon US – Amazon UK – CreateSpace


BlogHop: Three Things I Don’t Write (and Three Things I do)

First, a background note:
This is one of those blog hop things where one writer makes a blog post and tags others to follow on with a post on the same subject. In this case, I was tagged by Neil Williamson, a writer I’ve long-admired and whose fabulous novel The Moon King is just out. Also tagged in Neil’s post were  Chris Beckett and James Everington, so I’m keeping excellent company.

So… what are three things I don’t write? This is actually a tough one, given that I write in many different genres under a few different pen-names.

  1. What I’m asked for.
    One of my favourite things is to be asked to write something specific – a story for a themed anthology, a feature on a particular subject. But I always want to do things differently. Hell, my first reaction when Neil asked if I’d like to write this blog piece was to wonder how I could subvert it and write something completely different. Don’t get me wrong: I can and do hit the brief when required, and like almost any writing project I enjoy doing so, but my inclination is always to look for another direction. I could dress this up in all kinds of ways: if you’re writing for a themed anthology, for example, it makes sense to write that story that just hits the brief but is totally different, rather than one of the many that hit the brief comfortably, and predictably. So is it a deliberate career strategy? God no! It’s a gut thing, an instant reaction that has often served me well; the career strategy is to then step back and judge whether to trust that instinct or rein it in.
  2. The same story, over and over again.
    Years – decades! – ago, one then-prominent anthology editor told me about a dinner party he’d just attended with other then-prominent anthology and magazine editors. They got to talking about the new wave of writers emerging at the time (this was late 1980s or early 1990s, when the Interzone generation were starting to get lots of attention). They discussed various names and when mine came up, this editor said that what he really liked about me was that whenever he got an A4 envelope with my return address on it (that shows how long ago this was), he never knew what was going to be inside. He meant this in a good way, not a creepy-stalker way. He explained that every story I sent him was different to the last; the others around the table agreed that this was so. Career strategy? Again: God no! A career strategy would have been to hit a trope and hit it strong, not keep flitting around between all the multitude of things that interested me. A career strategy would have been to accept that huge offer I received from a leading US publisher to write a sequel to my first novel (military SF), rather than insist on following my muse and writing a fantasy novel about the death of fantasy
  3. Poetry.
    Sorry, I know this reveals my inner heathen, but I just don’t get poetry, no matter how hard I try. Sometimes, when poetry is being read, it works for me. I love John Hegley’s work, for instance, but that’s probably more because it’s funny and comes close to stand-up comedy; I’ve enjoyed Martin Newell’s work, too, for similar reasons (he lives in the same village as me, so I’ve heard him read a few times). At least when poetry is being read I have someone controlling the pacing for me; if I’m reading poetry myself I think I rush, as if I’m reading prose, and I don’t give the words the space and time they need. Music works far better for me: I understand lyrics, and I write songs because when poetry is tied to music I can get my head around it – the words are paced for me. But poetry in its own right? I don’t get it, and so, however much I’d like to, there’s really no point in me trying to write any.

And now for three things I do write:

  1. Scenes that not only make the reader squirm and wonder where the fuck they came from but which do the same to me.
    My virtual reality novel The Accord had several such scenes, one of which actually prompted one of my writing students to stop me in the street and, with a somewhat aghast look on his face, ask me what was wrong with my head; he meant it as a compliment. The premise of the book is that what is, in effect, a VR heaven has been created where you are uploaded on your death and are then immortal; in a world devastated by climate change and resource shortages, there’s a scene in a refugee camp where a VR team is recording people’s personas so they can then be uploaded when ready. A mother waits until her little daughter has been recorded and then, as calm as anything, murders her child in front of everyone so that the girl will not have to wait. I didn’t see that scene coming until it unfolded before me, and I could barely type fast enough to keep up. When I finished writing the scene I was exhausted and spent and had no idea what had just happened. There are other far more extreme mind-fuck scenes in that book, and I still don’t know where they came from. What they do have in common is that they take a premise and extrapolate it as far as possible. And then some. As far as I’m concerned, hitting those scenes are as good as the writing process can ever be.
  2. Certain tropes I never thought I’d tackle.
    This year marks 25 years as a professionally-published writer for me. Passing 20 years and then approaching 25 seemed to trigger something; that and editing a book about the sub-genres of SF for Palgrave Macmillan. These things made me aware of which genre tropes I’d tackled, and which I’ve avoided. And they made me wonder why. Three big ones stood out: aliens, alternate history and time travel. I could have taken this as a challenge to go ahead and write about these subjects, but I didn’t. Not consciously, at least. Subconsciously, however, it seemed to set the what-if? part of my mind working. I didn’t write aliens because I couldn’t make them convincing enough for me to last the duration of an entire novel. I didn’t want to write aliens that were merely humans in rubber suits, but then if you write something truly alien how do you get inside it enough to find any kind of story we can relate to? I didn’t do alternate history because I don’t have enough historical expertise to either come up with the inspiration or make it credible. I didn’t do time travel because, well, it’s all been done before, hasn’t it? So that what-if? part of my mind came up with Harmony, a novel crammed full of aliens in what was to me the ultimate alternate history, addressing the Fermi paradox as an added bonus; that it was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award was an added added bonus. And Tomorrow, a time travel story that goes to town with the whole concept as a bunch of teenagers struggle with destiny and a future that nobody in their right mind would want.
  3. Horror.
    I’ve included this, at least partly because it’s a bit of a surprise to myself, so maybe it will be to whoever reads this, too. A little context… Back in the early days my output was probably fifty-fifty between horror and other genres. My first novel was SF; when I finished the first draft of that I was on such an adrenalin rush that the very next day I started an unplanned horror novel. That second novel never sold, but I think it shows at least that my attentions were divided. My short fiction included a lot of horror, enough to later be gathered together in the collection Embrace. But then it kind of tailed off. I was finding more success as an SF author, and that seemed to feed the part of my brain that came up with ideas: as SF took up an increasing proportion of my time, so more and more of the new ideas were SF, too. Looking through my bibliography, I see that my last published horror story was “Embrace”, back in May 2004. (As a sidenote, most of my teen fiction as Nick Gifford was dark stuff, but even there, the most recent horror novel came out in 2005.) But recently things have changed again. I’ve returned to full-time writing and for one reason or another my short fiction has turned to horror, once more. I’ve just sold a horror story I’m particularly pleased with to Postscripts, and the next thing I do after drafting this blog post will be editing another new horror tale, a particularly creepy piece where I’ve tried to make a modern office a dark and scary place. Given some of the places I’ve worked, perhaps that’s not too much of a stretch, but hey.

Passing it on

To keep this blog hop going, I’ve asked three more fabulous authors to tell us three things they write about, and three they don’t: Kim Lakin-Smith, Stephen Palmer and Mike Revell. I’ll link to their pieces when they’re up.

 

 


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