The First Story I Ever Wrote

Twenty-seven years ago I was thirty-five years old, with a young family of three children. It was 1993 and I had just been made redundant for the second time. Each morning I went through the adverts for jobs and applied for the suitable ones. I was (and still am) an experienced VMS Operating System admin, and in those days there was work to be found.

Twenty-seven years ago jobs were still advertised in print magazines, even local newspapers. I had a chunky old Windows 3.1 386 computer, and a dot-matrix printer, printing on micro-perforated fan-fold paper. Did I have an internet connection at home? I honestly cannot remember. I don’t think so, but a new search engine called AltaVista was a revelation at my next job

I was a regular user of the local library (remember when those wonderful places were in almost every town?). On one visit I saw an advert for a writing competition run by the Adult Education college in nearby Richmond. Effectively, the brief was to write a short story on any subject. First prize was, I think, £30.00, the word limit around 2,000.

I applied for job in the mornings and my afternoons were pretty empty. I’d always wanted to write, I was out of work. This, I thought, was a good opportunity. So I sat down and wrote 2020 Vision, a story about life in the year 2020. You can read it here.

The new year reminded me about this story and after many, many years, I hesitantly read it again. To my relief it wasn’t that bad. A first effort, an apprentice piece. What was more interesting was to look at what I had got right, or wrong in my predictions.

The short answer is quite a lot!

Wrong!

I might have been right about the increasingly difficulty of getting state aid by people who need it, but failed to imagine the sheer hostility of the present system. My future dystopia feels cosy compared to reality.

While I was wrong about the spread of specific drug-resistant infections, I had the general trend right. That wasn’t hard because even back in the 90s there was serious concern about the spread of drug resistance. And I was semi-right about the difficulty funding research into ‘Third-World’ diseases in a profits-based pharma culture. Wrong also about compulsory treatment. This is probably a good thing.

I was completely wrong about cybernetic body enhancements. They never happened. I and many of my geeky, techy, ShadowRun-playing friends were in love with the idea, as well as William Gibson’s Neuromancer vision of the future. Right now I’m unconvinced it will ever happen and problems of tech obsolescence aren’t going to go away.

While I feel I came quite close predicting high personal debt from university fees, that was simply a case of turning what was already there up to 11. It seemed pretty obvious.

Not Even Close!

I didn’t even mention HIV. I don’t know why, it was a big deal and high on government agendas and in the news. It’s still with us and while there’s disagreement, some believe its elimination within a decade is possible. Let’s hope so.

No doubt you can think of plenty more mistakes and omissions, but the big, bigger, biggest thing I totally missed was climate change. It was there but it had no real priority in either mine or the general consciousness as being anything more than ‘something that needs to be dealt at some point’. This, I think, is a real failure of imagination on my part as a writer of science fiction. But this was my first story, so give me a break.

Right!

I was nearly right about gene therapy fixing inherited diseases. I trained as a biologist, life and the processes of life still fascinate me. The other sciences are interesting but biology and especially genetic research is where it’s at. (As a total aside, how’s this for brilliant?)Back in the 90s this was all so far under the radar it was underground and even today the wider population seems unaware of just what a revolution is coming. A little slower that I’d hoped but it is just about here and few people have noticed.

I was right about the garage science bit too. Basic CRISPR gene editing can be done by anyone, by smart children, by you and me. It doesn’t need much equipment and costs are plummeting. Regulating this will be a challenge, but it’s one of the new sciences that holds enormous promise and hope, and it’s coming to your neighbourhood soon. To your street, your house. You. Puma claws for everyone, I tell you. Everyone.

Fin.

P.S. 2020 Vision won that competition. I signed up for a term of classes at the college and the class went on to form my first writing group. Looking back, I think much credit goes to the judges for even considering an SF story in a general competition. 18 months later I sold my first story to Trevor Denyer’s Broadsword magazine.

Writer not rich enough for a bursary.

Note: This is essentially the same as a recent Twitter thread I’ve posted. I decided to blog about it too because not everyone uses Twitter and it’s easier to cross-post from here to places like FB. Also, because I am incensed.

Briefly, some background: I am the current Chair of the Milford SF Writers conference, an annual, week-long event for critique & discussion. We’ve run in the UK since 1972.

Since 2017, thanks to the generosity of individuals and two EasterCon committees, we have been able to offer bursaries to BAME writers around the world, and currently are funded for a few more. We’ve always been pleased to offer two bursaries a year.

To date, as well as UK writers, this has allowed SF&F writers from Nigeria, Netherlands, and USA to attend Milford. Not this year.

For 2019 we were again delighted to be able to fill both places. Except – annoyingly, frustratingly, infuriatingly, one must now fall vacant. Because UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) have rejected their visa application on the grounds of ‘financial capacity’.

One committee member is highly experienced in the problems the Hostile Environment policy causes musicians seeking visas, and has seen the refusal letter. It says there is no room for appeal, and in their experience it means exactly that. The writer we had been hoping to welcome to the UK says it is too heartbreaking a task to try again.

We’ve lost them. This is enormously disappointing. We are proud to be able to play our own part in increasing inclusion and diversity in our field of literature and the arts, immensely grateful to our donors. It is obvious that everyone benefits.

But this is where we now are with the poisonous Hostile Environment policy that Theresa May, our outgoing Prime Minister, introduced in her time as Home Secretary. It tells us low-income writers from other countries are not welcome, & we cannot help them with grants & gifts.

In short, this government thinks they are not rich enough to be given a bursary.

Third Instar – Out in the Wild!

Third Instar - Front Cover

My chapbook, Third Instar, has just been released by the innovative Eibonvale Press – Huzzah!

What is a chapbook? I hear you wonder. In the past they used to be short booklets, often printed on one sheet of paper and folded into four or eight small pages. In Third Instar’s case, it is an individually published long story.

Too long to be a short story, and too short to be a novel – it’s a novella.

What’s it about? Like most writers I babble incoherently when asked to describe my work. I think publisher David Rix, does much better than me:

“A vivid, evocative and ultimately dreamlike fantasy … set in a city on the edge of the world in the most profound sense – a city filled with colour and life against which David Gullen* creates a beautiful universal tale of romance and almost mythical loss.”

Until recently it was hard to find homes for stories of this length. Thanks to publishers like Eibonvale there are more and more available homes for them – just like there once used to be.

It’s great to have another story out there in the wild, finding its audience. If you read this one I hope you enjoy it.

~

*Yours truly.

Science for Fiction 2019

The amazing Science for Fiction is back for another year at Imperial College, London. Once again it is organised and curated by Dr. David Clements.

As usual the event will take place in the Physics Department of Imperial College, London. This year it on 3-4 July, starting on the afternoon of 3rd, then all day on the 4th.

As David says: “For those who don’t know, Science for Fiction is a chance for writers to meet, hear talks from and to discuss ideas with some of the UK’s leading scientists in all areas from maths and physics to biology and geology. Past talks have included quantum computing, epigenetics, cosmology and the Mars rovers

The cost will be £30, which also covers refreshments, and lunch on the 4th. As someone who has been before I can tell you this is an absolute bargain. It is also one of the highlights of my genre events year.

If you are interested, email Dr Clements at davecl (at) mac (dot) com.

See you there!

Writing as Drawing

We all have our ways of doing things. When I’m plotting out a novel or a longer story I always start with pen and paper. I like to use my favourite fountain pen, and quartered sheets of A4.  I do something similar with a short story too, though I’ll probably just write down a few key things that anchor it. I’ll always use pen and paper.

There’s something about the process that works well for me, though I don’t know why. All I can say is there’s a connection between mind and eye and hand so they feel like three parts of one thing. Pen and paper stimulates and focusses my imagination and lets the ideas flow ­– though not in any order. I’ll brainstorm everything in a few sessions, one plot point, or scene, or character, or piece of dialogue per piece of paper.  I’ve found this much more useful than using a notebook because later on I can arrange and re-arrange the bits of paper into groups and piles – a structure starts to emerge.

At some point I’ll read through the stack of notes and off I’ll go again with more ideas, more bits of paper, and at least one recharge of the pen with fresh ink.

Last summer we were on what turned out to be a brilliant, happy, productive and relaxing two weeks in Cornwall. We’d hired a 1-bed beach cottage and our days became ones of early morning writing, beach walks and ice-cream, writing, pasties for lunch or supper, sea-swims, and conversations in the evening over a bottle of wine.

Someone had left a book in the cottage:  Between the Lines, Ba (Hons) Drawing, 2018, Falmouth University. It was fascinating to see pictures of the students’ work and read the comments each of them had written about their art and inspiration, and the connections some of them found between the paper and the pencil or brush in their hand with the concepts in their mind.

There were some suggested exercises in the back of the book. One of them was titled Automatic Writing is Drawing Too.  The instructions were simple: ‘Start Writing. Don’t think about the words until you’ve filled every bit of empty space.’

It was a good exercise but the concept startled me. Writing is drawing?  I pushed against the idea then realised they were right. Drawing is a way to communicate and express ideas on paper, and what is writing if not that? Writing with pen and paper really is a kind of drawing. It was obvious, I’d just never thought about it that way.

It made me wonder if that productive link between mind and hand and pen is really because when I do it I’m not writing or drawing, I’m doing both.

~


This blog was originally published on the Milford SF web site in October, 2018.

An Evening of SF Stories

I’m very pleased to be taking part in one of the Virtual Futures events again this year. This time it’s about life in a future where autonomous agents are here, there, and everywhere. I’ll be joining eight other writers reading our new stories speculating about what future might be like.

The evening will be great, please join us if you can. I am sure you will be entertained, stimulated, possibly even provoked. You will also be in friendly and relaxed company.

As for a future populated by autonomous software and hardware, who can say if it will be better, worse, or just different? Of course one excellent way to be prepared is to listen to some excellent stories.

Tickets are available here.


Warning: Contains Politics. The Jo Johnson Effect

I don’t like to do political rant, but I’m going to anyway.

<rant>

Here’s my opinion. I’ve been struggling to understand what is going on in Westminster these days. Obviously plain old little old me doesn’t have an inside view, but I like to think I can read between the lines as well as the next person. It’s just that lately I can’t, I can’t follow the thinking and I’m struggling to see where the benefit is in the end game for some of the main players.

May I think I understand. I’ve always thought she had the instincts of a tyrant, her time in the Home Office was a strong indicator, her time as PM reinforced my belief. She works to constrain parliament’s power, she spends public money to prevent a court case that will increase the legal understanding of the nation’s position with regards to Article 50. Become the PM and declare there will be no election then hold an election? Fine. Lose your majority and pull a billion pounds out of the money tree you said did not exist? Fine. Just carry on and ignore everything behind you. As long as May’s in charge all is well in May’s world. And I think that’s it, and it’s all she wants – to be in charge. Of what is irrelevant. You win some, you lose some, it’s all the same to her.

Corbyn is harder to fathom. Man of the people, man of the underdog, the man I so very much wish I could support. Most of the time an invisible silent man too. The man who won’t speak out against electoral wrongdoing. And Brexit for him is irreversible. In the perfect self-fulfilling prophecy the man with the greatest ability to stop it says it’s inevitable and cannot be stopped. He also says he wants “a social Europe with inclusive societies that work for everyone and not just for a few” but he also wants to throw away the most powerful tool at his disposal to help bring that about – membership of the EU.

What is going on? I don’t understand.

There’s a vocal group of people who say Brexit is Brexit, we had the vote, we’re going to leave. Fair enough, it’s a point of view and a firm opinion. But to my mind opinion needs to be moderated by fact and as far as I can make out leaving the EU will, however it happens, leave the UK economically and politically weaker, and possibly regulatorily in thrall to the EU – Jo Johnson’s choice of  “vassalage and chaos”

It also seems to me this group don’t care how we leave as long as we do. Consequences are irrelevant, we voted, we go. And politically we’re not far off from that position. May’s in charge and by hook or by crook she’ll make this thing happen for ill or for worse. I say that because by now it is clear that our two leave options are bad or very bad. Why would any Prime Minister take us down those paths? Again, I do not understand, and meanwhile Corbyn treads water, keeps his head down, and says and does nothing.

Am I simply wrong or are politicians, Prime Ministers, Leaders of the Opposition, meant to be different to this? Is not the PM not meant to be working for the good of the nation? Right now I don’t see that. In fact except for a few praiseworthy individual voices across the political spectrum I don’t see that at all, and nowhere in leadership of our two biggest political parties. Props however to the Lib-Dems however for playing the voice of Cassandra: “This is wrong, we should stop, can’t you see?”  The voice in the political wilderness.

Apparently they are not. But why not? Why can’t or won’t actually lead? May in particular is not leading, she is following, with apparently any concern for the harm she knows she is bringing to the nation she is supposed to guide and lead subsumed by her inner desire for the retention of power and position. Or perhaps she actually genuinely wants this outcome. Dear Gods let’s hope that is not true. But again, if not, why do this? Why abandon leadership of party and nation and become little more than an errand-girl implementing a self-destructive  policy she herself once campaigned against. And Corbyn, he seems to want it too.

Here comes Jo Johnson to give us a few clues. Now, I must say that when this particular Johnson  resigned I applauded him, a man of principle finally no longer able to keep silent and all the better for coming around to my own point of view. But read his letter of resignation and he says “I have never rebelled on any issue before now.”

Hang on, isn’t he supposed to represent his constituents? Of course in our system he is free to represent them as he sees fit, but as a minister, as part of the government of the day and being on the government payroll he is also obliged to vote as the government decides. Note, gentle reader, this is true for any minister, senior or junior, and in fact paid or unpaid. Once you’re part of the government you vote as you’re told or you resign. Talk about a conflict of interest. How can that be the best way for Johnson or any MP to represent their constituents when in effect you have become an errand-boy?

And meanwhile both May and Corbyn pursue their Miltonian ‘better to reign in Hell’ policies. It seems perhaps they are not so different after all. If they get what they want it will a hell of their own making.

Jo Johnson ’s right about one thing though: “ My constituents…deserve better than this from their Government.” No shit, Mr Johnson, no shit.

They deserved better than you, for all your admittedly laudable late-coming conscience, better than our government, better than our quasi-democratic political system of power and privilege and self-interest and hierarchies and secrets and toothless oversight and opaque finance and knowing lies and broken promises. What we deserve is a political revolution. Come the day, come the day.

</rant>

Making a Difference With MicroFinance

I’ve been lending money through KIva, a non-profit microFinance organisation, since 2012. Every month I’d lend money in $25 chunks to people around the world with limited or no access to other ways of borrowing. This month my total loans passed 1,200 and on average each $ I have put in has been lent to five borrowers.

I’m really pleased that I have been able to help so many people around the world.

Obviously this way of helping is not a panacea, but neither are the big, top-down, international projects. Both have their place, and with microFinance I not only like the idea that I can make what I give work harder and be more effective (because loans are repaid and I can re-lend), but also that these individuals and groups decide what it is that they need to improve their own lives, be it farming aid, sanitation, material and supplies, education, health, and so on. Nobody is deciding what is important for them.

I’ve learned a few things on the way. In particular how improving things in one place helps elsewhere, and how having enough cash to not have to live hand-to-mouth helps lift people out of an economic trap.

One group I always like to lend to is the Babban Gona farmers organisation in Nigeria. Babban Gona lends money to smallholders and provides advice and resources,  These three extracts from a recent report:from a Kiva field volunteer shows exactly how everything joins up:

Farmers that I spoke to – with the help of a Hausa translator – spoke glowingly about Babban Gona’s agronomy training. Farmers has switched from broadcasting fertilizer on their field to micro-dosing at the plant’s root system, consistently spacing plants and thinning corn seedlings… One farmer, Sale, told me about his 0.5-hectare (1 football field) farm: “I was a bit worried about paying back the loan. Babban Gona officers mapped my field and told me that I would have to produce 10 bags of corn, but usually I only produce 7. I got 26 bags [of corn] that year

I was surprised to see how manual agriculture is in northern Nigeria – it’s standard to pluck corn kernels by hand from the cobs. Manual corn processing can take 30 hours of labour per 100 kg bag, compared to one hour for machine threshing. Babban Gona farmers use machine threshers, and since manual threshing is usually done by the farmer’s family, saving a week of work per bag of corn means freeing up time for women and children.

… farmers without access to credit in rural Kaduna and Kano urgently need money by the time harvest season arrives in December. During harvest, corn prices drop with the market glut. In contrast, the Harvest Advance loan that Babban Gona provides to their farmers at harvest allows them to stockpile the grain, watching the market and selling the grain at a premium.

It’s easy to get involved and if you don’t want to use Kiva there are several other organisations that do similar things. However, if you do want to, drop me a line and I’ll send you an invitation, or you can just follow this link.

~

Three Short Reviews

A few of us were talking about books we had enjoyed this year as recommendation for Christmas. Here are a few of mine.

Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence, Michael Marshall Smith

I loved MMS’s early work and his ‘Straw Dogs’ series, then lost contact with his work. This turned out to be a great place to resume.

Hannah Green is a clever, funny, supernatural adventure about time, the Devil, and bad people doing bad things. Laugh out loud moments, an easy style, and strange and dangerous encounters. A perfect winter night read.

Nine Lives, William Dalrymple

Dalrymple is my favourite travel writer/historian at the moment, and this is one of his best books. Subtitled ‘In Search of the Sacred in Modern India’, WD helps us understand what it is to be a Jain nun, a Buddhist monk, a story-teller, A Sufi, and more.

Some of these ways of life endure, some, like the 20+ generation statue-maker and last in his family line, he catches at the very end of their times. Dalrymple writes with a transparent style, filled with warmth and compassion. Not many travel writers can make me cry.

 

Kingdoms of Elfin, Sylvia Townsend Warner

Back in print after forty years, this fine collection of stories from the courts of Elfindom are lyrical, witty, cruel, and charming.

As anyone who truly understand the fey knows, they might not be nice, but they can be funny. Essential and pleasurable reading for anyone who enjoys gently grotesque stories.

~

The Traps of World-Building

It occurred to me that the one great challenge of world-building is that you are, in fact, building a world. What to put in? What to leave out?

I’ve recently been reading The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to becoming a Master Storyteller, by John Truby. In it he writes:

“Good storytelling doesn’t just tell audience what happened in a life. It gives them the experience of that life. It is the essential life, just the crucial thoughts and events, but it is conveyed with such freshness and newness that it feels part of the audience’s essential life too.”

That extrapolates well to world building. World-building is not a thing in itself, it is there to support your storytelling. You are creating the semblance of a world not the actuality. All that is required are the specifics that will support the story you are telling in all its aspects. Not so detailed that the narrative and characters disappear, not so flimsy you feel you could walk up to the scenery and bang your hand on the canvas backdrop.

One way to think about your world building is to treat it like the photographs, souvenirs, and memories of a trip to a place only you have visited – the striking moments, places, items, inhabitants, ways of life, creatures and landscapes, and sensations that stay with you when you have left. The things you absolutely have to tell everyone about when you return home. The things that will fire their imaginations and make them want to go there too.

I recently stalled myself writing a connecting scene between two places – Knights Hall, where my alien city guardians live, and High House, the home of the ruling elite deep in my underground city. How was I going to get my characters from the first place to the second? Which route would they take? What would they see, do, say, and feel?

With this particular story I have needed to imagine an entire world: a planet and ecology, cities and technology, a cultural history and a way of life that has stretched unbroken for thousands of years. With this scene it all welled up in my mind and became too much. There was so much to think about I didn’t know where to begin.  And for a while I actually couldn’t.

Which was no good at all.

I’ve learned to trust my subconscious when it stalls me. I take it as a message that I am heading in the wrong direction. Invariably it (or rather that other and in some ways smarter part of me) is right. So I did what I usually do and thought about whether or not I needed this scene at all and, if so, how big it needed to be.

In the end this is what I wrote:

“Vioneth led the way to High House along a secret way behind the upper warren. Lumens blinked into life as they went. The footing was level and paved, the curved walls whitewashed, yet everywhere there were signs of disuse and neglect. Paint peeled, water pooled in shallows and corners.”

I used just what I thought where the essential details. And I have now hopefully co-opted the imaginations of the reader to build on that description in their own minds. Readers have excellent imaginations.

With world building, as with so many things, less is usually more.

~

This blog was originally published on the Milford SF web site in June, 2018