First published in Three Drops from the Cauldron, December 2016. All rights remain with the author
I’ve eaten true winter strawberries. Not the tasteless kind you can buy in a supermarket but true, wild strawberries dug from under the snow in January. Those you have to hunt for yourself. I can’t describe the taste, which is like nothing but itself. Imagine if you had never tasted any fruit and you had your first bite, rich and sweet, with a tang that made you want to dance in your snow boots.
I’ll tell you how to find them, though you won’t thank me in the end. First you must steal the strawberry leaves from a ducal coronet. Plain gold is best, though one studded with pearls will do. Most are kept in bank vaults these days, so you just have to wait your chance to snatch one.
Then you need a bear who understands human speech. Not many of them survive, even in the forests of Russia, or at least, not many who will admit to their talent. I found mine in the north of Norway, not a polar bear but a brown cub in his first season away from his mother. He wasn’t lonely: bears like to be alone. But he was curious. He listened while I told him of the songs I would make about him, if our hunt succeeded. But it was the strawberries that tempted him: I knew that all along.
You need a fire hot enough to melt gold, a smith’s forge for preference. You put the ducal strawberry leaves into a pot, with seven drops of your own blood, seven from the bear, a lock of hair from your true love, a feather from a white owl and petals from a rowan tree which blooms in December. No, it won’t work if you have no true love. The strawberries must be for sharing with her – didn’t I say? You stir the pot all night long. In the morning, if you’ve done everything right, a stream of smoke rises up and escapes through the door you’ve left open. The bear chases it through the forest and into the mountains. He’ll go so fast, you’ll be hard pressed to keep up with him. High up, in a cranny where the sun glitters on the snow and the air is so cold it hurts to breathe, that’s where he’ll dig. When he finds the berries, you’ll both be drunk on the scent of them. That’s when you have to be quick. If you don’t snatch your share, the bear will take them all and run off before you can fight him for them. One little mouthful was all I got, just enough to make me crave for more. Then the bear scooped the rest before I could count them and he was gone. One mouthful and none for my true love. She has never forgiven me.
Sandra Unerman is the author of two novels of historical fantasy, Spellhaven and Ghosts and Exiles. Her short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including Frostfire Worlds and Writers’ Café Magazine, both in November 2019. She lives in London and is a member of Clockhouse London Writers. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Middlesex University.
Mars, the god of war, presides over a tumultuous year. Mars the planet had its closest approach to Earth on October 6th, coming into opposition on the 18th. Although fading at the time of writing, it remains a welcome sight in the evening sky. At its closest, Mars was only 38.57 million miles (62.07 million km) from Earth.
On the clearest autumn nights it almost seemed almost possible to reach out and touch the fiery red eye of light. The telescope revealed a hypnotic, blurry pinkish, marked disk. It’s quite something to think of the probes and rovers we’ve already sent there. The thought of human footprints on the planet is something else again.
A human colony on Mars is today the prime ambition of Elon Musk, who discussed his plans at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico in September 2016. Musk wants to build a city on Mars that will function as a ‘backup drive’ for humanity. Other advocates like Bob Zubrin, the engineer who proposed the Mars Direct mission plan and founded the Mars society, sees settlement of the Red Planet as essential to fend off social, cultural and technological stagnation.[i]
From Dream to Landscape
The little boy in me completely sympathises with Musk and Zubrin’s ambitions. That little boy grew up in the 1980s, in the long wake of Apollo, watching the shuttle program and reading books like Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Then, Mars was a playground of the imagination. I knew the old stories were factually inaccurate, and that the Viking landers had suppled a far bleaker vision. But that didn’t matter. A ‘double vision’ was possible, with fact and fantasy co-existing in the imagination.
Decades later, my outlook has evolved. A significant trigger for this shift is the flotilla of uncrewed probes that has been sent to the Red Planet, starting with the NASA Pathfinder mission in 1997. These probes have revealed Mars in unprecedented, topographic detail. The significance of this mapping was brought home to me by the Natural History Museum’s Otherworlds exhibition in 2016. The exhibition presented large, back lit images from throughout the solar system. The surface of Mars was on display in high resolution. For the first time, I felt as if I was standing on an alien world.
The images have also prompted doubts about the space entrepreneurs’ logic. My problem is that Mars is essentially seen as a resource for the exclusive use of human advancement. This seems a terribly human-centred viewpoint. In conservation science a contrast is made between what are called the instrumental and intrinsic values of something.[ii] According to philosophy professor Ronald Sandler, the instrumental value is ‘the value that something has as a means to a desired or valued end (op. cit).’
Intrinsic values, he says, come in two stripes. The first is subjective intrinsic value, where something has intrinsic value if it is valued by human beings in itself, perhaps for its beauty or aesthetic worth. So when artists and writers project their fantasies on Mars, they’re giving it subjective intrinsic value. A more radical possibility is that something has an objective intrinsic value. According to Sandler:
objective intrinsic value is not humanly conferred. If something has objective intrinsic value, it has properties or features [that are valuable] independent of anyone’s attitudes or judgments (op. cit).
This is a radical position because it forces us to think beyond human dreams and needs. Perhaps Mars has a value in itself that is not humanly conferred. So it might be ethically questionable to use — abuse? — the world for our own ends.
With this shift in values came a need to know our neighbouring world better. In 2007, I joined the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA). I discovered the organisation through David Hardy’s book Visions of Space, which showcased the awe-inspiring work of many space artists. The book described the workshops that the IAAA had undertaken to what are called Earth analogues. These are Earthly landscapes that resemble extraterrestrial ones. The IAAA had visited places like Iceland, Death Valley and Arizona in search of Mars-like landscapes.
It became a long term ambition of mine to visit an Earth analogue, in lieu of actually going to Mars. The opportunity arose in 2018, with an expedition to Teide National Park in Tenerife. This is a volcanic landscape inside a caldera, and is centred around Mount Teide, a volcano that’s 3,718 metres high. Its bona fides as an Earth analogue is confirmed by the fact that in 2010 a team tested an instrument that was to be used in the ESA-NASA ExoMars expedition to Mars at the Las Cañadas del Teide.
During the visit, we trekked past lava flows, volcanic cones, varicoloured dunes and boulders. The landscape was primordial. I found myself wandering over the basalt landscapes with a kind of double vision. On the one hand, the interior of the caldera was awe-inspiring in itself. On the other, you could see echoes of Mars all around. The paintings should speak for themselves.
Mars, in the end, remains a place that resides for most of us in the imagination. Despite this, the reams of data from the probes and rovers have opened windows into a wider, cosmic habitat. These windows suggest the need for a revisioning of human engagement with Mars, away from notions of ‘conquest’ or instrumental value. This needs to be a piece with revisioning our relationship to Earth. The intrinsic value of the planet must be honoured. So the most difficult challenge ahead is perhaps not the technical one of ‘footprints on Mars,’ but evolving the wisdom and vision to honour and preserve the Red Planet as well as our own.
Note: a selection of these images are available in the IAAA book The Beauty of Space (2nd ed.) edited by Jon Ramer and Ron Miller (Springer, 2020).
[i] Zubrin, B. (2011) The Case for Mars. New York: Simon & Schuster.
[ii] Sandler, R. (2012) Intrinsic Value, Ecology, and Conservation. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):4
Matt Colborn is a freelance writer and academic with a doctorate in cognitive science. He has written for the Guardian as well as SFX and Interzone magazines. He writes across the spectrum of speculative fiction. He published a collection of short fiction, ‘City in the Dusk and Other Stories,’ in 2013 and is currently completing a novel. His website is at http://mattcolbornwriter.blogspot.co.uk
Since my last Milford attendance, I’ve retired and spent more time writing. I have had short fiction and poetry accepted by online and print publications. (A partial list is available on my website at www.wenonahlyon.com)
I have two hobbies: writing and politics. The writing is fun; the politics depressing.
I joined Zoetrope.com, a writers’ site. Critique five short stories or flash fiction pieces and post your own. I strongly recommend Zoe – I learned a lot about writing by looking at other people’s work, at what worked and what didn’t. I also made some very good online friends.
Then my YA novel, Dream Nexus, was accepted by Dreaming Big Publications, an independent press.
Dream Nexus compares two times, two places, and the possibilities structured by time and place.
Jeannette and Stephen are in a hospital ward in London, recovering from polio. It is the beginning of WWII. Jeannette has been abandoned by her family, and hopes she never has to leave the hospital: she has nowhere to go. Stephen, exceptionally intelligent, has a scholarship to a private school for boys from the East End of London.
Jean Marie, in modern Houston, lives with her single parent mother. Her best friend, Sophie, several years younger than Jean Marie, lives in a trailer park with her mother. Sophie doesn’t fit in because of her intelligence, poverty.
Separated by time and space, Jeannette and Jean Marie dream of each other’s lives. As they learn to communicate intentionally, they realise that the characters and conflicts in Jeannette’s past are re-created in Jean Marie’s present. Jean Marie’s knowledge of the past allows her warnings to be used to change Jeannette’s present. How does this influence Jean Marie’s present?
The time and place where someone lives is as important as more unique, individual, qualities. I’m a retired anthropologist, and on tests I gave students a question for extra credit. I asked them to choose any of the different groups and cultures we had studied and write a first person account describing their life. Students always wrote the “extra question” and wanted to talk about it in class the next day.
I didn’t learn to swim until I was an adult. My mother was terrified of polio. Swimming pools were a place where the disease spread. So I didn’t go swimming. Then Jonas Salk developed a vaccine and polio slowly disappeared. (Salk did not patent it – anyone could make it. I saw an estimate that he could have been a billionaire.)
Swimming pools became very different places, post Salk.
Today, we are in the middle of a pandemic. We cherry pick science just as we cherry pick religion.
Some assume that people working in laboratories somewhere will find something that will fix everything. They still ignore everything scientists say about cutting the spread of the disease. They also ignore warnings about subsequent pandemics, global warming, deforestation, and the possibility of a Sixth Mass Extinction.
Others assume a deus ex machina, where something crashes in and solves everything. It’s as if human beings, around 1995, gave up on human ability to take care of problems. Instead, something or someone would save us all. It’s an interesting plot device for fiction but, like many fictional solutions, better not relied on.
Science fiction takes science and extrapolates: if we know this, what are future possible consequences? Science fantasy looks at ethical questions.
Ultimately, in Dream Nexus, Jeannette and Jean Marie must make an ethical decision. And, ultimately, we as a species are forced to react to this pandemic by making vaccinations possible for everyone – poor countries that cannot afford it. Global warming has resulted in creating deserts, fires. Will we attempt to feed people? Allow immigration?
Corvid 19: we’ve seen the best and the worst of what human beings can do. Other pandemics will come. We’ve had extreme weather. Will the rich north share with the poor south?
The next ten years will be interesting.
I’m looking forward to writing about it.
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.
I love to read, and not merely as a means of procrastination from the other things that need sometimes to get done. And neither part of this, I know, is unique to me. But I’ve never ever explored the question, why do I love to read? I grew up in a house with lots of books and some of the earliest things I did when I had money in my pocket, burning a hole to escape, was to prowl through the shelves of used book stores, looking for yet more new worlds to explore. Beyond just the love of reading, I sometimes find myself speculating on the extent to which my reading is sufficient to balance my tendency towards tsundoku, but that’s a question to explore another day.
In a world where we are taught to read from an early age and where literacy is almost taken for granted, it’s a strange question to ask, why do I love to read? But if we remember that reading is a recent innovation of humankind, going back just a few thousand years, then we can shift the question to, why do I love stories and more widely, why do I love fiction? I’ll admit that this is an equally strange question, but it is one that we all will have encountered at some point. One can, with some work, almost imagine a world in which there was no fiction, though such a world is not one that I can see humans inhabiting, at least not happily.
For me, this question hit me between the eyes, going from one that had stalked me from just beyond the edges of the campfire to one that I couldn’t ignore, when I read the cover article from the 7 November issue of the New Scientist, How the Strangeness of our Dream Reveals their True Purpose by Dr Erik Hoel. Dr Hoel is a neuroscientist (and novelist) who describes a theory he’s working on as part of his research. I won’t try to provide the details here, beyond noting that his focus is primarily on understanding why we dream, but part of the idea is that perhaps, just perhaps, the stories we tell each other in our waking lives, whether face to face or through the books we write and read, have a similar function for the maintenance of the human brain as dreams perform in our sleeping lives, namely that they help the brain from becoming too set in its ways of processing the world. What is clear is that we don’t have a sharp understanding of how our brains work, though our understanding is getting better over time, but the core of this idea, that the stories we tell each other are a critical part of being human, in a physical way as well a a cultural way, is a captivating idea.
What I do know, as speculative as this idea is, is that this idea has spent the past month bouncing off other ideas that I’ve written down in the FILE OF MANY IDEAS and these collisions are starting to generate a bit of light and heat, much to the dismay of the other projects that have been (less and less) patiently waiting their turn. But who knows, maybe a fire will catch and sometime will find its way to a future Milford.
Jim Anderson is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Southampton, and is also the Associate Dean (Education and Student Experience) for the Faculty of Social, Human and Mathematical Sciences. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy.
First published in Nature’s Future All rights remain with the author.
New Year’s Eve, and it’s snowing outside. Of course, it is. They switched on the weather machines on December 1st. Snow for the holidays. We’re in the living room, waiting for the first foot. The first person through the door will bring our luck for the year.
Uncle Milo’s dozing in his chair. He’s as drunk as a skunk. He was never a heavy drinker. But we all have our quotas.
Uncle Milo and Aunty Val live with us. They used to have a nice retirement flat overlooking the harbour. But families should live together.
The lights are dim. The red fairy lights on the Christmas tree are winking and recording, checking that the traditions are being upheld. I wonder if any observers are tuned in. Are we providing good entertainment?
I go to the window and stare out into the street. There’s a hundred families, a hundred houses in a circle. A hundred houses with no back doors or windows. There are lights in every sitting room. We’re all waiting for our first foot. I can see them, tall dark figures in the cold, waiting to bring our luck.
With a peal of bells from a non-existent church, the year turns.
“Happy New Year,” shouts Mother. When the twins jump up and down, shouting in excitement, Mother looks relieved. She’d spent all afternoon coaching them. I smile at her, trying to tell her that I understand. I really do.
She pats my cheek. “Happy New Year, Brenna.”
Aunty Val rouses Uncle Milo. We link hands and sing Auld Lang Syne.
Mother looks towards the door. “Where is he? Where is he?” she whispers.
“It’s all nonsense.” Uncle Milo’s eyes are red and bleary. He strides towards the Christmas tree and glares at it. “It’s all nonsense.” His words fall like the heavy snow.
I pull the twins closer to me. They’re still bewildered, after seeing Santa delivering the presents. Santa shouldn’t ooze down the chimney. Sometimes the enforcers get things wrong. But it’s no good complaining.
“Is it going to be all right?” asks Corey. Jane buries her face into my shoulder. No, I feel like saying. It’s not going to be all right. How can it be? But it’s not fair to them. I smile and tell them that it’s going to be fine. They should be allowed to hope. They’re only kiddies.
Aunty Val is trying to calm Uncle Milo. “Hush now,” she says, laying a hand on his shoulder. Aunty Val looks so frail. Since the abduction, she’s grown smaller and smaller, despite all the food she’s had to eat during the season’s celebrations. I’m worried about Aunty. I’m worried about us all. I’m all worn out with the worry. Worry is a knife, and it’s whittled me hollow.
“I won’t be hushed.” Uncle Milo’s voice grows louder, accumulating like a rolling snowball. “We. Can’t. Live. Like. This. You can’t force us to enjoy ourselves.” He takes a swing at the tree. The red fairy lights flash. Uncle stumbles. Mother gives a little gasp. We both reach out to try to catch him. But we’re too slow. He falls to the floor, landing badly on the wooden abattoir that Santa bought Corey for Christmas.
“I’m okay. I’m okay,” he says. “Don’t fuss so. Don’t,” he says, shaking off Aunty Val’s offer of help. He sounds as if he hates her.
Aunty Val begins to cry. So do the twins.
“Unseasonal behaviour won’t be tolerated.” The enforcer’s voice fills the room.
Mother says quickly, “But it’s traditional for people to lose their rag at this time of year.”
“Ensure that it’s an isolated incident.”
“I will, thank you.”
There’s a knock at the door.
“Answer it, Brenna,” says Mother.
I open the door. He’s tall and he’s dark. Father smiles at me, but he looks puzzled. I feel uneasy. Usually Father’s so good at playing his part.
“Where were you?” hisses Mother. “Uncle Milo’s had a turn.”
Uncle’s still on the floor, sobbing.
“I . . . met someone.”
“Just get it over with,” says Mother.
Father holds a handful of silver coins, a lump of coal and a twist of salt. He shouts out, “Happy New Year t’ye! God send ye plenty! Where ye have one pound note, I wish ye have twenty.” He passes out the gifts, giving me the salt twist.
I unwrap it and taste the salt with the tip of my finger. Then I let the salt fall to the floor, and quickly shove the wrapper into my pocket. The paper’s printed with a red circle: the sign of the resistance. I’d heard rumours, but I never thought they could be true. Can anyone fight the enforcers? Can anyone escape this zoo?
Mother gives Father a mince pie. It’s dusted with blue sugar. Father looks at it for a moment, before eating it with two quick bites.
Mother sighs. “That’s it, then. Let’s get to bed.”
“Happy New Year, Mother.” I hug her.
“Happy New Year, darling.” I help the twins to bed, thinking about the first foot who brings the luck for the New Year. And I’m thinking about the resistance. The New Year brings hope.
Christmas Present – a short story by Marion Pitman
Doris heard the slight plip of the cat flap, followed by the scrutch scrutch of claws at work in the doormat. There was a pause, then the plink of the name tag on a collar against the rim of the food bowl. After a while she heard the claws in the carpet behind the sofa, a pause, and the air was enriched by the fishy aroma of a well-timed feline fart.
Doris smiled and shook her head. She must start tidying the house – it would be Christmas Eve tomorrow, and Norman and Christine would be round early.
Doris wondered where she had gone wrong with Norman. He wasn’t a bad son; but one of the things that were immutable in Doris’s universe was that you didn’t leave your old mother all on her own at Christmas. They would come round, exchange presents, have a drink and a mince pie, and then move on. Perhaps it was her fault to some extent…when the children had come to Norman’s for Christmas, Doris had joined them – it wasn’t far; but then Catherine had married, and the family centre of gravity had moved with her to Nottingham; that meant at least two nights away, and Doris had demurred at leaving Charlie. The next year Doris had hinted heavily that they should all come to her, but they had all said, oh no, it would be too much work for her, and Norman had pointed out that the bungalow wasn’t big enough for the Nottingham contingent to stay. Doris was sure they’d have managed somehow; but after all Catherine had the new house, and then next year she had the baby… Still, thought Doris, they didn’t have to stop asking her, even if they thought she’d say no. She sighed. She didn’t, in all honesty, really mind being on her own, but it was the principle of the thing…
The bungalow was spotless by the time Norman and Christine arrived (Doris heard the outbound flup of the cat flap as the car drew up). They brought in two big bags of brightly wrapped parcels, ceremonially exchanged them for one biggish bag from Doris, and then sat down, at her insistence, while she made tea and coffee. She knew Norman would have preferred whisky, but Christine insisted he share the driving. Doris liked Christine, they understood one another. How she put up with Norman all these years…
There was a plate full of home made mince pies, and some biscuits shaped like Christmas trees that Doris had bought at the church bazaar.
Doris said, “You shouldn’t have got me all those presents, it’s very sweet of you, but it’s very naughty, spending money on an old woman like me.” This was meant to provoke a protest that they couldn’t do enough for her, that Christmas presents in abundance were the least they could offer, but Norman just said,
“They’re not all from us of course; Catherine gave us theirs when we were up there three weeks ago, and Stuart came down from Leeds on Tuesday, so there’s his as well. And a couple from Mrs. Abernethy next door.”
“That’s nice of her.”
“I think she’s starting to fail, her memory’s going.”
Christine put in hastily, “She’s always had a soft spot for you, Doris. Always asks after you when I see her.”
“I must give her a ring.”
Norman said, “She asked after Charlie the other day. You know, Mother, Christine wouldn’t let me get the present I wanted for you, but I do wish you’d think about it.”
“Norman! I wish you’d stop. When Doris is ready for a kitten, she’ll say so.”
“Oh!” This had come up before, but Doris wasn’t expecting it now. “Yes,” she said, “yes, I’m not sure about a kitten.”
“Look, mother, I know you always said they wouldn’t get on, but – “
“Well, you know, I think a kitten might be a bit too much work. I’m not as spry as I was.”
“Perhaps an older cat, then? or a budgie, or something? You need company.”
“Not a budgie – all right, Norman, I’ll think about it. Really I will.”
Norman was beginning to look stubborn, as he did when he was sure he knew what was good for you, and Christine hurried to turn the conversation, via a mince pie, towards cooking, for which Doris was thankful. She didn’t want to have to talk about kittens, or budgies. Obviously, Norman couldn’t understand, but a more sensitive person would pick up that she didn’t want to talk about it, and leave it at that. Oh well. He did take after his father, but without her late husband’s saving grace of wit…
They each had one mince pie and one biscuit, gently but firmly refused a second drink, and said, Well, well, they’d better get on. She saw them off, poured herself another cup of tea, and looked at the bag of presents. There was a card from Mrs Abernethy, and two small parcels. She opened the card, put it on the mantelpiece, and examined the parcels – one was addressed to her, and was obviously talc; the other was addressed to Charlie, and was probably a catnip mouse…she hadn’t seen Mrs Abernethy for months. She must ring her. Dear dear. She felt quite tired; Norman often had that effect on her. She had another mince pie. They really were rather good.
Yes. A kitten or a budgie. Goodness knows. It might be perfectly all right, but… On the one hand, the kitten or the budgie might get the fright of its life; on the other, they might drive Charlie away, and she wasn’t quite ready for that yet. But there was no way to explain to Norman. She wasn’t ready to be put in a home either.
The cat flap plipped, and she heard the claws in the mat; she reached for another mince pie and settled back on the sofa. In a minute or two she heard a soft landing on the sofa, and felt, but did not see, Charlie settling down on her lap. She wrinkled her nose. Who would have guessed, she thought, that a ghost could still fart.
Story collection, Music in the Bone, is now available from Alchemy Press.
Peace on Earth – a short story by Vaughan Stanger
On Christmas Day 2019, billions of Hildreth fell like snowflakes from their orbiting bauble-ships. Summoned from their homes, most of Earth’s population floated up into the sky without saying farewell. Abandoned by his wife and daughters, Bill Dennison contemplated a life as vacant as the chairs surrounding his dining table.
One year on and Christmas Day delivered sporadic gunfire, also a knock at Bill’s door. Lonely enough to accept the risk, he tugged back the bolts. Three Hildreth stood on the doorstep: the tallest chin-high to him, its companions identically shorter. Golden skin notwithstanding, the trio resembled his family closely enough to make him shudder. “Merry Christmas!” echoed in his skull as he slammed the door. He dismissed subsequent visitations from the sanctuary of his armchair.
On the fifth anniversary of his family’s departure, Bill noted the lack of gunfire and his depleted stock of food. The knock came. He heaved a sigh and opened the door.
“Merry Christmas,” he said.
The twins’ smiles set off fireworks in his head.
“Please come in.”
Bill began spooning beans onto biscuits.
The twins spoke in unison. “We’ve something for you, Daddy!”
Hearing another knock, Bill shuffled to the door with tears prickling his eyes. He knew what to expect. Finally, it was his turn.
Having trained as an astronomer and subsequently managed an industrial research group, Vaughan Stanger now writes SF and fantasy fiction full-time. His short stories have appeared in Interzone, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Postscripts, and Nature Futures, among others, and have been collected in Moondust Memories, Sons of the Earth & Other Stories, and The Last Moonshot & Other Stories. Follow his writing adventures at http://www.vaughanstanger.com or @VaughanStanger.
A Christmas Message – by Molly Brown
Molly Brown is a widely-published fiction author who started teaching herself video editing about ten years ago. In that time she has made nearly one hundred zero-budget short films and/or animations, with her work included in more than 400 screenings, including Official Selections in film festivals in the U.K., Germany, Austria, Canada, the U.S., Australia, Serbia, Italy, and France, and winning awards including the Golden Trellick for Best Comedy at the 2018 Portobello Film Festival.
Confessions of a Pest Controller by David Turnbull
Fairies are no damn good. Vermin. An infestation. Mean, spiteful little creatures. The root cause of so many mishaps and misfortunes.
I am driven by the urge to eradicate them completely. I hunt them in woodland glades. Wrap their tiny corpses in clingfilm and store them in the freezer. At Christmas I hang them by the neck from the boughs of my tree on tiny tinsel nooses. Then I clap my hands and yell “I believe in fairies!” What delicious joy it is to see them resurrect and jig and twitch and die all over again.
People are always asking me when I’m going to start ‘writing’ again, to which I invariably reply: “Who do you think writes my films?” I’m still writing, it’s just that I’m currently doing a different type of writing.
I have a brand new animation – finished on Monday – which I thought might be of interest because it is very much hot-off-the-press and topical.
Molly Brown is a widely-published fiction author who started teaching herself video editing about ten years ago. In that time she has made nearly one hundred zero-budget short films and/or animations, with her work included in more than 400 screenings, including Official Selections in film festivals in the U.K., Germany, Austria, Canada, the U.S., Australia, Serbia, Italy, and France, and winning awards including the Golden Trellick for Best Comedy at the 2018 Portobello Film Festival. Her work has also been included in the “Housewarming Party” at Tate Britain, London, in 2013; an installation of one-minute films at the Stadtmuseum Aarau in Aarau, Switzerland in 2015; the Art All Night festival in Trenton, New Jersey, U.S.A., in 2015 and again in 2017; the “Usurp Art” Event at the Experimental Art Gallery at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, India, March, 2016; the Two Minute Film Festival at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA, U.S.A., July, 2016; and an exhibition of video art at the OGA Gallery in Rome, Italy, July-August, 2018. In March, 2019, she became the first recipient of the “Kino Independent Achievement Award” at The People’s Film Festival in London, and in 2020 two of her shorts were broadcast on London Live TV.
Ideas for my stories come to me in museums, in galleries, in libraries. Find me upstairs (and it’s always quieter upstairs) in the British Museum trawling the past looking for future inspiration.
Old books, paintings, objects are part of our material heritage. Survivors of the ravages of times, sometimes cherished throughout the ages, sometimes forgotten, dug from the ground, broken and then reconstruction. Objects tell stories. Museums select and interpret these stories, grouping objects together to give a window into the past.
Museum objects are rich in concrete detail for stories. And not just for fantasy stories, set in the real or imagined past. A detail from the past can act as a springboard for a story about the future. Looking at the helmet of a 10th century Norwegian chief leads me to consider what armour a space Viking might wear (Space Vikings! Now I want to write a space Viking story). Looking at a beaten gold headdress from ancient Ur makes me wonder how the woman felt wearing such a beautiful and precious item. How did her society shape her? How will my future society shape my characters? An object in a museum will catch my attention. Why was this sword engraved with the image of a bear? And that will send me down a pathway of research.
Left – A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, by Joseph Wright, 1766 (Deby Museum and Art Gallery)
Some museums collect the finest pieces of the past, the most costly, the most cherished. Objects may be monumental, priceless and awe-inspiring. But these are not the only stories to be told. Sadly many objects from the past of the working person have been lost. Yet, you can still glimpse the lives of working folk painted as rural scenes on objects. And social museums seek to recapture a glimpse of the ordinary, the everyday.
Objects, books and paintings are material records of the stories told in the past, the stories of religion and mythology. You can read the changing nature of stories through objects. Creation stories, eschatologies, the stories of the gods as their worshippers migrate and change, stories of lovers seeking to retrieve their beloved from the underworld. Some stories are repeated through the ages. What element has gripped so many imaginations?
Musuems don’t always look backwards. In the British Museum’s African Galleries there’s a sculpture called Tree of Life (2004) constructed out of decommissioned rifles. Science museums examine the science of the past, the future and even trends for the future.
The presence of an object in a museum in a story in itself. The Parthenon Marbles, the Benin Bronzes (and others) on display in London are subject to repeated calls to be returned to their countries of origin. These objects tell stories of colonialism, empire, and war.
Though I love the massive, wealthy London museums and galleries, I’ve a fondness for the more obscure museum. After all, I used to work for one, as curator of the Royal Veterinary Museum. In London you can visit Alexander Fleming’s laboratory, or visit the Royal College of Surgeons Museum to explore the ideology that underpinned medicine for thousands of years. University are centres of research and specialism. Their collections are often open to the public by appointment. It’s worth trying a visit to a museum outside your area of interest. Volunteering to help out during my daughter’s school trip took me to the Imperial War Museum, I saw a wealth of cool spy gadgets that will no doubt work their way into some of my stories.
Left – Ram in a Thicket (2600-2400 BC) from Ur, in southern Iraq, British Museum
I live in London, and this article has been about London’s cultural wealth. But you can find wonderful museums everywhere. Holidays at home or abroad are opportunities to glimpse other cultures. A family wedding in Cyprus found me in a small museum examining of hundreds of votive offerings, clay figurines of a men on horseback. A collection that I couldn’t have seen anywhere else. I’m Derbyshire born and bred. Derby’s Museum has a wonderful collection of Joseph Wright of Derby’s atmospheric paintings exploring the development of modern science during the Enlightenment. A bus ride from my home town takes me to the D.H. Lawrence Museum, and to the National Trust’s Museum of Childhood. And sometimes history can’t be constrained to a building. I like the prehistoric stones ring at Arbour Low in Derbyshire that sometime in the past has been pushed over. The standing stones are fallen, nobody remembers why. There’s history everywhere.
And there’s the internet. Museums have embraced the internet seeking to widen access to their collections. It’s not, in my opinion as good as seeing the real thing. (Who can forget standing under the real-size model of the Blue Whale at the Natural History Museum?) But museum websites are a valuable resource.
And if you do take a trip to a museum, don’t forget to take a tour. Curators love to talk their collections. They have a passion for them. And curators are people who want to communicate stories. I should know; I used to be one.
Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives with her partner, Chris, and her two teenage children. Her stories have appeared in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Nature’s Futures, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and The Year’s Best SF 18 and have been translated into over a dozen languages.
ALCS, the UK Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, collects secondary royalties on behalf of writers for work published in the UK, and campaigns and lobbies on writers’ rights at national and international levels. The society is now in its 40th year and to date has paid £450 million to its 90,000 members.
These royalties come from photocopying & scanning by business, education and other organisations, overseas library lending, retransmission, and several other sources. There’s more detailed information on their website.
Not every writer knows the ALCS exists. Everyone should be, and everyone should join. Lifetime membership costs only £36.00 GBP, deductible from your first royalty payment. In fact if you are a member of the Society of Authors or one of a few other organisations, membership is free.
I wasn’t sure of membership is open to all nationalities so I contacted the ALCS and they confirm that is the case – anyone can join.
So why should you join? Well, why shouldn’t you? If you have had any magazine articles, short stories, novels, scripts, etc published, you may well be owed money and the ALCS will collect it for you .
I’m by no means a widely-published writer but my payments are worth having – my last payment was just under £150.00. Honestly, I have no idea where this comes from and am very grateful to the ALCS for their collection efforts! So far, year by year, this has slowly grown. More successful writers payments are quite substantial.
Once you’ve joined all you need to do is register existing work and add new publications as they come along. Then, once a year, you can look forwards to some extra income from your hard work.
Which reminds me, I need to update my publications.
David Gullen David was born in South Africa and baptised by King Neptune at the equator. His short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including New Scientist’s ARC, Albedo 1, and the Sensorama anthology from Eibonvale. He is a winner of the Aeon Award and been shortlisted for the James White Award. His novel, Shopocalypse, was published by Clarion (2013). He was also one of the judges for the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award. David lives in Surrey, England, with the fantasy writer Gaie Sebold and too many tree ferns.
Someone asked me recently, “Which comes first for you, character or plot?”
“Oh, character,” I said. “Character every time.”
And having said it, I realised that it might be generally true – at least, where novels are concerned – but of course, it isn’t as simple as that. A character doesn’t just stroll into my head, named, physically complete and fully costumed, with all their quirks, motivations, backstory, family and taste in beverages neatly arrayed.
I know one or two things about them, to start with. Generally I have a good idea what my major characters look like. In fact they’re often so clear in that respect that I have to remind myself to put some of that stuff on the page, because, unfortunately, readers can’t actually see the picture in my head.
I know what they do for a living. That in itself is part, of course, of who they are, and the world they live in – and then I’m into the world itself, and what the character is doing there, and what particular mess they’re in, and why, and we’re off into plot and world-building and all that other good stuff. Out of this, things begin to accrete to the character –history, family, social status, style, quirks… and then I want something to happen in the plot so I make decisions about a character’s backstory and motivations that will bring them to that point. Then, quite often, I realise that doesn’t work, so I have to change the plot, or change the character’s history, or both.
Sometimes both. Really quite often both, actually. And then I change one of them back again because it feels better and then I have to change something else, because now it doesn’t fit. And so forth.
I’m not exactly a tidy writer.
I do, sometimes, wish major characters turned up with everything about them clearly defined, because then they’d stride through the plot, making decisions that matched who they were at every turn instead of getting lost down dead ends. Not to mention that I wouldn’t end up changing something about them, forgetting I’d changed it, and having to slog back through every single reference to make sure they all match.
Like I say, not tidy.
So life would be easier. But if characters did turn up fully finished, I’d lose some of the joy of discovery. Creating a character is rather like making a new, close friend (or new, close enemy, in some cases), and finding out, bit by bit, who that person really is. It’s an intriguing process.
The characters who are the spark points for books do arrive with a defined and physical presence, a few essential characteristics, a voice. Other members of the cast can be elusive, refusing to fill out properly, remaining infuriatingly wispy despite intensive interrogations (this sometimes involves me weeding, or thinning the grapevine, while saying things like ‘Come on, talk to me, dammit. What do you want?” Aloud. To thin air. The neighbours seem to have got used to this, and don’t even usher their children hastily indoors any more. Mostly.)
Sometimes I just have to inform such a character that this is how they are, and this is what they do, unless they can come up with a good reason why not.
Of course if they do come up with a good reason why not – if what I write them doing feels actively wrong, instead of simply a work in progress, then annoying as it is, that’s generally a good thing. It means the character is developing, becoming three dimensional. It’s when they turn into that kind of awkward so-and-so who won’t do what they’re told that I know I have a live one – a character with some substance to them, someone who is more than just a jointed doll to be moved around at the convenience of the plot.
But the ones who spark the story – they’re always the best ones. They existed before the story, and they take on a life beyond the story. These are the ones who hang around in my head.
I’m half-convinced they actually do have real lives, somewhere in the multiverse, and I just got to be their biographer for a little while.
I rather hope so, anyway.
Gaie Sebold’s debut novel introduced brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war, Babylon Steel (Solaris, 2012). The Babylon Steel series continues, as does a steampunk series, Gears of Empire She also writes short stories and occasional poetry, runs writing workshops, grows vegetables, and procrastinates to professional standard.