Saturday 31 December 2016

WTF? Kingsglaive: A Final Fantasy movie

Take the Lord of the Rings. Add futuristic technology. Retain magic. And modern stuff like cars and guns. Throw in visuals from Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars and Starship Troopers. Add the vibes from Aliens and Call of Duty. The result is Kingsglaive, a story from the Final Fantasy franchise, released as a CGI movie.

I have no real idea what Final Fantasy is. I've never played the games. Never joined in with the fanbase. I am totally clueless. I watched the animated movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which takes place on a future Earth and looks a lot like Halo with a vague spiritual concept thrown in. I enjoyed it a lot, but I have no idea how it connects to the rest of the franchise.

I haven't seen Kingsglaive yet. I just happened across a trailer that intrigued me then blew me away. I cannot say to you, dear reader, whether this is worth watching. But OMG, the smorgasbord of influences makes me want to watch it so bad. Even if I don't understand what's going on. And I confess, after watching the twelve minute sample of the movie, I remain baffled. But interested. This is fantasy set free.

I loved the Lord of the Rings when I was younger, but quickly grew tired of the derivative 'High Fantasy' novels that followed it, wallowing as they did in a quasi-medieval straitjacket that made everything a little too cosy. The Game of Thrones series was, I suppose, an attempt to break free from that, but by then I'd moved away from reading fantasy.

I always wondered what it would be like to combine Lord of the Rings with assault rifles and grunts. I guess it would look like this.

Monday 26 December 2016

UNDEAD UK: The Othello Connection

Kenneth Branagh as Iago, Othello's nemesis

Shakespeare's Othello is about betrayal, manipulation, self doubt and paranoia. These are the main themes of my book Remember Me Dead, and I consciously thought of Othello when I was writing it, to the point where I named one of the characters Iago. This was purely for my benefit during the early drafts, and I changed the character's name for the final release, because I didn't want to make it too obvious to a reader that this was the character that would betray Breht, the book's protagonist.

Breht as a character existed in my mind for some years. I don't know why I wanted to make him gay (spoiler alert), but originally he was going to star in a gay version of Othello. I had a few notes, and I even sketched out a thriller set in Sierra Leone's civil war, with Breht as a South African mercenary. Nothing more came of this, and Breht returned to the waiting room in my mind where other characters are currently hanging around, waiting for their book to be written.

When I decided to write my first zombie novel, therefore, Breht came to mind, and immediately the basics of the plot came together. Remember Me Dead, of course, is not an exact rendering of Shakespeare's tale. Imagine, if you like, that Othello survived his ordeal, and spent the latter half of the story in exile, thinking about Iago's treachery whilst looking for him, and you have the other elements of my book.

If you haven't read my book yet, I can assure you that you don't need to have studied Shakespeare nor seen the play (or movie) to understand the book. And if you have read the book but failed to see any connection with Shakespeare, that's fine too. I didn't want Shakespeare front and centre, and many people have never heard of, read or seen Othello (or anything by the bard).

And if you're anything like me, you probably only heard about Shakespeare from the lips of pontificating snobs, and therefore did your best to avoid it. I sympathise.

But snobs don't own Shakespeare (they just think they do), and his timeless themes are the perfect ingredient for thrillers and dramas. And everything's better when you throw zombies into the mix.

Othello, the play, is set in Venice in the 17th Century, and Othello, the character, is a Moorish General serving in the Duke's army. These days, it's fashionable to make the character black, but in the past Othello was considered an Arab. There's still controversy over whether he's black or not, but considering his title of Moor (from Morocco), he is likely a Muslim, which is a factor that's rarely discussed. As he's also fighting against the Turks on behalf of the Venetians, he would also be, in the eyes of the Arab world, a traitor. The basic point about Othello, then, is that he's an outsider, and he knows it. He's been winning battles for years, but he's still insecure about his status, and what others may think about him, and he gets easily paranoid.

Iago is his trusted lieutenant. Passed over for promotion, he secretly expresses his hatred of Othello, and plots to have his revenge on him.

Although the play is called Othello, it's really about Iago. He's a dastardly plotter, pretending to be loyal while playing people against each other. Understanding Othello's insecurities well, he exploits them by manipulating him with doubts and whispered gossip, until Othello goes mad with rage and kills his own lover. Iago's intelligence, and the way he deftly pulls Othello's strings, drive the plot.

If Othello were to survive such a thing, it's quite possible that he'd learn never to trust anyone again. And so it is with Breht, whom we see at the beginning of the book remembering the events that led to him being alone in the apocalypse. His experience, and his betrayal, have left him colder. But he also wonders why his 'Iago' betrayed him.

Because in Shakespeare's play, it's not really all that clear why Iago hates Othello so much. He's served with him for years. They've fought battles together. Being passed over for promotion shouldn't have been that big of a deal - certainly not enough to get involved in a lengthy scheme of lies and murder. Was Iago ever really Othello's friend? Iago proves to be ambitious - maybe his bond with Othello was always false, simply using him as a means to an end. Iago's deviousness is so slick that it has to be part of his character. And he's known to all as 'honest Iago', which implies that he's pulled the wool over everyone's eyes, and is, and has always been, the opposite.

But he's a rogue, which makes him a good antagonist. And that's how I've portrayed him.

Tuesday 6 December 2016

New Book Coming Soon

The sequel to Remember me Dead is nearing completion. Called Hunting The Dead, it will be released sometime in January 2017. Watch this space for more details.

Breht finds himself in a post-apocalypse city, and he visits a settlement to trade his stuff. A woman in the settlement approaches him with a request: to escort her and her baby across the city. When the city is crawling with zombies, that's not a simple job, but there's more. A whole lot more. A raft of tragic consequences will have Breht running for his life, and it won't be the zombies he's running from.

Saturday 19 November 2016

UNDEAD UK Locations: The Town With No Name

There is a scene in Remember Me Dead where Breht, floating downstream on an improvised raft, passes through the centre of a town, catching fleeting glimpses of Gothic church steeples, Edwardian school buildings and Victorian arched stone bridges. Drifting round a bend, he sees a park with the remains of a medieval town wall and a statue of a winged angel. The park slopes down to the river, and at the top of the slope a grand circular church with a bell tower dominates the skyline. A single guardian with a shotgun stands atop the bell tower, warily watching the undead who wander aimlessly across the park.

This is the point at which the reader is introduced to a town rich in Victorian, Edwardian and Tudor history, but at no point in the story is the town actually named. Did I make it up? Is this town a figment of my imagination?

No. The town in question is actually Shrewsbury, located in the West Midlands, near the border of Wales, and it really does contain a storehouse of living history that stretches back over five hundred years. It is famous for the sheer number of 15th Century black-and-white timber framed buildings that still stand on original medieval-plan streets.

This is a photo of a wooden framed building in 1900. The building was erected in 1596. The building and street (minus the horse and bowler hats) looks exactly the same today.

So why didn't I actually name it? Well, one reason is that I wanted Breht to fight his way from the river, through the town and to the castle at the other end, and there's a credibility problem with that idea if you look at an actual map of Shrewsbury.

18th Century map of 'Shrowesbury' (posh way of pronouncing it) showing the river loop, castle and medieval streets.

Shrewsbury was built within the horseshoe loop of the River Severn. Breht floats in from the west and navigates the loop. The castle he wants to get to, however, was built at the neck of that loop. Anybody who understands history knows that castles tend to be built by rivers. In ancient times, rivers were the highways of civilisation, so controlling them was important. And in the story, if I had portrayed Shrewsbury as it actually was, Breht would have seen the castle from the river before he got anywhere near the park. And if, by some chance, he happened to miss its significance, then he could have continued to drift downriver until he passed close to the castle on the other side. At the circular church (which is at the southern point of the loop), he learns of a pressing reason to head to that castle. What he should have done then is scampered back down to the river and floated onwards. He'd have got there in minutes.

But that would have made for a pretty short book, and besides, I needed him to fight through the zombie infested town.

Not quite the zombies you were imagining, I'm sure. But still need to be approached with caution.

I could, of course, have just given the town a fictitious name and stolen all the features of Shrewsbury that I wanted to use. But in the end I didn't bother. It was never important to Breht to know the name, and some zombie mayor was hardly going to come out and welcome him to the town, really. So it just became an anonymous slice of English history, festering with zombies and thrown down into his path. And not naming it did give me the liberty to stretch the geography a bit.

They really are ready for a Zombie Apocalypse in Shrewsbury

The real town of Shrewsbury probably began life an an Anglo-Saxon settlement, although historians are not really sure of this, since archaeological evidence for this isn't exactly abundant (meaning, there isn't any). We don't know if the Celts had a settlement there, though there have been attempts to link Celtic language with the town's current name, but to be honest, it's a stretch. The occupying Romans certainly didn't think it all that significant, since they chose to build the city of Viroconium several miles down the river, and the city remained the capital of the region, even after the Romans left in 400AD.

Viroconium itself, however, fell into ruins (and was forgotten and lost for centuries), and the newly arriving Saxons may have chosen to build a settlement and fort at Shrewsbury. We don't really know. What we do know is that after 1066, William The Conqueror built a motte and bailey fort on the site before sallying off to fight the Welsh. Shrewsbury would remain on the frontline of the war between the English and the Welsh for centuries to come, and the border region it guarded would become known as The Marches. It went on to become a successful market town, hosted King Charles I when he was recruiting loyalists to fight Parliament in the Civil War, and was eventually taken by parliamentarian forces.  The town remained notable and well regarded, providing Queen Victoria's empire with famous (for the time) generals and adventurers. And Charles Darwin was born there, though he later left. After the industrial revolution, the town's importance dwindled until, at the end of the 20th Century, it became a largely unknown place - a rural town that you passed on the way to the beaches and mountains of Wales for your holidays. And since I grew up in the industrial East Midlands, and never holidayed in Wales, I'd never heard of it until recently.

So why did I pick Shrewsbury? Well, it has a river link to Wales, and a rail link to Conway Castle, which also features in the story. But the real reason it that it's just an intrinsically interesting location for a zombie apocalypse - at least for me, anyway. As someone with an abiding interest in history, it seemed a shame not to use it as an interesting backdrop to a zombie apocalypse. Most zombie movies that are set in Britain tend to focus on London. Where the survivors are shown outside London, you usually end up in some random rural building that, to be honest, could be anywhere. You would be forgiven for thinking that, outside the well known metropolis, there is nothing worth knowing or exploring in the rest of the country. And indeed, there are a lot of people in Britain who think that way. Anything outside the capital is considered dull, rural or simply unimportant. In zombie books, there's only Frank Tayell's Surviving The Evacuation series that I know of which deals seriously with multiple actual locations in Britain, although the first book in the series, London, does centre on the capital (the clue's in the name, really) to the exclusion of everything else. Actually, I enjoyed reading London, and will probably review it here when I can get round to it. But I digress. Anyway, I think there are tons of fascinating locations for a zombie outbreak, and I intend to cover many different ones in future sequels. I have often been impressed by how US zombie apocalypse writers focus on small towns and cities that nobody outside Hollywood has ever heard of (Charlotte in North Carolina seems to feature in a surprising number of books. Is there a burgeoning zombie industry there?).

So let us return to Shrewsbury, where Breht leaves the river to traverse a zombie ridden park, his gaze set on that strange circular church. The park is actually named The Quarry, which is what it used to be before it was landscaped and made pretty by the Victorians. And the church is St Chad's, which is what it is called in the story.

St Chad's really is a circular church. Originally, the people of the town wanted a normal church shape, but a lack of communication led the architect to create a circular structure, making it unique. I have no idea what kind of error would lead a designer to make a round church when the bishops wanted a rectangular one, but there it is. Maybe alcohol was involved. But the church got built in 1792 and remains in good condition to this day. Charles Darwin was baptised there, and attended services as a child, and the graveyard was used for filming a pivotal scene in A Christmas Carol with George C Scott in 1984. The gravestone shown him by the ghost of Christmas future, with the name Scrooge inscribed, is still there. The film makers got permission to engrave a real gravestone that had been weathered smooth, and then left it there.

Inside, the circular nave is a modest size - this is no cathedral - and the graveyard is fenced and walled, though in the story I've made the fence a little bigger. I think they still perform regular services there (I never checked) but it's open to the public during the day, and worth a visit. You can also see the colours and battle honours of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, which has since been disbanded.

Inside St Chad's. I have no idea who the woman is - she just wandered into shot as I took a slow shutter photo.

The town centre itself is an incongruous mix of old and new, as are most towns and cities in the UK, but the history is more ostentatious here, and much older. Intrepid tourists will find cobbled alleyways and streets nestled away, and even the McDonalds on the main street has a downstairs seating area that dates back a few hundred years, with the wooden beams left uncovered.

The tower of St Chads. I don't have a picture of McDonalds, so be happy with this one.

Shrewsbury library is a magnificent sandstone building built in 1450, but it used to be a private school where Charles Darwin was educated. The wooden benches in the upper rooms still bear the engraved graffiti of pupils from the period. The library that Breht enters in the story, however, bears little resemblance to the way the library looks today. Nor is there a tunnel leading to a church. The library is actually opposite the castle, but I moved it and put the fictitious church there instead - artistic license.

Shrewsbury Library, looking suitably church-like

The castle that is ruined in the story is still intact today, with a military museum housed in the old King's Hall, which is also the keep. It's not a substantial castle - the walls and crenellations are thin compared to other fortresses of the day - but there is a mound and tower that is accessed from the inner bailey. The tower is actually a modern introduction. The original mound raised by William the Conqueror collapsed into the river, and in the 19th Century the mound was rebuilt, and a tower erected, named Laura's Tower, in honour of somebody's wife. It's a folly, rather than a military structure, with a Gothic feel, but the view from its little courtyard is pleasing, and it's a fitting place for Breht's final scene in the town. And okay, in the story it's not close to the river where a castle should be, but you can overlook that, can't you?

Laura's Tower, where it all ends.

Well, you could until I pointed it out to you, but it's going to bug you now, isn't it?

Shrewsbury Castle: known in the story as Salop Castle, which is the only clue I give to its true identity. Salop is an olde English word for Shrewsbury, and the people of Shrewsbury were known as Salopians. After they turned down Henry VIII's offer to be officially recognised as a city, they became known as the Proud Salopians

Sunday 2 October 2016

Apocalyptic Fears lll

Got another opportunity for you. How about ten slick, Post-Apocalypse/Dystopian novels for just 99 cents (or pence)? Well, the acclaimed writer David VanDyke, author of the Plague Wars novels, has put together another collection featuring himself and nine other authors, including the New York Times bestselling author Jack Conner. The box set spans the full gamut of Dystopian fiction, including zombies, alien invasions, wasteland America, urban demons, derelict space craft and steam-punk stories.
This is well worth a look, and I don't know how long it's going to stay at this price. Check it out.

Available on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Friday 30 September 2016

100 free books this weekend!

There's a great new promotion happening this weekend. Over a hundred science fiction and fantasy books being given away for free! From unknowns to bestsellers, this is a fantastic way to discover and try out new authors, and it will cost you nothing, nada, zip.
With so much on offer, there's bound to be at least one book that catches your eye, so add it to your library while you can. Tons of action, mystery, romance and even some box sets, and it's available for Kindle, Nook, Kobo and Apple readers.
Did I mention it was free? Yes, free stuff. Grab. Read. Enjoy.

Check it out here:

Thursday 22 September 2016

UNDEAD UK Locations: Conwy Castle

Imagine, if you will, that you are on the run from zombies. The world has gone to hell, you are with a group of survivors and you need to find a place to hole up. Somewhere defensible, somewhere safe from the clawing hands and the bared, blood covered teeth of the undead hordes. Then you come across a castle.

But not just any castle. Conwy Castle, with its intact walls and towers, and an accompanying town that has its own defensive walls - again, still intact - and one of the few places in Europe that hasn't lost them to the ravages of time.

Nestled in the Welsh hills, on the banks of the River Conwy, the castle and its walled town sits ready to welcome any and all survivors who can get there. Mentioned briefly in Max Brooks' blockbuster novel, World War Z, it's one of the key locations for my novel, Remember Me Dead. It should be an ideal location for a strong group, with military assistance, to begin the fightback against the undead. I mean, what could possibly go wrong with such a fantastic location like that?

I don't want to drop too many spoilers for anyone who hasn't read the book yet, but I will give you a little tour, and some of its history, because it's too awesome not to.

The History Bit

Conwy Castle was built between 1283 and 1289 by King Edward I as part of his campaign to subdue the rebellious Welsh princes. The King was himself besieged by the Welsh at the castle, but the garrison was easily re-supplied by river, the sea being only half a mile away, and the Welsh failed to take the castle. In later centuries the castle was neglected, as was often the case with these fortresses, with repairs and maintenance falling behind the structure's actual needs. In 1401, the castle was taken in a surprise attack by the Welsh, who tricked the night watchmen to let them in. There probably wasn't much of a garrison there, if at all. The invaders were themselves besieged and held out for three months before surrendering. By the 19th Century, the castle was an empty shell, with one of the towers having partially collapsed, and it was considered a romantic place by poets and painters.

The Post-Apocalyptic Bit

There are many reasons for this castle being an ideal place to fortify during a zombie apocalypse, but I did have to take liberties with reality. The castle, for instance, doesn't have a wooden gate, because it probably rotted away over the centuries and was never replaced. But in my story, it does, because it was easier to trying to explain an alternative. I mentioned two bridges across the river, whereas it actually has three: the road bridge, the rail bridge, and a pedestrian suspension bridge that was built by Thomas Telford, with fake towers to match the castle architecture.

The rail line does, however, run right by the castle walls, as detailed in the story.

The interior of the castle is more or less as described, and yes, most of the towers are hollow, their wooden floors now gone.

And the railway line does enter the town through a Victorian-era arch:

You can explore the whole site from the air in google maps (hopefully embedded below), and I'll throw in some more photos I took at the site. I've visited this site three times with my children, and walked all the walls. If I squint hard enough, I can just about picture the light falling at the end of day, and the sigh of the breeze being replaced by the groans of the undead as they make another nightly attempt to break down the gate.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Cultural Appropriation

In the light of the Lionel Shriver controversy, I was reading a post on a writer's forum with increasing disbelief, as a white writer basically begged for advice on how to write black people into her story, because she didn't want to be seen as culturally appropriating black culture. Other writers defended the concept of cultural appropriation, where the dominant white culture is criticised for its audacity to do 'black' things like rapping or wearing corn-rows, and Lionel Shriver has already been criticised for saying there's nothing wrong with a white author creating a story from a black character's perspective. Student Unions in the UK have already hit the headlines for banning sombreros or Native American headdresses at parties, because it's 'offensive', and a blatant example of cultural appropriation, so this kind of thing is all the rage at the moment.

I can't stand this kind of sectarian finger wagging, and the post on the writer's forum made me increasingly angry, so I wrote a rebuttal. Considering the outrage at Lionel Shriver's speech, it probably won't be received well, for you have to watch what you say in society today, but that's just the way it is.

And I don't give a fuck anyway. So here's what I wrote:

Wow. So the experience of a black or brown person is sacrosanct and at risk of being defiled or dishonoured if written about by a white person? Oh dear, I included a Hispanic lesbian in one of my books (¡Dios mio!) before I realised the importance of this whole cultural appropriation thing. Oh my God, I even wrote a whole book where AN ENTIRE SPACE COLONY was Latin American. As a privileged British writer (because I've never suffered from the power structures of the dominant WASP empire in the same way as Mexicans or Venezuelans have) I'll surely burn in hell for that (and it will be a Protestant hell). 
And I was planning to have a black African protagonist in my next book. Such folly! Such breath-taking arrogance! Wow, I should be careful, and tread warily. I should check my privilege. I should understand that I'm not looking at this character as one human to another (what was I thinking!?), but as a member of a colonial elite looking down on a member of a race who have been historically wronged. And I should write in a way so as to atone for, and correct, that wrong. Am I right? 
I need to consult with black African people (black Americans clearly wouldn't understand), and gain some as beta readers. Apparently I even need to find an editor of the same race in order to be doing the right thing. Is there a committee I can apply to for this? 
Clearly the dividing lines between the races are so rigid, and so precious, that I simply should not bother. The boundaries that separate the races of the world should not be transgressed. Perhaps, from now on, I should excise all people of colour from my books, because I can't afford a black, brown, or even slightly off-white editor. Because what business is it of mine to try to portray these people? How arrogant it would be of me to even think that I could depict what these people say or do in a fictional story, because clearly they are not the same as me, and they think differently to me. And act and do things differently to me too. Because they are different. 
And I should stop eating kale immediately. 
But why stop there? The protagonist in my last novel was gay. And in my current work in progress, he's still gay! Have I not learned? How can I possibly know, as a straight person of Celtic descent, what a gay man of Saxon descent feels like? How dare I appropriate that experience for the sordid deed of writing a commercial novel? 
Fortunately, I have not written a female protagonist yet. After listening for years to people saying that male writers need to write more strong female characters into their stories, I was on the verge of doing so. What a mistake that would have been. I would have been guilty of Gender Appropriation (this will be a thing soon, I predict). I guess I learned my lesson just in time. No women in my novels then, except as minor neutral characters, so as not to offend anyone or abuse my male privilege. 
And I think committees need to be set up - one for women, one for LGBT+ people. And one for people of colour (though by the time one is set up, that name will be considered derogatory too, so a new one will be needed). And we writers can send them our works, for a fee (reparation, you understand), to have them vet our fiction so that it's appropriate for right-thinking consumption. 
Maybe a supreme Culture Committee can be set up that can vet or veto any work that fails to meet strict standards (for what is culture without standards). And they can put me in a holding pattern if there's a deficiency in gay, black or women writers that month, so as to ensure crystal clear equality. 
But then, if I wanted to have my every thought or creation monitored and controlled, I'd have stayed at school. So, at the risk of offending (or oppressing) half of the world, I shall continue to write what the hell I like, because it pleases me to. And it's not difficult, because I'm writing about people. And I'm a person too. And as a  fiction writer, I transgress boundaries all the time, because they don't exist for me. And as a brown faced Spanish kid fleeing English racists on his street, I never understood what was so important about creating those boundaries, unless it was just another excuse to hate. 
The whole concept of Cultural Appropriation is racist (or racialist, as it used to be more correctly known). The forced division of humanity by skin colour is racist. The championing and celebration of these divisions is sectarian. Sectarianism (on the rise these days) never united anyone, because sectarianism is designed for conflict, and the people who engage in it are only interested in conflict. 
And I never liked kale anyway.

Friday 2 September 2016

Bargain Books for September

This weekend you get the chance to choose from over a hundred books and authors, thanks to a massive promo by author Patty Jansen. In cooperation with many other authors, she's offering readers the chance to buy science fiction, fantasy and horror books on the cheap, for two days only. So if you fancy a new read, check it out. With so many books to offer, you're bound to find something you'll like.

Grab a bargain here, at Patty's Promos

Wednesday 20 July 2016

Remember Me Dead

The maggots were what he remembered the most. That was easily the most profound recollection Staff Sergeant Breht had of that day, so long ago. The maggots crawling over dead skin. Writhing, chewing, eating. Except the skin they were consuming didn’t belong to a body that was dead, but to a body that refused to die.

Thus begins the first book in my new zombie series, and it's out now! Set in the UK, it's a tale of survival, obsession and, what else? Zombies. Follow Staff Sergeant Breht on a journey no man should have to make.

A wilderness of zombies. A mission gone wrong. A bullet in the chest. These are the things Staff Sergeant Breht remembers, along with the bitter taste of betrayal. Left for dead by the man he trusted with his life, Breht embarks on an odyssey through what’s left of the UK: a land of frightened survivors, deserted castles and bleak streets that echo with the moans of the undead.
But he’s not looking for shelter. He’s looking for revenge.

 For the next two weeks, it will be available for just 99c on Amazon and Amazon UK, with forthcoming releases on Apple iTunes, Barnes and Noble's Nook, and Kobo.

Friday 29 April 2016

The Science Fiction May Day Bundle

Do you want five science fiction books for just $5? Of course you do. Do you want 10 books for just $9? Well, it's a no-brainer. Bundle Rabbit are giving away bundles of books at cheap prices, and Callisto: Dead Colony is one of them. Check them all out at Bundle Rabbit for your chance to expand your book shelves on the cheap! Sale begins on the 1st May and ends 14th May.

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Dystopia beckons

Nobody's supposed to like dystopia. The very idea of wrack and ruin is meant to have negative connotations. Chaos and destruction are things we should be avoiding. It's not meant to be beautiful. Yet the imagery and the art of it draws many, myself included.

Dystopia is like a Great White Shark. No one wants to get in the water with one, but from a safe distance, they look awesome.

Maybe it's because we live in a safe society, with rules and limits. Maybe, from our safe zone, destruction and chaos holds a grim fascination. Maybe we are drawn to opposites, the way we are drawn to read horror, for instance. Or war.

People read, watch or play fantasies. So it's strange that dystopia should be one of them. Maybe nihilism runs deep through the human psyche.

In the 19th Century, it was very fashionable for wealthy English lords and ladies to travel to Venice. Britain was then at the height of its power, with an empire that spanned the world, while Venice was the home of a former power that had fallen on hard times, and had been in decline for centuries. There's a brilliant piece in Susanna Clarke's book Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, where the opinions of the privileged visitors are satirised:
They thought the façades of the houses very magnificent - they could not praise them highly enough. But the sad decay, which buildings, bridges and church all displayed, seemed to charm them even more. They were Englishmen and, to them, the decline of other nations was the most natural thing in the world... they would not have been at all surprized to learn that the Venetians themselves had been entirely ignorant of the merits of their own city - until Englishmen had come to tell them it was delightful.
The century before, people had been fascinated by the ruins of the Roman Empire. In the century after, people became fascinated by the ruins of the Egyptian Empire. It seems natural now to consider their remnants as tourist attractions, but not that long ago, the local people simply saw historical ruins as junk.

In Britain, peasant farmers and landowners alike pillaged and destroyed the remains of Roman bathhouses and villas. Hill forts were ploughed over and medieval castles were dismantled for stone. In Shrewsbury, Thomas Telford, the renowned civil engineer of the Industrial Revolution, drove a road straight through a wing of Shrewsbury Abbey without really worrying about its structure. Vast swathes of history were lost in this way before preservation orders came into being to protect them.

The Industrial Revolution's own history turned to trash in the area we now know as Ironbridge Gorge. For decades the area was just known for its slag heaps and overgrown ruins, and it was considered an eyesore and a dump. Then they built the new town of Telford (ironies abound) nearby and set about clearing away the growth and turning the ruins into another tourist attraction.

Maybe it's nostalgia rather than nihilism that elicits our fascination with ruins. Modernists certainly thought so, and they had no time for looking backwards when they preferred to look forwards. Science Fiction used to be modernist, with its depictions of fantastic future societies, new ways of living and even new ways of being. People say Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was probably the first true science fiction novel, but the Positivist trend of science fiction at the height of its glory in the sixties and seventies actually reaches further back than Mary Shelley - right back indeed to the 16th Century novel Utopia, by Thomas More. Utopia is the opposite of dystopia, and science fiction ran with this, driven by the Enlightenment belief in Man´s ability to improve itself.

Which is also ironic, since Utopia, like the writings of the philosopher Rousseau that followed two centuries later, is actually a throwback to some Arcadian past that never happened. But I digress.

Mary Shelley's novel runs counter to the humanist, positivist beliefs that underpinned much of science fiction, and drops a dystopian stone into the utopian well, listening to its echoes. Her novel explored the folly of Man tinkering with technology, and life itself. In Christian myth, it was God who created life. Shelley wanted to show what happened when Man usurped God.

Mary Shelley was the opposite of a Humanist. She was a Romantic, which was a loose title for a group of poets and philosophers who were sceptical of the Humanist power of reason, or of Man's power over nature or destiny. Humanism gave us Hitler and Stalin. Romanticism gave us hippies and Environmentalism. Western society has always been a curious mixture of these two opposing strands.

If it was Humanism that gave us science fiction's galactic empires and experimental space societies, then it was Romanticism that gave us the Post-Apocalypse. And Zombies.

It was Mary Shelley's husband, Percy Shelley, who wrote Ozymandias, which tells us of a fictional traveller who discovered the remnants of a stone statue alone in the desert:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Ruins are thus a powerful way of reminding us of our own mortality, and of the fragility of civilisation. And if that's a Romantic thought, then maybe I'm a Romantic. I'm fascinated by the fall and decline of societies, including the one I'm living in. I'm drawn to ruins and the stories they can no longer tell.

Outside Dover, a series of underground forts lie in decay. Built during the Napoleonic Wars by French prisoners-of-war, they were abandoned and left to rot. I had the chance to explore some of the tunnels, and to me they were as magisterial and mysterious as cathedrals.

If they had been properly lit, repaired and turned into a museum, I wouldn't have been as awed as I was the day I felt my way along the spooky, echoing tunnels. I've always been drawn to the illicit exploration of truly abandoned places, untouched by civilised attempts to preserve or gentrify them. I once read an article about a man living near the Normandy beaches in France, who collected the rusted carcasses of tanks, some dragged up from the sea, and displayed them at his home near the beach. I would have loved to explore their deteriorated, and still deteriorating, remains. By contrast, I once visited a tank museum where many remnants from the war had been cleaned up, repainted and displayed for visitors to see. It was a boring experience (and I love tanks), as the vehicles on display seemed artificial and ripped from their actual context. They were like models. So for me, it's not just historical nostalgia. The raw unsanitised feel of history, the sense of something once real that was now lost, is almost a spiritual experience for me. This is how I've felt when I've walked through the wooded remains of hill forts, feeling the presence of the Celts who once dwelt there. This is what I felt when I explored old airfields, imagining the Spitfires on the runway, and the maintenance crews in the ruined workshops, having a cigarette as they waited for the planes to return. It was what I felt walking through the deeply worn paths of a medieval quarry, in the footsteps of the masons on their way to work.

Imagination plays a large part in this fascination, I suppose, and I prefer to imagine the history myself, rather than have someone do it in a museum with plaques and dummies. Maybe that's why I'm a writer, rather than a curator of antiquities.

Dystopia has carved out a large swathe for itself in fiction today, with post-apocalypse wastelands and nuclear or biological catastrophe delighting millions. One of my favourite games of all time is the Fallout series, set after a nuclear war, where you explore the devastated wastelands, encountering mutated creatures and ghouls, and embarking on quests among the surviving settlers. If I didn't have a life, I'd probably spend way too much time in those wastelands, checking out spooky places and picking over the remnants of modern society. As it is, it's addictive enough, and the game's designers understand well the attraction of exploring decay, so I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. In real life, there's a whole bunch of people who call themselves Urban Explorers, addicted to the exploration of abandoned buildings, ships and tunnels.

What makes decay beautiful? I don't know. Maybe it's the setting: the solitude of being alone in a place that you know was once busy. Maybe it's a fascination with seeing the effect of time itself, which reminds us that everything is in constant flux and that nothing, not even us, is forever.

Monday 11 January 2016

Oh Benedict, where art thou?

1.1 million migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, most of them young men, entered Germany last year. Those who said taking on so many was not a good idea were called heartless or racist. Twelve days ago, hundreds of women in Cologne were harassed, sexually assaulted and robbed by gangs of those same migrants.

Benedict Cumberbatch, renowned actor and amateur activist, had much to say about the former fact, but has so far been silent on the latter fact. As have many of his ideological travellers.

Where art thou, Benedict? Why the long face?

Is it ominous realisation that you see before you?

New Orbit

I think this is the fifth attempt at the cover for this book, and I can safely say this is the one I prefer the most. So much so, that it may be my last attempt. For a good while, at least. I've always struggled to get the cover right for this book - and indeed, the blurb - as it's such a varied and involved story. At over three hundred pages, it's my longest story too, and there's a lot of stuff going on in it, plus a lot of characters. For this reason, I think, I found it difficult to summarise, in either word or picture form, for the reader. Should I include the gang warfare, the space piracy or the Yucatan solar system empire? Should I mention Crisi the idealistic ex-cop, Pulia the rebel dance teacher or Nilés the amoral business junkie? Or Kagame, the hapless ship's doctor? Or, or.... all the other stuff. It was hard sometimes to just nail the book's description down on one definition, and, of course, as a rookie writer, I tried to include everything, thinking that was what I was meant to do.

To do anything less felt like I wasn't doing justice to the book.

And when it came to the cover, I tried to be too clever. Not for me the standard 'spaceship over a planet' sci-fi cover. Oh no, I had to do better than that.

But sometimes it's better to just drop the fancy pretensions and go with something simple.

There's a lesson there, I'm sure. And actually, the cover does include another aspect of the book, which in this case is the arrival of the triple rail freighter, the Costaguana, which acts as a fatal catalyst for most of the plot.

But aside from all that, I just think it looks good. And with that I'll close Photoshop before I'm tempted to tinker with it some more. Enough already, this is the new cover, and it's staying that way.