Liz Williams Reports on Eastercon 2021

First of all, absolutely well done to everyone concerned for pulling this off. I am amazed that we have had a convention at all and given the strain that this year has placed upon everyone, I think the con committee, volunteers and everyone involved needs to give themselves a round of applause. I am certainly applauding you.

I should make it clear that although this is appearing on the Milford blog, and a number of Milford attendees have been involved in running the con, my views are my own and based entirely on my own experience at the convention. I can’t speak for anyone else. For example, with regard to access: I do not have a disability and thus am not in a position to comment from an informed point of view.

Therefore, from my own perspective, these were my main pros and cons. I’ll start with the cons first and then go onto the positives, so please bear this in mind. I also don’t want to single out individuals for anything negative: I’m keeping this objective.

  1. Communication/tech

This was an issue for me. I’m not a gamer and I have the ability, when introduced to new technology, to screw it up in new and surprising ways. Got a shiny new app? Give it to Dr Destructo here and she’ll find a way to completely mess it up for you. I ought to hire myself out for destructive testing.

What I really didn’t want to have happen was for me to be given some new instruction or have to download a new programme at the last minute – e.g. 5 minutes before a panel was due to start. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened. So:

  1. Tell programme participants well in advance the precise steps they need to do to get onto their panel, and when they can expect a link. As happens on Zoom: you get sent a link a few days in advance. This would have reduced 85% of my stress.

I did look at the videos, but they told me everything I didn’t need to know: I know I can hitch up my laptop to the TV, but what I needed to know was how to get onto my panels. I didn’t know what Discord was. People kept telling me it was ‘the other server’ but I don’t know what that means in real terms. Eventually someone told me that it’s a kind of chat forum – thank you! This is all I need to know.

I didn’t get the link to one panel because my email got mangled halfway through and anything sent to me disappeared into the aether. We realised this about a minute before the final panel of the con and fixed it.

  • A proper map (there is a map but initially reading rooms were on it as ‘party rooms’ and the locations, such as, crucially, Green Room, were not shown adequately on the map or on Gather at the start. I only managed to find Green Room by following Ian Whates, and I learned how to unfollow people from him, otherwise poor Ian would have had my little avatar trundling after him all weekend like a lost puppy).
  • Gather Town: I have not used Gather before and I really felt I needed a guided tour of the actual Gather space, not a test. I did find it challenging: I couldn’t see the point of the long corridor, the Holodeck was roped off, and I thought you got into the programme spaces by hovering the avatar over the number – I didn’t realise there was a doorway. Farah has said that a hub with spokes would have been better – absolutely.

Back to back panels with no gaps: this should be easier in the virtual, but if you ‘walked’ through Gather you would be late and if via the website/email links, you’d need to keep checking your email.

I understand that Gather is not mobile friendly? I don’t use a mobile phone but I’m unusual. Also, although I’m on a laptop, Gather is on beta on Safari on the Mac. This didn’t help and I didn’t feel up to wrestling with downloading Chrome at this stage. I understand that Gather can be a lot more user friendly if designed with the customer base in mind. While a lot of SF fans are gamers, a lot are not and the learning curve for some of us is pretty steep. I have struggled before with tech types going into long digressions about how cool something is when all I want is to just use the damn thing. I don’t mind putting in some effort, but the easier it is to use, and the better informed I am, the happier I am. Otherwise I find it really stressful. REALLY stressful.

We did, however, learn from one another in a kind of ‘all hands to the pump’ way, mainly via Facebook.

I understand this version of Gather was ‘pay by the minute’ so perhaps it was too expensive to do a real walk through?

  • Panels: Some people said that the panels were too much like watching TV. I don’t mind this but some people did. Streaming it alongside a chat would be a good idea as it allows the audience to feel that they’re participating – and it’s easier to ask questions. Not all questions might be answered, but a lot of people who do Zoom conferences are used to this. Also, although this was sorted out, having the wrong names for panellists isn’t a good look – though resolved, if I’m billed as Gertrude Manly-Earblossom, and she is billed as me, and fans don’t know what we look like (why would they?) and take this as face value, and I then say something outrageous for which Gertrude is blamed all over Twitter….you can see the problem. We can all see the funny side of it BUT.

I don’t really care if there’s a countdown clock or the format of the screens. I have a clock on the laptop and I’m used to speaking to time as I, and quite a lot of other panellists, are teachers.

Some panellists also felt that the lack of a perceived audience was offputting: I didn’t have this problem because I treated it like radio, and I’m used to doing radio.

  • Website: someone told me about the link to ‘today’s events’ – I had a terrible job finding it and when I read in the initial email that there would be links on the website, I thought the links were on the main programme page. More idiot-proofing required…

Summary: did I get stressed over the level of technology? Yes, very – but I ought to note that this was a bit disproportionate to the actual context. It’s a me thing, not a tech thing: it’s only a SF convention, we’re not battling against time to save the world.

How to solve this:

  • better communication further in advance (expectation management)
  • consult a range of your client base first (from experienced gamers to complete numpties like myself)
  • don’t make the classic tech mistake of getting carried away by the shiny. I don’t care how cool it looks, I just want it to work. I’m sure the programme staff feel the same! I don’t know how much training they had but I suspect it was not enough, and unfamiliarity with the platforms put a number of us off volunteering when a belated call for volunteers went out over the weekend (however, from the feedback I think this has been taken on board).

These were the negatives for me. The following are the positives:

The Hay Lecture was excellent.

The Art Show was fantastic. Top quality and it was like being in a private view.

The programme content overall was very good. I have checked out a number of panels and they’ve all been excellent.

Once I’d got my head round Gather (sort of), I found it a better experience than I’d expected. It was frustrating at times but I could wander into the Green Room and the Dealers Room and chat to people. I’ve had some great conversations via Gather this weekend and there have been several people here who don’t normally come to E/con – as a result of distance (Australians, yay) or because people usually celebrate Easter at home and could thus drop in and out. This was a huge plus for me as I spoke to people whom I don’t usually see at the con. And on Gather there were fewer distractions than in a real life bar, so I’ve had longer chats with people.

I believe that lessons will be learned and hopefully carried forward. This was an experiment under unusual circumstances, mistakes were inevitable but can be corrected.

Would I like to see the accounts? Yes, please – as one of your paying customers.

We are all very conscious that everyone has been working very hard behind the scenes to make this work and have given up their Easter weekend. We all know that it’s been a struggle and that without this, there would have been no Eastercon. Despite the technical hitches, I think a virtual con with a bit of stress and glitches has been better than no con at all. Do I feel that I’ve been to a convention? Yes. A weird one in which I am somehow in my house! Have I torn my hair out a bit? Yes. Have I learned stuff? Yes. Have I enjoyed it? – a bit of a curate’s egg but overall, once my nerves have recovered, I will look back on this as a positive experience. I would like once more to thank everyone concerned.

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The Significance of Significance by Dave Gullen

If you are like me there are things you know but you don’t realise you do until someone else explicitly puts it into words. They are ‘unknown knowns’ – not because we refuse to acknowledge them but simply because they have not yet explicitly been put into our toolkit of concepts.

A recent one for me was the concept of significance in story. By this I mean that the action, speech, encounters and locations in a narrative are not simply incidental moments, they are profound in that they are some of the building blocks of the story you are telling.

It took a character in the compelling Westworld TV series to bring this into focus. Why did people like visiting Westworld, the character asked? What fulfilment did it bring them that was lacking in their lives? The answer was significance. Visitors engaged with Westworld so strongly because every conversation, every encounter, every host they met was significant. For the human visitors Westworld was a gateway into a realm of stories. Each word and deed meant something and the way they responded steered them into and through one or more of those stories.

It struck me how similar this was to LARP (Live-Action Role-play). One of the great appeals of LARP is that the character you assume is filled with significance. You, along with your companions (some of whom may be your friends in real life) are not only involved in important events, often opposing great injustice, evil, or sheer nastiness, your words and deeds will make a real difference to the way the whole game world turns. You all, as you negotiate, chew gum, and take names, have significance.

True significance brings consequences. Fights are not always won, not everything goes your way. Make a mistake and you or other characters will die. When that happens a persona you may have spent years inhabiting, one that has developed their own web or relationships with other characters, is gone.

If the Westworld concept has a flaw it is exactly that – the park guests really can act without consequence and I think that, as players, makes them lack sincerity. For them there is no jeopardy in what they do. A bug or a feature? There was certainly emotional consequence for some. I could now very happily go down a very deep rabbit hole about what this implies for The Man in Black, because at least he took it all seriously; and how the journeys of hosts like Dolores and Maeve are not only an attempt to gain autonomy but also to claim a degrees of significance for their own actions. On the one hand guests enjoy free action without consequence, while the hosts suffer consequences without free action. Westworld is, after all, a nested rabbit-hole of stories within a story within a story.

It used to be a source of wonder to me that a person could pretend to be another person. Much later I realised that everything in human society is a story. We are our own stories, people tell stories about us, about history and science and politics, and everything. I think we humans may only really do two things: we match patterns (I’m fairly convinced everything we do and think is driven by pattern-matching)and we tell stories about them.

I didn’t write any fiction while I was a table-top roleplayer. I’d considered it, and perhaps everyone who reads voraciously and has adventurous daydreams has those thoughts, but at the time I never seriously wanted to. I enjoyed the playing, but I also ran my own games. I built worlds, I created conflicts and challenges to the best of my abilities. Looking back, I can see it was a different way for me to tell stories for the characters everyone else wanted to play. A short time after I stopped gaming I started writing.

That gaming and reading and later on LARPing helped me learn a lot about telling stories, as indeed did reading and watching good TV and film and theatre.

Subconsciously I knew things needed one form or another of significance. For me significance is profoundly important in story, just as important as all the other necessaries — including character, tension, and situation. Everything in a story should be significant. Not necessarily profound, or deep, or earth-shaking, but simply relevant to the story you are telling. And hand in hand with that significance for your characters there must be consequence. If there’s no risk, no potential or actual price, the moment is inconsequential and there is no tension. And what happens then? Reader, I stopped reading.

You can find significance in structure too. Another series I enjoyed was The Witcher, except that not only did it jump back and forth through the narrative timeline, there seemed to be no reason for it. I’ve seen this in fiction too, also often without bringing much to the party beyond an illusion of intricacy. Compare these to Westworld, which also dances back and forth in time, but with great success. The revelation that certain events preceded or were preceded by others was intrinsic to the narrative. It wasn’t just a clever sleight of hand, it was the best way to tell the story.  

Why is significance so compelling? Perhaps it’s born of frustration with our own lives, perhaps we all want to be heroes and have grand adventures. For me I think living in a world where my actions lack significance gives me the freedom to decide what is actually important to me. Although there is always risk and consequence I also know I’m fortunate to be in the position where I have choices in my life. In fact I can choose to be insignificant, and that’s quite a nice thing. Some days the sun shines and I’m perfectly content growing parsnips in the garden as opposed to being sent off to fight the dread Lich King and risk my soul being enslaved in perpetual torment for all eternity. But perhaps that’s just me.

Previously published on BSFA Focus magazine #71 as ‘The Significance’

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David Gullen has sold over 40 short stories to various magazines, anthologies and podcasts. Warm Gun won the BFS Short Story Competition in 2016, with other work short-listed for the James White Award and placed in the Aeon Award. He has been a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke and James White Awards. His latest novel, The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, is available in print and ebook. Other recent work includes Third Instar from Eibonvale Press, and Once Upon a Parsec: The Book of Alien Fairy Tales, from Newcon Press.

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Six Questions answered by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

I’m Nigerian, but I’ve lived in three countries (probably will soon be living in my fourth). I’ve been writing since 2012 or thereabouts but didn’t start taking it seriously until about 2015. I sold my first novel, David Mogo, Godhunter in 2018 (after bringing it to Milford the year before), and my next novel, Son of the Storm, first in The Nameless Republic trilogy, is out May 13 in the UK. 

How and when did you begin writing, and what was your first published piece?

I think the first short story I sold (i.e. I was paid for) was called “Places,” and was published by the now-on-hiatus Mothership Zeta circa 2015/16. The magazine had just launched as an offshoot of the Escape Artists group, and was looking for fresh stories and new voices (I remember the same magazine launched with writers like Sarah Gailey, who is now major in the SFF world). I was a young professional working 9-5 in Lagos back then, but I was still squeezing out time to write. I sent it across, and they loved it. I wouldn’t say it kickstarted my desire to take writing fully seriously–and eventually spur me to write my first novel–but I wouldn’t not say that either.

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

I think of writing speculative fiction as being able to isolate often usual or banal matters in a way that allows them to be seen in high contrast, against a background where they don’t often get placed, and therefore, in a whole new light. I’ve been watching The Expanse recently, and I’ve been thinking that not a lot of it is terribly new. But just the scale of the political struggles sheds new light on how ill-taken decisions affect whole populations, planets and even species. That’s the beauty of speculative fiction: it’s a prism through which you can look at something you’ve looked at all your life, but this one time, at the other end are new angles, patterns and visionscape you’d never quite considered.

What life skills and experiences, other than writing, do you bring to your work?

Organising! I think there is nothing more important to a writer than staying organized and setting time apart to work, play, exercise, etc. I think it’s not often something that comes naturally to the practice of artistry, but needs to be honed and practiced according to one’s needs.

Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project What’s next?

I’m writing Book #2 of The Nameless Republic trilogy, which will hit shelves sometime in 2022, after Son of the Storm. Other than that, I’m working on a couple of things, most of which I’m not able to divulge at this time. But for a recent publication: I just received my contributor’s copy of Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda from Marvel/Titan Books. It’s the first Black Panther short story anthology ever, and I have a story in it titled, “Stronger In Spirit.”

Suyi Davies Okungbowa is the author of Son of the Storm (Orbit, May 2021), first in The Nameless Republic epic fantasy trilogy, and the godpunk novel, David Mogo, Godhunter (Abaddon, 2019). His shorter works have appeared internationally in periodicals like Tor.com, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Fireside, and anthologies like Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda and Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. He earned his MFA at the University of Arizona. He tweets at @IAmSuyiDavies and is @suyidavies on Instagram. Learn more at suyidavies.com.

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Schenectady – a short story by David Gullen

The air was wet with the promise of rain, yet it would not rain. Vernon could smell it as he walked across the lawn of his garden. His rather nice garden. Underneath that promise was another, a salt tang, a message born in on the wind. It was time.

#

Dora had been pleased with her story when she first wrote it. Now she felt crushed. The group hadn’t been brutal, not wilfully. Never that. it was just honest opinion from fellow writers who all wanted to succeed, and wanted her to succeed too. So she kept telling herself.

She thought some of the newer writers like Joe and Abby might even have been impressed, but no, they simply pointed out all the flaws they thought stopped it becoming a better story. Only Ian had liked it. Even though he mostly wrote science fiction Ian was the only one who seemed to get what she was doing. And Vernon, he had liked it too, at least a bit.

“This is a good story, Dora, well-written in your usual style.” Vernon paused in that way he always paused. He stroked his white beard and gave an apologetic smile. “But –”

With Vernon there was almost always a “but”. And he had been right, too. She could see that now, how the encounters could be more vivid, the dialogue sharper, which scenes could be cut. The first three pages were a wasteland.

The emails she had from agents and editors often contained one of those “buts”.

After the session Ian and Dora walked from the pub where the group met, down to the station through the city streets. The evening crowds were light, the pavements wide. As they walked their shoulders occasionally bumped. Once, their hands brushed together.

Dora took a breath. “What do you think of Vernon’s writing? I mean – really.”

“Feeling jealous, Dora?”

“No. Well, yes, a little. It’s just that I think he’s not actually that good. I mean, he’s not a bad writer, but he’s not great. We put him up on a pedestal because he’s published, and he’s so successful. There are other people in the group who are just as good. People with just as much imagination.”

“Lidia is really good.” Lidia was their newest member, from Eastern Europe, Estonia. Young and energetic, tall and slender in that graceful long-limbed East European way, Lidia was regularly getting published and getting recognition, building a reputation. And writing in English, her third language. There, if anywhere, was a source of jealousy. Dora didn’t feel it. “That’s what I mean.”

“And you, Dora. That story of yours today was great.” Ian made eye contact. “It had real emotional punch.”

It felt natural for his arm to go around her shoulder, her arm around his waist. She held him tight.

“You’re good, too, you know.”

Ian gave a short laugh, a lopsided grin. “I do keep getting those glowing rejections.”

“Vernon says you’re the best writer in the group.”

Ian laughed again. “Apart from Vernon.”

Every year one, two, sometimes even three Vernon Grainger books hit the shelves. Science fiction, fantasy, historical drama, occasionally thrillers or even detective drama. All were “Vernon Grainger” books. Other authors envied his effortless ability to move between genres, Publishers Weekly called him “a modern phenomenon”, a quote his publisher put on every front cover.

“He’s has to be doing something right. Two books a year, he works really hard,” Dora said.

“And his ideas are great.”

They waited at the station for their trains. Ian’s arrived first. Dora hugged him, kissed his cheek beside his mouth, smiled into his eyes. “You’ll get there. I know you will.”

“Maybe. Whatever Vernon’s got I wish I had some.”

“Amen to that.”

#

Dora was right, Vernon worked very hard indeed. Sometimes he ground the words out one at a time, sometimes they flowed like there was a river of prose welling up inside. Most of the time he just wrote.

It wasn’t enough. It never had been.

All Vernon had ever wanted was to write. To write you had to live, and to live –

Years before his hair turned grey, then white, before the signature beard, before he became one of the Grand Old Men of Fiction, Vernon realised that in itself writing was not going to be enough. To avoid some tedious time-consuming energy-sapping day job, to have a proper shot at this writing life and take it seriously as a professional, then sacrifices would have to be made.

So he made them.

#

Ian didn’t come to the next meeting. Dora didn’t mind too much. Since that last meeting they had exchanged a few emails, chatted online. Once – heart in her mouth – a phone call. She just thought he might have let her know.

He didn’t come to the next meeting either. No emails. No online updates.

Dora wondered if he was ill. “Has anyone heard from Ian?”

“Sorry, no,” Vernon said.

Everyone else was more interested in the story Lidia was telling:

“I’ve arrived.” Lidia covered her mouth when she laughed. “Somebody actually asked me where I get my ideas from. I’m a real writer now.”

“What did you tell them?”

“Wholesale from Boise, Idaho?”

“Father Christmas!”

“The little old lady…?”

Vernon sat back and smiled. “Where was that, Lidia?”

“At a friend’s party. I was telling them about –” Lidia’s eyes were bright. “I haven’t told you yet, I think I might have an agent.”

Vernon sat forward. He wanted to know everything. Who that agent was (he knew them, obviously), what they had said.

“It’s not certain yet,” Lidia said. “They just said they’d take a look at my novel.”

“You won’t leave us, will you?” Dora said. “It’s such a shame that the best writers leave.”

Joe and Abby agreed: “We need your advice.”

Lidia promised. “I’ve learned so much from you guys.”

Vernon grimaced and for a fleeting moment he looked sick. He finished his beer in two great gulps. “Who wants a drink? We should celebrate. My round.” Dora, like everyone except Vernon, didn’t like to have a drink until the meeting was over. Vernon took an order for soft drinks and went downstairs to the bar.

Lidia smiled, she covered her mouth. “Vernon drinks a lot.”

Joe grinned. “He’s a professional! One day we’ll all have to drink as much as Vernon.”

“I don’t think I could.”

Dora leaned forwards and touched Lidia’s forearm. “Thanks for saying you won’t leave.”

“Does nobody ever come back? You’d think… You’d think one of them would.”

“Wilf does,” Joe said. “Every now and then.”

Wilf was from before Lidia’s time. First he had an agent, then a three-book deal. Everyone was so pleased. Vernon called him the one that got away.

“We just have to accept it. They’ve got deadlines now.”

“I guess they think they don’t need the group any more.”

“I’d just like to think writers aren’t all selfish. Paying it forwards.”

“Actually, it’s not people like Wilf,” Abby said. “He’s still around, still writing. It’s the ones who start to make a bit of progress, a few short stories published, and then – they just drop out of sight.”

Abby had just described Ian. Dora hoped it wasn’t true, Ian was a good writer, his ideas were clever, funny, witty, and original. He’d been in anthologies, he was writing a novel, his third unpublished novel. She liked Ian, she thought Ian had liked her. Dora looked up and saw Vernon standing at the door with a tray, listening.

Vernon started forwards, put down the tray and handed round the drinks. He raised his glass to Lidia. “Congratulations. Keep this up and you’ll be the best writer in the group.”

#

“Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Mr Grainger –”

“Please, Vernon.”

“Phew, OK. What are you working on, Vernon?”

“It’s a kind of a horror, a children’s fantasy that goes wrong, terribly wrong. There’s a theme of trust, and betrayal of trust. Innocents and innocence against the night…”

“It sounds quite twisted!”

“I’m having a lot of fun with it. I get paid to do this, you know, I have to keep reminding myself.”

“It feels like your writing is getting darker.”

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

“Is it that a market-driven thing?”

“No, not at all. I don’t want to write to the market, I never have. Obviously there are realities, things that have to be satisfied. Do that, give them what they want and then you’re free to do what you want. As time goes by, as I’ve got older, I’ve become more interested in certain aspects of the world, what people have to do to survive. There’s no grand message, I’m still writing to entertain, that’s all I ever wanted to do. Some things get under your skin, the realities of life, the way things actually are.”

“You’re in a writing group –”

“That’s right. Always looking for new members, good writers who want to develop.”

“It sounds like they’re lucky to have you.”

“Not at all. People don’t understand how these things work. I’m lucky to have them.”

#

Ian woke in the dark, upright, restrained. Splayed. Naked. The air was warm. He couldn’t remember. He didn’t panic. He was proud of that, that under the cold God-awful fear that dried his mouth and whirled in his mind, his guts, his soul, he somehow kept it together.

He tested the bonds, thick leather straps, tight and secure at wrist and upper arm, his ankle, knee, and thigh, around his waist and throat. He was laid out on an X-shaped frame, his feet on a surface. The space he was in felt low, the air stale. He was underground, a basement.

He thought about screaming then decided not to. Whoever it was didn’t know he was awake. He had some time and needed to make the best use of it. Keeping it all together.

Ian turned his head left and right. In the far left-hand corner was a blue glow, a pilot light. On the right an impenetrable blank space. Something clicked in the black, a loud metal snap. Ian jerked in his bonds and bit down on his cry. He knew what that was, a timer relay, mundane and ordinary. There – the roar of gas, the blue light grew as the boiler came alight.

The dimmest of dim glows from the boiler’s window showed a low ceiling, a wide empty room, bare walls, a work bench. The black space resolved into a reflective black wall. Ian frowned, a wall of glass. A two-way mirror.

Something thumped the glass and the whole long wall of it quivered. Ian struggled and strained, they knew he was awake, infra-red cameras. They were coming! Terrified, Ian felt his balls crawling back inside his body.

The boiler burned for ten long minutes then clicked off.

Ian waited.

“Help me,” he said, oddly self-conscious. It sounded like a question. He was thirsty, his mouth dry. “Help me!” he said louder, then shouted at the top of his voice: “Help me. Please, help!”

His own voice mocked him, horribly loud in the silence. He was very frightened.

Dear God, I’ve never prayed to you before. I beg you, help me now. dear God of love, blessed Jesus.

Ian hung in the straps. Alone in the dark the fear was exhausting. He closed his eyes and went – away.

#

A light snapped on, bright and white. Vernon walked in dressed in navy overalls and black wellington boots. Vernon. Ian blinked awake. Vernon.

“Vernon. Christ, what are you doing? Let me go.”

Vernon said nothing. He walked across to the work bench and busied himself there.

Ian saw the room was tiled, like a swimming pool, the glass wall the side of an enormous aquarium. He watched Vernon lay out a red cloth edged in white, a shallow bowl, a heavy book. “What are you doing?”

Vernon ignored Ian and stepped back. Ian saw he had laid out a small altar. Muttering, prayers, the scrape of a match. Incense smoke plumed and scrolled in the still air. A drift of smoke caught in Ian’s throat, an acrid stink, reeking and ammoniacal.

Vernon faced Ian. He was sweating, his eyes hooded. “Would you like a drink?”

“What are you doing? Let me go, Vernon.”

“Would you like a drink, Ian?”

Ian thought this through, the need to establish rapport. “Water. Please.”

“Would you like something stronger?”

“No.”

Vernon breathed deep, the overalls tight against his paunch. He took a quarter-bottle of cheap whisky out of his pocket, opened it and drank. “I don’t have any water.”

Ian felt very calm, almost like he was in control. “Whisky, then. Thank you.”

Vernon held the bottle to Ian’s mouth. He drank the raw whisky in gulps and swallows, felt it burn its way down into his stomach.

“More?”

Ian nodded. By the time he pulled back the bottle was three-quarters empty. Vernon returned to the altar and lit two candles that burned with a strange empty light.

The light penetrated the glass wall and shone through the water like twin beacons, reaching far back, and down, down. Ian struggled with the gigantic shift in perspective, very glad now he had that drink. This was not a tank in Vernon’s basement, the glass was a window to a dark ocean.

 “Vernon… Where…?”

Vernon’s lips were tight with tension, his small neat teeth showed through his white beard. “You do understand, don’t you, Ian? I need to know this. You’re the best writer in the group. Tell me you understand. Please.”

“No, I don’t bloody understand. You’re jealous? Is that it? Whatever you’re going to do, stop it and let me go.” Ian put every ounce of command and authority he has into his voice: “Vernon. Let me go!”

A tick pulsed in the corner of Vernon’s eye. “I only do this when I have to.” The corner of his mouth twitched in a reflex grimace. He looked away, through the glass wall. “I have my deadlines, too.”

Something enormous rushed up out of the depths, huge and implacable. It thumped against the window and the glass boomed and rippled. The creature writhed in front of the candles pulsing colours Ian had never seen, new colours. For the briefest moment he marvelled that he could see them.

Then the creature unfolded into a vast new shape, coiling, twisting. Ian saw an eye. An enormous eye. It looked at him, into him, through him, and – Oh God! He felt its hunger.

“Vernon!”

The thing in the tank pressed against the glass. Long arms twisted, rows of flat muscular plates, toothed sphincters clenched and gaped. Beaked mouths, a dozen mouths, a hundred eyes. Vernon gave a long shudder and turned back to Ian, his eyes glazed, his mouth slack and wet. There was a golden knife in his hand, the wide blade curved like a claw.

For a moment Vernon stood stock still. Then he laid his hand on Ian’s naked stomach. “Everyone has a story inside them, Ian. It’s time to find yours.”

David Gullen’s short fiction has appeared in multiple magazines and anthologies. His SF novel, Shopocalypse, published by Newcon press, is available from all good highstreet and online bookstores, as is his recent anthology, Once Upon a Parsec: The Book of Alien Fairy Tales. David was born in Africa and baptised by King Neptune He has lived in England most of his life and has been telling stories for as long as he can remember. He currently lives behind several tree ferns in South London with the fantasy writer Gaie Sebold. He is the current Chair of the Milford SF convention. Website: http://davidgullen.com/
Twitter: Dergullen

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David Allan Answers Questions

David Allan

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

Born and brought up in Edinburgh, including going to university there to qualify as a doctor. Studied radiology in Edinburgh and Oxford, then worked for the NHS in Dartford for 39 years. On retirement moved to south-west London to live on a houseboat on the Thames.

2 How and when did you begin writing, and what was your first published piece?

As a long time reader of SFF I had speculated about writing it for years but did nothing about it. That changed about 2005 because I read one book I thought was so bad that I said ‘I could do better than that’. Having said that I obviously had to do something about it so I started going to creative writing evening and weekend classes. After retirement I discovered there was an MA course at Middlesex with a specific focus on SFF, got a place on that and started being serious about writing. After many rejections I finally sold my short story Missing Apocalypse to Mad Scientist Journal.

3 What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

Writers like Aaronovitch, Anderson, Banks, Bester, Bujold … (the list goes on and on all the way to Zelazny) … have entertained and stimulated me so much over the years that the idea of being part of a similar list for other people is a very attractive one. I can’t, being realistic about it, hope to match these giants of the field, but I can try and it gives me immense satisfaction whenever an editor says ‘yes’ to something I’ve written.

4 What life skills and experiences, other than writing, do you bring to your work?

I think my life skills have developed as a result of my professional career. This required a willingness to learn, attention to detail and an analytical approach to the problems I was presented with. I believe these have been valuable in my writing.

5 Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project

My third novel Thiever (a sequel to my second) has been accepted for publication by Elsewhen Press. Hopefully it will be published sometime this year. I have started work on another fantasy novel.

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Game of Thrones Revisited by Jacey Bedford

First posted on August 25, 2020 on Jacey Bedford’s Blog

Spoilers ahead… but if you haven’t watched the last season by now, where have you been?

game-of-thrones-headerJust after Game of Thrones finished, Iain Grant sent some questions about Game of Thrones. I know the ending was contentious, but though I would have wished for a happier ending, I wasn’t honestly expecting one. Here are Iain’s questions and my answers.

You’re Cersei. Your city is about to be attacked by a fire breathing dragon and the dragon queen’s army. How would you have successfully defended King’s Landing?

If I’m Cersei, and if I have a modicum of common sense, I won’t even try to defend King’s Landing against a fire breathing dragon AND a superior army. I’ll leave Qyburn in charge and head for the nearest unobtrusive (but comfortable) boat with a bucket of gold, jewels and (hopefully) my best brother. I will skulk in a sheltered cove until all danger of being flamed from above by Drogon has passed. I would, of course, have laid very nasty (explosive) traps as revenge for losing my hold on the Seven Kingdoms. Should Qyburn and the Golden Company prevail I will slip back into the Red Keep again as unobtrusively as I left. I have already stashed a large amount of Lannister gold with the Iron Bank of Bravos against the eventuality of having to cut and run.

Gendry-Joe_Dempsie

If you could have crowned any GoT character apart from Bran, who would you have put on the Iron Throne and why?

Gendry of House Baratheon. Because he knows the common people. He has little experience of ruling and court politics, so he would appoint Tyrion and Davos as joint Hands of the King. Sadly he still won’t get Arya Stark as his lady, but I’m sure that, in time, he’ll find a nice princess from Dorne who will bear him many children. They will be brought up sensibly, educated by Samwell and Brienne, and not spoiled rotten.

You’re the hand of the king. King’s Landing is in ruins. The kingdom is a mess. Winter is here. What would be your key policies and first acts as de facto ruler of the kingdom?

Tyrion

If I’m Tyrion Lannister I’ll put some of my family’s gold to good use. The first job is to feed and shelter the survivors and set up some treatment for the wounded. (Food from High Garden.) All the surviving soldiers would have to bury or burn the bodies before they became a health hazard. I would personally say words for the dead because I need the people to believe that I care, but I won’t let the ‘church’ gain too much power ever again. Morale is important. After the immediate clean-up I would send most of the foreign soldiers back home, Dothraki, especially as they will only cause trouble if they have nothing much to do. The Unsullied can stay and help the rebuild if they want to, since they don’t really have a home to return to. I will treat the population well because it’s the only way to have them at my back against any outside enemies (rather than circling around behind me with sharpened implements). I will bring in as many maesters as I can prise out of Old Town to heal the hurts that can be healed, because a healthy population is key to rebuilding. I’ll put most of King’s Landing’s surviving soldiers to work rebuilding the city. First of all I’ll direct them to build temporary accommodation – shanty-town shelters using timber from Euron Greyjoy’s destroyed fleet and what can be rescued from the rubble. Once the people are not in immediate danger of freezing or starving to death or dying of disease caused by rotting corpses, I’ll put the skilled ones to work (for a fair wage) to rebuild the city and its walls. I’ll have a well thought out plan for the new city. No more Fleabottoms. The population is smaller, now, so there will be more space. I’ll give them decent houses with fresh water and drains, with roads wide enough to be passable by refuse carts. Maybe I need to clear a quarter of the city at a time and rebuild it properly, from scratch.

You’re the hand of the king. Davos, Samwell, Brienne and Bronn have all quit your small council (sorry). Which GoT characters would you appoint to your small council in what role and why? Do not be afraid to focus on just one.

If Bran is king, then Gendry is available for the small council. He knows the common people and he learns fast. He’s strong, but even tempered and practical. I’d put him in charge of rebuilding the city. Illyrio Mopatis was working with Varys and seemed to have similar aims. He might be worth calling up to be master of coin. Perhaps Podrick would also be a sensible choice. A female council member would be good, but not Yara Greyjoy, she’s too short-tempered. Possibly Gilly, she’s brighter than she seemed at first and she’s got a healthy helping of common sense.

Game of Thrones, Series 8. Was it a triumph or a disappointment? Tell us why.

A triumph, I think (with a few qualifiers). It wasn’t what I might have written, but it’s not my story, and I’ve been following all the seasons avidly. It rounded off a lot of story arcs well. I didn’t like Dany going from good-ish to evil in sucj a short time, but it was foreshadowed by the number of people she’d already flamed unnecessarily – the Tarlys and Varys for instance. Jon was the only possible candidate for having to do the dirty deed, but Tyrion also didn’t make the decision lightly. It was a good twist and proved the earlier comment ‘If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.’ The fact that Dany immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was Jon who’d betrayed her when Tyrion went to tell her about Varys, shows that she would have turned on Jon sooner or later. Sadly, once she flipped, she was as bonkers as her dad.

Cersei-Jaime

Jaime and Cersei died in each other’s arms, and despite Cersei being the evil bitch queen, in the end she was simply a woman afraid of death. I’m sorry someone as potentially noble as Jaime wasted himself on someone like Cersei, but he loved her unreservedly, so taking responsibility for her and being with her at the end was entirely in his nature. I think he redeemed himself as much as he ever could have. There were some good redemptive deaths. Theon Greyjoy redeemed himself at Winterfell. Jorah Mormont went out the way he would have wanted to, and just at the right time. He would have been horrified and heartbroken if he’d seen Dany turn psycho. (I don’t think he would have been able to stop her if he’d lived.)

The Clegane showdown was very effective, especially since Sandor made Arya see sense at last. (I thought she gave in and changed her mind a bit too quickly, but there’s only so much you can do in six episodes.)

Sansa made a perfectly good Queen in the North. Her arc was completed satisfactorily.

Jon

Jon never wanted power. Going north was a good ending for him. Once he gets to grips with what he did to Dany I believe he’ll have a good life. Tormund won’t let him get too introspective.

I don’t think Bran will be a particularly effective ruler. He’s all about the past, not the future. I wish the producers hadn’t made him quite so wishy-washy. Yes, he came out with a few good lines such as ‘You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.’ But too much mystical bollox is not going to work well for the survivors of King’s Landing and the Six Kingdoms. It needs someone practical – which is, I guess, where Tyrion comes in. He is now de facto ruler of the Six Kingdoms – which Bran would say, is exactly what he’s supposed to be. And he’s the right person for the job. I adore Tyrion.

Arya

There were some personal happy endings. Bronn got his castle. Gendry was legitimised and made Lord of Storm’s End. Brienne became a knight, and though she lost him again, she did almost get her happy ending with Jaime. Podrick survived and got his knighthood. Davos and Tyrion came out on top. Sam became a maester and a father, and is absolutely the nicest character in the whole series.

And now I want to see Jon become King Beyond the Wall, because he still has a lot of unfulfilled potential, and he’s learned such a lot and can do so much good. And I want to see the spinoff series, ‘The Further Adventures of Arya Stark’.

I’m also looking forward to reading the next book, The Winds of Winter, whenever George finishes it. There’s one more book to come after that, I believe. It must be doubly difficult to write the end of the series because we’ve all seen it on telly, but there’s no reason the TV series and the books have to have the same ending. There are lots of places where the book and TV versions differ.

Jacey Bedford is a British writer of science fiction and historical fantasy. Her Psi-Tech and Rowankind trilogies are published by DAW in the USA. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, and have been translated into Estonian, Galician, Catalan and Polish. In another life she was a singer with vocal harmony trio, Artisan, and once sang live on BBC Radio4 accompanied by the Doctor (Who?) playing spoons.

Or via her writing website: http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk, which includes a link to her mailing list

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Hannibal Lecter Judges Me When I Cook by Anthony Francis

Hannibal Lecter Judges Me When I Cook

a Milford Blog essay by Anthony Francis

So, let’s set the stage: I’m a writer, learning to be vegan … and a fan of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal series about an erudite cannibal. Hannibal itself is one of my favorite books: while the world Harris creates is dark and depressing, that world feels compellingly real to me — which leaves me in the unenviable position of having a mental model of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, as played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, leaning over my shoulder and judging me while I’m cooking.

Now, don’t get me wrong – he’s not judging me for my plant-based cooking (I’m not a vegan, but I am married to one, and I’m trying). He’s judging me based on my poor technique, my unrefined tastes, and my willingness to prepare quick meals when I’ve got work to do. But as a writer, I’m fascinated with how Harris created a world so realistic that I’ve built up a mental model of a nonexistent person.

Ever since I started reading Harris, I’ve been struck by how real his worlds seem to be. They’re not real, of course – they’re stuffed chock full of unrealistically terrible people with a salting of unrealistically competent heroes and antiheroes, a stew designed to create the stage for a suspense drama to play out between our heroes, antiheroes, and villains. But these worlds possess verisimilitude – the appearance of reality – because Harris uses well-chosen writing techniques to bring them to life.

First among these is a third-person omniscient perspective, normally close to a single viewpoint character — in Silence of the Lambs, augmented by occasional filter phrases like “Clarice could see that he was small, sleek” to indicate in whose head we’re riding, or tentative attributions like “as though he chose the distance” to indicate characters whose thoughts remain hidden. But Harris is willing to step back to show the full picture to ratchet the tension or to even comment upon it to provide additional color – in one notable scene in Hannibal, several characters speak for a few pages before Harris compares the strange sound of their voices in the room, getting to the meat of the conversation before adding the garnish of description.

Harris also plays with tenses. Most of the book is in past tense, as is typical of much contemporary fiction; but to make characters seem more real, he mixes in present tense, often in chapter beginnings in Silence of the Lambs: “Doctor Lector has six fingers on his left hand.” and “Jack Crawford, fifty-three, reads in a wing chair by a low lamp in the bedroom of his home.” These present-tense intrusions stand out because of their rarity and suggest that the details being presented are about a real person alive today, not historical details presented about someone dead and gone.

But perhaps the most important technique Harris uses to create verisimilitude is the presentation of concrete details about the subject at hand – and I don’t simply mean concrete descriptions, though Harris uses those too; I mean well-researched details about the real-life subjects. Whether it’s sordid details about pig farming to make a villain seem unsympathetic or technical details about criminology to make our heroes seem competent, facts drawn from real life fill Harris’s scenes in an attempt to make us believe that the scenes, too, are drawn from real life. Now, this perhaps works best in the suspense / thriller genre, whose audiences eat this kind of thing up; for escapist science fiction set in wholly unreal worlds, it may be better to pull a “the door dilated” a la Heinlein rather than to bore the reader with details about the design of diaphragm shutters (or, worse, made-up details about nonexistent warp drives, though there are those readers, like me, who will eat such things up too).

But in Hannibal, Harris does something more to make the world seem real: he takes us inside Lecter’s decision-making process. Instead of seeing Lecter from the outside, supervillain in his cell, safely separated by a physical barrier from the protagonist, we go inside his head as the actual protagonist. We see Lecter, confronted by a nosy Karen on an airplane, deciding discretion is the better part of valor and meekly surrendering his wine to the flight attendant. We see Lecter, realizing he’s overdone a table setting, deciding the solution is to “go big or go home” and add way more flowers. We see Lecter, preparing one of his infamous meals, deciding to cook a delicate sauce “following Alexandre Dumas’s inspired example.”

Wait, that Alexandre Dumas?

Yes, that Alexandre Dumas author of The Count of Monte Cristo – a novelist who, allegedly, wrote primarily to support his cooking habit, and who over the years collated his thoughts in a magisterial tome called The Grand Dictionary of Cuisine (published posthumously, and only available in English heavily abridged — I checked). It’s a testament to Harris’s research that he uncovered this bit of culinary trivia in his search for details to make a cultured cannibal more realistic.

But there’s more. My French isn’t good enough to pull a Hannibal and read Dumas’s original, but, shamed by the specter of Lecter judging my cooking — back off, man, I make some pretty mean tabbouleh — I got the abridged English translation, and discovered something far more interesting: Hannibal Lecter is Alexandre Dumas!

Unpacking that a bit, the Dictionary of Cuisine isn’t just a cookbook: in each entry, Alexandre Dumas tells stories about the ingredients, often drawn from his own life – and he tells us about his decision-making process. Like Lecter, Dumas is creative, has high standards, and is insanely skilled at whatever he does — but he also is polite and respectful of the people around him … again, just like Lecter. Yes, yes, Lecter’s a cruel man who eats people, but that’s his depressing function in Harris’s dark landscape of suspense; when he neither wants to eat them or hurt them, Lecter is surprisingly polite and considerate of the people around him, even asking for a chair so Clarice Starling could sit in comfort for their first interview.

Comparing the way Dumas talks about his own thought processes and how Harris describes Lecter’s, it’s easy to imagine that Dumas’s character inspired Hannibal’s, and that Dumas’s writing style inspired Harris’s presentation of Hannibal. I doubt that’s actually true — Lecter was inspired by Harris’s encounter in prison with a real-life surgical killer — but it’s a testament to Harris’s research ability that this small detail was so resonant. And look at the restraint with which he did it: a single reference, a few words confined to a small snippet of a scene. If I came across such a factoid, I’d have to restrain myself mightily from filling in of how Lecter came across Dumas, where he bought his copy of Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, and in what condition it was. But following Hemingway’s iceberg theory of fiction, Harris leaves the bulk of those details, real and imagined, beneath the surface, leaving only the tip above water, fin of the shark, there to cut the waters silently, leaving only a chill.

There are two morals to this story. First, writers can use many techniques to bring a story to life, and perhaps the most important for verisimilitude is doing the research — but the concrete details we find are best treated like spices and garnish, changing the flavor of the text and occasionally appearing on the surface in a bright flash, never as a substitute for the core ingredients of character, plot and theme.

And second, be nice to the people you meet, or one of them might eat you.

-the Centaur

By day, Anthony Francis teaches robots to learn; by night, he writes science fiction and draws comic books. He’s best known for his Skindancer series featuring magical tattoo artist Dakota Frost, including Frost Moon, Blood Rock, and Liquid Fire; he also writes steampunk, including a dozen anthologized short stories set in the world of his novel Jeremiah Willstone and the Clockwork Time Machine. His most recent publication is “Long-Range Indoor Navigation with PRM-RL” in IEEE Transactions on Robotics. You can follow Anthony at his blog http://www.dresan.com/. Anthony lives in San Jose with his wife and cats but his heart will always belong in Atlanta.

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A Winter’s Tale – a short story by Sarah Singleton

All rights remain with the author

A mountain of ice from the northern ocean – all blue-glittering towers and turrets, high valleys and plunging chasms – followed a steam ship to the city. It floated in the harbour for a night, a restless Arctic monster harnessed with spikes and ropes and chains. In the morning a team of twenty horses dragged it to the city park for the winter festival. The horses sweated and struggled, hooves slipping on the churned snow. Drivers tugged at bridles, clung to leather collars, urged and coaxed and cursed, cracking long whips. Inch by inch, the iceberg climbed the slipway, lurched onto wooden rollers and along the harbour road. People stood and stared.

After midnight, officials, sightseers and horses long gone, the ice stood monumentally still. It was blue-striped, like a sweet-shop lozenge. The shape of the ice had captured the motion of the sea – the surge of deep currents, the ramps and troughs of waves. The polished surface glittered.

The city’s church bells, in succession, chimed the single hour. Frost sealed the surface of the ice and in its salt heart, like a knot of moonlight, something moved. A curling, like a white tadpole sewed up tight in its ghostly jelly. A twist and wriggle. The ice flexed, softened, creating a smooth aperture. 

A girl stepped out.

Her skin was translucent – a freakish sapphire blue. Her hair, black as the deep ocean, flowed over her as smooth and glossy as sealskin. She brushed a lingering powder of ice from her narrow, newly-formed body. Then she placed her tiny feet one in front of the other, leaving footprints in the snow. First steps.

At the park gates a chestnut seller slept in his booth, back against the brazier, head muffled against the winter weather. The girl was drawn to him – to the heat of the dying embers and the salt-heat of his blood. His eyes opened as her hand stole through the canvas opening. He made an odd sound, query or protest perhaps. Moonlight passed through the girl’s ice face. The old man crossed himself, trying to speak, but the face moved towards him. Her kiss burned his forehead. When she walked into the street her transparent blue had become a soft white.

The city lay all around. Snowy roofs rose and fell like billows on the sea. Here and there, a church spire stabbed and in the west, the cathedral dome curved like a whale’s belly.

The tidal river, black and serpentine, held the scent of the sea in its breath, along with rot and sewage and the chemical tang of effluent from city factories. A hotchpotch of tethered vessels jostled along the banks, some beached and tilting: coal-dusted barges, battered rowing boats, residences from which beads of yellow light gleamed. She followed the river upstream. Docks and warehouses gave way to teetering residences, tenements that leaned over soiled lanes. The sound of voices strayed from shuttered windows. Yellowed posters, like the wings of dead moths, peeled from wooden walls.

            A door opened beneath a painted mermaid on a shabby sign. A young man stumbled out. Angry words followed him but the man shrugged them off and pulled together his long, tattered coat against the cold. When he passed beneath the streetlamp, she saw the copper hair curling over his collar. He looked back once as the pub door slammed shut, sniffed loudly, and set off with an uneven stride along an alleyway away from the river.

            The girl followed. He left a trail of warmth and scent behind him like a ribbon fading on the winter air. His heat drew her, perfumed with gin, tobacco and the complex olfactory signature of his body: blood, perspiration, red wine and the partially digested meat he’d eaten two hours before, now passing through the organic machinery of his guts. Beneath a second, lonely streetlamp the young man halted and looked back, perhaps sensing his follower. The girl retreated into the shadows. She was close enough to see the scattering of freckles on his face and paint stains on his tapering fingers. The man shook his head, wiped his nose on the back of his hand and crossed to a door. It wasn’t locked because he opened it without a key and stepped inside.

              David Newton pushed the door to and climbed three flights of bare wooden stairs to his attic room. He fumbled with matches to light the oil lamp waiting inside the door. A daubed canvas stood in front of him. He was so drunk the colours swam in an ugly, angry cloud. A cold wind rattled the window and he swore out loud when the door banged against his back. He’d been uneasy all day: the frustration of painting, the row in the pub and then the paranoid suspicion Albert had followed him into the street. It persisted still, this sense of a pursuer.

            Too late to set a fire. He sat heavily on his bed behind the screen in the corner of the room. The water in the jug had frozen. Ornate coils of ice furnished the window panes. He should remove his coat at least, but drink and fatigue had the better of him so he pushed off his boots, curled up under the blankets and plunged into a drink- sodden sleep.

            David woke suddenly. White light filled the room, morning sun filtering through the frosted windows. It was late, wasn’t it? Midwinter, the sun didn’t rise till eight. His mouth was sour and dry; his body ached. He heaved himself out of bed.

            He’d forgotten to lock the door and it gaped, revealing the tiny landing and the stairs descending into shadow. A thin, needling draft whistled through the room. He pushed the door to and turned to look at the painting again.

Curled like an ammonite, white as a pearl, a woman lay on the floor beneath the canvas with its swirls of cobalt and turquoise and aquamarine. At first he thought she was dead – stiff and chilly, like a piece of marble. She had her back to him, the spine visible like a string of beads. Pale skin skimmed narrow hips and small, boyish buttocks. A flood of glossy black hair streamed over the bare boards.

David blinked. He was holding his breath. He stepped towards the woman – a girl, she was young, surely? –  and reached out his hand. Remarkably, a delicate veil of snow lay on the skin. But as soon as his fingers brushed the apex of her bony shoulder the girl twisted towards him, opened her eyes and stared into his face.

Such eyes! Crystalline prisms of jade and moss and bottle green – the colour altered as the light moved on her face. David drew back his hand and they stared at each other. Her arm lay across her chest and though her gaze did not invite, it held no embarrassment either. His heart thrummed against his ribs. Something about this face filled him with a visceral unease – her eyes – the sense that the presence behind them was a blank nothing, or else vast beyond imagining. Limitless in either case. Inhuman, certainly.

“What are you?” he said. What, not who. “Why are you here?” He heard the edge of anxiety to his voice, a show of bravado. Inhuman? What was he thinking? Some slattern from the streets who’d broken into his room.

The girl sat up. The sleek wash of hair hung over her shoulders. David shook his head and strode over to the screen where he scooped up his second shirt and best jacket for the girl to put on. He lit the fire and ushered her into the single chair by its side. Perversely she started to shiver, soaking up the fire’s heat, this swan with her black hair and jewelled eyes.

“I’ll make us some tea. Then you’ll have to go.” He was brusque, putting aside his earlier misapprehension. He didn’t want to get saddled. She seemed more ordinary, covered in his clothes. How to be rid of her? He couldn’t let her leave dressed as she was. He’d have to find her something more suitable even to get her out of his room. That would take money, and bother.

“What’s your name? Where are your people?”

The girl didn’t speak. She stared at him like an imbecile. Was that the reason for the vacancy he’d noticed before? Perhaps she’d escaped from somewhere. He should just throw her out.

But… but what? Something inside him resisted. The image of her coiled beneath the painting burned in his imagination like a white-hot coal. He could use her couldn’t he? Place her in the picture, the figure his painting so sorely missed.

“What’s your name?” he repeated. Still no answer. Perhaps she was mute.

“Well I’ll call you Blanche. I’ll get us something to eat. Would you like that?”

David hurried to the bakers and bought hot rolls. The idea had caught hold of him. He would use her as a model. She was a gift, wasn’t she? Once in the street anxiety overcame him. What if she slipped away while he was gone? He should have locked the door behind him.

But she hadn’t gone. She was as he had left her, sitting on the chair by the fire.

“Here, have something to eat. You must be hungry.” He buttered the roll and passed it to her on a plate. The girl picked up the bread but she didn’t bite it. Instead she cradled it in her hands. David ate hungrily and drank a cup of tea though he hardly tasted it, his mind fired up with idea of what he would paint. As soon as he’d finished he jumped to his feet.

“I’d like to paint you,” he said. “I’d like you to be my model. Do you understand?” He moved from foot to foot, energy brimming over. “You can stay here as long as I need you. And I shall pay you of course. Some shillings, you’d like that wouldn’t you?”

Blanche was immune to his enthusiasm but she seemed to understand. She placed the bread roll on the hearth and rose to her feet.

“Take off the jacket,” David commanded. “Here – put it here. And stand so. Can you turn? Yes, like that.” He took out his paper and charcoal and began to draw.

He worked all day in a pleasurable fever. Blanche was patient and compliant, seemingly impervious to the cold. When darkness fell he relit the lamp and a host of candles so the work could continue.

 Later, exhausted, he locked her into the room and went out into the city. He stopped at the Mermaid to see his friends Albert and Claude, fellow artists. He fell on a meal of beef pie and boiled potatoes. They drank beer in the pleasurable fug of the pub and David, tongue loosened by drink and the euphoria of his day’s work, confided he’d found a new model. The picture he’d been struggling with for half a year was going to be a triumph.

When he returned, half drunk, Blanche was asleep in the chair by the fire, lying under his best jacket. The bread roll he’d given her that morning still waited, uneaten, on the hearth but evidently she had boiled a kettle and made herself a hot drink. Should he give up his bed? Ah, why disturb her? She was asleep already. He undressed quickly and slid under the blankets.

He dreamed of the sea, of drifting in black, arctic waters under mountainous waves and above immeasurable, abysmal depths. The weight of the sea pressed against him and the endless cold sucked heat from his body. He seemed to be dissolving, losing himself, as flesh and bones melted and blood seeped into the circulating currents of the sea. David woke a little, slowly, slowly surfacing from sleep. He became aware, distantly, that he was no longer alone in the bed. Blanche had climbed in and lay curled against him with her arms around his neck, seeming to hang from him, dragging him down. The room was black, except for the hanging square of the frost encrusted window. David shivered, hands and feet like blocks of stone, but Blanche was fever-hot, her skin burning. He put his fingertips on her face, feeling the closed eyes, the curves of nose and brows, the soft mouth. She stirred sleepily and moved against him, shallow breasts brushing against his chest, narrow legs slipping between his own icy thighs. Her face reached up and she pressed her mouth against his, a curiously cool, salty tongue pushing between his lips. Her hands tightened around his neck and his pulse thundered, desire like a furnace blazing to life in the pit of his belly, sending out ropes of renewed heat through his shivering limbs. She didn’t make a sound but she clung to him, half choked him, stopping his breath. He tried to release himself, to unwrap her arms from his neck but she was tenacious, stronger than he would have credited. He rolled over onto his back, gripped her bony behind and slid inside her while she thrashed and struggled on top of him like a huge, white bird, making odd guttural noises that didn’t stop till he’d spent inside her. Then, in a moment, her body relaxed and she folded over, pressing her face into his chest.

When David woke, the room was light and he was cold again. Blanche lay next to him, spread-eagled over the bed. Her skin had lost its unnatural pallor and her lips, partly open, were a dark, fleshy red. He leaned over, smelled the stale salt and iron perfume of her breath. An intricate lacing of veins was visible through the translucent skin on her neck and shoulders. His appetite stirred a little, but not enough. He clambered out of bed and tugged on his clothes, shaking and desperate to be warm. He set a fire and heated water for tea, glancing at the numerous sketches from the previous day. He sucked his lip, tasting blood. The lust to paint burned up and he forgot tea and cold, snatching up his brushes and stirring sluggish paints to embroider the figure of his new model in the vortex of blue on the canvas.

It was midwinter’s eve – the night of the Winter Festival. The shops and banks closed early.

A night of perfect black and white. The day’s new snow lay over the city, the sky a black lake swimming with stars. A narrow moon swung above the cathedral dome.

Blanche walked beside David. She was dressed in a long, velvet coat with a spiral of ivy pinned to the lapel, a black fur hat on her head. David had procured these items from a second hand clothes shop in one of the many unpromising alleys near the river several days before but their shabbiness faded when Blanche put them on, and under the cover of glamorous night.

In the Regent’s Park, not far from the harbour, the darkness of the longest night was broken by a hundred burning torches.

Thousands of feet had churned the snow into a muddy slush, here and there covered by pathways of hemp carpet where the ladies walked to save their hems. So many people. It seemed the entire city had arrived for the festival – the rich, dressed in furs, sitting around braziers in armchairs in canvas pavilions, the traders with barrows of chestnuts, sausages, mulled wine, spiced potatoes, the working men and women released from the factories.

Blanche’s eyes widened as they made their way among the crowd to the arena.  They moved through a stew of sound – laughing and talking, the shouts of children, stray notes from the barrel organ and the deeper tones of the city band playing Christmas carols. David took her arm and kept her close beside him but he’d nothing to worry about. She seemed fearless – exultant almost – soaking up the atmosphere of the event, watching everything.

Then – at the heart of the festival – a glittering winter palace.

The city’s sculptors had carved the monstrous iceberg into an elaborate fairy castle, phantasmagoric in the blaze of torch light, fit for the Snow Queen herself. How many men, how much work, to carve this fantasy of ice? The mountain had been hollowed out and embellished. Towers and turrets, arched doorways, glistening gargoyles – ice dragons – throwing themselves from embellished parapets, spires leaping from spires, and a huge silver dome held up by fluted columns.

Festival goers wandered like children through arched corridors, in blue-icy cloisters and shining hallways, the most marvellous thing they’d ever seen.

Blanche stared and gripped David’s arm.

“So you want to go inside?” he said. Blanche didn’t answer but her eyes widened. They stepped through a gateway beneath battlements.

The stars blazed, bright and distorted, through transparent ice-windows. The warm breath of so many wondering visitors filled the rooms like a mist. At the heart of the palace they stepped into a courtyard where ice tumbled silently from a fountain beneath the central dome.

“Do you like it?” David said. Blanche raised her face, reached for him, pressed her lips against his. There they stood, surrounded by revellers, in the heart of the palace of ice.

“David! David!” A commotion broke out on the other side of the hall, young men’s voices, a woman’s shrill complaint.

“It’s Claude and Albert,” David said. He hadn’t seen them for days. Time had blurred, becoming a sequence of light and dark during which he either he painted and lay in bed with the girl.

Two young men ran over to him, faces bright with drink and excitement.

“David, where have you been? You’ve been working haven’t you? The picture, it’s taken you away from us.” Albert glanced at Blanche, and glanced again.

“Well, won’t you introduce us?” A sly smile crept across his face.

“Yes, of course. This is Blanche, my new model. Blanche, this is Albert, and Claude.”

Lanky Claude frowned. He was less drunk than Albert; he reached out to pat David’s arm and said: “My god, what’s happened to you? You look dreadful.”

“Oh, working like a demon. You know how it is.”

Claude shook his head. His eyes searched David’s face. “It’s more than that,” he said. “Have you seen yourself? You look sick to death. Have you been eating?”

David brushed it off. “Another few days, the picture will be finished. Then I can rest.”

“Come with us, come and have a drink,” Albert urged, clutching David’s sleeve and jumping up and down. “I’ll buy you one! I’ll buy us all drinks.”

“He sold a picture, the money’s burning holes in his pockets,” Claude said, over his friend’s head. “I can’t stop him. He’s been drinking for three days straight.” He rested a friendly arm on David shoulder. “But you, what have you been doing with yourself? And the girl, where did you find her? She’s quite something.”

David shrugged.

“She came to my studio, looking for work,” he said. “Just what I needed. Come and see it, Claude. The picture is nearly finished. It’s the best I’ve ever done.”

A brace of fireworks exploded in the sky, releasing plumes of blue and silver. David gripped Blanche’s gloved hand as he followed Albert through the crowd to the Albatross, a sunken pub off a narrow walkway near the park. Inside a fire burned in a huge hearth. They sat together at a table crammed in the corner of the room. Swags of holly and ivy hung from the rafters. Albert called for drinks. Blanche took off her hat and her hair, never bound nor pinned, poured over her shoulders in two long, black stripes. Albert stared, mesmerised.

“You look like a fairy,” he said. “Doesn’t she Claude? La Belle Dame Sans Mercy. I should like to paint you too. May I borrow her, David, when you’ve finished?”

David, overwhelmed by the heat of the fire, had slumped into his seat as though Claude’s concern about his health had made the symptoms manifest. He barely shook his head at Albert’s suggestion.

“Well, girl, Blanche – La Belle Dame. What do you think? She doesn’t say much, does she?” Albert wriggled in his seat. A girl deposited cups of hot spiced wine on the table.

“She doesn’t speak at all,” David said. Albert was beginning to annoy him. He wished he wouldn’t stare at Blanche.

“Doesn’t speak? Why, the perfect model. No moaning, eh? In fact, the perfect woman.” His eyes continued to feed on Blanche and David felt a rising desire to smash his fist into his friend’s face. Why had he taken her to the festival?

“I need to go out,” he said, rising abruptly from the chair. He pushed his way through the bar and out of the door into the tart winter air. It was better here, in the cold: at least he could breathe. David took a cigarette from the case in his pocket and began to smoke. A further banner of fireworks hung in the sky. Distantly he heard the noise of the crowds in the park, stray notes of music from the brass band. He shouldn’t be too long. God only knew what Albert was saying to Blanche. They’d shared models before, of course. They were a loose bunch, the girls who hung around the artists’ studios, always on the make, looking for the best chance. Blanche was not like them. He had no intention of letting her go, not even when the picture was complete. He would paint her again. Besides, he had grown accustomed to having her in his bed at night.

He dropped his cigarette into the churned snow and took a deep breath. He was never cold now. On the contrary, the bitter night air sustained him and the prospect of the pub’s close, overheated interior was not a pleasant one. Perhaps he should simply retrieve Blanche and they could walk home together. Three men barrelled out of the door as he made his way back inside. His eye caught the reflection in the fly-blown, gilt-framed mirror hanging over the fireplace – and he stopped short. He saw a man standing among the oblivious carousing crowd, so gaunt his clothes hung from him like a scarecrow, face hollow and dead-white, mauve and grey shadows under red-rimmed eyes and around his mouth, like three-day-old bruises. David stared. Did he look so bad? No wonder Claude was worried. He took a long, slow breath, and then he put his hands on his chest, and his belly, and his thighs, feeling the tenderness of his flesh. Were there other bruises? How could he have paid such little attention to himself that he hadn’t noticed the wreckage of his body? It was the picture of course, the work consuming him. Well it was nearly finished. What did it matter if he pushed himself to the edge?

He sat down again, beside Blanche, and took a mouthful of hot wine.

“Your hands are shaking,” Claude observed. “You’re sick, David. You should go to the hospital.”

David lowered the cup to the table. He shook his head. “I’m fine. Tired, that’s all. You know how it is, you forget to eat. I’m nearly done now.”

The ice palace took weeks to melt in the long, hard winter. It decayed in slow increments, sliding bit by bit into ruin, melting in the sunny days, freezing again in each cold snap. As time went by, respect and wonder dissolved too. Soot and graffiti spoiled the walls. Youths loitered in the marvellous halls, lit bonfires and kicked at the walls. Silver-blue ice became grey and soiled. Melt water lay in a lake in the park.

The days lengthened. The first frail blossoms of jasmine appeared on the trees. Snowdrops broke the icy soil, then waves of gold and mauve crocuses. These impressions of spring David saw vaguely. He strayed from the apartment only briefly, consumed by his work, painting, scraping the canvas, painting again. The white figure emerged from the coil of water, arms uplifted, the cloud of black hair swirling from her head into the sea, while above, just a line above the mass of water, loured a stormy grey-blue sky.

Blanche stood before him as he painted. She hadn’t tired of her role, never fussed or sulked as any other model would. She had altered over the weeks, the boyish slenderness becoming sleek and womanly though she ate little. She didn’t ask to go out, but sometimes, as the spring drew on, she would stand at the dusty window staring out at the city, watching the pigeons and sparrows on the rooftops, listening to the voices on the pavements below. She was waiting for something. What was it? Perhaps he delayed the completion of the painting because he was afraid that once the picture was done, she would be gone. Somehow, alchemically, he was binding her in cords of paint and colour, making her his own, creating a trap. What would he do when she left him? When the picture was finished? The prospect was unbearable. His life had contracted to the twin obsessions, the girl and the mass of paint spreading over the canvas. Nothing else mattered.

The moon rose, slight and pink over a skyline of roofs and spires. The evening sky glowed with the day’s last light. David put down his brush. Blanche lay on the bed, her eyes focussed on some indeterminable distance, making an odd, tuneful humming noise.

“I’m done,” he said. “No more work today. You’re getting bored I think. D’you want to go out?”

She shook her head. David sat on the bed beside, stretched out a paint and oil-stained hand to touch her face.

“Good, I’m glad. I don’t want to go out either.” He stared into her eyes, the witch’s brew of greens he’d seen that first night now flat and solid. A wave of desolation passed through him, an aching premonition of loss. Shaking it away he slid his hand down into the front of her dress, reaching for her breast, wanting the heat of her. For the first time Blanche didn’t respond. He pressed a kiss on her face and pushed her back on the pillow. He laid his head on her chest, beneath her throat but the pulse he felt was slow and level. He kissed her again.

“You don’t want me now?”

She turned her face away from him, green eyes still open. Wordless, entirely still, she was casting him off. Her body had closed itself against him, like a locked door. David stood up and pulled on his coat, sick to death. He hurried out of the studio, strode into the city and didn’t return till the small hours. Drunk and stumbling, he crashed through the room and collapsed on the bed, wine-sodden, head reeling. He woke in the hour before sunrise. A narrow white shape moved through the swimming light. David squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. Was it Blanche? He was dreaming. The figure before the window turned and raised its arms, a milky, opalescent shape with long, inhuman limbs. He blinked again, wanting to clear the mist from his mind.

The sun rose above the roof tops and its first rays pierced her, the translucent woman. He couldn’t see well, blinded by the sun’s dazzle and the curious fog in the room but like a piece of moonstone she stood before him. Within her belly, at the root of her, hung a blood-red purse. Inside it, a foetus curved like a fossil.

Blanche – except that she was no longer Blanche, shedding the limitations of a name – placed a protective hand over her womb. She turned her face to David on the bed but her features had smoothed away. Then, fluid as molten glass, she moved to the open door and disappeared into the shadows of the stairway.   

Claude walked through Regent’s Park, past the lake of salt water and the last, sad stumps of the ice palace. Spring sunshine has released the suppressed perfume of the city, garbage and horse manure, the river’s stink, the breath of cherry blossom. He headed through the maze of narrow streets to his friend’s studio. He hadn’t seen David for weeks, and he’d looked so ill during winter. The girl he’d picked up hadn’t been taking care of him. Clearly David had been working too hard, not eating or keeping himself warm. No doubt the girl had been taking all his money, sucking him dry. Well, Claude had some money now. He’d take David out for dinner and buy him a few drinks, check out the painting David had been raving about.

The sun was warm on his face and he hummed as he walked along the pavement. He turned into the tenement and climbed the stairs to the top floor.

“David?” he called. When he knocked, the door swung open. “David?” he said again. The place was quiet. A draught from the room carried a peculiar odour. Stricken with unease, Claude stepped inside.

A huge painted canvas dominated the room. A mass of swirling blue and green in which a pale female figure twisted, arms outstretched, face tipped back exposing the line of a long, pearly throat. A spray of foam leapt from the sea’s surface into a narrow strip of stormy sky. Energy burned in the picture, in the sea and sky, and in the strained, exultant torso of the woman whose motion seemed to generate the stirring of the elements, like nothing Claude had seen before. No wonder David had been consumed by it. 

Claude stepped closer. David had scrawled his name in uneven letters in the bottom right corner of the picture. On the other side, he’d written: Undine.

But where was David? Claude poked around the room. It didn’t look as though anyone had lived in the room for days. The fire was cold and dead. A stone-hard loaf rested on the tabletop. He peered behind the screen.

A figure lay on the bed. Famished, face blackened, already caving in on itself. Claude’s breath choked in his throat. He let out a shocked, inadvertent moan. It was David, wasn’t it? The clothes were David’s but impossible to recognise his face. Claude rallied, calming himself then stepping closer. What had happened? The body resembled the mummy he’d seen at the museum, except for the horrible frostbitten blackness on the face and hands. Had he died of cold and starvation?

And the girl – the girl was long gone.

Sarah Singleton is the author of The Crow Maiden (Wildside Press) and eight novels for young adults, including Century (2005), Heretic (2006) and The Amethyst Child (2008), all published by Simon & Schuster UK. Century won the Booktrust Teen Award and was short-listed for the Branford Boase Award. Her short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies, including Interzone and The Third Alternative. Sarah has worked as a journalist and, currently, as an English teacher at a comprehensive school in Wiltshire, where she lives. A Winter’s Tale was originally published in a Newcon Press anthology called The Bitten Word (2010).

According to Paracelsus, an undine is a water spirit that can gain a soul only if it bears a child to a human husband.

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Being Human by Wenonah Lyon

Human Beings are Human Beings. Biologically, more or less melanin, taller or shorter, eye shape,  are trivial. They reflect the long-term adaptations to different locations and climates. There were additional adaptations: language, society, culture. Diversity and similarity are part of the human experience. Anthropology  studies all of them – or, at least, individual anthropologists study aspects of all of them.

Anthropology is like a curious little bird, pecking and hoarding shiny, spangly bits.

When my husband took a job at the University of Kent, I worked as a temporary typist. Generally, anthropologists study down rather than up. Go into the field; the anthropologist has more education, status, and usually a lot more money, than the people studied.

Working as a temporary typist is different. No status and not much money. Lowest of the low. For a change, I was down looking up.

In one office, I met a woman from a Travelling Family. Her parents wanted her to get a good education, so they settled. She started first grade. The teacher put her desk in the hall, where she could see the blackboard, hear the teacher. Everyone knew gypsies had lice.

In another office, the three women working there corrected their boss’s mistakes, covered his incompetency. They despised him. He was rude, unappreciative, expected them to get his coffee and sometimes even pay for it.  They covered for him anyway.No choice. Success flows up; blame tumbles down.

I made a friend in a third office. She had started work at fourteen. I said, “But I wasn’t even allowed to date when I was fourteen.” She laughed and said she wasn’t either. She had to wait until she was sixteen to go out with a boy.

I earned about similarity and difference in a non-fieldwork setting.

I did fieldwork in South Asia, in Lahore, and travelled in India. England, at least the Southeast, was as ranked and hierarchical as Delhi or Sindh. Unlike South Asia, there was not even a pretense of reciprocity.  A villager in Punjab gets sick and the landlord is expected to drive him to the hospital. Not in Kent.

Entitlement: some have a right to their position. Ability is irrelevant. No obligation implied.

One thing all these people, places, had in common: they spoke nostaligically of World War II.  It was a time they all fought together, were united. Afterwards, things like the National Health Service, establishing  safety net for the poor, recognized this.

I think one reason for their nostalgia was the sense of community, commonality. Even those who exploit lose by their separation. Anthropology can offer an explanation. But sometimes I don’t want an explanation. I just want to mourn things as they are and wish they were different.

Wenonah Lyon is a retired anthropologist.. In addition to academic publications, she has published short fiction in In Posse, Dead Mule, Quantum Muse, Maps, flashquake, Unlikely 2.0 and other online and print journals. (The essay in Unlikely 2.0 has been included in cityLit Berlin.) Dream Nexus, YA fiction, will be published by Dreaming Big Publications.

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On Becoming a Science Fiction Character by Dr David Clements

I’m pretty sure I’ve read a hard SF book where a diverse group of plucky scientists have a wacky idea to look for life on a nearby planet, put it into effect not really hoping to get anything positive, and then find that their results show something utterly surprising and unexpected. They then face the slings and arrows of more staid and establishment scientists, fighting them off with skill and ingenuity to finally win the day by showing that they were incontrovertibly right.

In fact, I think I’ve probably read that basic plot many times over the years in various different forms and by multiple different authors.

But this has also been a big part of my working life over the last 18 months.

I have become a character in that very science fiction story.

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I’ve always been interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life – what SF fan or writer isn’t? – but at the time I started working in astrophysics research we didn’t even know that planets existed around other stars. I got involved with astronomy on the largest scales, looking at distant galaxies and working on observations of the cosmic microwave background. I was thus a spectator when the exoplanet revolution arrived, and we found handfuls, then hundreds, and then thousands of planets orbiting other stars. This is now a huge industry, with space missions and huge amounts of time on ground-based telescopes dedicated to the study of exoplanets, their atmospheres and, eventually, the search for signs of life.

Life searches closer to home were dominated by large NASA and ESA missions to Mars which seemed to be the only hope for finding signs of life in our own Solar System. Not having any background in biology, geology, or chemistry, there wasn’t a lot I could contribute to such work.

Then things got more interesting.

The Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn discovered plumes of water vapour emerging from the interior of the moon Enceladus. The possibility of liquid water lying beneath the icy surface of gas giant moons was something for which science fiction had prepared me, most notably in 2010: Odyssey 2. The idea that some of this interior material might leak out, allowing it to be studied for signs of biological activity, was not something I, or I think anybody else, had considered. It also provided a way for me to get into this game.

My introduction to astrobiology in the Solar System took place in a bar in Hilo, the largest town on the Big Island of Hawaii, and a home from home for many observational astronomers on their way up to, or down from, the observatories on Maunakea. I was heading up the mountain when I bumped into a colleague, Prof Jane Greaves, in Uncle Billy’s hotel bar. Prof Greaves had just been observing at the James Clerk Maxwell telescope with Dr Helen Fraser. They had been observing Enceladus, looking to confirm earlier observations that had found methane in the plumes of material being emitted by the planet. We had a good discussion about this, and came up with the idea of using the yet-to-be-launched far-infrared space telescope Herschel, which I was working on at the time, to look for more molecular species in the Enceladus plumes, searching for signs of biological activity. To cut a long story short, we never got the Herschel time, and the methanol they had detected was actually the result of chemistry in the plumes driven by UV light from the Sun, rather than anything taking place inside Enceladus. Claims that biochemistry and even life is present inside Enceladus, though, persist, but remain controversial.

Enceladus

Time moves on, Herschel launches and is a great success. I move on to a permanent academic post and become the UK project scientist for SPICA, a proposed followup mission to Herschel. As part of this project I organise several meetings to get UK scientists involved, and to look at the scientific potential of the mission. At one of these I challenge Prof Greaves to come up with some interesting ideas for SPICA in our own Solar System. Most of what she came up with had to do with the outer Solar System, but the final slide of her talk raised the possibility of looking for phosphine, PH3, in the atmosphere of Venus.

Phosphine had been found in the atmospheres of the gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn by ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory (ISO) back in the 1990s. In gas giants the compound is produced deep in their atmospheres, where it is very hot and atmospheric pressure is millions of times of that of Earth at sea level. Gas giant atmosphere are also full of hydrogen, so pretty much everything is combined with this element. If you apply that principle to phosphorous you get phosphine. What Prof Greaves was suggesting, though, was to look for a far-IR line of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus, which is dominated by oxygen compounds, not hydrogen compounds. Phosphine would have no right to be there, leading to the possibility that, if detected, it might be a biomarker – a sign that life might exist on Venus.

Of course every SF fan knows that Venus is hell – Carl Sagan told us! It is the victim of a runaway greenhouse effect with a thick carbon dioxide dominated atmosphere that has a surface pressure 90 times that of the Earth at sea level, and surface temperatures that are high enough to melt lead. Why would anybody think there might be life on Venus?

But Carl Sagan also told us about the clouds. About 55 km above the surface of Venus the atmospheric pressure is comparable to sea level on Earth, and the temperatures have fallen to a balmy 40 C or so. Liquid water can thus persist, and exsts in droplet form in the permanent cloud layer at this height. It’s not a bed of roses though. The environment is still forty times drier than the driest place on Earth, and those droplets are only 10% water, with the remaining 90% acid. But there is liquid water and, to an astrobiologist, liquid water means there might be life. And, unlike other locations in the Solar System with liquid water, it isn’t hiding beneath many kilometres of ice.

So Prof Greaves presented the possibility of looking for phosphine on Venus with SPICA. There were several problems with this idea. Firstly, as a cryogenic space telescope that has to be kept with a few degrees of absolute zero to operate, SPICA could never be pointed close enough to the Sun to be able to observe Venus. And, secondly, as a candidate mission, there was no guarantee it would fly [it has in fact since been unceremoniously cancelled by ESA – but that is another story], and even if it did, it would not be until the mid 2030s.

Prof Greaves, and the rest of us who were interested in this idea, thus had to look elsewhere.

Fortunately the far-IR isn’t the only place where phosphine transitions are found. There is another at a wavelength just over 1mm that can be observed from the ground. We thus proposed to look for phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT). We weren’t expecting to detect anything, but we could demonstrate the feasibility and then ask for more time to set a useful upper limit.

We were awarded about 8 hours of telescope time spread over several different mornings,  when Venus was going to be visible. The data were taken and, over several months, were analysed by Prof Greaves, Dr Emily Drabek-Maunder and others. The data were not very nice since Venus is a very bright source, far brighter than the faint galactic and extragalactic sources that the JCMT is usually used to observe. This brightness produces ripples in the data that vary with time and the position of Venus on the sky. These have to be measured and removed before we can look for any sign of the weak absorption feature at a specific wavelength that would indicate the presence of phosphine.

We were thus very surprised when Prof Greaves told us she thought we had a detection, indicating about 20 parts per billion of phosphine at an altitude of about 55km in the atmosphere of Venus.

This left us with two problems.

Firstly, if we were going to claim something as surprising as the detection of a possible biomarker in the atmosphere of Venus we had to be very sure that it was real. The best way to do this is to get an independent observation with a different instrument. The obvious instrument for this was ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array, so we applied for time there and got rejected.

Secondly, while it is easy to discuss the implications of a non-detection, the interpretation of a detection is a lot harder. You need to analyse how phosphine might be produced by normal chemical processes taking place on Venus. This is not a simple proposition – Venus is a complicated place, with volcanoes, lightening, multiple layers of atmosphere and more. We had a couple of Venus experts on the team, but nobody who was an expert on the chemistry that might produce phosphine in this environment. The fact that we couldn’t say anything definitive about the chemical processes that might be behind the presence of phosphine on Venus was one of the reasons we didn’t get time on ALMA.

So we were all left scratching our heads, until I attended an astrophysics group seminar at Imperial one Wednesday afternoon. This was a talk on looking for biosignatures on exoplanets and possible scenarios for the origin of life elsewhere. The speaker was Dr William Bains, and I have to say it was an excellent talk. After he had finished, I somewhat sheepishly approached him and said, “Do you think phosphine could be a biomarker, because we think we’ve found some on Venus?” This was something of a lightbulb moment, and I very soon realised I was talking to almost exactly the right person. It turned out that William had been working with a group at MIT under Prof Sara Seager looking at potential biomarkers on exoplanets. One of the molecules they had identified as such was phosphine, and they had Dr Clara Sousa-Silva (who uses the twitter handle @drphosphine), possibly the world’s greatest expert on phosphine, as part of their team.

By the end of the week I had put Prof Greaves and the MIT group in contact and things started moving much faster.

The chemistry details all came together, and we submitted a much improved proposal to ALMA for immediate observation, since Venus would be unobservable for much of the rest of the year. We got the time in March 2019 and the data arrived very quickly. A friend, ALMA expert and SF fan, Dr Anita Richards worked to reduce the ALMA data and, by July 2019, it looked as if we had strong confirmation of the presence of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus.

It took some time for us to get these results published – we bounced off the journal Science but then moved to Nature Astronomy who accepted the paper with some pleasantly enthusiastic referees comments. The paper was published to media fanfare in September 2020. They even delayed Sky at Night by a day so they could cover our results.

It was at that point I really began to feel like a character in an SF novel.

Needless to say there has been some controversy. Various authors have taken pot shots at our data analysis and, to be fair, some problems in the ALMA observatory pipeline were found. This means that the ALMA results, while still confirming the presence of phosphine, were not as strong as we thought, and there are indications that the amount of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus is probably varying with time and position.

There was also a possible confirmation of our result from data from Pioneer Venus Probe, a mission that sent a descent stage into the atmosphere of Venus in 1978. The mass spectrometer on board has a weak signal at the right molecular mass to be phosphine, though this would require as much as 100 parts per billion if it is correct.

Venus

We’re now at the point where the scientific world has had several months to look at our data. Despite some sniping the result seems to be standing up and, despite the expectations of our chemists, no cunning non-biological route to producing phosphine has been found. We ourselves (Dr William Bains in fact) had produced a huge paper looking at all the possible routes to phosphine production through non-biological processes (including volcanoes, lightening, infalling meteors, solar UV driven photochemistry and more) and found them all lacking, but you always wonder what you might have missed.

We are now getting more data from the ground, and looking at other ways to find out more about phosphine on Venus. This includes flyby observations by spacecraft en route to Mercury and Jupiter, and future missions to Venus itself.

All of this is going much slower than the plot of an SF novel. It’s taken 3 years to get to where we are from our first JCMT observations, and it will take many more before there can be a dedicated mission to seek confirmation. We’ve had some interesting controversies, which have resulted in us getting apologies from the IAU Astrobiology Commission, some of whose leadership didn’t like our press briefings (or rather what some of the press did with them), and from the lead author of one of the critical papers, who got a bit over enthusiastic in calling for our results to be retracted.

I’m pretty sure we’ve put a lot of noses out of joint in the Solar System and astrobiology communities, at least partly because we’re largely outside these communities and have come up with results that they would like to have come up with themselves.

Have we found life on Venus? I really don’t know. I would like it to be true – it would be the closest I’m likely to get to a Nobel Prize – but at this stage I really can’t tell. William thinks there’s a 90% chance it’s some kind of photochemistry that he hasn’t thought of, but I think he’s selling himself a bit short.

At this point only time and more data will tell us the truth. Until then, I get to be a character in an SF novel where we have discovered signs of life on Venus.

David l Clements is a Reader in astrophysics at Imperial College London where, among other things, he runs the annual Science for Fiction writers’ briefing on the latest science. He is also a science fiction writer, with publications in Analog, Nature, Clarkesword, Shoreline of Infinity and numerous anthologies. His first short story collection Disturbed Universes was published by Newcon Press in 2016. His non-fiction book Infrared Astronomy: Seeing the Heat was published in 2014.

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