I was excited to take delivery of #9 of Tales from the Magician’s Skull yesterday. It contains my story, ‘The Glass Dragon’ – in the final slot no less!
There’s a lot to like about Magician’s Skull. It’s a large-format print magazine, each issue is a lovely production, with every story illustrated. And for gamers one or two of the creatures in each tale are worked up as playable monsters. From my story there are glass worms, and the fearsome muck hag – my version of Jenny Greenteeth.
Magician’s Skull has a witty vibe to it – you can tell it’s made with deep affection for the genre (S&S). In a world of genre small press filled with nice people the editor, Howard Andrew Jones, is one of the nicest. He has been hugely supportive of my writing, encouraging me every step of the way.
If you do read the magazine and enjoy my story, you should know there is a sequel. Part two of ‘The Glass Dragon’ is set to appear in forthcoming edition. This is another first for me, and I could not be happier.
Earlier this month we went to Milford SFF Conference in Nantle, North Wales – a week of critiques, writing, hanging out with other writers, and cake. Trigonos, the place we stayed, nestled in the foothills of Snowdonia, is determined we need never go more than three hours without something to eat. Vis:
8 am -Breakfast
11 am – Tea and biscuits
1 pm – Lunch
4 pm – Tea and cake
7 pm – Supper
This year Milford felt special. Perhaps it was because it was my first real big step outside of my lockdown life since Covid and my own illness, but I think the real reason was the company. Of the fourteen people, I already knew some beforehand, Liz, Jim, Dolly, and Jacey, and it was wonderful to see them again after a few years away. There were new people too, including visitors from the USA, and Nigeria. The week passed quickly, I was free to write in the mornings, the critiques took up the afternoons and could be tiring. In the evening we chewed the fat, relaxed, and told stories. Some of them were true. Good days, well-spent.
Everyone has a degree of writing experience (it’s one of the entry rules for Milford that you should have had at least one piece published), and this year the work everyone brought was good and interesting, rich with thought and imagination. That’s not to say everything was perfect. Every piece critiqued was a work in progress, the author often having explicit concerns about plot, pace, character, tension, and so on, or sometimes because they had pushed themselves boldly into unfamiliar writing territory and worried whether it simply worked at all. Everyone was committed to their craft, wanting to improve, open to advice and suggestions, and free with their own ideas.
As always, I came away wanting more, and also re-energised. That energy is consistently Milford’s final gift. On that last day I was sorry to leave, and also glad to head home. There was much I wanted, and needed, to do.
One thing about going away is that it lets you look on your own life from a distance. It occurred to me after I had been home for a few days that life is a multitude of journeys, all happening at once, all taking you along different paths, different directions. Maybe each of those paths is a story, but I haven’t properly thought that idea through. Some of those journeys are our own choice, with others we have little control.
I liked the idea of me out on all those journeys, it felt quite pleasing.
I decided I would no longer be scared of the future.
Each year the British Fantasy Society (BFS) runs an open competition for short stories. Judging is anonymized, which I really like. The SFF community is not small but it is friendly. Conventions pretty much guarantee most people know most people.
To my delight my story And into the Tunnel, the Train placed first. I was, and still am, over the moon about this.
I was especially pleased because And into the Tunnel is such a personal story. I’ve had a lot of life news to process over the past couple of years, and one of the ways I found myself doing this was through my writing. I wrote a second, very different story obliquely around all this and am very happy that one has found a home too.
I won the BFS short story competition back in 2016 with ‘Warm Gun’ so, as I told the judges, it’s time for me to retire and sit on my laurels for this competition.
Like Warm Gun, you’ll be able to read And into the Tunnel in ‘Horizons’, the BFS magazine of fiction, poetry, and art.
(Just to be clear, this competition runs alongside the main BFS Awards for best fantasy and horror novels, best novella, collection, anthology, short story, and much more.)
My congratulations to all the winners of the BFS Awards, and to the writers who placed second and third in the competition (I don’t know who you are yet, forgive me!). Their work will appear in ‘Horizons’ too.
Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light is one of my favourite SFF novels and, I would argue, one of the all-time-great SFF novels. This is a hill I’d happily die on, at least over a couple of beers with fellow readers and writers.
Anyway,, this following, quoting heavily from Wikipedia, may be common knowledge, but it did slightly blow my tiny mind. Here we go:
“In 1979 it was announced that Lord of Light would be made into a 50 million dollar film. It was planned that the sets for the movie would be made permanent and become the core of a science fiction theme park to be built in Aurora, Colorado. Comic book artist Jack Kirby was contracted to produce artwork for set design. However, due to legal problems the project was never completed”
So far, so bonkers. A science fiction theme park? What’s not to like. Then we get to the good bit:
“Parts of the unmade film project—the script and Kirby’s set designs—were subsequently acquired by the CIA as cover for the “Canadian Caper“: the exfiltration of six US diplomatic staff trapped by the Iranian hostage crisis (in Tehran but outside the embassy compound). The rescue team pretended to be scouting a location in Iran for shooting a Hollywood film from the script, which they had renamed Argo.The story of the rescue effort was later adapted into the 2012 film Argo.”
Of course they did! You could not make this up. Truth is always stranger than fiction.
22 Ideas About the Future is a collection of short stories from Cybersalon that “focuses on four main areas of rapid change: money, communities and identity, health and food, and retail and the reshaping of our high streets”.
My short story, Low Down on the High Street, is, as you might guess from the title, is one take on the ongoing and continuous reshaping of our high streets.
You can order 22 Ideas About the Future right now. This very minute. Immediatemant! As the editors say, “Be prepared for warnings and inspirations from those who speculate about the future and those who make it a reality.”
The hardest thing for me at the moment is dealing with frustrations of brain fog and tiredness. It comes in waves. More specifically, it comes in a twelve-week cycle based around my Goserelin (Zoladex) injection. I’ve been having this treatment long enough now to expect the two weeks after injection to be low energy and low achievement. I don’t have to like it, but it is a side-effect, and what I do like is that this, and my other, daily, medication, are what are keeping me alive.
Diagnosed with advanced, early-onset aggressive prostate cancer in December 2020, I seriously doubt I would be here today without these miraculous, if frustrating, medicines.
And thank you, NHS, for simply existing, for giving me the fast and comprehensive diagnosis and treatment and ongoing care all for free when I needed it. Never have I been happier to be a tax-payer. The NHS is a marvel, a national treasure, it cannot be restated often or loud enough. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I still don’t have to like it, but I know that like all things, this too shall pass. I’ll get my energy back and keep (most of) it as long as I don’t push it too hard. Reader, some days I do push it too hard. I don’t care, on those days I feel normal and that is a fine thing. By the end of the twelve weeks I’m mostly full of beans most days. Then along comes the next injection and switches it all off again.
My life has become more bounded in several ways, I simply can’t do some of the things I’d like to. I’d like to go LARPing (Live-Action Role-Play). My bones are weakened by these drugs, a fall, a blow, and I could fracture a vertebrae or some other major bone. Then I’m in a wheel chair, then I can’t exercise to keep strong, then it’s downhill from there on. There are ways round this, but It’s also a toss of a coin whether the effort of getting to an event, or back, will simply be too exhausting.
The problem with accepting these bounds is they slowly shrink unless you push back, and that takes energy, and energy, yadda, yadda, yadda.
That said, I’ve grown used to my simpler, smaller life. Not only do I accept it, I quite like it. We garden, I read, I write, we go for walks. At some point I hope to get back to leathercrafts. That’s parked for now, the idea of running a shop and making to order became too much. I’m doing some simple things here and there, just for myself. Asymmetric mouse-mats anybody?
The garden, writing, my friends and family, I feel lucky, and most privileged, that I can live a life like this, and spend my days with my lovely wife. She really is the best.
I didn’t have to work, so I stopped. It was absolutely the right decision and I’m fortunate that I could make it. I’ve always felt I was lucky where it really mattered, and still do.
And I work hard to keep well. Exercise is essential for health, physical and mental. It’s true when you’re well, and even more so for me now. Weights, walking, the rowing machine, all anchored around a weekly class run by the brilliant Emily and Chris at The Exercise Clinic.
I’m still quite productive as a writer, with a lot of short stories done, and some of them sold. This work is, I think, some of the best I’ve ever done. The best. I don’t know why or how this is, and I don’t really recommend it as a method, but somehow going through all this has made me a better writer. Every cloud.
I’m sorry if I’ve written about some of this before. The hardest thing for me at the moment is dealing with frustrations of brain fog and tiredness. It comes in waves.
1. Anyone who disagrees with this can kindly go poke it. Fuck off. ↩
So far it’s been a curate’s egg of a year. In the good news, my short story writing is going well. I’ve had some good sales, including Down and Out Under the Tannhauser Gate to ParSec magazine, which was then been selected for reprint in The Best of British SF 2021. Not only is this delightfully exciting, it’s the second year in a row this has happened. (The first time was for The Savages, published by Unsung Stories.) Just to get one story in an annual ‘Best of’ anthology was a huge lift to my confidence, a second one is kind of immense. I have no expectations of doing this a third time, but you never know.
I also have four, possibly five, stories accepted that I can’t talk about just yet. The reason for that is the same in each case – the publisher wants to give their anthology or magazine issue the best chance and use the publicity from us over-excited writers to good advantage when they are ready to announce the table of contents. What I can say is that three of the stories are UK publications, and the other two are to the same magazine in the USA. I don’t mind, it’s not as if these are secrets that can never be told. Watch this space.
On the other hand, my novels go nowhere, nobody seems interested. So it goes. This isn’t anything new. I keep trying to find an agent who likes my work, and submit to publishers that take direct submissions. Maybe my timing’s off, maybe my style isn’t what is wanted today, or maybe – and I think all writers need to ask themselves this question – they aren’t quite good enough. Of course, when I say this last out loud my wife grabs my collar in a two-fisted grip and tells me not to be so stupid.
I gave up the day job just over a year ago and have not regretted it for a single moment. It needed to be done, the time was right, the doctors told me I had, as best as they could tell, five years to live.
I think my writing has improved. I feel I’m just telling better stories in better ways. And here’s one of the great forever unknowns – would this have happened if I hadn’t had that advanced prostate cancer diagnosis. Once I’d begun to adjust to the new prospects in my life I wrote a couple of stories, in my own oblique way, about trying to process this news. I sold one of them too. Overall, I can’t help but feel there is a connection, but I can’t describe it.
That day job had to go. These days I marvel how I ever had the energy (hormone deprivation therapy does that to you). My leathercrafting has gone the same way, though I’m hoping this is temporary, but it’s turning into a long break. Running a successful little Etsy shop was feeling more and more like a burden than a pleasure. When I closed it to go on holiday for a couple of weeks I didn’t open it again, and this too felt like the right thing to do. I’d like to make a few beautiful or practical things at my own pace, and the fact I’m still thinking about this, about design and materials and finishes is, I think, a good sign I’ll come back to it.
Two months ago, my lovely daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. She acted on instinct, it was caught early and there’s no spread. Now she’s on chemo and she’s going through a treatment program far more intense than mine, with all the nausea, stress, hair loss and more that entails. I tell you, it’s bad enough having cancer yourself, but dealing with this at the same time. Man, it ain’t easy.
She’s going to get better. A year, and her oncologist says she be through this. I am pretty certain doctors don’t say these things unless they mean them.
My days usually begin with writing. An hour, two hours, maybe a little more. It all depends on how much energy and focus I have, and if I don’t do it then it’s unlikely I will at all. I exercise, quite hard and quite often. There’s increasing clinical evidence this extends cancer survival time and I’m motivated. And I garden.
The garden is beautiful. Truly, the more you put into a garden the more you get back. Nature will reward you ten times over for everything you do. I find so much pleasure in working in a garden humming with bees, butterflies, hoverflies, and the occasional dragonfly and incredible iridescent rose-chafer beetle, birds, and more. And there is nothing like food straight form the plant onto your plate. Nature is timeless. Lost in the moment, I am more than happy, I am content.
This Saturday I’ve an MRI scan, it’s not my first, the scan is no big deal, half an hour in a very clean room inside a very hi-tech and noisy machine. It sounds like an AI’s first attempt at Industrial Metal. I’m not going to stress about the scan, but I am about the result because it’s to see how well my meds are holding the cancer at bay. Is it still spreading? Has it been pushed back? What can I expect for the rest of the year?
I’ve been looking after myself well, better than in years. Food, exercise, and sleep. I feel well, I feel in good form, I hope this translates into a good outcome from the scan. What are my chances? Toss a coin.
Today the sun shines. Life is good, my daughter is going to get better.
Now you will feel no rain, for you will be shelter to each other.
Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other.
Now there is no more loneliness, for each of you will be companion to the other
Now you are two bodies, but there is only one life before you.
Love is less about gazing into one another’s eyes,
Than standing shoulder to shoulder and looking in the same direction.
Soon you will go to your home to begin the days of your togetherness.
May your days be good, and carefree, and joyous upon the earth.
Is this a Christmas Missive? It’s long enough, but I don’t do Christmas Missives. A catch-up then, and a long one. It’s been a year, and I’m still around, triple-jabbed, writing, doing leather crafts, not doing enough gardening, and playing too much Warcraft.
One year on and in some ways I’m stronger and fitter than I have been for a long time. I’m running twice a week (rather gently and short distances), doing strength exercises with or without weights two or three times, mixed with aerobic exercise, stretches, and a little yoga. And I’ve lost weight, about 9-10 kilos, Peak Dave is in my past. I’m becoming the living definition of the difference between being healthy and well.
2021 has been the strangest, most terrible year, we all know that. If I am allowed to push the definition of a year back to December 2020 then I can safely say for me it has been my personal, solipsistic, best of times and worst of times. Yes, the past year has all been about me.
On Saturday, October 9th Gaie and I were married. This was something we’d planned since the summer of 2018 when, so nervous I didn’t actually ask her on the day I’d planned, I asked her and gave her a sapphire and diamond ring and she said yes. We were in Cornwall, on our favourite beach, between the cliffs and the ocean, sand under my knee, gulls wheeling above. A stranger heard us and as we walked past she grinned like mad and pretended to be reading her book. Whoever you are, middle-aged lady, bless you.
Our own natural inertia to start even the best things we want to do took over, followed by Covid-19, followed by fucking advanced fucking stage III fucking prostate cancer. One day early November 2020 I decided that the long slow decline in the strength of my stream of piss might be more than just middle age turning to old and had it checked out. I went to the GP and had the digital examination. It sounds slightly computerised, but it’s not, it’s a finger. I learned that my prostate, while enlarged, and somewhat hard, was not lumpy, and probably was not too much to worry about.
Two weeks later I was pissing blood. The day after that I was having my first scan.
I’ve learned a few things this year. One of the most important is that the NHS is beautiful, wonderful, amazing, magnificent. I knew this anyway, but to become the focus of its attention, while being emotionally and physically exhausting, and intensely distressful, was a wonder to behold.
Withing three weeks I had an MRI scan, a PET scan, an NMR scan, a thing I can’t remember the name of just now but involves a camera and your bladder – no, just remembered, it’s a cystoscopy – and a biopsy under general anaesthetic. And a diagnosis (see below).
And prognosis: Five years.
Men, get a digital examination, and get one early. If, for no other reason than to avoid having a cystoscopy. There’s only one straightforward way to look around inside your bladder and that is sliding a camera through your urethra. The NHS web site describes this as a thin camera. Maybe it is, maybe my own concept of ‘thin’ is off, but it felt like it had the girth of a telegraph pole.
Anyway, I got to see the inside of my own bladder. I don’t have bladder cancer (major, if transient win). What I do have is advanced stage III prostate cancer, otherwise known as metastasing prostate cancer, which has spread to my lymph nodes and my bones. Mean life expectancy: five years. I came home that day an, with difficulty, told Gaie. We just hugged each other and cried.
It has, I think, taken me entirely this long to process, having now passed the first anniversary of that diagnosis. I’ve always found those first anniversaries to be important. It feels like there is a calendar in my head, one that says ‘A year ago something terrible happened and you felt terrible. Feel terrible now.’ I’ve learned to hate that calendar, and also come to realise that as we go through life more and more bad memories get added to it. To hell with that calendar. Put it in the trunk labelled “Not Needed on Voyage”, then burn it and cast the ashes to the four winds.
Every morning I take my rather expensive drugs with a little ritual.
I take pill the first.
I take pill the second.
“Is not the day,”
I take pill the third.
“I shall die.”
I take pill the fourth.
On Fridays there is an extra pill, and I can’t have my morning cup of tea for thirty minutes. Oh, the Humanity.
On October 9th Gaie and I were married. A small ceremony at the local register office, with all the immediate family who could make it, likewise those of our best friends. Our wedding car was a white Ford Zodiac, owned and driven by Ed, who lives just down the road and who I have known since we were eleven. My three amazing children agreed to be part of the ritual as witness, reader of the blessing, and ring bearer. Our good friend Luke made the rings.
That day was one of the best, the happiest, most joyous days of our lives. We filled the house with flowers, with all those people we loved, with children. I bought way too much food. We drank champagne like it was going out of fashion. Tired but happy did not cover it. There are few days in a life that are just nothing but joy.
I love being married. It changes nothing, it changes everything. Gaie has been there for me for a long time, we were going through the thick and thin of it before marriage. Some days we still laugh like children, others it all becomes just too much, mostly we just get on with living. This past week, with multiple trips to the hospital was one of those stressful, horrible, weeks. It’s knocked Christmas into a cocked hat. Sorry. All is well, we carry on.
Over the year I’ve learned, or been reminded of, a few important things.
We are surrounded by love and care and affection. Friends, family, neighbours, I cannot over state just how much your words and deeds helped me through some of the darkest days of my life. Thank you.
Have a hug with the one you love every day. A long, quiet, close hug. Let the time pass until it’s gone.
Celebrate small things in a big way.
Accept the reality. Accept energy is in finite supply and you can only achieve so much in a day.
Emotions are there for a reason.
I do not want another cystoscopy, thank you very much. Not ever.
Up above the clouds the sun is always shining.
Having one more good, spectacularly happy, glorious and perfect day. That might, in the end, be enough.
There are still many things I don’t understand. One of them is why, when one in eight men in the UK will be diagnosed with prostate cancer – and one in four black men – is there still no preventative screening?
So there you have it. Like I said, pretty much all about me, (except not because everyone around us has shared the joy and agony of this year and who really knows where one person ends and another begins). I don’t really like being the center of attention because I don’t think a good life is all about you, it’s about what you do, and how you behave, and I’m no more important than anyone else. And all this, all this grand and dreadful stuff, it’s just life.
Anyway, it’s Christmas, and these missives are meant to end with Christmas messages, so here’s mine:
Men, let a doctor stick a finger up your bum. It could save your life.
Peace on earth, goodwill to all.
Take it easy.
 Friends in the USA, if you don’t understand how the British National Health Service works understand this: we pay our taxes and then our health care is free. All my treatment was, is, and will be free. From that first GP visit, to hospital referral, all of those tests and scans, and indeed my ongoing drug treatment and other care. Free.
When I reached home after seeing the Denis Villeneuve directed Dune I tweeted:
It was OK
I could go on.
Reader, I’ve decided to go on.
If you’ve not yet seen the film at this point you may decide not to read further, that’s fine.
I saw the film with my wife and we talked about the film all the way home, we talked about it in the evening, and more the next day. By that measure the film is a great success, and also by the measure of spectacle. Visually the film is grand, almost magnificent. Maybe not quite as magnificent as his Bladerunner 2049 because while it provided epic, sweeping landscapes, titanic vistas, and monstrous scale it was, in the end, very much what I was expecting from a film called Dune.
That’s no big deal. The film provides what it is supposed to provide in this respect, but elsewhere, for me, did it live up to those expectations? Not really.
Every actor felt as if they were, to the limit the direction allowed, deep into their character. Much to my surprise, Jason Momoa, hardly my favourite actor, did what I didn’t expect and gave me a nuanced and empathic performance. Josh Brolin, an actor I like, once again didn’t have the space to stretch and show himself and show his qualities, Dave Bautista was suitably, and entertainingly pantomime horrid.
But what was this story really about? Two enormously powerful, rich, and martial families fight for ascendancy over one another to gain more power and riches while exploiting an impoverished nation, one slightly less so than the other. And then there’s the white saviour thing. Hmm.
Despite its grand sweep, these are the fundamental limits of the story, but that’s all right, because the pleasure of the story is in the telling, and a good story teller will hook you with a detail here, a word there, reel you in, let you see the traps of wealth and power, in what is essentially a feudal society, that a good person can inextricably find themselves in.
Villeneuve’s Dune doesn’t do that. The Atreides seem by turns amazed and bemused that their sworn foes would leave them next to nothing to work with and fulfil their duties to the Emperor – to harvest the spice vital to keep the vast, space-faring empire running. ‘I’s are dotted and ‘T’s are crossed, the story unfolds, and it’s engaging, with moments of real drama, and, less often, true wonder.
Despite all this every character lacks profundity and emotional depth and I found myself engaging with the supporting cast such as Momoa, Brolin, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster, who plays the ecologist Liet-Kynes, rather than the leads. They do far more with less in a film that is emotionally cold from the universally brutalist architecture to the limited emotions each character expresses.
That said, I can’t criticise the actors or the acting, this is Villeneuve’s film through and through. Timothée Chalamet is an engaging, competent chip off the old block, keen to play his part as scion of House Atreides in his enthusiastically gamine way. And Duke Leto? As with so much here you cannot but help draw comparisons with David Lynch’s 1984 film. These two Duke Letos could have been separated at birth, from personality to beard, and Lynch got there first.
This, for me, was a major problem, because so much of this well-acted, visually engaging but ultimately unsatisfying film felt like a retread. For all its faults, Lynch’s film had a passion, humour, and grandeur that Villeneuve’s film somehow lacks, and pushed through the equivocal basic story with more flair.
When epic SF and Fantasy works well on the screen it can be astonishing. After seeing the first of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy my feet barely touched the ground; Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers blew my mind with sheer scale. Partly it was the story, the story in both of these films is one of existential struggle: lose and all is lost. And while Jackson beautifully and brilliantly stayed close to the mood and tone of Tolkien’s books, Verhoeven did something different and made a wry, clever, cynical and observant film that was all about Heinlein’s book and yet at the same time not.
My first thoughts on leaving the cinema was that Villeneuve, for all the spectacle, entertainment, and good acting of his film had, in the end, brought very little new to the party. One of the great gifts, and sometimes great flaws, of cinema, is the freedom to reimagine the source material into something else. To stay true to it but change perspective. Shakespeare’s plays have by turns both suffered and enjoyed this for centuries. This didn’t happen here.
Another thought was would I go to the cinema and see part two? After seeing The Fellowship of The Ring is seemed somehow cruel that I now had to wait a whole year to see the next film, but it was exciting to wait too. Dune part two, meh, we’ll see. Maybe.
My wife said she’d like to see Dune told from the point of view of the Fremen, how they approach the replacement of one oppressor by another, their lives and ambitions. The story of Dune as told by the people of Dune. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. That is a revisionist, alternative Dune I would pay to see.