Facts and Fictions

The Ants

AntsA good old fashioned monster tale set in the Brazilian jungle. It’s almost a shame that the monsters in the story are given away in the title. The author does a good job of building the mystery and giving glimpses of the terror.

Young anthropologist Jane Sewell returns to the Brazilian tribe she has been studying with her father, only to find the village deserted. All that is left of the former residents is a pile of stripped clean bones and a (temporarily) mute boy.

Before she can begin to work out what has happened, she has to rescue a pilot who crashes nearby. It turns out he flies for a local plantation owner, so the three of them head in that direction.

Only as they near the plantation is the threat revealed- mutant ants! Not giant mutant ants, as you might imagine from the cover, but telepathic mutant ants. That can sometimes communicate with humans, and they’ve enslaved other ants to help them.

There’s lots of soap opera stuff going on at the plantation- the owner’s wife is carrying on with the manager and the local workers are reverting to superstition- which play out in fairly obvious ways as, one by one, they get eaten alive.

In the end, it’s a race to the river, with a little help from a different ant colony. The wrap up is rushed, after all the build up, but it’s a fun, if occasionally predictable, journey to get there.

From:: Ian Pattinson Goodreads reviews

Charles Stross’ list of cliches in Space Opera

I’m tempted by the idea of space opera- grand space battles and galactic civilisations and all that. If I do have a go, I’ll have to check back to this list of common failings and try to avoid as many as possible.

Source: Towards a taxonomy of cliches in Space Opera – Charlie’s Diary

Engage Pulp Speed!

Pulp writers used to knock out hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of words a year, and novels were judged to be books in the 30,000-50,000 word range. My work tends to fall within that word count (today we’re supposed to call it a novella), so in one way I already am a pulp writer.

Over the last few months, my word count has shot up to an average (over 30 days) of over 1,000 words a day. If I don’t stop early for Christmas, my 90 day average will clear that soon. This includes working around my part time job and a natural inclination to get disheartened by minor setbacks. Next year, the target is a minimum of half a million words written, most of which will be published (under a variety of names). That’s still a fair way from what Dean Wesley Smith calls Pulp Speed One in this post, but I’ll treat it as a stepping stone along the way.

BBC News – Historical abuse inquiry: Police examine ‘possible homicide’

My current work in progress is another Irwin race against time chase around Manchester. One of the spurs was a Government proposal to contract out running of childrens homes to private interests. Which has always worked out so well in the past. On that hook, I hung a story inspired by some of the darker rumours about institutional child abuse and pumped it up.

Now, frighteningly, it looks like reality is almost as bad as the over the top take I’m writing.

BBC News – Historical abuse inquiry: Police examine 'possible homicide'.

Stories I didn’t write- Ebola House

I’m writing the second novella featuring the adventures of not quite completely retired MI6 analyst Irwin Baker at the moment, (the first instalment was Tiger, gratuitous plug fans!) and some of the characters in it have been with me for years, evolving through multiple other projects.

In particular Detective Kay Wood and crime scene tech Gloria date back to a comic from 1997 called The Millennium Watch. This was going to be a crime with sci-fi series following a high tech forensics team who get involved in plots involving nanotechnology, AIs etc.. I might describe it as CSI with sci-fi, but NCIS with sci-fi might have been nearer the mark because of the number of action scenes. But neither of those show existed in ’97, so I don’t know where the inspiration came from.

I found a guy who produced the pencils for the first issue (I ‘computer inked’ them) and got it listed in the Diamond comics catalogue. Then I failed to get the funding needed for printing and the project came to a halt. I think a dozen or so photocopied versions went to the few people who had ordered them, but that was it.

It was a shame, because I had the story plotted out well ahead. The first four parter was the nanotechnology tale, climaxing on New Year’s Eve 1999. Then there were going to be stories about drive by shootings and gang wars with sub plots about an ongoing foreign conflict and xenophobes on the streets which would collide when some refugees were found to have am Ebola type disease. It may not have been Ebola I was thinking of when I planned the story, but the idea probably came from reading some of The Hot Zone.

Whatever the disease, the refugees would be quarantined in an overcrowded building and the xenophobes, and the even worse racist mob they inspired, would turn up to blockade it, keeping health workers out and making the situation worse. I think there may have been plans to firebomb the house and then have a race against time plot as the heroes tried to track down refugees- infected or not- before the mob got to them.

But, as I said, I never got past the first issue of The Millennium Watch, so I never got to write the plague house episode. I’ve recycled many of the ideas and characters from the series on the way to finding something that actually got released, but not that one. And now we have Ebola in Africa and western countries panicking about its spread. With news of New Jersey implementing mandatory quarantine for health workers returning from west Africa, it seems I wasn’t so far off in my predictions of the reaction to an outbreak, either.

Running Blind

runblind Running Blind
author: Desmond Bagley

Old-school espionage.

Alan Stewart used to work for MI6, until he got sick of being considered disposable. Now, he’s been talked into helping out the service on one of his regular trips to Iceland. Just deliver a package and then carry on with his life, it should be simple.

But, of course, it isn’t simple. The Russians want the package, and they seem to know his every move. They’ve sent an agent he nearly killed after him, and it seems someone in his old firm is feeding them information. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his fiancee is with him and in just as much danger, and the Americans have stuck their oar in.

Stewart’s a no-nonsense Scotsman, and Elin, his Icelandic fiancee, knows the country well. They lead all the spooks on a chase across the country’s glaciers and hot springs, leading to a violent showdown and final reveal of the Maguffin the whole plot revolved around.

The extended chase in the middle felt a little stretched, until it became obvious how carefully the author was putting everything in place for the finale. Overall, a competent and interesting bit of espionage from the Cold War, with the ‘good guys’ of MI6 and the CIA just as nasty and untrustworthy as the KGB.

From:: Ian Pattinson Goodreads reviews

I got Running Blind in a 2-4-1 Kindle package with The Freedom Trap, which, it turns out, I’ve already read,albeit decades ago.

Projects I’ll probably never finish- Bulletproof Poets

I start a lot more projects than I ever finish, all too often running out of time or motivation, or finding that they just don’t work. The annual overreaction to some idiot burning a poppy reminded me of Bulletproof Poets.

The Bulletproof Poets are an indie rock band with a political edge. They’re just on the verge of success*, touring like mad bastards and developing all the rock ‘n roll quirks that destroy bands. Everything looks rosy, until they release a single entitled Piss on the Cenotaph. That’s when the death threats, and the deaths, begin.

This was going to be mostly about the presentation. I wanted to do it as a comic-cum-fake-scrapbook, adding depth to the graphic narrative of the final interview by adding in reviews, gossip column pieces etc. It was going to be square format, so it could be packaged to look like a special 7″ or a CD. A version did get made, but all it was was thumbnails on post-it notes. They were scanned and put up on Spinneyhead some time during the Jurassic, but having moved servers, house and PC several times since then, I can’t lay my hands easily on either the originals or the scans. No doubt some of the themes and ideas will make it into other tales, but it’s unlikely that Bulletproof Poets will ever exist as originally intended.

Snippets– The title was originally going to be Ballad of the Bullet Proof Poet, and came from a song by Dogs D’amour. For a while it was a title without a story. Piss on the Cenotaph wasn’t a song title I came up with, I stole it from someone else, I never really knew what the lyrics would be. I like to imagine they’d be something damning about the way governments fail to honour the fallen by sending ever more troops off to die for pointless causes. But the singer/songwriter character was going to be portrayed as an arrogant tosser, so he would probably have thrown in some stuff about service personnel being idiots for falling for the lies over and over.

*Success being defined as the point where the hipsters at the NME stop saying your band are the next big thing and start convincing themselves that they never liked your music, not even a little bit.

The Kindle Windmill

Hay on Wye is home to the Hay Festival, the “Woodstock of the mind”, one of the world’s most celebrated literary festivals. To get himself some attention ahead of this year’s festival, one of the town’s booksellers is calling for a ban on Kindles at event.

Apparently ebook readers are “soulless” and are destroying the written word. Or, at least, putting some bookshops out of business.

As someone who makes a little bit of money publishing books for the Kindle (and other ereaders) I’m bound to defend the little grey tablet. Ebooks and readers are a boon for writers and readers- indie writers can deliver stories to readers for less and still make a decent amount on each sale. They’re not so great for bookshops or publishers. I like wandering around a bookshop, and I’d hate to see any good ones close, but that’s not enough to persuade me to ban ereaders. If the Luddites want to find something to get really angry about which could cause long term damage to the nation’s literacy, they should worry about library closures.

A Cold Wind’s Gonna Blow

Research has shown that as Arctic sea ice shrinks so the winters in Europe get colder. It’s an odd, counter intuitive effect that makes perfect sense once explained. A version of the theory has been put forward before, and that is what inspired this story, originally writen and posted here in December of 2010.

Mia In The Snow

Sheba’s ears are floppy and triangular, and when she faces into the wind the airflow lifts them up and they stick out like little wings. That always makes me smile, and when we’re out in the wind I always try to get her to face the right way to make it happen. After a while she’ll give me a look- if she could talk she’d just say “Silly person, stop it.”- and go back to sniffing the snow banks.

In Summer, Sheba bounces around and lives up to the Springer part of her breed name. In winter, with freshly fallen snow halfway up her legs, she doesn’t jump so much. But she will still do funny things like sticking almost her whole head into a bank of crispy, fluffy snow just to get a better sniff of what’s underneath. When she pulls out she has a white beard and eyebrows- another thing that makes me laugh- then she huffs and shakes it off.

Maybe Sheba’s doing little doggy laughs when she looks at me. I couldn’t blame her. My boots are furry and warm, with a cage thing on the bottom with criss-crossing coils of wire to improve the grip. They’re deliberately too big, so’s I can wear big woolly socks that come up to my knees. I’m wearing Nana’s old winter coat, that I’m not big enough to fit yet, with fleeces and thermals underneath. My hat has a bobble on the top and cheek muffs that fold down and should tie under my chin, though I’m just holding them in place with my scarf. My gloves give me cartoon hands which can’t hold anything properly and I’m tugging the clear circular “flying saucer” sledge that Daddy made from a sheet of spare perspex. Even with the snow I think it took me longer to get ready than it will to walk up the hill.

* * * *

Mrs. Aiden is old. She’s always been old, as long as I’ve known her. She has grey hair and grey skin brightened by spidery red veins on her cheeks and is quite skinny, though you can’t tell that with her winter layers on. The walls of her cottage are very thick, with lots of insulation, so she can afford to keep it hot inside. Once I’m through the three doors into the kitchen I stand on the welcome mat as the snow melts and runs off me and I begin to sweat. I hold out the boxes I pulled up the hill on the sledge.

“Two dozen eggs Mia?” Mrs. Aiden looks surprised, “Are you sure you can spare them?”

“Daddy says the poo powered heating is keeping the chucks happy and they’re really laying. He also said that one of your cakes is worth at least two dozen eggs.”

“Did he now? Well he’s in luck, because I have one of my cakes just for you.” she bustles over to the far worktop and brings me back a plastic box with a firmly sealed lid. It’s heavy for its size, Mrs. Aiden’s cakes are dense, moist and very tasty. “Would you like some tea love? The kettle’s about to boil.”

I’m about to boil too, and getting out of these clothes will be too much work if I’m just going to get back into them. “No thanks Mrs. Aiden. Grandda was just starting to make lunch when I set off. It should be ready by the time I get back.”

Sheba is curled up outside the outer door. Through the double glazing I can see her tail start to wag as I open the middle door, but she doesn’t jump up until I’m outside again. I’d propped the flying saucer against the wall. I lay it in the middle of the road just where it flattens out at the top of the hill and carefully place the cake tin on it. I clamber on so the box is safely between my legs then I take the rope and twist it around both gloved hands.

From this angle it looks like the windmill on top of the fell is actually sticking out of the chimney of Mrs. Aiden’s cottage. I should tell Grandda that, he could photograph it. I lean back and then jerk my body forward. The sledge moves a little way and sinks slightly into the snow. I repeat the movement and I’m closer to the tipping point. Sheba is giving me a puzzled look. Once more and I’m moving down the hill. I lean back and pull on the rope to lift the front so I don’t shovel up snow. Sheba runs after me. Now she bounces.

The round sledge is very hard to control. It spins all the way around twice as I go down the hill and steers by climbing the snow banks and sliding back down them in a new direction. But I don’t need to guide it. The road runs downhill until it turns right at the end of our drive. I don’t make the turn and carry on onto the yard, coming to a stop just outside the door to Grandda and Nana’s house. And just in time for lunch.

* * * *

Nana and Grandda and Daddy say there used to be winters like this- and summers almost as hot as we have- before I was born. But they happen every year now, not every ten or fifteen. I asked Daddy what it was like when there was this much snow and people weren’t ready for it and he showed me some old video on the net. It was funny, but a little sad. All those people trapped away from their families because no-one had known how much snow they had to plan for.

I’ve got a globe with an animated skin and I can play hundreds and thousands of years of data back and forward on it and watch how things changed. I watched the temperature one and saw as there was less white and blue and more orange and red. If I look at it month by month I can see the cold winds of the Arctic get warmer and blow further South, bringing more snow to Britain, Northern Europe and the United States. The changes are quick, I guess I can see why those travellers were surprised by the weather.

* * * *

We live in the barn next door to Grandda and Nana’s house. The walls of the barn look like a huge puzzle, one of those boxes of blocks with 50,000 combinations but none you can work out. All the stones it’s made from are different shapes and sizes- the builders must have just picked one up and glued it into the pile wherever it fit. When they’re not coated in snow the stones are lots of shades, but mostly a sort of blue-y green-y grey, and they’re decorated with white and yellow lichen that has frilly edges and gets crispy and brittle in summer.

The roof on the South side of the barn has solar cells on it. When the sun comes out the exposed parts of the cells warm up quickly and even after snowfall like last night’s they can still clear themselves and start producing lots of electricity. The snow must have slooshed down while I was climbing the hill, because when we get back from lunch the meter in the kitchen is all green and we’re charging the batteries under the floor. When they’re full we’ll start exporting power to the grid again, so long as I don’t turn on too many lights.

I sort of remember how Daddy, and all the people who helped him, turned the barn into our house. I seem to remember standing on a plank on the muddy floor and staring up at the roof and seeing the under sides of all the tiles. It was so big at the time, but I was so small. Now I’m almost as tall as the snow drifts.

What’s sad is that I can’t remember Mummy. I can look at pictures of her, including ones where she’s holding me as a baby, and pretend I remember her. But I think that’s all it is- pretending I remember her. Daddy explained how we lost her to the flu pandemic, which happened just before we moved out of London to the Lake District. We visit “The Smoke” a few times each year. Mummy’s grave isn’t far from Auntie Jasmine’s home, so I make a point of going and leaving some flowers whenever we’re there for more than a couple of days.

* * * *

My job for the afternoon is to take down all the Christmas cards and decide how they should all be recycled, then put the pictures back on the wall. I’ve got a clever folding stepladder that I printed out at Easter when I decided that I should do more fixing of stuff around the house, and my bag of tools. I’ll need the hammer, because I’m going to bash a few more nails in and rearrange the layout.

There’s a pile of cards which should be recycled and another pile which can be reused as labels next year. Reuse, repurpose and recycle, those are the rules. We live well by them. The little clip together holders go into a plastic bag for next year and I can decide where to put the pictures.

I’m in all the pictures, of course. There’s Grandda and Nana holding me as a really little baby. Then there’s a picture of Daddy with me. The next picture is of me and Mummy, it’s the one that most makes me feel I can remember her. She’s holding me up as I try my best to put one foot in front of the other. She looks beautiful, with long black hair, big brown eyes and dark skin. I’ll never have the same skin colour, and my hair can get curly, but I do have the same brown eyes. Normally this one would be the third in line, but I want to add another picture, and there’s no room to carry on the sequence.

I use a plumb line to mark points directly below the existing nails, and a spirit level and ruler to make a horizontal mark so the new nails are level. I hammer the nails in gently and rub the marks off. Then I hang the picture of Mummy and me and get the new picture from my tool bag.

Anne is Daddy’s girlfriend. She lives in Manchester and works all over the world, so we don’t get to see her very often. The photo was taken last Summer when we climbed Scawfell, it’s of me and Anne on top of the world. Anne looks nothing like Mummy, she’s blonde and, what was the word that Grandda used? Buxom. I should look that up.

Daddy must have heard the hammering, because he’s come to investigate. He lays his hands on my shoulders as he examines the new layout. “Nice work kid.” He kisses the top of my head.

“When are we going to see Anne again?”

“In a few weeks. She thinks that’ll be the end of her contract. I’ve asked her if she’ll move up here and work on our projects. If that’s okay with you?”

“Of course it is.”

* * * *

Anne’s job is to find leapfrog technologies and work out where they’ll be most useful. Leapfrog technologies are the ones that let people get modern without having to work their way through the wasteful steps the rest of the world did. Like all the Africans going from no phones to mobiles and all the stuff that’s getting made on the 3D printing stalls in India. We met her when we attended a conference in Manchester on what could be done with 3D printers, because daddy was about to get one for his business. She showed me how to use a virtual 3D interface to sculpt things whilst he talked to a salesman about specifications. Afterwards she took us out for lunch.

At first I was jealous that Daddy was stealing my new friend, but I grew out of that.

Daddy still isn’t very good with the goggles and wands of the virtual interface, so I help him out with finishing designs. He jokes about child labour, but I like that I can help him earn a living.

The old cow shed is Daddy’s workshop. He makes stuff, whatever people need. He says he would have been a blacksmith in an earlier time, but now he gets to work with more than just iron and steel. I’m not allowed to use the lathe or CNC machines yet, and I don’t mind that. They look dangerous, I’ll put off learning how to use those.

The printers are safely away from the high speed machinery, inside their own room. One machine prints plastic and another can do metal. Metal bits need to be heat treated in a kiln to properly fuse, but then they’re almost as tough as cast metal. We make a lot of jigs for electric motor components for when people want to convert their old car to battery power. Sometimes I’ll watch the printers for ages as they create something I’ve designed, one super thin layer at a time. Daddy’s found me sleeping in there sometimes, the swoosh and buzz of the print head can be just like a lullaby.

Today I’m designing a weather vane. One of Mrs. Aiden’s neighbours is an artist. He paints landscapes and draws cartoons. One of them was of a man in a suit windsurfing. He’d like to know if it can be printed in plastic- for him to paint- and then mounted on a swivel to show which way the wind is blowing. This is quite a challenge. Daddy and I worked out the basic shapes on a 2D screen and now I’m cleaning it up in the 3D interface.

I’ve got to wear goggles, which are a bit big- I don’t think they expected kids to be using their system. The monitor alternates views really fast, one each from slightly different angles, and the glasses’ lenses darken and clear up so each eye only sees one of the views and the picture looks like it’s coming out of the screen. I use the wands to move the model or the view around, zoom in or out or redraw shapes.

There’s a ringing from the computer, the video call tone. I push up the goggles and switch to the VoIP screen. It’s Anne. “Hey there Mia, how’re you?”

“I’m very good.”

“Sculpting something?” she’s spotted the goggles on my forehead.

“A weather vane.” I pick up the icon for a screenshot of the windsurfer and drop it onto the video window.

“That’s cute.” Daddy comes through from the kitchen. Anne gives him a pretend serious look, “Are you forcing your daughter to do your work again?”

“It’s either that or send her up chimneys, and she’s getting too big for chimneys. How are things going over there?”

“Well, it’s not snowing. I’d like to have a snowball fight.”

“We’ll put some in the freezer for you.” I suggest.

Anne grins, “You mightn’t need to. We’re so far ahead of schedule that I’ll be back next week.”


“Then it’ll be a week of exit interviews and I want to come up and join you. I’ve got some ideas for things I’d like to make with you.”

“We can make it a family business.” I suggest.

Daddy and Anne are both looking at me. I may have said something wrong. “That would be nice.” Anne admits.

Daddy’s got a smile. I think he and Anne are trying to exchange a meaningful look over the video link. I take off the goggles and hand Daddy the wands. “Were you making dinner?”


“I’ll go and see what I can do with it.”

There’s veggies to be cut up, so I start on that. I try not to listen to the conversation in the living room, but I can’t help but smile. Not a replacement for Mummy, but a new member of the family. It’s a lovely late Christmas present.

Itoshi No Kana

Amongst the many things distracting me in the last few months has been a website called Mangafox. It’s a site dedicated to’scanlations’ of manga series- scans of the originals translated and re-lettered by volunteers. It’s not legitimate, of course, but hey.

As I have a long standing interest in erotic comics I went looking for stuff in the Adult category. Two in particular got my attention. Koibana Onsen is the ongoing tale of an inn which specialises in erotic romantic getaways- and the various hang-ups of the staff. Itoshi No Kana is a paranormal romance which inspired a story idea from me.

Itoshi No Kana, according to the scanlators, means My Lovely Ghost Kana and concentrates on the relationship between the eponymous ghost and Daikichi. As the story opens Daikichi, whose name ironically means lucky, has lost his job and home and taken to squatting in an abandoned apartment block. Here he meets Kana, the ghost of the girl who committed suicide in the room he has chosen to inhabit. Their relationship soon becomes intimate, rescuing each other from their respective hells.

There’s a lot of sex in the first Kana book- the second is more concerned with their growing connection with the outside world- and it’s a lot of fun as well as being very hot. This is despite Japanese censorship rules which mean genitalia aren’t explicitly depicted- there’s a lot of allusion and, when that runs out, erections are often reperesented by a bar of white space.

Itoshi No Kana is a naughty example of the manga subgenre known as Magical Girlfriend. The MG can be an alien princess, witch or hot demoness who makes life complicated for some hapless protagonist. Most often, the protagonist and MG never get to consummate their relationship, continuing through endless scrapes punctuated by panty shots and other tittilation (aka fanservice). Kana ignores the rule of delayed gratification to tell a different story.

I’ve been tempted to do something Magical Girlfriend-y, on and off, for a while and Itoshi inspired me again. So I’ve started the tale of a young man who bumps into a girl who isn’t there as he crosses an old bridge. Having knocked her back into the physical world he becomes her lover and they embark on an exploration of hauntings, beasts and Boggles, all the while tracking down the man who killed her.

I see an episodic series, short stories with different monsters each time, but with an overall arc- the story of the ghost’s murder and revenge. The main characters’ sex life- and the mating habits of were-creatures, vampyres and assorted ghoulies- would be a major part of the stories. Not often enough to warrant the label of Paranormal Erotica (a popular genre on Amazon), but regular and hot nonetheless. So I’m going to do this series under my Garth Owen pen name, I think.

The first story in the series is tentatively titled The Girl On The Bridge and I’m 6000 or so words into it, using it to flesh out some details of the back story and world. I’m far too easily distracted by other ideas and stories I want to work on, but I hope to have this one finished soon.

Biggles and the casual racism 2

Biggles and the casual racism, originally uploaded by spinneyhead.

We bought a lot of old books recently, including a few Biggles tomes. Biggles in the Blue was only lightly racist, with its references to "coloureds" and negroes. But five pages into Biggles Flies Again we get this little outburst from Algy- "Jungle Airways Limited, Joy Rides for Niggers, Flip-Flaps for Cannibals," when pondering running joy-rides in Guiana.
It was a more innocent time……

And now, the end is near…..

Does anyone else get the feeling we’re building towards something? It’s turning into an odd year. From the Arab Spring through riots in Britain and civil war in Libya and more. The tension’s been building all year, with the occasional release being scary and occasionally surreal.

Right now, thousands of people are occupying Wall Street, and parts of various other US cities. As Kryten re-tweeted, it’s beginning to look like the American Autumn*. As the Conservative Party are holding their conference in the city** there was an Occupy Manchester on Albert Square after yesterday’s big demo. I’m going into town tomorrow to see if it’s still there, take photos and see if I can get inspiration for a quick topical novelette.

It all feels like it’s building up to something, a grand finale I can’t begin to guess. Trying to guess has got me a little twitchy, and finding it hard to concentrate on the work I was supposed to be doing today. Most likely whatever happens next will be an anti-climax, but can it please disappoint me soon so I can get over this anxiety I’m feeling.

*Autumn is more appropriate than Fall because a. we’re British and Fall is an annoying Americanism (don’t get me started on the lazy and arrogant way that US studios don’t bother replacing Fall with Autumn in trailers which show over here.) and b. American Fall sounds a bit more sinister than I think the demonstrators’ aims really are.

**Irony may be an organisation with so many climate change deniers in its ranks starting their conference the day after Britain’s hottest recorded October day.

Thoughts on the future of books and ebooks

I posted a version of this comment on the blog of Joe Konrath, indie author and ebook guru, in response to his post about predictions for the future of publishing.

I predict that paper will go the way of vinyl- which means it’ll never die.

Go to any decent sized record shop and you’ll still see 7″ and 12″ pressings of new and recent releases. There are record fairs for collectors of old vinyl. I work for a company which sells hifi and AV (audiovisual) kit. In amongst all the 55″ 3D flatscreens and 9.2 channel, dozen format home cinema systems we still list turntables and related equipment. Most of these record players look nothing like your old gramophone, with new materials and ever more precision in their construction. Not only do some people swear they sound better but next to the kit bristling with features they do have an understated beauty.

Whilst ebooks will kill, or at least seriously injure, the plain words on paper, bread and butter end of publishing I predict a rise in books as beautiful objects. My Kindle’s convenient, and you can do some neat stuff with illustrations on an ipad, but there’s a joy to a big book on glossy paper. Add tipped in holograms, embossing etc. and I see what you might call coffee table books turned up to 11. There are also experiments to be done with the medium of words and pictures on paper, such as the recent SVK comic by Warren Ellis and Matt “D’Israeli” Booker which had elements printed in ink that only showed up when you shone the included UV torch at the page. There’ll be some successful publishers that do well from “value added” books, though they’ll probably not be one of the current big guys.

Before you start throwing stones at the Luddite can I just add that, otherwise, I think Joe’s predictions are close to the mark. I’ve been writing for ebooks since about this time last year when I discovered Brits could publish on the Kindle. The backlist and the sales are growing slower than I’d like, but I’m working on the basis that once it’s up it’s there forever and everything else just builds on it. I predict that I’ll have my first $100 month by Easter and will be looking at the prospect of $100 weeks by this time next year.

And life is grand….. 1

The world isn’t as shit as some people would like you to think. I just thought that needed saying. We are, whatever they tell you, in a better place now than we were in whatever Golden Age they claim we should return to.

People are living longer and more productive lives, child mortality rates are down and diseases which could in the past kill or cripple can now be treated effectively. Some of the worst diseases have been eradicated. Provided you don’t take up chainsaw juggling there’s every chance you’ll live longer than your grandparents. Long term the human race is evolving faster than ever as groups move around the world, intermarry and mix their genes in new and interesting ways.

Freedom is spreading too. More and more people have more and more rights and protections from discrimination. In Britain the Conservatives- once the party of nasty, and occasionally closeted, homophobia- have announced consultation on, and likely introduction of, gay marriage. Racism and sexism are less prevalent than they once were, despite some hold outs. Certainly, some countries have a long, long way to go, but we’re dragging them after us.

Technology is breaking down barriers and spreading information. It’s harder to get away with doing wrong and easier to bust a lie. I have my moments of Luddism, but I do believe that technology opens up so many possibilities it can only be used for good (on balance) in the long run.

And there’s more, but you get the picture.

Of course, we shouldn’t get complacent. We still run the risk of bringing the planet to a point of ecological collapse where it rejects us. There are people who would gladly reverse the positive changes we’ve made, who don’t want others to get the same rights they have. They’re in the minority, and mostly just obnoxious ranters, but they’re loud and some politicians are stupid enough to be scared of them. We need to keep the momentum of progress rolling forward.

This has turned out a simplified version of what I meant to say, but I think succinct is fine. And it’s all just an excuse to play you one of my all time favourite songs anyway-

Top Gear must die

I’m still a fan of Top Gear, despite everything, but watching it is beginning to feel more and more like something I do out of duty than anything else. Another series came to an end last week and I’d be perfectly happy if it was the last one ever.

There are a number of things wrong with the show, which interlock to an extent and mean that it can’t just be tinkered with. Top Gear has to be put out of its misery and replaced by something different. I have some suggestions of what the replacement could be, but lets start with a list of the programme’s problems.

1. Its presenters

It’s too easy to dismiss Clarkson as an ignorant buffoon. I think he’s a very intelligent man who has found a persona which earns him a lot of money and then spent years honing it. It’s possible even he has begun to think the persona is the real him. Hammond seems to be setting himself up as a chirpy mini-me to the Clarkson character, which is a shame, because he’s capable of interesting stuff. May is the one of the three I have the most hope for away from Top Gear, but he should get out soon.

In a few years time, students will be writing theses on early twenty-first century man’s mid-life crises and citing the antics of the Top Gear presenters as examples. Their meltdowns have a bigger budget than most, so they actually get to do the sorts of things 40 and 50 somethings wish they could to reclaim their youth. However, it’s getting to the point where the antics are less cathartic and more embarrassing. There’s enough material available for dozens of doctorates, no need for more.

2. It’s got a small penis

The programme is obsessed with big expensive cars which go fast. It’s like it’s desperate to impress us and convince us it isn’t lacking in the trouser department.

3. It’s predictable

If a car is being reviewed it’s unlikely to have fewer than eight cylinders or cost less than six figures. There will be tyre smoke. The car will go sideways. They’ll lay that filter over the shots which darkens the top third of the screen and makes the sky appear grim and foreboding. Then they’ll give it to a man in white leather to record a lap time. (Has anyone else noticed that the times recorded by the tame racing driver in expensive compensation devices are, at best, about thirty seconds faster than those of untrained celebrities in the reasonably priced car. What’s the point of these stupid vehicles anyway?)

If the boys are doing a challenge in the UK they will be staggeringly incompetent. May will say “Cock”, Hammond will squeak and be useless, Clarkson will grump and be useless. A caravan will be destroyed, often by fire.

If the challenge is abroad then Hammond will complain about the food, Clarkson will be a bit racist, May will say “Cock” and they will do something culturally insensitive.

The script is no longer original. It’s really tatty. They should have admitted defeat when, in possibly the least artificial of their “car vs ….” races, they proved that bikes, buses and boats were all better suited to urban transport than cars.

4. It’s conservative

There are a huge number of motoring subcultures. Every weekend during the summer months there is at least one show dedicated to a particular marque or style of car. You wouldn’t know this from watching Top Gear. If it isn’t marketed to footballers then a car doesn’t exist in Top Gear’s world.

It would be neat to see, for instance, a piece about the ingenuity and obsession that goes into building a hot rod. Line up a bunch of Fords of the same vintage, one original and the others customised in different ways and tell the stories of how they were built. Or take a look at the update and upgrade ethic of my favourite car mag- Retro Cars. Or any number of other odd creations.

“Boring” old Top Gear could do the occasional piece on a unique and eccentric vehicle-

5. It’s propaganda

The defence that keeps getting rolled out is that Top Gear is an entertainment show. But it peppers the nonsense in amongst news items and the reviews, so the difference between information, taking the piss and telling people what you want them to hear gets a bit blurred. And some people want the bullshit to be true.

Earlier this year Clarkson came out with the old nonsense about cyclists not paying “Road Tax” so not deserving space on the road. The producer may tell us it’s entertainment, that Clarkson was just joking and everyone knows it. But cyclists are attacked by idiots who believe that they have paid to use the road whilst the two wheeled menaces haven’t. ipayroadtax.com does a great job of rebutting the all too frequent examples of this meme and has its own response to Clarkson’s comment.

More recently, in the last episode of the most recent series, Clarkson and May did an allegedly sensible and serious piece about electric cars. To do this they didn’t drive the cars around town, simulating the sort of short trips electric cars are perfect for (and which constitute around a third of all car journeys). No, they took the sort of journey only an idiot would think was right for an electric car. And they let some fool run down the batteries before hand so they could conveniently run out of juice in a town with no recharging points. All so they could come to their pre-existing conclusion that electric cars aren’t any good.

There are numerous other examples. I’d be here for days if I tried to recount them all.

Top Gear promotes the message that only cars- preferably petrol powered ones with lots of cylinders- deserve to use the road. I don’t think the licence fee should be paying to spread that lie. (Full disclosure- I don’t have a television, so I don’t pay the licence fee. I watch what little TV I’m interested in on iPlayer and the other channels’ equivalents.)

6. It’s got no counterpoint

Channel Five has Fifth Gear, which is a bit more sensible as a car programme. However I can think of no programme on British television which could be considered an antidote to Top Gear and a dose of the Clarksons. I don’t mean some staid, stop-this-silliness sort of thing, but a show given just as much free rein to present an alternative view just as irreverently. Maybe if there was a programme which had segments where presenters mocked drivers for not knowing the Highway Code or that suggested that soft roaders are so useless they can’t even traverse speed bumps then TG’s fast and loose relationship to facts wouldn’t seem so bad.

So, what shoud we replace Top Gear with, seeing as we’re going to kill it?

As a cyclist I obviously have to suggest a show about bikes. I know that a show called Freewheel (or similar) wouldn’t be able to replace Top Gear or get the same sort of viewer numbers straight away. But, with bike use ramping up and more bikes than cars in the City, it’s time one of the TV channels looked at giving us more coverage. If any of the broadcasters want some ideas for how a bike show might look, I have a few.

Top Gear is a magazine show, it has regular features and special stories. We need to see some programmes with a similar format but a far wider remit. Get guests in to do features on stuff that interests them, give them some challenges (build a gravity racer, canoe from one side of the country to the other, get Danny MacAskill to ride across a city without touching tarmac, do a piece outside London without coming across as patronising and insular etc.) Top Gear needs to be replaced by a bigger, better, more inclusive version of Top Gear. I don’t think we’ll be able to call it Good Shit.

Conspiracy theorists don’t like real conspiracies 4

I keep meaning to write some more about the ongoing News of the World/News International implosion (Update Here’s my previous comment on it- Private grief is not public interest.). But every time I think I’m ready to start some more news breaks and I decide to leave it for a while longer to see what happens next. Thus have I tricked myself into waiting for this whole affair to be over before I say anything.

Going off at a tangent to the potential demise of Rupert Murdoch’s empire I did notice something interesting earlier this week. I follow the RSS of blogs by a couple of self righteous fundamentalists. It’s my way of keeping track of what I call the “reactionary bigotsphere”. One of these fundies is, conveniently, a believer of just about every conspiracy theory going, which helps me keep up to date with another set of fringe beliefs.

Now the whole Murdoch affair should appeal to a xenophobic conspiracy fan. It’s got an unsavoury foreigner acting against British interests and values, corrupting the Police and those in power, working to keep the public misinformed and stoke up fear and hatred, behaving in ways which are morally repugnant and illegal and co-opting his powerful friends to cover it all up. All with the aim of garnering more power and money for himself and his planned dynasty, no matter how far it drags the rest of us down.

A conspiracy theorist should be all over this, jumping up and down with glee and shouting “See! I told you so! The foreigners are out to get us!”. But my favourite conspiracy bigot has said nothing at all about the News of the World, he’s more interested in imagined crimes committed by, or on behalf of, the European Union.

Okay, maybe my mate Stewart’s a bit busy, maybe he hasn’t got round to covering Murdoch-gate yet. Maybe he hasn’t realised just how deep and how high the corruption that could come to light goes. He should check it out, then maybe he could stop relying on made up “facts” and actually get angry about stuff that really happened. But maybe some of his “they’re all out to get us” friends are ahead of him.

Stewie seems to have a high opinion of someone who blogs under the name of Leg Iron. Perhaps he has something pertinent to say about News International.

Cards on the table.

I don’t care.

Or perhaps not. After this busted flush Leggy then goes on to say nothing in particular about Rupert’s motivations in about half a dozen different ways.

To be fair, some of the people in Leg Iron’s blogroll do have things to say about News International. For instance- The Mirror uses private investigators more often than the NotW, therefore it’s all a Left wing plot (carefully forgetting that it was The Guardian that broke the story, and the Right wing press has piled on the story just as much as anyone else). Or “let’s face it, no one at the NotW actually murdered Milly Dowler” (has someone accused the NotW staff of committing murder? Is someone deliberately missing the point and making themselves sound like a tosser?). And similar stuff on and on and on…..

It seems that, when confronted with evidence that they’ve been lied to and manipulated, the sort of person who likes shouting loudly about how everyone else is being lied to and manipulated shuts up. I can’t help thinking that the reason this particular bunch aren’t interested in the crimes of News International (and the rest of the right wing press) is that those papers are the source of the lies and misinformation they use to fuel and justify their bigotry. Or perhaps they’re too scared to complain about genuine bad behaviour, because the next step is to take action against it, and they would rather carry on fighting non-existent enemies.

I’ll get back to the bad behaviour of Britain’s press eventually, and I’ll try to do something to make a difference. Which is for the best, because the conspiracy theorists are all looking the wrong way when it comes to what’s wrong with the world.

Private grief is not public interest 1

Last year people I know and love were caught up on the periphery of a piece of national news. For several days they had to put up with the stress of unwanted and unprincipled press attention. They learnt that all the bad things you hear about certain members of the Press are true.

Photographers trespassed to get photos which intruded upon people’s grief (and were angry and offended when the tables were turned and they were photographed). Reporters lied- primarily by omission- and acted as if they didn’t know some of the clauses of the Editors’ Code of Practice (then were upset when they met people who did). When the facts weren’t fresh or titillating enough they made things up, inventing hearsay and presenting it as common knowledge. A media feeding frenzy presented evidence of why so many think of journalists as scum.

I wanted to do something about it, to find a way to strike back and get some power given back to us, the public, over them, the newspapers and channels that exist to generate nothing but gossip and thinly veiled propaganda. But I didn’t. I couldn’t find a way into the subject of invasion of privacy that didn’t open people up to invasion of their privacy. I don’t have the tenacity of the creators of blogs such as Five Chinese Crackers, which take apart tabloid lies with such skill. And, I have to admit, I was nervous of the size and power of Britain’s tabloid press. What could I possibly do to affect them? Or, if I did have an effect on them, what could a bunch of people who have already proven themselves vicious and malicious, and have very large audiences, do to undermine me and harm me and mine?

But when there are publications that think it’s okay to hack into the voicemail of a missing teenager to get stories then torture her friends and family- and hinder the Police investigation into her disappearance- by deleting messages because they’re greedy for more information, sooner or later we all have to stand up and shout our opposition to such scum. The latest, sickest revelation from the reopened News of the World phone hacking investigation makes me as angry as the stories I heard last year

If one good thing comes from this horror story let it be that more people get angry about the actions professional privacy invaders who hide behind the lie that they’re journalists. Already companies are pulling their advertising from the News of the World, hitting them financially, the only thing it seems they’ll pay attention to. But we should hope for more. We should demand a greater accountability from the Press, and more ways for us to make them pay every time their actions hurt anyone who is already having the worst time of their life.

The Press Complaints Commission is notoriously useless when it comes to curtailing the excesses of newspapers. That it’s a body run primarily by newspapers obviously doesn’t help. Self regulation clearly isn’t working in this case. And when the Express can withdraw from the Commission so it doesn’t even have to worry about what little bite the PCC has, it’s clearly time for something else.

One idea (and please bear in mind that I only just thought of this and it is after midnight) would be to set up a very special kind of Legal Aid, a state fund for people slandered by a paper to use in their action against the paper. It would have to be carefully managed- a panel of experts, none of them with any ties to the Press, would have to assess claims for libel aid before it could be handed out- but it could claim back costs in any actions which were successful. If the papers knew that the people they lied about could no longer be scared off by the threat of legal expenses then they might learn to stop lying.

That’s just one idea, and a wildly impractical one. I’m not going to suggest it when I write to my MP, but I will tell him that it’s time to scrap or seriously reform the PCC. And you should too. The more of us who make a noise about this the more likely politicians are to pay attention and try to do something in our interests for a change.

Time to cause trouble and demand a more honest and decent media.

Gentlemen’s adventure novels

The “men’s adventure” genre has been getting a lot of nostalgic attention lately. (Or maybe there’s always been nostalgia for it on the internet and I’ve only recently started reading the right sites to see it.)

Men’s adventure thrived from the 50’s to the 70’s, in magazines and novels, and seems mostly a US phenomenon. War- fighting Nazis and commies, was a popular subject, as was taking on the might of a threat closer to home- the Mafia. I’m sure I read one or two MA novels in my youth, and last year found a few examples of The Executioner series for a pound a go on a book stall. (The Executioner carried on as a brand and the books are still being released en masse.) I got lucky finding books by “the father of action adventure“, because some of the Executioner knock-offs sound truly, sadistically awful.

Original men’s adventure paperbacks aren’t so easy to get on this side of the pond, so I’ve been reading, and drawing inspiration from, rather more English characters.

Two generations before Mack Bolan came back from the jungles of Vietnam and started putting bullets in the heads of mafiosi, Simon Templar started his career as a dashing scourge of the “ungodly”. Many books, two television series (and a few failed pilots) and one awful film later The Saint is still around, hanging out in New Orleans for yet another TV pilot.

The Saint could be every bit as ruthless as The Executioner when it came to meting out justice. He would regularly kill criminals, connmen and other low-lifes if he felt it was for the greater good. And he always made off with their boodle, so that even the ones who lived were left broken. Come the forties Simon Templar lent his specialist skills to fighting the Nazi threat, and later faced down Communists, but he always did it with a sharp wit, some awful puns and ditties and lots of style.

Before Templar there was Bulldog Drummond. Less well known now than the Saint- though he did have a few film outings- for a long time I only knew of the character from the Bullshot Crummond parody film and for the racism of the character. Now, thanks to the Kindle and lapsing copyright, I have a Bulldog Drummond collection to work my way through.

Sexton Blake is the last of my English adventurers. “The poor man’s Sherlock Holmes” appeared in thousands of stories, by hundreds of authors, over a period of nearly 90 years, though I’d never heard of him until I started researching penny dreadfuls earlier this year. I’ve just started reading the tales in The Casebook of Sexton Blake.

I’m not trying to distill some quintessential English adventurer from these forebears- to appear in my Irwin Baker stories or elsewhere- but I reckon a creation of mine would be more comfortable in their suave company than amongst the gun obsessed killers of men’s adventure.

How’s The Plan going?

Hmmm, yes. The Plan boiled down to hitting an average word count and finding better ways to publicise my work. The Aim, separate from The Plan, was to make enough money to fund trips abroad and other mini adventures which could double as research for future stories.

So how am I doing?

Terribly, if I’m honest.

The target was to average at least 500 words a day, preferably 1000, over the year. As of today, before I do any writing, the average is half the lower target (253.9, to be precise). For a while towards the end of February, I broke through the lower boundary. That was whilst I was working on Slashed, when I had a fairly good idea what needed to be written.

Since finishing Slashed I’ve not really known what to write next, and have had a couple of false starts. It’s become a bit more obvious in the last couple of weeks where the two front-runners, both Irwin tales with similar themes, should go. You And Me Against The World started out as a rambling piece of naughtiness about a dirty weekend then became a tale about baggage from past relationships wrapped up in grifter shenanigans. Throw in some espionage and MI6 style witness protection and I had a reason for Irwin to get involved. Art For Art’s Sake (previously A Death In Didsbury, a title I’ve gazumped for a different story) features characters from So Much To Answer For a few years down the line, getting mixed up in art theft and smuggling, forgery and murder. Again, Irwin doesn’t instigate any of the shenanigans but comes in to lend a hand, strictly off the books of course.

I’m researching art theft and smuggling for Art For Art’s Sake at the moment, then I’ll have to find two scams big and complicated enough for You And Me Against The World. Then, hopefully, I can hit my writing stride again. Beyond that I’ve thrown a few scene notes and background into yWriter for the next Garth Owen project, working title Post, which will flip a few of the zombie/virus outbreak tropes on their heads. I’m also planning to do a few stories in the universe I created for the Mongrels mini comics I did a few years ago, starting with a novelisation of Who Let The GODs Out?

So, when I get writing again, I have plenty of projects to get on with. As I recognised a long time ago, it’s the promotion where I need to work out what I’m doing. I’ve looked into getting business cards, or maybe bookmarks printed up, though the latter don’t really work when most of my publications are electronic. Getting mentioned on Daily Cheap Reads last week didn’t have a huge effect upon sales, though I guess it is one more link to my books to help them get found. I’ll keep trying to get onto other people’s blogs to build up a presence, but I don’t hold out a lot of faith in the effects. Press releases to the local press and contacting the local libraries will carry on as well.

I have come a long way from when I first formulated The Plan. I’ve written two novellas and published them and a bit of my back catalogue. Sales are in double figures, which isn’t much but is far more than if I’d just sat back and waited for something to happen. All the books are out there for as long as I want them to stay available, so when people start searching for me there’s a far larger rack of books for them to find. And that rack is going to continue filling, though maybe not as fast as I’d like it to.


Kindle book review- Indie rock ‘n roll for me

I’m supposed to write book reviews as I finish the books, but that’s just not going to happen any time soon. So here are short reviews of five books, two indies, two mainstream and one business/self help book.

The River (Amazon US) is a hard tale to place in a genre. Science fiction comes closest, but at first I thought it was a romance with medical thriller trappings as heroine Del Hawthorne tries to understand her father’s disappearance and what it has to do with the genetics lab where he worked. Then it seemed to be a Clive Cussler style tale of hidden treasure, as a coded notebook leads Del and a group of friends take to canoes on the Nahanni River of the title- but still with the traits of a romance prominent. Eventually it became something else entirely, something very strange and quite endearing. It’s all a little mad, in a good way. The dialogue is a little flat in some places and characterisation can be a bit off, but it was never enough to drag me out of the story.

The Venom of Vipers (Amazon US) suffered from some of the same dialogue and characterisation problems as The River but, again, never so badly that it brought my reading to a halt. In the not too distant future humanity is being decimated by the Molio virus, which has no known cure. Genetically modified humans- Homo sapiens sapheris- have been created in an attempt to find a cure. Saphers heal rapidly and are immune to the virus, but they can’t reproduce without the help of human surrogate mothers and, as yet, have not provided a cure. They also have no human rights, are kept locked up in scientific facilities and are hated by a large number of the human population. The story follows dramatic events at one of the sapher facilities and revolve around Ryder Stone, a sapher with particular talents, as conspiracies and murderous plots unfold. An interesting feature of the way the story unfolded was how so many of the problems stemmed more from inaction, miscommunication and self interest than explicit action or evil.

These two books are independently published. I imagine a “proper” publisher would have had them rewritten to remove some of the more interesting elements and smooth the rough edges. They’d have been worse for the effort. What they display is the independent mindset- create something personal, experiment a bit, learn from the experience and move on.

The Library of Gold (Amazon US) is one of the many many books striving for a bit of the Dan Brown pot. It succeeds in being a bland Da Vinci Code knock off. Ivan the Terrible’s Library of Gold has been guarded down the ages by a powerful and secret cabal who have grown corrupt. Now they’re planning something with something somewhere and it’s all terrible and secretive and……. Frankly, who cares.

I did get further into Library of Gold before I gave up than I managed with Ghost Watch (Amazon US). I struggled through the prologue and first chapter with a narrator/central character who proved to be racist, sexist, homophobic, arrogant, ignorant and, the worst crime of all, not very interesting. Maybe the rest of the tale, told in flashback, explains how he got to be that way, but I really don’t care.

Poke the Box (Amazon US) is more of a long essay than a fully fledged book. It’s subject and tone lie somewhere between business book and self help manual. The essence of its message is that businesses, and the individuals in them, should learn to keep trying new things. No great advance, or profit, comes from striving to maintain the status quo and the next leap forward is going to come from the person willing to poke the box (fnar). The flip side of this is that not every idea is going to work, for whatever reason, so we have to learn to accept the risk of failure on the way to finding the ones which do work. Basically this is a short book about the philosophy I’ve tried to apply to my own life (with more failures than successes, I know, I’ll say that before anyone else does).