A quick jab. A hook.
My snap-kick checks his left foot
I cross, cut, and kick.
The kid doesn’t have a chance. My heel catches him square in the ribs and sends him flying across the pit.
He comes down on his back, tumbling across hard-packed dirt until he’s up on his knees. The pit’s ochre dust stands out against the coal-black grime ground into his worn driller’s pants, and his bare knuckles are bleeding. He takes a few deep breaths and rises to his feet, dazed but not really hurt. Not yet.
Poor kid, just another desperate fool lured by the promise of freedom, young enough to think he might walk out of the mine and see the sun – if he can survive a hundred fights.
I’ve stood in ninety-eight. In my lifetime, no one has survived a hundred. Bet they didn’t tell him that.
Overseer Thota shouts at him from the booth. The nine foot tall Raiyp is wrapped in his own golden feathers, preened and polished with outlandish colors – a dandy among dandies. Too pretty and proper to soil his feathers in the mine-that’s human work. He commands the boy to attack while silk-gowned attendants feed and brush him.
The boy straightens and comes back at me, a little slower this time, keeping low and leading with his feet.
He’s lean and muscular, his chest bare and oiled. Baggy driller’s pants hang down to his ankles and his feet are bare like mine. He’s wearing a black leather mask that only shows his eyes, and I see fear in them. The last three or four kids they’ve sent after me all wore masks. Maybe because of that riot a month back after I killed the fat one. I didn’t mean to, but it happened. His friends rushed the pit, almost got into the overseer’s booth. Now they wear masks, and the overseers bring a small army of bodyguards.
The kid lunges, sweeps, then drops for a back-kick.
Fire off a quick combo. Snap…snap-snap.
He gets under my punches, gets in close and throws a series of hooks and knees pushing me back against the wall.
The little shit hits hard.
And fast. I manage to block every strike, but my arms are singing with pain. This kid is small, but knows how to get every ounce of his weight behind his punches, and each one hurts. I need a fast take down or he’ll wear me out.
Back off – parallel to the wall.
Ignore the shouting miners who reach down and grab at us.
Feint left, draw him in.
Sweep, step back then snap another low, fast kick. It catches his hip and knocks him back, in pain and off balance.
Step out from the wall to buy some room. Breathe. Breathe. Remember to breathe.
Is it time yet?
Overseer Fratarra isn’t even watching. The crusty old Raiyp is still trying to goad his buddies into betting. How long does this have to go on? I’m not as young as I used to be. I’ll lose an endurance match.
The kid is coming back, coming on hard like he wants to end it fast.
Snap. Snap. Snap. His bare feet lance up at my face, high, hard kicks, forcing me back. But he’s not trying for position. He’s trying to get lucky – to knock me out.
His kicks have a rhythm. High, high, low, step up. High, high, low, step up. Like clockwork. That’ll be his undoing.
One more to make sure, oh yeah. Got ya. I step inside a high crescent kick, in close where the kick has no power.
He sees it, bounds back and throws a slow, clumsy kick to keep me away.
The world flashes white hot and spins. Bright lights, the overseer’s balcony, the matrix of steel around the fighting pit, filthy, screaming miners howling for blood – all of it turns in a lazy tilting arc.
My bald head hits the hard-packed dirt, and everything flashes white.
I imagine the sun looks like that. Pure and white, like a sharp blow to the head or the flash of a sodium lamp burning out. Just once, I’d like to see it.
They always talk about the sun, the newbies. They talk about the sun, the stars, the sky, grass, trees, cities and the war. Nothing in the mine is like what they describe. I’ve seen pictures and books but these things can’t be real. Probably just something the overseers tell them to say, a trick to keep us in line.
The newbies say the sky goes on forever and that our starships fly between planets. I imagine the sky is like the deep core shafts, black pits too deep to light, bottomless and inviting, the way death becomes after years in the mine. A lot of newbies take that way out. It’s faster than the pit. The sky scares me, deep and dark and forever, but I’d like to see the sun. I’d like to stand in its warm light and see the whole world lit up around me with grass and trees and birds and bees. I’d like that.
The kid’s brutal uppercut caught me from behind a slow, almost whimsical, crescent kick that swept my arms aside and concealed the punch. It’s a good move, one I’ve used on occasion, but it’s a beginner’s trick and I shouldn’t have fallen for it. The punch broke a rib or two. No matter. No upstart wearing a goofy black mask is going to beat Tangerine McCready. As soon as fat old Fratarra gets his bets, I’m shutting this little shit down.
But first, I’m going to lay here a bit. It feels good, sucking in this dusty air. The pit is the biggest chamber in the mine, nearly a kilometer across and five hundred meters tall. The air tastes like dirt, real dirt, not the carbon filter taste the air has down in the shafts. It tastes fresh, even with five thousand miners and two hundred overseers sucking it down.
One more breath. Ahh, that’s nice.
As I stand, the crowd goes wild. Their hungry shouts rattle my head like a ten-ton core drill hitting a layer of ferrite. The kid is dancing around the pit, shaking his fists in the air. Cocky. So sure he’s won. Wait until he sees this old dog’s tricks.
He reluctantly pulls his eyes off the crowd as I get my feet under me. He doesn’t want to. Probably his first fight, or the first one he’s lasted this long in. I can use that.
We hammer on each other, a long exchange of punches. My fists land on his arms and shoulders, meat slapping against meat. Nothing decisive, just a steady rain of punishment to wear him down and keep him busy.
Up in the booth, Overseer Fratarra opens his pelican fan and waves the dusty air away from his breathing tendrils. That’s it, then. The bets are closed, and enough money stands against me to make the fight pay off. Time to end it.
I stop bobbing and weaving and plant my bare feet in an open stance. The kid weighs five or ten kilos less than me. I bet two solid blows will put him down.
He veers left, trying to get outside my arms. Let him. That’s just where I want him. Just turn enough that he can’t knock me off balance, keep the stance low and grounded.
Here he comes, must think he’s got an opening.
One more step. That’s it.
He throws a quick snap with his lead leg.
I catch it and drop down on him like a ton of ore. Pull him in, smash both elbows down on his back and… I’m in the air. He snaked under me. He’s slamming me against the wall.
Don’t flinch, roll with it.
Suck it in – suck up the pain.
Breathe. Shit that hurt. Breathe.
That’s my move. He used my move on me. My father taught me that move. Said he learned it in the army, back when humans still fought other humans. Back before the Raiyp showed up and decided to have a war with us. They captured my father and sent him to the mines. I was born here. This kid probably was, too. Most newbies don’t fight, not unless they were soldiers. I wonder if his father taught him that move.
Shit, he’s still coming.
Can’t take another hit like that.
Move. Left. Right. Left.
Now get close and trap his arm, then send that boy on the roller coaster. Up, down, wind up my elbow and slam it into his face… yeah! Nailed him.
Breathe. Breathe while he’s on his knees.
Overseer Fratarra has his blue fan out. Damn it. I hate when he makes me kill people in the pit. It’s been years since the slime-sucking Oversear pulled out the blue fan. Seven years. Back then it came out often, and nobody wore masks.
The fights haven’t been to death since the flow of newbies dropped from a few hundred to a few dozen per year. They say it’s because the war has moved far away from here. None of them know who is winning, and the overseers would never tell us.
Fratarra killed my father when he tried to keep me from fighting in the pit. But what else could I do? A driller or a digger has no future. A pit fighter does. After every match, the fighter gets to visit the women’s tunnel and after that hundredth fight-freedom. It’s the same reason my father went into the pit. It’s hope. Even if you don’t make it out, you’ll have children and maybe someday they’ll get out.
Maybe that was why he didn’t want me to fight. Maybe he didn’t want me to have children. No one leaves the mines, so the children are as much slaves as the rest, and it’s worse for them. Most die before they get big enough to do any useful work or to fend for themselves. The newbies swear they’ll never submit children to this life… yet, most do in the end. A few years of the dark, the cold, and the endless work make the comfort of laying with another person mean more than mere idealism. For a few, having a child becomes their only reason for living. Still, the mine eats children faster than it eats drill bits, and losing a child is harder than anything the Raiyp make us do.
His mask is off. My elbow knocked it off his face. He has long, dark hair, glistening with oil in the sputtering light of the sodium lamps. Poor kid. His first fight and the Overseer wants a death match. Bet he thought he’d get a second chance.
He comes up swinging, a blind, futile rush driven by pain and rage. A sad end to this thing.
I take a relaxed stance and pull my hand back, setting up for a killing blow to his throat.
His long hair falls aside as he throws a wild haymaker at me and I get a good look at his face. I’m looking at myself when I was seventeen.
The clumsy punch catches the side of my head. I hear the thump, like a hammer against wood, and everything flares white again.
He rolls over me, knocking me to my knees.
Seventeen. I haven’t seen him in over a thousand shifts, not since they assigned him to work tunnel 91.
He spins back, a little more composed, and fires off three swift kicks, two low, one high. All three connect.
I’m on the ground again, looking up. The lights blind me. Incoherent roars from the miners fill my head. Can’t they see who he is?
My son dances back, waving to the crowd again. He doesn’t understand the blue fan means to the death. He thinks he’s beaten me. Taken me down with the same moves I taught him.
I wanted so much to set him free, to let my son escape the mine, see the sun and live free in the open air. But that didn’t happen, and now it never will – because I have to kill him. I have to kill him, or Overseer Fratarra will grind me down to fertilize the gardens.
This wasn’t who I was supposed to fight. I saw the name. It wasn’t my son. Ah, but that makes sense doesn’t it? Fratarra knows he’s my son. He knows all about humans.
Before the fight, I asked him about my release. I’ve stood for him in ninety-eight fights. More than any man alive in the mines. Just two shy of a hundred. After that, I’ll be like Gregory Archer, Boyle Milan, and Tobias Montgomery – they all made it to a hundred. They were the greats, the first pit fighters, the first generation of men to be brought here. All of them soldiers. All of them set free after their hundredth fight.
I asked Overseer Fratarra where I would go after the hundredth fight. I asked if I could take my son with me. Old Fratarra sucked in his greasy eyes and puffed up his feathers indignantly. Humans could never be free. Never. I’d be free when I died. That’s what he told me.
Now he’s making me kill my son. I have no choice.
Or do I?
I get up, slowly. As I rise, my son darts in and kicks me back down. I roll away, then get up on one knee, head bowed.
The bell has not rung. He’s starting to understand. He kicks my bent head, and the pit goes black. Something broke. A bone. I taste blood. But it’s not enough.
I get back up. I let my arms hang limp, not even trying to defend myself. Overseer Fratarra has a red fan out. He is displeased. This is his promise to punish me later.
When my son comes to knock me down again, I lower my arms and turn into his swing. His arm comes down on my neck so hard I can’t feel my body; his followup catches my throat.
His eyes meet mine.
He knows. He understands.
I choose not to be punished. I choose not to kill my son. I choose to live one moment of my life as a free man.
He hits me again-
Do I see tears in his eyes?
-hard across the throat.
Darkness closes in around me, impenetrable, unfathomable and there in the distance I see it – the glow of the sun boring a hole through the darkness to take me away.
Mark Patrick Morehead is an alumnus of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Workshop (2002), who is busy writing his second novel with occasional breaks to write short stories and refine his golf swing. When not writing (or golfing), he works as an engineering lead on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System. He lives in Colorado with his wife, newborn son, two dogs and a very fat cat.
Ever wonder about those mines on distant moons that slaves, prisoners and criminals get shipped off to in so many SF stories? I do. How do they work? What is life like there? How do these people live? What do they dream about? This line of thought amalgamated with discussions on tactics and physiology in a kempo class, and a story popped out.
Mark Chadbourn is the genuine article. His career has successfully encompassed from journalism, fiction writing, and screenwriting over a multitude of genres. He wins audiences and new fans with every pen stroke. Why? Well everything he writes is bound by a certain commonality; beautifully rich prose, text layered so deeply that it’s impossible to untangle the blend of psychology, philosophy, and mythology that infuse his work. Not that you’d want to: you’re spellbound from the very first word.
He might have had a few glasses of Jack Daniels when we persuaded him that this interview was a really good idea, but, gentleman that he is, Mark was truly generous with his response.
For that we thank him.
Rowntree & Negus: You started your writing career as a newspaper journalist, what triggered the switch to fiction?
Mark Chadbourn: I always intended to write fiction. I was scribbling stories with a fantastic edge from when I was five or six and never let up from that point on. I’d written numerous short stories, comic scripts and aborted novels by the time I was ready to go to university. Throughout my late teens, I came under a lot of pressure from my family to consider a “proper” career, which was quite understandable. I come from a very working class family – several generations of miners – and for the first few years of my life my parents and I lived in one room of a house. For hundreds of years, my family had faced a daily struggle for economic survival, and ensuring you could earn and not starve was the only thing of real importance each generation of parents passed on to their children. My mother was the deciding factor that prevented me following every other member of my family down the pit. She was very strong-willed and determined that her children would be free to break the cycle of relative deprivation, and she fought very hard to ensure I got the best education any kid in that kind of working class environment could get. The importance of reading was drummed into me very early. Even so, writing was considered the kind of career I shouldn’t be thinking about because it was so insecure – securing the income stream was still the over-arching aim. My mother hoped I would be a lawyer, or an architect, and both of those were careers I considered while secretly knowing I could only ever be a writer. She didn’t deter my writing – she recognized certain abilities in me very early on – but it was always a hobby that could maybe become an earner at some nebulous time “in the future”. That thinking was encapsulated at my local comprehensive school where the careers teacher offered only two options – the pit, if you were of low educational attainment, or accountancy, if you were a dangerous intellectual. And it was absolutely the right approach for that time – a lot of middle class people today have no concept of how close poverty was to the daily existence of the majority of people. You don’t opt for pie in the sky aspirations if it means your family don’t eat and are living in rags.
So when university became a possibility for me, it was a massive totemic thing for my family – the first person in the family to go, and a symbolic gesture that after generations we could claw our way out of the gutter and achieve some kind of security and comfort for future generations. That had its own gravity. I only wanted to write, but I didn’t want to betray what everyone had fought for, for me – and it was a struggle for my parents to send me to university. There are still huge barriers for anyone from a working class background getting there. I started another novel while studying at Leeds University, but when my final year rolled around I had to consider a career, so it didn’t seem like I’d wasted the time and effort of everyone else. I was convinced the writing would take off eventually – I’ve never had any doubts there. Instinctively, I knew it was my only path. So I tried to keep everyone happy by applying for jobs that were completely unsuitable – one I remember was a sales rep for Pedigree Petfoods. It was pretty obvious to all the poor interviewers that I was a hopeless case – I’d usually done no preparation, knew nothing about the company or the job, and basically showed as much interest as I felt. But my family was happy I was, in their eyes, aiming high for some kind of – any kind of – white collar job, while I was getting down to my writing. Then I made the mistake of making a job enquiry to my local newspaper. I thought it was a good bet – I was always told journalism is over-subscribed, you won’t stand a chance. They offered me a post at the interview and that was that. I was a working stiff, and my writing had to be confined to what little spare time I had.
Yet serendipitously it turned out to be the best thing that could ever happen to an aspiring writer. It takes you into walks of life you never would have experienced otherwise, and gives you a constant flow of vital, life-changing experiences that you can bring back to your writing. I was very successful, moving to a big city paper, the Birmingham Evening Mail, where I covered riots, murders, strikes and just about everything else you can imagine happening, and then heading down to London to work on the national newspapers – big stories, big personalities, constant excitement. It was a fantastic time.
But I still wanted to be a writer of fiction. I finally finished a novel in my spare time, sent it in to a publisher and it got picked up straight away. That was my first novel, Underground, and from then on it was straight into the writing career. I feel quite guilty about the ease of the transition. I know a lot of authors had to struggle to get recognised, but I just had an inordinate amount of luck – right place, right time.
So everything worked out in the end. Journalism started out as an aberration that turned out to be the engine of my career as an author. Isn’t the universe a strange and interesting place?
R&N: And then you made a second switch from writing (and successfully selling) horror fiction, to fantasy – do you still harbor secret desires to write horror?
MC: You see, I don’t think horror to fantasy is a dramatic switch.
Horror is fantasy – it’s just a slightly different shading to what most publishers perceive to be fantasy today. My horror writing always had a strong mythological base, and the difference between Scissorman, my last horror novel, and World’s End, my first fantasy novel, is just a matter of perspective. I grew up seeing no distinction between horror, SF, and fantasy – it was all just imaginative fiction. I’d read Asimov, Tolkien, and Lovecraft in the same month, with the only yardstick being a good story. Nowadays, I’m baffled and a little depressed by how tribal it’s got among readers, and to a degree, authors. I personally hold the SF community to blame. Over the last twenty years, the hard SF branch has developed an arrogance and contempt for other forms of fiction that is truly disturbing to see.
In my writing, I want to carry forward my reading – that anything is fair game. I don’t sit back thinking, “Oh, I’m a writer of fantasy now so my stories must include this and this but not this”… I throw everything into my books that is of interest to me. The Hounds of Avalon contains enough fantasy to get it racked in that section of the bookshop, but it also has horror and SF in there too.
So the balance tips slightly towards the fantasy side now, but at some point a story will crop up that shifts it slightly towards horror, and I’ll go with that. I’m pretty idiosyncratic in my approach to writing – I put on the page what’s inside me: my thoughts, interests, beliefs. My books are me. If you read them, you know who I am. I don’t shape them to fit market perceptions, which probably infuriates my publisher and all the people involved with the commercial side of the business, because I’m sure it limits my sales. For them, the aim is to write a fantasy story that is broad enough to reach the widest number of people. Unfortunately, I’m writing fantasy for people who think like me, and I would guess that’s probably a limited market. However, I am now engaging in a campaign to change people’s thinking rather than to give them what they want!
R&N: Next year sees the launch of your third fantasy trilogy, The Kingdom of the Serpent. In today’s society, in your opinion, does this genre still have anything to offer?
MC: Fantasy is the broadest and most fruitful area in which to write. It encompasses anything that can possibly be imagined, on this side of death or the other. Logically, then, fantasy has infinite riches to be mined. Unfortunately, publishers tend to think fantasy is only ‘high fantasy’, a narrow band of medieval-based, Tolkein-inspired fiction. It’s like having the whole world to play in and never leaving your back garden. Fantasy deals with the archetypes of the unconscious mind, the dreams of our society. It allows us to probe behind the mundane façade of our day to day lives to discover why we really do the stuff we do.
Plato believed there were two ways of arriving at the truth – Mythos and Logos. Logos, from which we get logic, maps the world we see before us. Mythos, from which we get mythology, maps our inner world, which, in Platonic times, was just as important. I tend to think the inner world is as important as the external universe, but since the Age of Reason began and scientists have become obsessed with understanding by breaking things down into component parts, that belief has gone out of fashion. SF is the fiction of Logos. Fantasy is the fiction of Mythos, so from my point of view it has everything still to offer.
R&N: What else is in the pipeline?
MC: New novel, Jack of Ravens, the first volume of The Kingdom of the Serpent, out in June 2006. I have a science fiction series in development with the BBC. A graphic novel, Book of Shadows, out from Image Comics in America in the spring (it’s a prequel to the Age of Misrule), more TV scripts, a film treatment, and my first short story in about five years. And I’ve set up a film production company, Black Dust, with Graham Joyce. That should be enough to keep me going for now.
R&N: Back in 2004, you did an interview for Infinity Plus in which you expounded the principle of Archetypes and their use in your fiction. Is psychology an interest of yours?
MC: Yes, I have studied the subject for some time, though not in any sense that would lead me to practice it. I’ve read Jung and Freud, as well as many other aspects of psychological thinking. Much of it dovetails with my other interests in philosophy and belief systems, science, and mythology. One of the great failures of modern life is how studies are ring-fenced, when the majority are cross-cutting. A knowledge of psychology would help in lots of other areas of study, history, say, or archaeology. And, of course, it does help me as a writer because it lets you get under the skin of people. Jung was very interested in archetypes and how they affected modern thinking, and it does help me to place some psychological symbols in the stories to achieve particular aims.
R&N: As we’ve already said, you’ve written horror/dark fantasy; currently you are into your third fantasy trilogy. Is there an SF book in there as well?
MC: Absolutely. I’ve written SF short fiction and a successful SF novella, “Wonderland”. At the moment, I’m thinking I might like to do an SF novel after I’ve finished the current fantasy sequence…if someone will publish it.
R&N: You’re also a successful screen writer, how did that come about?
MC: As much as books, movies and TV have been a great influence on my imaginative life and my writing career. I grew up in the sixties and seventies when imagination was at the heart of daily life, unlike this modern world where everything mainstream is expected to be “real”. I watched The Prisoner and The Avengers and Irwin Allen’s slightly brain-damaged shows like Lost in Space, Time Tunnel, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I immersed myself in the Universal monster movies and Hammer Horrors. They were all such a part of my life it was only natural that, to me, writing these things was seen on a par with writing books. I always wanted to be a screenwriter and took a movie screenwriting course at the same time as my first novel was published. I didn’t have the time to pursue it effectively for around eight years, until I noticed a familiar name on the credits of the BBC medical drama, Doctors, someone I’d worked with on the newspapers. I dropped him a line about doing some writing, and he called me in for a chat. A lot of opportunities work like that. People are always suspicious about working with someone new, but if they know you, they’re often prepared to give you a chance, knowing you won’t fuck up and wreck their careers. That’s why conventions are often good places for aspiring writers, as it allows them to build relationships with editors and commissioning people.
Having said that, if I hadn’t hit the mark from the beginning I’d have been kicked out pretty rapidly. Film and TV is a brutal environment that doesn’t suffer people who aren’t achieving. I’ve since written many hours of Doctors and moved on to primetime dramas. The TV companies expect you to serve your time before they allow you to pitch ideas for series, and I’ve now reached that stage. I’ve got a science fiction series in the latter stages of development, and a few other genre things in the pipeline, so I’m moving towards the screenwriting I prefer. There are a few film things bubbling under that I can’t talk about, too.
R&N: Your knowledge of and ability to manipulate mythology adds a richness and grounding to your writing that some writing lacks. Is this down to your own fascination with your subject?
MC: I’ve been reading mythology since I was five, so it’s fair to say that it’s pretty much permeated my life, and therefore my imagination. Over the years, I’ve reached a degree of knowledge that stretches beyond the tales to the thinking that lies behind them, and I think it’s that aspect which influences the qualities you mention.
R&N: Some of the tales must be virtually inseparable from history and belief systems; what makes them so enduring?
MC: The ancients didn’t see stories as something separate from life. The imagination was as “true” as the things the eyes saw. For many cultures they were a part of their identity in the same way as history and belief systems. But they have endured because they generally deal with archetypes that map out what is going on in our own consciousness, and that has not changed in millennia. Archetypes are part of the secret language of our unconscious, and our deep minds still communicate using these forms. When we read mythology, we understand it on a much deeper level than our conscious, thinking mind is aware. That’s why we sometimes surprise ourselves by how we are moved to tears, or laughter, or fear, by certain images. Mythos will always be more affecting than Logos because it speaks directly to us.
R&N: Do you think they say anything about the way we live today?
MC: On one level, certainly. Not in the things we do, but in who we are, in the way they deal with our feelings and our thoughts, our spiritual concerns, our art, our connections with the natural world, and with each other. In these areas, mythological stories are filled with abiding truths that transcend the era in which they flourished, in the same way that Shakespeare’s work does (and of course, Shakespeare mined many mythologies for his own plays).
R&N: Much of your fantasy output involves Celtic mythology and a touch of Arthurian mythos as well. Would you ever consider doing an historical-action novel? Say along the lines of Bernard Cornwell’s Arthur novels.
MC: Absolutely, if a story presented itself to me. I love history – I studied it at university, and it remains one of my great interests. I’ve got an Elizabethan spy in the forthcoming novel, Jack of Ravens, which I’m keen to use in real-world tales.
R&N: Testimony, your non-fiction book on the paranormal, dealt with a family’s disintegration due to the strange goings on at their house in the Brecon Beacons. Does your willingness to investigate such a subject give any indication your own belief systems?
MC: All it shows is a willingness to be open-minded. I’m a Fortean, in that “belief” or hard-and-fast thinking isn’t something that really concerns me. I’m more interested in the why of things, and how people are affected by their own beliefs. Instinctively, I feel the world is a lot stranger than we give it credit, and certainly, I’m fascinated by quantum physics and the philosophies that go along with it. But I don’t believe anything strong enough that I won’t change my view if another piece of contradictory evidence comes along. And from my point of view, the world would be a much better place if everyone felt like that.
I’m always interested in writing books about the mysterious and inexplicable. Testimony tended to be a personal quest for me to try to understand what was going on, and any future book would need to be the same. I’m not interested in doing any money-spinning “UFOs in Roswell” books, unless I felt there was something else going on. I’m interested in anything and everything that goes on beneath the surface of what we see. I can honestly say my trajectory is moving away from, say, ghosts being the spirits of dead people, or the existence of nuts and bolts UFOs from other worlds, but I am interested in what those phenomena might really be – hallucinations, globs of energy, or whatever.
R&N: The lengths (and scrapes) you go to research your work appears to be pretty legendary. Is there an action man inside you or do you believe in suffering for your art?
MC: I’m too much of a hedonist to consider suffering as a viable option. I believe it’s the job of the writer to provide the reader with experiences, information, or thinking which the reader may not have had themselves. That means continually throwing yourself into new experiences. I’ve never actively turned away from dangerous situations (though not recklessly so) because the experience is a writer’s gold. It’s also important that to make any story come alive, you need to find the telling detail that can only come through experiencing it yourself. Man of action? Hell, yeah. Bring it on.
R&N: Say that tomorrow, you’re going to start on a new piece of work. The last one is completely finished, and you’re free to begin afresh. What process will it go through before it finally sits in our hands, in print?
MC: General mulling over ideas, themes, settings and characters, which takes the most time. Travelling round to real world locations and immersing myself in the atmosphere. Once I know what I’m doing, I write solidly day-in, day-out until I have finished the first draft, without doing any revisions. In the second draft, I put in all the stuff I missed out, work on the characters’ voices, sharpen up the themes and sub-text. Then another couple of drafts to hone it even more, when it’s sent off to my editor. After a few weeks, she comes back with any suggestions she has – thankfully, rarely more than a handful of minor points – and then it’s off to the copy editor. She tackles any ham-fisted sentences or bad grammar, and I accept or change back – you know, sometimes you just love a ham-fisted sentence. I write the blurb and the stuff for Amazon and the catalogues and do a cover brief which goes off to the artist. When the galleys come back from the printer, I go through and check for any literals that have crept in. And then the book comes in, and I see all the stuff that everyone missed but is now too late to do anything about…
R&N: Most of your work has a very British feel, which many UK authors abandon in favor of a more transatlantic style. Is this a deliberate decision on your part, or something that you naturally gravitate towards?
MC: I tend to see writing as dealing with what’s inside me, my thoughts and feelings, rather than any kind of job to make money. That makes the work a little idiosyncratic, rather than some polished, if slightly homogenous, item that will speak in a sort of universal non-voice. The readers I have tend to like that, and the readers who like the non-voice, I don’t want. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being culturally specific. Smart people like what’s going on in a foreign country, and I have lots of American readers who are interested in all things British. Too much of that transatlantic style would make reading a very boring experience, don’t you think?
R&N: So, if for some reason you couldn’t be a writer, what do you think that you’d be doing instead (any childhood dreams of being a train-driver, for example)?
MC: Film director, archaeologist, full-time campaigner for some issue or other. My childhood dream was, sadly, always to be a writer.
R&N: You’re keen on environmental issues. How do you see the current global warming situation unfolding? If you had one piece of advice for the world’s governments, what would it be?
MC: Die. Politicians are barriers to any progress in this world, and I say that even though I work closely with a great many politicians. As a general rule of thumb, politicians only ever achieve up to 50% of what is necessary in any given area, whether because of vested interests, weakness of will and lack of nerve, or whatever. If governments achieve only 50% of what is necessary to combat climate change, it will mean disaster. The onus now lies with the people to drive their governments in the necessary direction, because they’ll never do it on their own. Policy on both sides of the Atlantic gets changed once there is a public outcry. Whether that will happen is a different matter. Generally, I think things will only get done once there is unbearable suffering for a vast percentage of the population. Cynical, I know.
R&N: What were the major influences on your writing?
MC: Books: Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Stephen King, apart from the more literary ones who always look pretentious when you list them in an interview. Films: Citizen Kane, film noir, black and white horror, Ealing comedies. TV: The Prisoner and Twin Peaks. Comics: too many to list.
R&N: If you had to hold just one piece of work up as your finest – what would it be?
MC: “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke”, a novella that won the British Fantasy Award. A big part of it is autobiographical, so it’s even closer to my heart than all my other stuff. Possibly because of that, I feel the writing is the best I’ve done. Pete Crowther who published it under his PS imprint encouraged me to eschew all commercial concerns and just tell a tale from the heart. That freedom, which you don’t often get in mainstream genre publishing, drove me into new areas that I found truly inspirational.
R&N: If we were to pop round to your house, what would we find on your bookshelves?
MC: Many factual books on history, mythology, philosophy, psychology and belief systems, stacks of fantasy, science fiction, and horror by all the great names and usual suspects – Asimov, Bradbury, Dick, Tolkien, Holdstock, Barker, god, too many to name – when I look around, I could virtually build another house out of books – graphic novels, and one or two books of my own.
R&N: What are you reading right now?
MC: A study of the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd, and a biography of J. Edgar Hoover.
R&N: Lots of writers, along with other professionals, have taken to either blogging or hosting web-forums: indeed you have a forum attached to your own website. Many of us have been guilty of spending way too long in such places, but what are the benefits to a writer?
MC: Regular feedback from the readers and just mingling with like-minds, which are always hard to find in the “real world”. They’re actually a curse to writers because they suck up too much time, but occasionally it’s like kicking back in the Cheers bar, where everyone knows your name.
R&N: And when all the hard work’s done how do you relax (apart from drinking Jack Daniels)?
MC: Watching films, listening to music, running, yoga, sleep, antagonising people with different political views.
On that note, we’d like to thank Mark for his time. His next book Jack of Ravens: Kingdom of the Serpent is due for publication by Gollancz in summer 2006, ISBN 0575078006; in the meantime look out for two new graphic novels entitled Book of Shadows, to be published by Image comics in April.
So there I was, drinking myself into an early grave, when she walked in my door. Tall, blonde, and plenty of attitude. Called herself Goldie Locks. Told me she was on the run from some two-bit thugs known as the Ursa Triad. It sounded pretty small time to me, but I hadn’t had a case in over a month and cash was tight.
“I need to find out what they’re after, Mr. Grimm,” she said. “You’re the only one who can help me.” As she spoke, she fluttered those Cinderella eyes of hers at me. I imagine Cinderella, wherever she was, was pretty pissed about that.
Now I’m no dime-store schlump. I can smell a set-up a mile away, and Ms. Locks had deception written all over her. But I was always a sucker for a pretty face, and still young enough to believe I was halfway invincible. It’s the other half, I guess, I should have been worried about.
Locks thanked me for taking the case and slipped a packet of fizzy-pops into my coat pocket on her way out. I wasn’t sure whether it was a down payment, or if she was just flirting with me. Part of me hoped it was both.
I checked that both my .38 Special and my flask of Jack Daniels were fully loaded, then headed out the door.
My first order of business was to get the scoop on these bears. Where were they located? What kind of operation did they run? Was there any chance at all they were strict vegetarians? My usual sources didn’t offer much help. Little Red was doing hard time for putting the knife to some poor lycanthrope. Georgie Porgie had kissed the wrong guy’s girl and landed himself in rehab taking his meals through a straw. I even tried Ginger Breadman, usually my best informant, but apparently she’d played her “can’t catch me” card one too many times with the Russian mafia.
Finally, I cornered a street pusher I knew named Dumpty. A real rotten egg, that one, but a guy in my line of work can’t always be choosy about where he gets his information. Dumpty came on with a real smart mouth at first – that is, until I backed him out onto a ledge and told him I’d mail a piece of him to each of the king’s horses and each of the king’s men if he didn’t spill his guts. That cracked him wide open but good.
So Dumpty told me about some new kid in town who was supposed to know the real score, some hotshot marionette who’d been flashing his money all over and bragging about his connection with the Ursas. Called himself “The Nose.” He frequented the local peep shows, and when I tracked him down he was waist deep in expensive booze and cheap hookers. I could tell this one was going to burn out real quick. Dumpty assured me I could trust the Nose for information, though, because there was a telltale giveaway if the little punk lied.
“I’m looking for three bears,” I told him.
“Aren’t we all,” said the Nose.
“Actually, no,” I said.
“That’s true,” he said.
Okay, so it wasn’t my best interrogation ever.
I introduced him instead to my friends, Mr. Washington and the Lincoln twins – which isn’t a lot of money, but hey, puppets are stupid – and he spilled the beans.
Turned out I was right, and Ms. Locks hadn’t given me the whole story. Oh, she was on the run from the Triad all right, but there was the little matter of their missing three hundred thousand smackers she forgot to mention. Apparently, she’d partnered with them in some counterfeit porridge operation over on the east side. Word had it Locks was real particular, though, and everything had to be “just right.” So when the deal went south, she vamoosed with the bears’ share of the take.
The Nose gave me an address where I could check out the rest for myself. 123 Drury Lane, right next door to the Muffin Man. As it happened, I knew the place all too well.
123 Drury Lane.
The Gingerbread House.
That should have been warning enough.
Candy Land. It sounds real sweet, I know. Dark chocolate sidewalks and mint leaf trees. Who could resist, right? But it’s all a big front, trust me. Underneath the frosted icing and gumdrop façade lies a cesspool of greed, corruption, and a bunch of those really sour candies that make your mouth pucker. I’d had more than my fair share of close calls down there, and a person can only be lucky so many times. But as I said, I was a sucker.
The Gingerbread House was the worst of the lot, the kind of place everybody knew of but nobody talked about. The bawdiest of the bawdyhouses, the brothiest of the brothels, the illest of the houses of ill repute, run by some little old witch who’d decided an honest day’s work baking stray children was no longer enough. By all accounts, the place was a full service outfit, and not just for the Johns either. They covered the ladies and the kinky stuff too. Bo Peep might not have known where her sheep were, but I had my suspicions.
I staked out the house from the alley across the street. The window on the third floor, north side, was my target. That’s where the witch kept her office. My gut told me she was the real mastermind behind the whole operation. There was some activity up there when I first arrived, so I settled in for the long wait. The front entrance to the place worked like a revolving door all evening, with appearances by all the usual clientele: the police chief, the mayor, Little Jack Horner. A real who’s who of the city’s elite.
Shortly after midnight the office went dark, and I climbed the water spout – a little trick I picked up from a diminutive arachnid I’d once collared.
The office was a mess. Sweet bread recipes and old betting stubs littered the floor. Apparently the witch had a real weak spot for the horses. But it was the long streak of old dried blood on the floor that drew my attention. It led from the door to the large, cast-iron oven in the corner. I slid open the grate and soon wished I hadn’t. Someone must have forgotten to set the egg timer, because whoever was in there had been charcoaled beyond recognition.
I surveyed the office again. Clearly someone had been looking for a certain something, probably the same something I was looking for, a something I didn’t think they’d found. That was something to consider. I doubted the witch had trashed her own office, which meant a third party. It occurred to me that perhaps Ms. Locks had taken matters into her own hands.
I hoped that wasn’t her in the oven, though. I hadn’t been paid yet.
I went to the desk and located the false panel in the bottom of the third drawer on the left – any detective worth his nickel knows that’s where the secret files are kept. The drawer was stuffed with papers full of chemical formulas, shipping itineraries, and addresses for every bakery inside the city limits. Whatever I’d stumbled onto, it was a lot bigger than porridge.
Two packages lay under the files, white bricks wrapped in clear plastic. Drugs? Smack? Blow? That didn’t strike me as the witch’s style. She dealt in flesh, not pharmaceuticals. I sliced one package open with my utility knife and stuck my finger in. It was thick and powdery. I touched it to my tongue, then immediately spit it out.
It all came together then – the formulas, the plans, the shipments. I could see now that the porridge operation was just a front. What the witch was really planning was something so diabolical even I had trouble believing it: the substitution of all the sugar in Candy Land.
Everybody has their limits, and I’d just hit mine. No one messed with the sugar supply on my watch. The witch had gone too far. I could overlook the bestiality, but I drew the line at maltodextrin and aspartame. I knew right then and there what I would do, how to expose the whole operation. It was a sound plan, perhaps one of the best I’d ever devised, and it probably would have worked, too, if someone hadn’t blackjacked me from behind right at that moment.
When I opened my eyes, my head was throbbing, and it wasn’t an ice cream headache. The room was dark except for some flickering light visible through the oven grate. A fire now crackled inside, and a faint sulphuric-like odor I couldn’t quite place scented the air. I was seated in a chair, and my hands were secured fast behind me.
A shuffling sound came from the other side of the room.
“Who’s there?” I said.
“Me,” squeaked a heavily accented voice.
A pudgy boy with thick, yellow curls and wearing green and brown striped knickers stepped into the light.
“Hansel, mein Herr,” he said.
I knew the kid, had rescued him and his sister from the witch over a year ago and gotten them into witness protection. Unfortunately, the case mistrialed after the jury ate most of the evidence.
The kid looked a mess. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes moved constantly, darting from one shadowy corner to another. Clear signs of a sugar addict.
“I need to get you out,” I said. “Is Gretel here too?”
Hansel wrung his hands. “She killed her, Herr Grimm.”
My throat caught. “The witch killed Gretel?”
Hansel shook his head. “No, mein Herr. Gretel killed the witch. Burnt her to a crisp, in her very own oven. Oh, the screams, mein Herr, the screams. Mein Gott, the screams.”
He burst into tears, a real spectacle of heaving sobs and flabby shudders. I would have slapped the little doughboy a couple of times to calm him down if I could have gotten my hands free.
So Gretel had killed the witch. I can’t say it surprised me. Not everyone bought into the Stockholm syndrome. But if Gretel had truly gone over the edge, there was no telling what she might do next.
“Do you know what’s pinning my arms?” I asked.
Hansel nodded. “It’s fruitcake, mein Herr, and I can’t break it.” That set him off blubbering again.
Damn. Fruitcake. The hardest substance known to man. They were really playing for keeps.
The door to the room slammed open, and Gretel’s outline filled the frame. She was plumper than I remembered. Her hair was one long tangle, and powdery smudges covered her face and dress like little frosted footprints. She waddled into the room followed by three bears.
“What’s the matter, mein Bruder?” Gretel said to Hansel. “Contemplating a little heroism to compensate for that low self-esteem and high-calorie fixation of yours?”
Hansel shoved past her and ran down the hallway sobbing.
“You’re a real Glockenspiel,” I said. It was the only German I knew.
Gretel chuckled, a low throaty laugh that made my ears twitch. She trailed her finger along my cheek. “You should have minded your own business, Herr Grimm,” she said.
I shrugged. “I was hired to do a job.”
“Ah, yes, the Locks girl.” Gretel stepped back and snapped her fingers. The smallest of the bears opened the wood box near the oven, and a body flopped out. It was my employer all right. Even sprawled on the floor with her neck at that impossible angle she looked beautiful – in an “I was bludgeoned to death with a pastry roller” sort of way.
I looked the bear in the eye. “I bet you think that makes you a real Ursa Major, huh?”
He snarled and pounded his forepaw into my solar-plexus. I decided I really needed to learn to keep my mouth shut – either that, or start ducking.
“So what now, Gretel?” I managed between gasps for breath. “Wasn’t killing the witch enough? Surely you don’t blame all of Candy Land for her actions?”
“No,” she said, “I simply have an incurable sweet tooth, and posing as the witch these past several months has given me the means of feeding it. I’m diverting all incoming sugar shipments here and swapping it out for that low-cal Scheiße.”
“You’ll never get away with it,” I said.
“Oh, on the contrary, Herr Grimm, I think I will. At least, I will if there are no witnesses left behind to point the sugar-coated finger.”
She snapped her fingers again, and the largest bear stepped over to a pot on the oven that I hadn’t seen when the room was still dark. I watched in horror as he lifted the lid and the scent I’d had trouble placing hit me full in the face. Dumpty’s withered face bobbed amidst the frothing bubbles, a cruel end for yet another of the city’s hard-boiled criminals.
“And the Nose?” I asked.
Gretel chuckled. “Who do you think is fuelling the fire?”
“You twisted little bitch,” I said. That only made her laugh harder.
She snapped her fingers for a third time, and the bears started towards me then. I saw my life flash before my eyes – mainly hours spent on my mother’s knee as she read me fairy tales and nursery rhymes, no doubt thinking what a wonderful education she was providing. Talk about naive.
Sometimes the best plan is no plan at all, and as the smallest bear reached for me I jumped up and swung around with all my might. I must have wished upon the right star that night, because I connected with one lucky solid thud that shattered both the fruitcake and his jaw. He was dead before he hit the floor.
I turned and threw a wild swing at the second bear, but I guess it was one of those “fool us twice, shame on us” things. She dodged easily and clubbed me to the floor, and soon the two remaining bears held me fast between them.
Gretel stood against the back wall caressing my own .38 in her hands. I couldn’t believe I was going to die by my own gun – not that I preferred dying by anyone else’s.
“Any last requests?” asked Gretel.
“John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt?” I said.
She laughed and fired. Twice. Two bodies dropped to the floor beside me.
“I did learn one thing from Ms. Locks,” said Gretel. “My share of the take was too small. But now it’s just right.”
She grinned and pointed the gun at my chest. I played my one last, desperate hand. I reached slowly into my jacket pocket and brought out the package of fizzy-pops Locks had dropped there back in my office.
“Would you like some candy?”
Her eye twitched, and she licked her lips.
I checked the label. “Uh, butterscotch.”
The gun crackled, and the impact spun me to the floor. My shoulder burned. Gretel walked over to me and I looked up into her face. This close I could see that the little girl I had rescued all those months ago was truly gone, never to return. The sugar owned her now.
“I hate butterscotch,” she said.
She pressed the gun to my forehead.
“Gretel!” came a shout from the doorway.
Gretel spun and fired, but too late. Hansel tackled her and his momentum carried them both through the candy glass window and down to the sidewalk below. At thirty feet up, the fact the sidewalk was essentially a giant Hershey bar didn’t help much.
I popped a couple of the candies in my mouth, then took a good long drink from my flask. I knew the booze was slowly killing me, but I figured that at least that night it would have to wait in line. I pushed myself to my feet and staggered back down to the street. Gretel was dead, but Hansel still had a few shallow breaths left in him. I knelt to hear his last words on this earth.
“All I wanted was to be loved,” he whispered through bloodied lips.
“That’s a real shame, kid,” I said.
What can I say? I’m not the sentimental type.
I checked out of the hospital twenty-four hours later. My shoulder still hurt like hell, but I can’t abide sitting around doing nothing – unless I’m on the job. Besides, fairy tale characters make lousy doctors.
So there I was, back in my office, bruised and broken, with little to show for my troubles. It wasn’t all bad, I suppose. I did have three new fur rugs and a month’s supply of egg sandwiches. And, more importantly, I’d learned a valuable lesson that night that has served me well ever since: even little girls who are made of sugar and spice and everything nice can have psychotic breaks that lead to episodes of megalomania and rampant serial killing.
Oh yeah, and take it from me: fizzy-pops and whiskey don’t mix.
Wade Albert White lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife and their two energetic sons. He is a student in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto where he has recently been given the green light to begin work on his dissertation, a commentary on a selection of Old Greek Psalms. His fiction has appeared previously in such places as Strange Horizons, Lenox Avenue, Fortean Bureau, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.
“Murder in Candy Land” began originally as an homage to the Sherlock Holmes tradition, but strayed far afield and degenerated into its current form after too many late nights up typing while ingesting sugary treats.
Postscripts, Peter Crowther, ed. PS Publishing
I don’t ordinarily review magazines since there are so many excellent magazines dedicated to short fiction: LOCUS (subscriptions available at Locus), Tangent, the Internet Review of Science Fiction. But Postscripts is a new magazine – only five issues thus far – and from the United Kingdom.
The magazine is a beautiful product. Unlike F&SF and Asimov’s, Postscripts is printed on high quality paper bound inside a heavy cover illustrated with superior cover art. It feels expensive and is, relatively speaking. But it’s worth it.
And the fiction is, for the most part, excellent. Curiously, the editor and assistant editor, Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers, include horror and suspense and a little bit of mainstream as well as science fiction and fantasy. The stories as a whole tend to have a more classic feel than some of the American magazines. While Asimov’s publishes endless stories of rehashed cyberpunk and pale imitations of Ursula LeGuin – and some good stories as well – and Analog mostly hearkens back to days when literacy was frowned upon, Postscripts straddles the line. Many of the stories feel classic in the sense that they explore a ‘What if?’ scenario, but they are also well-written.
Gene Wolfe’s “Comber” is very much an example. What if an entire city was on a rock floating on the ocean and was about to collide with another such city as it slid down a wave? A neat concept, lovingly written, but unfortunately marred by a thin story. Mr. Wolfe’s “Prize Crew” is your basic monster-in-space story but told in a unique and lyrical voice. Peter F. Hamilton’s “Footvote” wonders what would happen if a wormhole were opened and the opener wanted to create an idyllic world on the other side? (See my review of Burn below.) Is it worth the risk or merely a lunatic’s pipe dream? Eric Brown’s “A Choice of Eternities” questions not only the value of immortality, but also the morality of ‘fixing’ a mentally handicapped child. Rhys Hughes’ “The Old House Under the Snow Where Nobody Goes Except You and Me Tonight” (My goodness!) is an old-fashioned adventure story. Somewhere on a mountain a wealthy eccentric had a house erected by lunatics. Long since lost, two explorers go in search of it and discover a trap of enormous complexity. The ending turns, literally, on a basic scientific fact. Alastair Reynolds’ “Zima Blue” asks what sorts of ultimate goals an artificial intelligence might have, and, incidentally, what a return to the womb might be for such a creature.
Two of Joe Hill’s stories are here, including “Best New Horror,” a horror story in which the ending is telegraphed from the get-go, but it doesn’t matter because the voice (yes, again with the voice) is authentic. His “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead” is mainstream. The eponymous character returns from a failed Hollywood career to be an extra in a Romero film to discover the woman he once loved has moved on. There’s nothing fantastic but it is beautifully moving. Lawrence Person’s “Starving Africans” is another beautiful horror story – the endless genocides in Africa are better considered horrific than mainstream – about two journalists. The story is marred only by an ending that thuds with an embarrassing lack of subtlety. Brain A. Hopkins “Peninsula Valdes” is likewise mainstream, and, like “Comber”, a bit thin, but is a lovely meditation on good and evil through an analysis of whale behavior.
And, starting with issue number two, Postscripts is publishing a Zoran Zivkovic story suite. Arguably the most absurd or surreal or slipstream or New Weird or whatever of the stories thus published, Mr. Zivkovic’s stories are a favorite of mine since they start out set in vague, nameless locales (a hospital, train or library), and rapidly become something weird. The weirdness is amplified by the transparent prose the translator’s chosen. (I’ve no idea if the original Serbian is equally transparent.) If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of Mr. Zivkovic’s work, Postscripts is a fine place to start.
Postscripts is a magazine whose contents cover the entire map of speculative fiction (except perhaps those subcategories which are ever-present in Asimov’s) and they are always lovingly written and very much exhibit a refreshing British gentility. If you read only one type of speculative fiction, chances are Postscripts is not for you. But if you enjoy quality writing regardless of genre, give Postscripts a shot.
It’s been eleven years since we’ve had a James Patrick Kelly novel, which is far too long, and also, if you’re like me and a little uncertain about his recent incursion into metaphysics (see “Bernardo’s House” and “The Edge of Nowhere”), a welcome return to a more traditional James Patrick Kelly story, a story of ideas.
Above, I mentioned Mr. Hamilton’s story “Footvote” which starts and ends with a steady stream of people applying to a newly found planet in search of utopia. Mr. Kelly’s novel Burn directly addresses such a supposed utopia. What if an eccentric billionaire (Are there any other kind?) purchased an entire planet and imposed the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau?
Prosper Gregory Leung, Spur to his friends, is in a hospital recovering from serious burns incurred while fighting forest fires set by terrorists on the planet Walden. (It’s tempting and trendy to extrapolate something about current affairs, but I think such analyses are usually too forced.) He lives by strict rules which disallow the use of technology except for basic needs, but while in the hospital, the rules are suspended. His doctor is a human mind entangled in quantum foam and given physical substance through a telepresence robot. Idle minds being the devil’s playground, Spur uses the tell (a fancy version of the internet) to look up other people with his last name. One of Mr. Kelly’s strengths is his particular attention to names. It turns out Leung is a common name, as common or more so than Smith or Jones, but instead of falling on American-centric names, Mr. Kelly invokes a more inclusive universe. (There are other writers who do so as well, but many are lazy.)
Spur accidentally contacts the High Gregory, a child prodigy and sort-of-clone who has memories of previous High Gregorys implanted in his own mind. When asked what he does, he says, “I make luck.” It turns out he doesn’t make luck so much as make trouble. He travels to Walden to make luck, but he’s an ‘upsider’, with access to technology forbidden on Walden.
What you would more or less expect to happen when high technology meets a simpler lifestyle does. More or less. One of the great strengths of this novella is that the science fictional parts – quantum-entangled minds and so forth – are portrayed in quick-and-dirty infodumps – and you’ve read this sort of thing before – while life on Walden is given depth and an alien feel with seamlessly integrated discussions of the various types of apple trees, their flavors, and the different challenges in growing each type as well as a detailed explanation of forest firefighting techniques. Not the stuff of ordinary life or ordinary science fiction. But chances are you, like me, know more about fancy science than the stuff of parochial life. If the best means of portraying an alien society is through the small details of daily life, Walden is truly an alien society. And the baseball game, which is anything but baseball and much more like Calvin ball, is as alien as it gets.
And the terrorists? Aliens, of course, who oppose the forestation of their planet. Imagine a world trying to make more forest rather than less. But they’re not truly alien – no more than Spur and his society – they’re only humans who have lived on Walden before it was Walden and have no interest in accepting the simple life. So, they start forest fires, usually immolating themselves in the process, which is equally as dumb as strapping a bomb to the chest.
The accident which burns Spur is no accident, and the identity of the traitors is obvious. But Mr. Kelly does not rely on standard plotting techniques to drive the story. (Note to beginning writers: This is often the difference between publishable and unpublishable stories.) He relies on the complex interaction between Spur and the High Gregory, and the High Gregory’s entourage, to examine the shortcomings of utopia even in a super-advanced universe.
Justina Robson’s Silver Screen isn’t new. It was first published in the U.K. in 1999 and was shortlisted for the BFSA Best Novel Award, which is why Pyr is now publishing it in North America for the first time. (Before the internet, repackaging popular books made sense; but now, with the ease of buying books through Amazon and so forth, I wonder if this is still necessary.) Is the book worth it? Depends.
I first picked it up because it promised a lead character, a woman, who wasn’t thin and gorgeous. I felt I owed the book a chance since I had picked on the implicit correlation between innate goodness and outward beauty when I reviewed The Iron Tree. In Silver Screen, I was disappointed because her figure plays no role. Her weight is as much a factor as if a character has brown eyes. (How many books do you finish and not recall the characters’ eye colors?) I felt as if I’d been misled, thinking part of the story would discuss the impact of weight on women in our society. So, is it merely enough to have an overweight heroine, or should it impact the story? It probably is simply enough to have a non-traditional heroine, though the fact that there is a heroine at all – and not a hero – is, by historical standards, non-traditional.
I’m also somewhat hesitant to read first novels. Ideas in first novels tend, for obvious reasons, to be derivative. Characters are often defined by one or two overwhelming characteristics, or worse, are cardboard cutouts. And transitions tend to be choppy. All of these flaws are found in Silver Screen.
The novel opens with Anjuli O’Connell at a corporate school, where children are groomed to be cogs in the corporate machine, and meets Roy and Jane Croft. Anjuli cannot forget anything, but has great difficulty comprehending the meaning of what she knows. Roy is a socially-inept super-genius. Jane is his cold, less socially-inept, but probably more intelligent and very bitter, sister. The novel cuts to much later, when Anjuli is a machine psychologist on an orbital platform overseeing an AI known as 901. She’s ostensibly watching for any deviation from normality because at least one previous AI may have had a psychotic break. However, all she knows of 901’s actions are fed to her by it. Jane is living in a commune dedicated to avoiding all but the very simplest of technology.
Anjuli discovers Roy is dead.
High jinx ensue. It quickly becomes apparent that Roy was attempting to maneuver the courts into a hearing that would determine if 901 should be considered an autonomous entity. The corporation, naturally, is opposed. Did they kill him? Or was it his efforts to upload himself into a virtual community? Why did Jane run to the commune? Does Roy’s diary contain the secret machine code that will unlock self-consciousness? What’s their monomaniacal, evangelical father got to do with it? What malevolence hides in his monastery? What malevolence hides in Anjuli’s boyfriend’s AI-powered military combat suit? Who’s trying to assassinate Anjuli? What does her bicycle-repairman brother have to do with all of this? (Read any new idea yet?)
There are, however, exciting set pieces, particularly one in which Anjuli and her boyfriend use the military suit to invade Roy and Jane’s father’s monastery in search of Roy’s diary. And I have never read anything like the impossible orrery Roy builds as a child.
There are plenty of ideas, some of which are interesting, but the novel is choppy and uneven. However, it is a first novel, and Ms. Robson has more novels available. I won’t be running out to get them, but I’ll read them sooner or later.
He wove through the ballroom, past swan princesses and pirate kings, dodging breasts and codpieces as they vied for prominence. The reflection of crystal tears flashed as he drained his martini, the dancers distorted by the bottom of his glass. Not a hair out of place, not a wrinkle to be seen. A vampire masquerade – the revelers pumped with Botox instead of blood.
She leaned against the bar, arms spread-eagled to draw admiring glances to her décolletage. Her breasts nestled together, separated only by a faint curve of shadow.
He handed his glass to the bartender and leaned beside her. “I’m glad we came. Fun crowd, don’t you think?”
“I suppose. Same as usual. Why someone can’t come up with something more original than a swan princess, I don’t know.”
He slipped a finger between her feathered breasts. “Dr. Fried did a fantastic job. They’re beautiful. You’re beautiful.”
She shrugged him off, and faced the bar. “Everyone’s beautiful,” she replied, staring at the figures whirling in the mirror.
The next morning, he came downstairs to find a midget sitting at the breakfast table. Not a midget, a dwarf. The head bloomed like a peony, overshadowing the rest of the body. He didn’t know what to say. Her eyes glistened at his confusion.
“Don’t be rude. Say hello to Rollo.”
Rollo nodded, head bobbing over bacon and eggs.
He sat across from Rollo and peeled an orange into a spiral before asking, “What’s he doing here?”
“I can see that. Why is he doing it here?”
“I hired him. He lives here.”
She was enjoying herself. The sparkle of vivacity added warmth to her beauty.
“Did someone quit? I didn’t know we needed another servant.”
“No one quit. Rollo isn’t a servant. He’s an accessory, a complement.”
“I see. Like a scarf.
Rollo belched, and she beamed.
The day after her surgery, he watched her walk across the bedroom with the dainty steps of a geisha. He couldn’t remember which of her body parts was closer to perfection – bandages swathed her legs from the knee down.
She scanned the date book on her desk. “The fund raiser for burn victims is on the twenty-eighth. I scheduled you for a tummy tuck on the nineteenth. You looked a little paunchy the other night when you stood next to that Phillips from your office.”
“Phillips is fifteen years younger than I am.”
“That’s no excuse. I did not like him at all. He was hanging onto Frank Thompson as if he owned him. I’m sure that he’s after your job. We don’t want anyone getting the idea that someone younger might be more suited to your position, do we? You know how obsessed Frank is about maintaining a youthful image for the company.”
He looked down at his stomach. It didn’t look the slightest bit paunchy. He remembered the gut that his father had developed in later years, and that he used to look exactly like his father. In those days, his father still doled nuggets of wisdom such as “Figure out your goals, then go after them like a tiger.” He had taken the advice and torn his way to wealth with flexed claws, but the goals were all achieved long ago. “All right, I’ll have the tuck. Just remind me the day before.” Remembering his father’s laugh lines, he asked, “Do you ever wonder what you would look like without surgery?”
She laughed and shuddered. “Only in my nightmares. Can you imagine? Growing old and wrinkled while everyone around you looks young and beautiful? No, thank you. I’d never leave the house. That reminds me, I need you to walk Rollo for a few days, until these bandages come off. Make sure you take him all the way around the block so everyone can see how sweet he looks in his new booties and hat.”
That evening, Rollo and he strolled past the house three doors down, and found a contortionist balanced in the middle of the lawn like a flamingo’s ghost. A few days later, an armless man pruned rosebushes at the house on the corner. The armless man waved his shears as they passed.
The bandages came off, and she craned to examine the arc of her calves in a mirror. “I won’t be home tonight. I have an appointment with Dr. Fried. He wants me to overnight at the clinic.”
He watched Rollo wind around her legs like a cat. “Overnight? What are you having done?”
“Bone sculpting. It’s nothing serious, just a few shaves from my ribs and the back of my head.”
“What’s wrong with the back of your head?”
“I don’t know. It’s feels lumpy. Here.” She took his hand and pressed it to the base of her skull. “Feel that?”
“I think it’s supposed to feel like that.”
“Dr. Fried said it could be a little smoother.”
“If you say so. I’ve got an appointment with him tomorrow at three. Just a collagen plumping. Do you want me to pick you up?”
“No, I’ll have Ramon bring the car around. I should be home by noon.”
“Call me if you need anything.”
“I will. Can you feed Rollo tonight?”
Pelvis on pelvis, the nightclub pounded. He scanned the coral reef of dancers, their perfect limbs writhing in invisible current, and settled on high breasts, a flowing mane of hair, and a wine stem waist. His choice eliminated about half of the crowd – the men and those who chose to look like men.
He closed his eyes and ran a finger across the bottles of liqueur that lined the bar. Opening his eyes, he found that his finger rested on the poisonous hue of Midori. Not his favorite color, but not the worst choice, either. Green, then. He turned back to the dancers.
He counted six. Of them, only two had hair the day-glo green of Midori. He descended to the dance floor and wove through the crowd, sliding past the assembly line hips and thighs until one of the Midori girls pulsed before him.
She was beautiful. They were all beautiful.
He awoke to find a boy staring down at him with eyes like magic eight balls. All the rage at the moment with the pre-teen crowd. Anime-inspired waif faces peered with pensive yearning from playgrounds and schoolyards. The boy flared nearly invisible nostrils, dispelling the illusion of melancholy.
“Grandma? Grandma! It’s time to get up. I can’t be late today. I have a test in first period.”
The Midori head rose from the pillow, not a hair out of place.
He went home to find the house dark and still. He tripped over Rollo in the living room.
The bandages came off, and he had to admit that the back of her head was more beautiful. He fingered his skull with worry and made an appointment with Dr. Fried. On the day of the surgery, he ran into his accountant’s wife in the waiting room. Beside her sat a bearded lady.
He didn’t know where to look as the wife streamed gossip. She noticed his discomfort and laughed. “You can stare if you want to. She doesn’t mind. Do you, Ursula?”
Ursula combed the beard with her fingers. “No, Ma’am.”
Once invited, he couldn’t tear his gaze from the wisps of dark fleece grazing Ursula’s ears or the brown downiness of her arms. She had the beard of an Assyrian king – a rhythm of oiled ringlets cascading over her breasts. The nurse called his name, and he nearly forgot to say good-bye to the accountant’s wife as he shook Ursula’s hand. Even the backs of her fingers were furred.
He gingerly patted the bandage at the base of his skull, wondering how much bone Dr. Fried had removed, and if the sear of pain was normal. “I saw Miriam Baines at Dr. Fried’s yesterday.”
“Oh? How did she look?”
“Beautiful. She had a bearded lady with her. Ursula.”
“A bearded lady? With a real beard?”
“It looked real. I wanted to touch it, but I felt funny about asking.”
Annoyance flitted over her face, quickly smoothed away to prevent creasing between her eyes. “Huh. I wonder where she found a bearded lady. That won’t do. That won’t do at all.”
Five dwarves sat at the breakfast table the next morning. He stood against the counter and sipped orange juice. The dwarves occupied all the chairs.
“Are all of them staying here?”
“Don’t be a grouch. They’re adorable. Rollo looked so lost without his family. You can take the two littlest ones into work with you. It’ll be fun.”
“I don’t want to take them to work with me. Who’s going to watch them?”
“They don’t need to be watched. They’re very well-behaved. Show him, Rollo.”
Rollo whistled and the two most dwarfish dwarves hand-sprung across the tiles and landed neatly. They bowed from the waist and returned to their seats.
“Well…maybe. Just for today.” He looked at her for the first time since entering the room. “Did you have something done yesterday? You look different. You look beautiful.”
She leaned among the dwarves, her face a slender bud beside the misshapen heads, and smiled up at him. “I know,” she whispered. “I know.”
At the office, he stood next to the Vice President in the elevator. The Vice President winked as the dwarves entered. The Vice President’s elephant man winked as well.
He took her to dinner at Pastiche for their anniversary. The restaurant didn’t have booster chairs, and the dwarves looked mournful with the table truncating their faces below their eyes.
She scanned the diners. “I can’t believe that cheekbones are back in again already. It seems like just yesterday that I had them taken out. Look, everyone has them. I’m calling Dr. Fried first thing in the morning. I’ll make an appointment for you, too.”
“There’s Fred Bennett. I’m pretty sure it’s Fred Bennett.”
“Over there, with the Siamese twins.”
“Stop waving. You’re making a fool of yourself. The Bennetts have a Human Torso, not Siamese twins.”
“I could have sworn that was Fred Bennett.” Rollo rested his nose on the table. “Shouldn’t we ask the waiter if he has phonebooks they can sit on? No one can see them down there. I can barely see them myself.”
“Rollo, sweetie? Would you guys mind standing in your chairs while we eat? Thanks, you’re a peach.”
As they left the restaurant, a man entered – a man with a beautiful face and a beautiful body. The entire restaurant gasped at the albino pinhead leaning on the man’s arm.
He drove home in disgruntled silence, and she spoke sharply to Rollo’s wife when the children climbed into the back window and imitated bobbleheads.
She slit open a creamy envelope and read the invitation. “The Smiths are giving a masquerade party at the club. Do you feel like going?”
“I guess. Is there a theme?”
“The usual. Swan Princess and Pirate King. B.Y.O.F.”
“The dwarves need new outfits. Something brighter so they stand out.”
“I already have a designer working on it. She’s sewing neon tubing into their clothes. The colors change every five minutes.”
“Good. I didn’t see them all night at the last party. Everyone wondered who the hell I was.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You always exaggerate.”
Voices and music stifled the air. A reflection of crystal tears flashed in his empty glass, and he wound through the living labyrinth to the bar.
He asked for a blue martini. The bartender swirled Curacao into the colorless vodka. It still tasted like a martini when he sipped it, for all its blue hue and lime-stuffed olive. The band tossed a riff of surf guitar at the crowd, and the dancers threw up their hands and spun with dervish frenzy. Swan princesses and pirate kings lined the walls, obelisks watching over their temple.
He had lost sight of her hours ago. Rollo and his brood dove into the fray of freaks as soon they entered the room. She followed and was swallowed by the chaos crowd.
A fat lady waltzed with an illustrated man. A dog-faced boy bounded around a gorilla girl. Flippers slapped and stumps thumped. A giant cradled a golden-haired midget against his chest.
Ursula sailed past him, in the arms of a three-legged man. He thought she threw him a smile, but he couldn’t be sure through her beard.
The swan princesses and pirate kings never lowered their frozen stares, and the freaks never stopped laughing.
A man shouldered in next to him and leaned over the bar, waving a bill to attract the bartender’s attention. While he waited, the man asked, “Which one’s yours?”
“I’ve got five dwarves out there somewhere.”
“I guess they’re hard to keep track of in a crowd. That’s why I got the giant. That’s him over there. You can spot him a mile away.”
“He’s a tall one.”
The bartender pulled the bill from the man’s hand. “Another blue martini?”
The man frowned, his eyebrows raised in disapproval. “Blue martini? You’ve got me confused with someone else. Whisky on the rocks. Same as last time.”
His hand trembled as he set the blue martini on the bar to avoid spilling it as he examined the man’s perfect profile. The dark eyes were similar, as was the curve of the mouth and the solid chin. He involuntarily traced the dips and ridges of his own face, his lips stretching in silent disbelief as his fingers affirmed the likeness.
The music and the laughter intensified and sickened him. He stumbled to the restroom. A long line of cool white stalls damped the noise as he leaned over a sink, retching.
The nausea passed, and he splashed water over his face.
Stall doors slammed. “You all right, buddy?”
He lifted his head and looked at the faces in the mirror. The dark eyes, the curved mouths, the solid chins. One of them was his, but he wasn’t sure which. He blindly flailed his hand, but only smooth, impenetrable glass met his touch. He slid to the floor.
“He needs a doctor. Somebody see if there’s one out there.”
“What’s your name, buddy? Who’s here with you?”
His faces looked down at him. He drifted in a sea of unknowing. In the distance, an island slowly sank beneath the waves.
“Buddy! Come on, who are you?”
The door burst open. Comforting hands cradled his face and a familiar voice called his name.
He clutched Rollo, lifting him in his arms as he rose to his feet. Burying his face in Rollo’s neck, he whispered, “I’m okay now. Everything’s all right. I know who I am.
“I’m the one with the dwarf.”
They lay by the pool, reflections rippling their bodies. Rollo played croquet on the lawn with his children.
She rubbed oil onto his back. “Your appointment with Dr. Fried is tomorrow. Tell him to touch up your eyes while he’s at it. They look a little puffy.”
Rollo hit a ball and missed the hoop. The dwarf children shouted laughter.
He turned over and watched the play of light on his stomach. A drowned tiger, submerged in a sunlit pool. “How would you feel if I was shorter?”
“Shorter? How much shorter?”
“I don’t know. I just think I’d like to be shorter.”
“After all you went through with the bone extensions, I can’t imagine why you’d want to be shorter. You’re just overtired.”
“I’ve decided my boobs are too small. Dr. Fried said he can fit me in next week.”
“They’re beautiful. You’re beautiful.”
“But they’re not perfect. Oh, and guess what? We’ll have six freaks at the next party. The Baines are moving to a condo and they don’t have room for their bearded lady anymore. Ursula’s starting with us next week. Isn’t that fantastic?”
The sun’s never-changing face beat against them, two familiar strangers, as he thought of Ursula’s downy fingers. He imagined Ursula tracing his chest, striping his body with acceptance and contentment.
He watched Rollo – freak, father, man – scoop up the dwarf children and whirl across the lawn, a carousel of laughter.
Wondering how Ursula would feel if he was shorter, he said, “Fantastic? It’s perfect.”
E.N. Wilson is a freelance writer. She lives in a swamp with her husband and a cat, and wrestles alligators in her free time. Fortunately, she doesn’t have a lot of free time.
My mother is a self-confessed plastic surgery addict. That, along with the current spate of reality makeover shows, made me wonder when it became unacceptable to accept yourself, how far will society take it, and what are the ramifications of focusing self-image solely on the permutable skin.