The Island of Dreaming Beasts

Crowdfunding is a mad old thing, isn’t it? It’s a slippery, tricksy little git which has all the hallmarks of publishing’s trademark factor – alchemy. You can add all the same ingredients and get totally different results every time. If you’re really lucky you might even get some idea why.

However! There are two Kickstarters going on right now which have got it right, which I recommend you checking out. Bonanza days for fans of weird fiction.

This Dreaming Isle

After the success of 2084 last year, it was inevitable that we’d do another Kickstarter over at Unsung Stories. So when editor Dan Coxon came to me with an anthology idea, contributor list and fistful of stories…

This Dreaming Isle a collection of dark fantasy, weird and horror fiction dedicated to the landscape of the United Kingdom. And it’s another ridiculous contributor list, so all kudos to Dan for pulling that together.

We launched it last month, with the campaign finishing this Thursday, so you’ve got a couple more days to get in on the Kickstarter exclusives. And that cover artwork is by Jordan Grimmer. He’s ace.

Disturbing the Beast

Boudicca Press are a new outfit dedicated to publishing new weird, literary and relationship fiction by women writers in the UK. Basically, they’re 100% on point for right now. It’s run by Helen and Nici, a pair of editors with bucketsful of intelligence, experience and passion. They’re Good People and they’re doing A Good Thing.

The Kickstarter for their launch collection is halfway through and they’re very nearly there – so if you’re reading this, go check it out, and get behind the project.

They’re publishing new stories from Aliya Whiteley and Kirsty Logan, so there’s two reasons for you right there.

(I recently read Logan’s The Rental Heart, and it was gorgeous, lyrical, frequently surprising, and frankly far too racy to be reading on public transport in places. Loved it.)

One last thing to say about Boudicca Press and indie publishing – a few years back I was just a guy with a logo, a bunch of motivation and the good faith of some excellent writers. That Unsung has turned into what it has is a source of constant wonder to me, and is thanks to lots of you out there.

The Boudicca eds are just as good as me, just as motivated, and already have excellent writers on board. With a bit of love and faith now, they’ll be able to bring us the goods for years to come!

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Nine Worlds 2018

That’s right, Nine Worlds time! This weekend the Novotel Hammersmith is home to the full-regalia geeky con. All the SFF content, Knightmare Live, lectures on why Bill & Ted 1 is the only film to get the philosphy of time travel right, and some top-drawer cosplay. They had a guy dressed as Londo Mollari* last year, FFS.

I’m going to be there all weekend, wearing a different hat every day. So if you’re at the con make sure to come and say hi!

  • The Only Way is Indie! I’m talking about indie publishing and all the wondrous things it represents at 5pm on Friday.
  • Pop-up stall! Unsung will be running a pop-up stall on theSaturday afternoon so you can all come and pick up books, including Pseudotooth by Verity Holloway and You Will Grow Into Them by Malcolm Devlin. Which is important because…
  • Verity Holloway and Malcolm Devlin are all over Sunday, and I’ll be there to watch them! They’re talking about things like the folkhorror revival, disability in SFF and intoxicants in fiction. And if that doesn’t sound like a good day out, what’s wrong with you?

It’s going to be lots of fun, as always – hopefully see you there!

 

 * What do you mean you don’t know who Londo Mollari is? Next you’ll be telling me you can’t tell Zafras from Zafras…

 

Unsung at the British Fantasy Awards

This is what us in the trade call A Good Day. The shortlists for the British Fantasy Awards were announced yesterday and I’m somewhat staggered to report that Unsung has got three nominations this year.

As well as Malcolm Devlin’s ridiculously good collection, You Will Grow Into Them, there are nominations for 2084, the anthology of dystopian fiction inspired by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four I edited, and Unsung Stories as the best indie press overall. If anyone asks, my official comment is: meep.

The shortlists are the usual cavalcade of excellence so to be associated with such a fine set of people and work is already entirely groovy. Also, pro tip: When getting nominated for awards use numbers as the book title so you come up first on the list*.

Best Anthology
· 2084, ed. George Sandison (Unsung Stories)
· Dark Satanic Mills: Great British Horror Book 2, ed. Steve Shaw (Black Shuck Books)
· Imposter Syndrome, ed. James Everington & Dan Howarth (Dark Minds Press)
· New Fears, ed. Mark Morris (Titan Books)
· Pacific Monsters, ed. Margret Helgadottir (Fox Spirit)

Best Collection
· Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury)
· Strange Weather, by Joe Hill (Gollancz)
· Tanith by Choice, by Tanith Lee (Newcon Press)
· Tender: Stories, by Sofia Samatar (Small Beer Press)
· You Will Grow Into Them, by Malcolm Devlin (Unsung Stories)

Best Independent Press
· Fox Spirit
· Grimbold Books
· Newcon Press
· Salt Publishing
· Unsung Stories

It’s great to see the other categories celebrating people like Nina Allan, Tade Thompson, RJ Barker, Lucy Hounsom’s podcasting, Anna Smith-Spark and the mighty TTA Press crew as well. There’s some fine work coming up at the moment. Just spare a thought for the poor buggers who have to judge the Best Fantasy Novel category – that’s a doozer.

* A long time ago, in a hangover far away I went to the Edinburgh Festival as part of a comedy sketch show. As part of Aaaaargh Productions – because it guaranteed we’d be first in every listing…

Reading for the Shadow Booth

I’ve had a good year for publications with a few things either out or placed, and one of those is my story ‘Keel’ in volume 2 of The Shadow Booth.

The Booth is a new journal of weird and horror fiction put out by the ever-industrious Dan Coxon and both volumes are full of some excellent writers, so are well worth checking out. We’re talking Mark Morris, Aliya Whiteley, Gary Budden, Kirsty Logan, Dan Carpenter, Johnny Mains, Dan Grace, Gareth E. Rees and more.

I’m reading at The event to celebrate the launch of volume 2 this Thursday, 5th July, at Old Mary’s bear Lancaster Gate.

For anyone who has been to a Live show, it’s my first ever reading, so I’ll finally be stumping up the goods myself!

You can RSVP and get all the useful info from the event Facebook page. Hopefully see you there.

On Writing ‘Framing Ilva’ and The Lonely Crowd

The most excellent folk over at The Lonely Crowd were recently kind enough to publish a story of mine, in issue 8 of their journal.

‘Framing Ilva’ is a story about a refinery in the south of Italy which is famous, there at least, for the terrible effects it is having on the environment and the population. Having spent a fair amount of time in Puglia over recent years, it’s one of those names that’s always around, if rarely discussed. So I was delighted when John Lavin asked if I wanted to write a piece about my inspirations for my story.

You can read that piece on their website here – ‘On Framing Ilva’ – and you if it wets your whistle you can pick up issue 8 of The Lonely Crowd from their store.

Black Friday and the flesh-eating elephant in the room

Sometimes you encounter unlikely bedfellows at exactly the right time. This happened to me with Song-ho Yeon’s Train to Busan (2016), Wolfgang Streeck’s collected essays, How Will Capitalism End? (2017) and Black Friday. They sit together so well it’s frightening.

First, a quick precis of Streeck’s hypotheses: We’re screwed.

A slightly longer one is that capitalism is consuming itself at an ever increasing pace. We are fleeing a series of crises, from global inflation in the ’70s, to soaring public debt in the ’80s, to public debt in the ’90s and ’00s, reaching a peak in the global financial crisis. With neoliberal agendas of deregulation expanding and technocrat governments, shepherded by undemocratic bodies like the ECB and IFS, firmly established globally. The effects? Wanton inequality, and a slow-burn cataclysm on the horizon.

But what does that have to do with zombies?

The watershed ‘zombie moment’ for recent generations was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Suddenly we were all vulnerable, as the domestic world turned on itself. Touching on racism, domestic violence, and the corruption at the heart of the American Dream, zombies were no longer individuals trapped in slavery, they were normal people. Zombification became amoral and our response to it the subject of judgement.

By Dawn of the Dead (1978) the focus had shifted to consumerism eating itself, where the only route to survival was to grab every luxury item you can and barricade yourself in the garret. Skip ahead to the 2004 remake and rage zombies trashed the shopping centres. Consumerism gets nihilistic as you take your jollies where you can, because isolation is only a temporary solution.

Come 2017, Train to Busan the tropes are established. Yeon lays waste to his nation in moments, leaving his heroes with the clothes on their backs. It’s not clear his zombies are vulnerable in any way until the final scene. This cannibalistic singularity is an assumed inevitability. And who are our key figures hoping to survive? Why, two proud exponents of the capitalist system, a system explicitly implicated in the release of the film’s virus.

There are obviously countless variations of the zombie metaphor, but it seems to me this trend towards rage zombies fetishises our impotence in the face of consumption. The weight of climate change and over-population is inescapable. The apocalypse will be anthropogenic because we are all aware, consciously or otherwise, our civilisations are eating themselves.

Busan offers two angles on neoliberalism – one deathbed redemption and one true to the system till the end – but they are token manifestations against a system gone mad. They are simplifications for us to anthropomorphise. Aspects of a narrative we consume. Flesh to be eaten.

Of the two – Yeon and Streeck – only Streeck offers any real solutions, however little faith he has in their actually coming to pass. Regulation and an enforced redistribution of wealth and power. Fundamental and wholesale changes to our financial and political systems. A democratic phoenix from the ashes.

It’s true that Yeon has the Redeker Plan to fall back on: Lock the gates and damn anyone outside them. But narratives need completing where reality doesn’t. And the despair of Song-ho’s completion seems all too reasonable when coupled with Streeck’s bleak warnings.

Perhaps this is why, on that Train to Busan, I found myself drawn to Yong-guk and Jin-hee, two teenagers betrayed by the older, richer, Yon-suk. This capitalist fuck (to use the scientific classification) throws a young girl to the monsters to save himself. Her boyfriend, overcome with grief and trauma, lets himself be eaten by her. The scene is staged like a corrupted Romeo and Juliet.

That despair is all too familiar in a UK where the older generation has betrayed the younger. The panacea of Black Friday doesn’t work on me. Worse, the feverish quality to our festivals of consumption disturb me.

The only question seems to be: When the end comes, will it be slow or quick?

The Strange Reformation of Josephus Miller

This post assumes you have seen up to series 2, episode 9: The Weeping Somnambulist of The Expanse.

The Expanse, it would seem, is a hit. Not having read James S. A. Corey’s books I realise there’s a huge fanbase out there, so that, combined with a few recommendations from friends – including one comparison to Babylon 5 – brought me in.

But something doesn’t quite sit right. It’s that comparison to Babylon 5. For all its faults – and as a dedicated fan, I am the first to say there are many… – Babylon 5 was all about the characters. From the moment they walked onto the station, they screamed their individuality with costume, mannerisms, dialogue and more. Their development was credible and led by their needs as well as the plot’s. The Expanse, instead, has a range of grizzled, cynical archetypes. Shades of morality dashed against an amoral universe.

Most familiar of these is the burnt out cop, Josephus Miller, who sees his salvation in rescuing Florence Faivre’s Julie Mao. Classic noir. Thomas Jane serves the role well, helping us understand what some see as class betrayal as he abandons his life in pursuit of her. His corruption and violence help define Steven Strait’s moralising James Holden, his sense of duty Wes Chatham’s brutal Amos Burton, and his flexible relationship with the law the Belt as a whole.

What Jane also does well, is lead us into his growing obsession with Mao, in part symbolised by the sparrow. It starts as an itch, a case he can’t solve, and the more he scratches it, revealing the weird secrets of the system, the more it takes over his life. That self-destructive aspect of his character latches on to Mao as an inevitable conclusion – he must find her or die trying.

His execution of Anthony Dresden in an attempt to destroy the protomolecule, and exact revenge for Mao’s death, reminds us he isn’t a paragon. That action leaves him ostracised by the rest of the main cast (for about half an episode) whilst they talk out their differences – and here, the small scale of the settings stretches our belief in the characters. On Babylon 5 people could avoid each other and differences were worked out on an individual basis over time. On tiny ships, it all has to happen immediately, or it derails the narrative. So, accepting that bug as a necessary compromise of writing, the forgiveness shown places him on the Rocinante for his final sacrifice on Eros.

And this is where the strange dynamic comes in.

Miller’s return to the hotel room, again led by the sparrow, to find a transformed Julie Mao, apparently the nexus of whatever new life is developing on Eros, makes perfect sense. His tenderness with her, his fundamental need to bring her peace when the rest of the system would destroy her, makes perfect sense. Hell, even his leaning down for a kiss makes perfect sense.

What doesn’t, is Mao’s reaction.

Because she has had no part in Miller’s obsession. She has no idea who he is, given she hardly seems to have any idea who she is. This is a terrified young woman being reborn into a symbiotic relationship with an alien species, and the first human face she sees, the first kindness she’s been shown, takes liberties.

What seems to happen, is expectation subsumes reality. The inescapable narrative singularity of doomed lovers has sucked an otherwise plausible arc in, and completely obliterated it. The only way that kiss makes sense is as a necessary part of a TV show required by the kind of people who think stories are about audiences. Because otherwise it’s a stranger walking up to you and telling you it’ll all be ok, before going for first base.

The kiss complete’s Mao’s objectification in a narrative that doesn’t seem that interested in her as a person. The opening seconds of the show tells us only a spark is needed to set events in motion, then puts Mao in position to scream purely as a setup. For two series, she’s a MacGuffin and, key stage movements aside, her character is realised through Miller’s investigations. So that kiss can only ever be problematic, unless she smacked him in the chops or otherwise reacted. Miller’s redemption fails, even as the show’s execution demands we agree it succeeded.

To be fair, this is a trope as old as narratives, and I’m not expecting The Expanse to carry the bag for everyone. But at the end of a major character’s arc we should be focused most of all on the truth of their experience.  Mao’s return to the story as an avatar of the protomolecule’s evolution is inevitable, so she will get another pass.

But the show wants us to remember Miller as a flawed, romantic rogue come good. I’ll remember him as the obsessive, unable to escape his failings even at the end.