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Upon Reflection, a Resource and an Invitation, not without Risk

Recognise these?


Yup!  Spoilers.

Which is what you can expect if you read much further down this particular page.  So if you’re not yet done with The Dark Defiles (or indeed any of the Land Fit for Heroes trilogy), you may want to look away now.

But for anybody else, here’s the general idea:

There’s been a lot of debate/dispute about the ending of Defiles, and by extension the whole trilogy and its content, both here and elsewhere in social media space.  That’s something that’s mostly been very gratifying to see, though occasionally a bit depressing (see post over here on why that is).  But one thing has impressed me throughout – in pretty much all cases, people have been extraordinarily considerate in walking softly around the issues, phrasing with due care and attention, rather than just coming out and saying stuff that would potentially spoil the trip for anyone else.

Well, now you don’t have to do that anymore.

I’ve been giving it some thought, and I reckon it can’t do any harm to square away at least some of the debate, to clear up some of the Need to Know that’s evidently lying around out there.  So this is a thread dedicated to flat-out laying down in plain speech what you think happened and what it means, and seeing if anyone (including me) agrees with you.  That’s to say, the discussion is yours, but I will drop in now and then to answer any questions arising, offer some insights of my own – and, of course, break up any catfights, so please play nice.  I should point out, though, that while there are some points on which I can provide clarity to those who really want it, there are other areas where your guess is (almost) as good as mine.  There are some things about this particular fiction that I simply don’t know myself, either because I never needed to make those things up in the first place, or because I actively enjoyed creating an ambiguity far more than a hard  fictional truth.  Example – no, I don’t know what the Helmsmen really are, so don’t ask! (Well, actually, no, you’re welcome to ask – and of course argue your corner – but Know Ye that the matter will be Forever Shrouded from the Minds of Men (and Women, natch)).

Right.  Over to you!

Peak Grit District

Remarkably irritating Again-the-Death-of-Grimdark article over here.  Seems to have irritated one Mark Lawrence (of Prince of Thorns fame) too, because he asked me to write something on the same question for an ensemble piece featuring such grim-darkly hailed stalwarts as Joe Abercrombie and Kameron Hurley.  You can find the whole thing here.  Highlights, among other things, an interesting comprehension gap between genre authors and bloggers.

Meantime, here’s my contribution, featuring a couple of minor edits and some exasperated italics that didn’t make it into the version on Mark’s site:


First gut response – Oh, FFS, not this again!!! I swear, it seems like people have been pronouncing the Death of (and an elaborately mannered disdain for) Grimdark practically ever since it arose as a discrete genre descriptor in the first place. And that was what, barely six or seven years ago? Really – what is all the fuss about? This is the fantasy genre’s very own version of moral panic, and frankly I find it both weird and embarrassingly parochial. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that only in the quaint, walled-off kingdom of fantasy fiction, could a storm in a teacup like this even arise. Take a stroll out into the broader context of literature in general, and the debate becomes almost meaningless. Greek tragedy, anybody? Medea or the Oresteia? Shakespeare’s King Lear or Titus Andronicus? Webster and Middleton? The Brothers Grimm? (I’m talking of course, about the real-deal original folk and fairytales, before they got Bowdlerised down into kid-friendly fare) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Jean Anouilh’s masterful re-imagining of Sophocles’s Antigone for the modern era?

These are just a handful of examples from a broad, inter-related swathe of grim fiction down the ages to which we are all heirs, and which is packed full of the elements a clutch of nose-holding fantasy commentators now perceive and decry in so-called grimdark fantasy. Horror, pain and loss. Inhumanity, depravity and despair. All that good cathartic shit. Outside of the fantasy walled garden, contemporary literature has been full of it for decades – try some early Ian McEwan on for size, or Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece of scorched-Earth existential despair, Blood Meridian. Orwell’s 1984, Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms. Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting or Filth. And nor is this solely a function or affectation of soi-disant Literary Fiction – crime writers have been mining a seam of increasingly explicit human depravity for decades too. Try Val McDermid’s The Mermaid’s Singing, Mo Hayder’s Birdman or just about anything by James Ellroy. See where it leads you.

The truth is that what the nose-holding contingent have chosen to designate (and denigrate) as grimdark is no more than the intrusion into the walled fantasy kingdom of a much more general lens now applied across pretty much the whole landscape of contemporary fiction – to wit, a willing engagement with the darker recesses of the human condition, a refusal to sugar-coat uncomfortable human truths, and a clearer all-round vision of who we actually are as recently evolved violent apes. Now, that’s not a dynamic that’s going to go back in the box. It’s not a fashion or a fad, it’s a solid developmental aspect of the stories we tell ourselves about the world, and it is here to stay. Asking whether we’ve reached “peak grit” in fantasy is rather like the inhabitants of a sleepy little village just off a major motorway junction wondering wistfully if we’ve reached “peak car”. It’s like positing a coming tide of disenchantment with mobile phone technology. It’s wilfully blinkered and it’s inane. There is no going back. Deal with it.

None of which is to say, of course, that this heralds the death of the more cheery, bucolic forms of fantasy. Inherently noble farm boys or plucky tomboy princesses who defeat evil hordes and rise to rule (paternally benevolent, natch) kingdoms and empires are never going out of fashion. There’s a huge market for that shit, and probably always has been. Ditto inherently noble trainee adolescent mages or dragon-riders who acquire mastery of their craft, throw down their (inherently evil) enemies and triumph without ever abusing their colossal power or lording it over those below them in the hierarchy – well, except maybe for that One Time they did it but were then Ashamed, learnt Character-Forming Lessons from it, and Vowed thereafter always to Use their Powers for Good. This stuff shifts by the metric tonne, and I imagine it always will. It’s important to realise that very large numbers of the people who read fantasy are reading it specifically to escape from the darker and more uncomfortable human truths you see encroaching elsewhere in fiction. (Which is perfectly fine – it is entertainment after all; you pays your money, you takes your choice.) So you can sort of understand that when that same darker approach comes battering at the door of these readers’ chosen refuge, yes, they might well get twitchy and start making ridiculous straw man statements about gratuitous gore and torture, unrealistic misogyny and the death of nobility and hope.

But such complaints are at best disingenuous, at worst colossally dishonest. To start with, where is it written that you have to tell stories of nobility and hope? For that matter, what is nobility? Beating seven shades of shit out of a horde of opponents on the battlefield (with all the actual blood and screams and pleading tastefully edited out) and then putting on a crown? Is that noble? Blowing up an entire planet-sized space station of people who happen to have chosen – or more likely have just ended up stuck on – the opposing side to you in a galactic war? Butchering a huge intelligent reptile who was, until you disturbed it, dozing rather peacefully in a hole in the ground and not bothering anyone? What kind of hope is it, exactly, that we’re selling here? The hope that we can slaughter them before they can slaughter us? The hope that our brand of faith or politics can kick the living shit out of anybody else’s? The hope that I’m a bigger, tougher motherfucker with a blade or a spell than anyone else in this neck of the woods?

See how it works?

Epic fantasy is habitually set in worlds where men (and sometime women) resolve their differences with sharpened steel and blunt instruments or violent magic or both. Might makes Right (even if there’s some feeble pretence that the finally triumphant Might is only really mighty because it was already, in some intrinsic way, Right). Combat violence is usually central to the narrative, either at an individual level or in full-dress battles or both. There’s an unclean rush to all of this, of course, a sense of power and excitement accorded the protagonist which more civilised contexts would not afford; a sense of living on an edge we thrill to as readers but would run screaming from if we ever found ourselves even remotely close to it in real life. No-one writes an epic fantasy about the guy who spends his whole life peacefully ploughing and planting a field, feeding and raising a family, living and growing old and dying as a farmer, and handing his farm on to his children in his old age. We don’t want that from our fantasy, because in fact it isn’t fantasy. Too dull, too workaday – save it for the LitFic crowd. What we want is that unclean rush of steel in hand (or spell in mouth) and good, old-school power to command. We want the violent ride.

Faced with this as a writer, you have a choice – you can elide the brutal violence and human suffering inherent in the context, keep it all PG and sanitised and shit, pandering to the desire for the rush, but rinsing out the unclean violent-ape bases the rush is built on. Or you can examine the human logic of the context and make an honest stab at telling a story that’s true to what that context implies. You can deliver the desired rush, but you keep it unclean. You make the reader pay for their dirty pleasures, you make them accept the price. Face and kill a man in combat with sharpened steel? Sure – but what’s that really going to be like? Let’s have a look at the wounds and the screams and the blood, shall we? Command thousands in battle and take the throne. Sure – now let’s dolly in for a close-up on the human cost of that battle, the social devastation, the trauma, the remorseless hunting down and expedient disposal of inconveniently surviving opponents. Torture, murder, exemplary execution, more than likely a bit of judicious infanticide just to be sure. Live in a world where these things are the norm? Right – let’s consider what underlying social and cultural realities that implies. Let’s take on board the stifling hierarchical oppression, the inherent corruption and casual day-to-day brutality, the poverty and ignorance and generational slavery and serfdom – oh, and let’s not forget the soul-crushing, ever-pervasive misogyny.

This last, I think, deserves a special mention. Much has been made of the misogyny inherent in so-called grimdark fiction – as if misogyny were some rare and perverse dysfunction in human behaviour, and grimdark responsible for unfairly amplifying the extent to which said dysfunction emerges in the real world. But a quick glance around that real world right now would be sufficient to dispel any such illusion – misogyny is globally rife. Misogyny crushes millions upon millions of women the world over. Misogyny defines entire fucking cultures at the most basic level. And that’s right now, with all our much-vaunted civilisational advances in place. Pull the plug on even a century or two of those advances, wind back the historical clock to the kind of eras epic fantasy habitually apes in its trappings and contexts, and the weight of misery imposed on women grows ever more horrific. In fact, I think it’s safe to say from the evidence that, far from any dysfunction, misogyny appears to be an entirely functional natural aspect of human evolution and culture, an integral part of our violent ape heritage – just like xenophobia, genocide, slavery, and war. No surprises, then, that it – along with all those other delightful human pastimes – should crop up so solidly in fiction which deals with periods of violent upheaval in pre-modern social and political settings.

If the last century and a half of human experience and scientific advance has shown us anything at all, it is this – we are not who we would like to believe we are. I’d argue further that good modern fiction takes this on board and tries to do something with it – other, that is, than hide it under the nearest richly embroidered cushion. In most areas of literary endeavour, the attempt to confront that kind of human truth rather than run away from it is usually hailed as a sign of merit, a measure of literary worth. And people who aren’t much in the mood for such confrontations – say, for example, the “cosy crime” contingent of the crime readership – seem content to simply say yeah, well, fine, but it’s not really for me, it’s just not my thing, and to move cheerfully along the shelf, avoiding that particular kind of entertainment in favour of something softer and more consolatory that better lights their fire.

Only in the walled-off garden kingdom of fantasy does confrontation with unpleasant human truths seem to be regarded as a regrettable aberration, and to engender a violent, repeatedly spasming immune-system response.

The Slow Death of Nuance (and What’s Coming to Haul the Corpse Away)

Funny story….

There is, at the end of Sofia Coppola’s movie Lost in Translation, a moment of almost jazz-like brilliance which wraps and crowns the previous two hours of subtle implication and nuance with a final delicate and nigh-on perfect touch.  If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  For those who haven’t seen it (and your really should), Lost in Translation tells the story of a strong but unconsummated attraction between two people Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) who are stuck hanging around a Tokyo hotel, alienated from the local culture and dealing badly with their jet-lag.  When the time comes for departure, and the attraction remains unconsummated, you think the movie is over – until Bob spots Charlotte in the crowd from his airport limo, jumps out, runs after her, embraces her and whispers something passionately in her ear.  A visible release of tension shudders through both of them, they kiss, they say their farewells – properly this time – and walk away.  Cue play-out – the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey.  Standing ovation for Ms Coppola.  It really is a gem.

Point is, you don’t hear what it is Bob says to Charlotte in that scene, nor are you intended to (though a subsequent digitally filtered rendering did crop up on Youtube and sort of spoil things).  Coppola gives you space to imagine it for yourself.  All you know is that this final act of connection and affection has suddenly made it alright for the two of them go their separate ways.  What looked like being a Tragedy of Star-Crossed Love is transmuted with one master-stroke into a Bittersweet Happy Ending.  You’ve just watched something simple but quite profound get said – about age and youth, perhaps, about time and loss, separation and fleeting connection, about what can and cannot be transmitted across the distance between two human beings with any degree of success.

Or so I thought.

About a year later, I was on a book tour in the US and talking movies with my media escort.  We both struck on Lost in Translation as a brilliant movie, sang in chorus the praises of the actors, the script, the director.  But when I laid out my thoughts along the lines of the paragraph above, my media escort looked quite taken back.  Oh, he said, I kind of thought they’d get back together again, once they were both back in the States; you know, I thought he was giving her his phone number or his address there…..

It was, and remains, the most forceful reminder I’ve ever had of the limits you face as a storyteller and the risks you take if you plan on using any degree of subtlety in your narrative choices.  Your audience has a mind and agenda of its own, and short of nailing everything down with nine inch nails in the glare of a Klieg beam, you will always face the danger that someone simply won’t get what you’re trying to say.  Over the last couple of months, complaints among the negative side of  the readership response to The Dark Defiles have driven this home to me once more.  Feels more like Book 3 of a four or five book sequence, kvetched someone.  Loses points for the ambiguous ending, said someone else.  I can’t believe that’s it.  What happened?  And so forth.  Even some of the positive reviews talked enthusiastically about the next book, loose ends, where the story would go next.

As they say in the San Fernando valley (or did in my youth, anyway) – Rilly?  I mean, RILLY?  Ambiguous ending?  RILLY?

Look, Black Man ended ambiguously.  No argument, it’s a fair cop.  I personally have a pretty good idea of what happened beyond that last page, but I deliberately didn’t close it out.  I wrote the ending precisely so there could be doubt, because to me both possible outcomes carried the same narrative weight, and whichever way it ended, it said the same things about life, love and loss.  Yeah, that was ambiguity.  Big time.

The Dark Defiles does not end ambiguously.  Honest.  Not at all.  There’s some space at the end, sure, but what’s going to happen in it is a pretty solidly foreshadowed and foregone conclusion.  You don’t get given blow-by-blow chapter and verse, because I figure you’re smart enough to step into that narrative space and figure it out for yourselves, sophisticated enough to enjoy that process for its own sake.

Most readers seem to have done that.

That some didn’t, and more importantly that most of those who didn’t felt somehow short-changed and even angered by the nuance and the space, continues to perplex me.

What’s going on here?


Sometimes, of course, it is the author’s fault.  Looking back on Altered Carbon more than a decade and a half after I wrote it, I still regret not making clearer linkage between Reileen Kawahara’s accusation aboard Head in the Clouds that Kovacs is a moral hypocrite and Kovacs’s decision to help Irene Elliott because he wants there to be something clean at the end of all this.  It’s not vital to the flow of the narrative that the reader make that connection, of course, the act of kindness does stand alone (though it paints Kovacs a shade more acceptable than I’d ideally like). But linking solidly back would have been better – it would have shown Kovacs’ actions as less than purely selfless, it would have underlined a moral equivalence between Kovacs and Kawahara, and it would have emphasised a bit better just how lost Kovacs really is.  So while my media escort’s interpretation of Lost in Translation’s ending was, I think, unjustified, while believing the story isn’t over at the end of The Dark Defiles is, I think, missing several pretty massive narrative points, not catching that sense of moral equivalence between hero and villain in Altered Carbon would be fair enough. (And perhaps that’s why so many readers took so badly against Kovacs when he re-appeared in Broken Angels with that same moral ambivalence writ brutally large.)  My bad.  Sometimes you just miss a trick.

Oh well.

Thing is, it’s a tightrope act – go too subtle and you risk losing a nuance like the one above, too defined and you end up with prose like the furniture in a fast-food joint and narrative flow like a set of IKEA assembly instructions.  I still recall with painful clarity the ending of a bestseller lent to me by my sister years ago, in which an estranged mother and daughter are reconciled in a kitchen scene.  The mother has been trying to cook something for them while they talk, and it burns.  After putting out the fire together, mother and daughter face each other and mother says (paraphrasing from memory here) Oh dear, perhaps we should just start over again.  Daughter replies Yes, I’d like that.  Pretty neat scene, really – until the author (or maybe their editor), perhaps panicking about average IQs, felt the need to add the immortal line Neither of them were talking about cooking.

Oh, you don’t fucking say?  Really?

Sadly, that’s not an isolated example.  Dip into the broad waters of commercial fiction and you’ll bump repeatedly into that same terror of open narrative space, of letting the reader think for themselves.  Paragraphs abound with that jerky last sentence sutured on, subtle as Frankenstein surgery, to hammer home the point the text just spent ten finely penned lines carefully implying.  One notable horror writer, a firm favourite of mine for many years, has gone so far down this treat-your-readers-as-morons-with-ADD path that I now find his books unreadable.  There is no longer any nuance anywhere in the text, no room to breathe and wonder – you’re just herded along from one big narrative signpost to the next; don’t stop, don’t think, just open wide, here comes the next big helping.  You end up gagged and bound, stifled by subtitles for the hard-of-thinking.  Never mind nuance, never mind thinking for yourself, you’re being entertained here!  Get with the programme.

And right there in your hands, reading turns from a textured, open experience full of challenge and invitation to extend yourself – like, say, rock climbing or playing a musical instrument – into a satisfaction-guaranteed sit-back-relax repeat-prescription experiential product, like being strapped into the same rollercoaster ride over and over again.

Mainstream film-making, of course, with its need for massively broad appeal to pay the bills, has had this disease for far, far longer, and that may in fact be where this terror of space in a narrative originated.  It’s rare you can go to see a big budget Hollywood movie these days and not emerge feeling that your intelligence has been, well – not just insulted; more like stood up at knifepoint, slapped about, jeered at and robbed of its phone.  Wallop!  You are done.  The sales and marketing twins kick in the door of the artist’s garret with a grin, cuff said artist amiably around the head – and tuck a fat wad of cash in their pilled and threadbare grey cardigan pocket.  Keep up the good work, mate, you made Dinsdale very ‘appy wiv this one.  But ‘e tole me to mention ‘e is a bit concerned with this ‘ere implication you got creepin’ in instead of just sayin’ stuff, nowhahmean?  I’d get that sorted aht if I woz you.  Dinsdale don’t like ambiguity.

Should we care?  Or is this just a storm in a culture snob’s teacup?  After all, what’s wrong with making things easy for people?  Not everyone’s clever.  Not everybody has the leisure or inclination to dwell musingly on their entertainment.  We’re not all chin-stroking arthouse types.  People come home tired from work or study or collapse exhausted on the sofa after putting the kids to bed.  They don’t want nuance and challenge.  They don’t want to extend themselves, as you say.  All they want is something easy to digest, right?  Some nice starchy junk ennertainment.  They carry a myriad heavy burdens in life, these people, burdens they can only fleetingly unload for a couple of hours of R&R here and there, a couple of weeks once or twice a year.  Shouldn’t we just be glad they’re reading at all?  Shouldn’t we be happy we can make them happy for a while so easily?  Plus, well, that wad of cash spends pretty good, doesn’t it?  You could get a new cardigan.

What’s wrong with this picture?


What’s wrong, first of all, is that it’s profoundly patronising.  It stakes out an immediate Us-and-Them distinction, and one with more than a whiff of class essentialism about it  – We, the smart purveyors of your art and entertainment understand that You, the consumers, are just too dumb and/or ignorant and/or lost in your dull little lives to cope with nuance or reflective space in your fiction, let alone actually enjoy that space the way people like us know how to.  God, you’ve probably never even heard of Lost in Translation, have you, let alone seen it – too busy glugging down the latest multiplex blockbuster shite.  So forth.  Why bother with subtlety?  Who needs it?  Why take the risk?

And right there, we open the classic societal gouge between the artificial distinctions of High Art and Popular Entertainment, and, of course, their respective consumer bases.  Right there, what should be an act of communication becomes instead an act of streamlined product supply and thinly-veiled supplier contempt.  Keep it full-on and simple, it’s all the proles understand.  Save that challenge-and-nuance shit for the high end customers, no-one else wants it.  And y’know, I suspect that, at some level, some segment of the consumers on the receiving end of that contempt feel it for exactly what it is, and how they respond is with the shirty, rage-prone neediness of fandom, so commonly on display across the internet.  You got me in a corner here – you sold me this shit, you damn well better keep on feeding me exactly what you promised, you better keep me happy.

In the eternal marketing quest to find and deliver the perfect streamlined product, everybody loses.

Worse yet, there’s the core problem with this dynamic – and with the creeping infantilisation at the heart of late-stage capitalism of which it is an off-shoot – it is dangerously self-fulfilling.  Tell people they deserve better than having to cut up and cook actual produce to make a meal (when ready meals are so much quicker and easier) and pretty soon they’ll stop doing it.  In time, they’ll forget how.  Tell people they should never have to wait for an actual meal to assuage their hunger, and pretty soon they’re grazing themselves into obesity.  Dining tables disappear from homes, family meal-times evaporate and instant branded junk rushes in to fill the gap.  You create your markets from the ground up, with little or no regard for the wider consequences, and you warp people’s expectations to suit.  Produce enough braindead multiplex blockbuster shite, market said shite hard enough, and people become conditioned to it.  They stop expecting anything else.  Train a readership that they should never be left in doubt about anything in a novel, should never have to work anything out, and they’ll lose the taste for doing so.  In time, some of them will lose the capacity.  And when nuance does occasionally come calling, they’ll likely be pretty pissed off.

And that’s a bad thing.

Just as it’s a bad thing that entire modern populations are growing up alienated from the textured pleasures of cooking and healthy eating, so it’s a bad thing that sampling the nuances and textures of good fiction should become the exclusive preserve of a self-regarding elite, while the broad consumer mass are encouraged not to bother.  It’s the wilful destruction of acquired taste to make way for cheap-and-cheerful junk.  One of the finest compliments I can have paid to my work is to hear that people have been arguing about my characters’ actions and motivations, trading opinions back and forth, enjoying the ambiguities and the implications.  That level of engagement is one of literature’s great rewards, one of the great pleasures the form can deliver for both creator and reader.  But when that enjoyment and engagement is replaced with anger and blank incomprehension at the space the author has left for the reader to step into, when we mistake challenge and invitation in our art for failure to deliver on some cast-iron product promise – then something somewhere has gone seriously wrong.

And something valuable is being lost.

Guest List

  It was early evening when I hit the Mariner Strip, and up in the Lamina they were trying for rain. Some newly-written sub-routine, I guess, cut loose up there amidst the vast shifting gossamer layers, and oh look, just like magic – thin, cold, stop-start drizzle comes weeping down out of a paprika sky. Must have had some solid marketing muscle ahead of it too, because the streets were crowded for a mid-week night. When that rain kicked in, felt like the whole fucking city jammed up. Everywhere you looked – people stopping to crane their necks and gawk.

I spared the sky a sour glance of my own, didn’t stop. Shoulder on through the stalled knots of rubberneckers, keep the pace. Anyone looking to get wet behind this shit, they’d likely be waiting a while. Nothing falls fast around here, and this attempted downpour wasn’t going to break the rule. Mostly, it floated and blew around overhead, scornful of gravity, tinged in the evening light to a blood-red spray. Pretty to look at, sure. But some of us had places to be.

The Strip, then. Settlement-era; storm-scarred antique nanocrete; mirror-image five-storey facades.  They’d run the build on either side of a broad channel they dug out between the exposed foundations. Sixty metres wide, that channel, and three kilometres long, bent just a little out of true to take advantage of existing fault-line geology in the valley floor. A long time ago, it housed hydroponic gardens and manicured recreational spaces for the original colonists, all roofed in under glass. Parks, velodromes, a couple of small amphitheatres and a sports field – even, so they tell me, a swimming pool or three.

Imagine that.

Now the roof is gone, and so is the rest of it. Knocked down, torn out, cleared away. What they left in its place is a scuffed and littered sunken boulevard, tangled up with barrows and street stalls, all vying to shift cheapest product to the crowd. Get it while it’s hot, people – discounted coding spikes, semi-smart jewellery, fast food steaming from a myriad different woks and pans, street chemists pushing half a hundred different ways and means to get out of your head in a hurry. You could argue, I guess, that you’re still in a recreational space of sorts. But it’s a pretty gaunt and garish spirit of fun that stalks down the Strip these days, and if you ran into it, you wouldn’t want to meet its eye.

For those chasing that particular ghost, though, you reach bottom via long escalator tunnels hacked inelegantly right through the original structure – there’s one at the end of most of the cross streets where they back up to the stretch of settlement-era build, hemming it in on both sides with architecture altogether less hunkered and hermetic. You get on under big cowled openings in the nanocrete and the endless alloy belt-ride carries you down.

Or – if you’re a grasshopper or an ultratripper maybe – you ride the gargantuan cargo elevators at either end of the channel, each of whose two thousand square metre loading platforms still piston massively up and down, slow and smooth as the day they were put in. Got these tacky fake-historical loader stand-clears blaring out on looped track from bullhorn speakers along the safety railing. Rotating yellow warning cherries, the whole deal. So cool.

Either way, platforms or endlessly moving covered stairways, you’re left with much the same sensation – that of easing down slowly into the belly of something huge and probably hazardous to health.

Which was just fine by me.

I’d taken the escalator down from the end of Crane alley, which put me about a klick away from where I wanted to be – slow going with the weather geeks clogging up the flow. And as I came out under the exit cowl, lo and behold, there was some genuine street level rain to contend with too. It slapped my face wet as I moved through the crowds, dampened my collar. Put an unaccustomed beading of moisture on lips and brow and the backs of both my hands. Felt pretty good, but then so did everything else right then.

Three days awake and running hot.

Over my head, early lights were coming on behind long-redundant storm slits in the upper levels of the build, hinting at mysteries within. Club names and logos clung on the antique architecture like a plague of gigantic luminescent beetles and centipedes. And across the drizzling sky, the first of the ‘branegels spread almost invisible soap bubble wings. Silver flurries of preliminary static shivered down their surfaces, like coughing to clear your throat. The images shook out, the long night’s video pimping began.

Taut young bodies, cunningly lit, cavorting on night-time streets in a rain-storm the likes of which no-one around here would ever get within fifty million kilometres of seeing for real. Thin dark clothing drenched through, ripped and torn, a kind of favela chic thing, clinging to curves and declivities, moulded round nipples teased erect, framing cold cuts and slices of water-beaded flesh. Marketing copy bannered repeatedly across the pan-and-grab footage – Particle Slam Dunk – Get Wet, Why Don’t You! A Joint Coding Venture, brought to you by Particle Slam, in Capital Partnership with the Colony Initiative. Up on the gossamer screens, partnerships formed and broke up among the taut young things, as they all got up close and personal for the camera, and the drenched-wet dance went on.

Meantime, the rain – the real rain, back here in the real world – stuttered abruptly out.

Blew away to nothing, left a long pregnant pause, then started slowly again. Hard to know if the new code was working well or not; it could have been running that staggered feed as part of an energy saving protocol, could have been teasing for effect, or it could just have been buggy as fuck. Idiots stood around all along the Strip, squinting up into the sky, arguing it back and forth.

“Toldya they’d get it sorted. P Slam are solid, soak. Whole other kind of outfit than those Ninth Street guys. Feel that on your face?’

“Yeah, just barely. Feels like some crap standard seepage to me.”

“Oh, fuck off. Seepage wouldn’t even make it down here. Look there – puddles, it’s making already.”

I slipped past the debate, filing detail for later. Particle Slam – never heard of them. But I’m used to that kind of thing this end of the cycle. Eco-coding is a fast game, even back on Earth, and out here with all the brakes off and Gentle Commerce smiling down, it’s so fucking Darwinian you get tired just thinking about it. Out here, a code house can go from Next Big Thing to dinosaur bones in less time than it takes the shuttle to do the short season turnaround. Takeaway – when you’ve been dead to the world for the last four months, you can miss an awful lot.

But some things don’t ever change.

Every evening, the Strip flickers to languid life, like some faulty neon tube given a kick. It blinks and fizzles and settles down, gleaming slantwise and constant across the street grid of Bradbury’s old quarter like a cryptic grin, like a signal for eager moths. Saw it once from LMO – I was drifting in decanted, mission’s end on a mutinied belt freighter I’d sooner forget. Nothing better to do now but prowl the silenced decks and stare out the window as the world rolled by beneath. We chased the terminator in across Ophir and as night fell, I watched the Gash come up and round. Brooding rift valley walls, sunk thousands of metres deep in the Martian crust, colossal piles and drifts of tectonic rubble across the vast open floor between. Here and there, a dim, dotted crop of settlement lights, thickening and tangling together as they closed in on the bright blotch of Bradbury itself, further up the valley. And there, slapped right across the old city’s heart, was that big, bent three klick grin.

Welcome home, soak.

Elsewhere across town, corporate logos and COLIN promo panels sparkle the skyline with liquid crystal fire, doing their bit to hold back the encroaching alien dark. But there’s only so much brand loyalty and belonging you can buy against that darkness, and the forces inside you know it. Deep down where the hardwiring runs, the clock is running too – turning over its lurid numerals like the cards in an endless, losing hand. Just a matter of time before you wake up to that fact, and it’s vacuum cold on the nape of your neck when you do. And then, sooner or later, you’re going to spiral on in and batter yourself against the lure of the Strip, just like all the other moths.

Used to think I was different.

Didn’t we all.

Filament-thin whine past my ear, and the inevitable needling sting. I slapped distractedly at my neck – pointless irritation reflex, the code-fly was there and gone, as designed. Even in Earth standard gravity, the little fuckers are way faster than the flesh-and-blood mosquitos they get their basic chassis from; around here, tweaked for local conditions, they’re like little flecks of biting quicksilver in the wind. Touch, spike, payload delivered. Ouch.

Not that I’m bitching here. I mean, you live out here, you need to get bitten. Can’t afford anything else. All part of the rolling upgrade that is High Frontier Humanity.

Problem is, four months behind the hatch and you’ve missed so many upgrades, every c-fly on the block has you in its evil little post-organic sights. Three days back out, and you’re a human fucking pincushion. Your skin itches in a dozen different places from the delivery punctures. Fresh gas exchange turbos for your lungs; melanin re-up version 8.11.4; booster patches for the latest – and shakiest – osteopenia inhibitors; corneal armouring 9.1. So forth.

Some of this shit you’ve paid to have inflicted whenever the new mods come in, some of it COLIN gifts you with out of the goodness of its efficiency-oriented little heart. But it all has to be bettered and balanced and optimised for performance, and then bettered all over again, version by version, upgrade by upgrade, bite by bite. And that makes it a dependency you’ll never quit so long as you live anywhere other than Earth.

Not that I’m bitching.


  Vallez Girlz was right where I’d left it four months back. Same tired old frontage, just past the escalator outflow point for Friedman boulevard; still flashing the same old looped enticement footage from five-metre display panels either side of the door. Same sleazy Fuktronica backbeat and subsonics from speakers hidden away. The screen on the right was still cratered and cracked from where they’d smashed my head against it in the fight, and something looked to be wrong with the feed – footage of the dancers within kept shredding to a confetti of airbrushed flesh and hair, laced through with bobbing, disembodied long-lashed eyes that floated like tears in zero G.

Or maybe it was supposed to look like that.

Moving too fast here, soak. Where’s the leak?

Running hot.

I forced my pace down to a rubbernecker’s amble. Went past slouched with hands in pockets, hood up against the intermittent rain. It gave me all the time I needed to scope out the front of the club. Loose crowd of hopefuls queuing to get in, milling about in the wash of Fuktronica sound. Two blunt guys on the door in time-honoured fashion, headgear the usual wraparound tinted shades thing. And the same old superannuated Port Authority scanner hanging spread-winged from the lintel like some prehistoric bat about to take flight. Skinflint Sal Quiroga, same as it ever was – he bought that scanner out of decommissioned stock nine years ago, and even then, they say he put the levers on someone in the Port Authority back office to get a chop on the price. Leverage, he told me once, is the whole key to this place. You don’t got leverage, you might as well go right back to Earth.

Hollow laugh. For most long-term residents of Bradbury, the only way you’ll ever get off this red rock paradise and back to Earth is via some pretty hefty leverage. Long Fall Lottery aside – Fifty Fabulous Homebound Winners Every Single Year! It Could Be You This Year! But you Gotta Play to Win! – it’s not like they’re giving the tickets away.

I gave it another fifty metres, in honour of those fabulous winners maybe, then I did an about-face and drifted back. Took down my hood as I went up the short run of steps to the door. No point trying to hide. When you work doors – been driven to it myself once or twice, over the years – nothing trips your internal alarms like a punter trying to shroud his features. Uh-uh, pal, no you don’t. Now you got me all woken up.

I didn’t want these guys waking up just yet, I needed to get in close. I kept my expression dialled down to Fuktronica-induced consumer lust, met the right-hand doorman’s eyes as he glanced my way. I didn’t know him – and my memory’s good for men who’ve handed me my arse in the past – so he couldn’t know me either. But these days that doesn’t count for much. Behind the tinted headgear glass, I saw his gaze defuse as he checked his list. Fucking face-recog tech, the bane of decent gate-crashers everywhere on the ecliptic.

I spotted the tightening that went through his frame as the software flagged me up. The loosening that followed as he digested the data.

I saw his lip curl.

“Dom?” Attention wandering off to the side, where his colleague was busy scoping some barely-clad curves that wanted entry. He touched his headgear at the ear, did something to the music, pulled the volume down. “Hoy, Dom. Remember that sad-case hib cunt you and Rico bounced a couple of months back?”

Dom glanced over at us, visibly irritated by the distraction.

“Hib? What fucking hib? You mean that guy….” Voice fading out as he saw me. A wide grin came and lit his face. “That guy.”

“Guess some people never learn, right?”

“I’m here to see Sal,” I said mildly.

“Yeah?” Dom flexed his right hand idly, looked it over like some power tool he was thinking of buying. “Well, he don’t want to see you. Didn’t want to see you last time round, either. Remember how that worked out?”

“He’ll see me this time.”

They swapped a glance – glitter of unkind mirth, back and forth, there and gone, wiped away. Dom’s companion sighed.

“Look, soak – it’s a quiet night, alright. Do us all a favour. Fuck off now before we have to do something structural to you.”

Found myself grinning. “Can’t do that, guys.”

Dom snorted. Reached for me-

I snagged the reaching hand at the wrist, fast. You’ve got to be fast – gravity at a shade under .4 Earth standard, you’re getting miserly returns on mass and momentum. Any impact you make is going to have to come from your speed. I snapped his little and ring fingers backward at the base, twisted them with savage force. He made a noise like rupturing, and I locked up the arm. Drove him to his knees on all the sudden shock and pain, kicked him in the belly as he bowed. Let go.

You’d not usually get past doormen on the Strip like this. They’re a hard-bitten lot, ex-Upland work gang enforcers mostly who can’t hack the thin air anymore, and can’t afford the newer turbo add-ons to make up the difference. So they slide back down into the valley and the stews of Bradbury instead, and here they find what muscle work they can. As a man who’s seen his own fair share of career slide, I don’t generally hold this against them. They do a job that has to be done, a job I’ve had to do myself occasionally, and they mostly do it pretty well.

But they were in my way.

And everything their software told them about me was wrong.

They didn’t stand a fucking chance.

The other guy went for his twitch-gun, there in the holster at the small of his back. Wrong move, too late – I was in too close, he was way too slow, and he should have known both those things. Probably suffering a bit of shock himself, this wasn’t supposed to be happening at all. I stepped in, blocked the draw before he could clear the gun, chopped him sharply in the throat. Tripped him as he staggered back, helped him on his way down with a hard palm heel to the chest. Even at a fifth Earth standard, that’ll do it. He hit the ground on his back, gagging and flapping.

I stooped and took the twitch-gun away from him.

Reversed it, shot him with it point blank.

Shot Dom at not much greater distance, as he lunged desperately at me from the floor.

Then I stepped delicately between their rigid, spasming bodies, under the batwing scanner, and through the door beyond.

I should probably mention…

…that I’ll be signing copies of The Dark Defiles this coming Tuesday here.

Maybe see you there.

I’ll also be speaking and giving a reading at the Bucharest International Literature Festival at the beginning of next month, details apparently here.  So if you can’t make Tuesday after work, there’s always the quick flight out to Romania week after next and we’ll catch up then.

(Yeah, I really like that gas-mask headline art too)

It’s the Future, Stupid!

Once upon a time, back in the dim and distant past – so distant, in fact, that I no longer remember exactly where or when it happened – I served on a Con panel about dystopias.  Well, who hasn’t, right?  Pretty much all memory of what I or anybody else on that panel had to say is now gone.  But I do recall with startling clarity that at one point a stern German woman in the audience raised her hand and commenced upbraiding us all for failing to write futures that would give people hope. She had, we discovered in conversation after the panel wrapped up, been raised in East Germany under the Honnecker regime – a time and place in which artists of all stripes were considered to have a very real social responsibility in practising their art. (Tactfully, no-one commented on how that shit turned out). And she still believed that if you were lucky enough to make a living from imagining the future, you had a duty to do so in a fashion that would encouraged optimism and hope in your readers.

At the time, I cherished the encounter because I thought it rather quaint and antique – like running into some time-travelling Victorian adventuress and having her scold me for not having shaved recently enough. Social responsibilities of the genre writer – I mean, good grief. So I smiled and nodded, nursing a mild hangover, and I never did do much to dispute Lady Bracknell’s exhortations on the matter. Quaint and antique, Richard, fix this in your memory – you’re probably never going to see the like again.

Well, not that quaint or antique after all, it seems.  A couple of months ago, I stumbled on this curious call to arms.  Then, a month later, there was this.

Good grief.

All the things I didn’t say to that East German woman come brimming back to my lips, and this time I’m not even the least bit hungover. But good grief – where to start?

Well, maybe with the point that I have no issue with the fiction of Hieroglyph itself.  Elizabeth Bear is one of the contributors, and I know her to be a fine SF writer.  Ditto Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow.  And while I haven’t read any Stephenson since Cryptonomicon, it’s probably safe to assume his contribution will be pretty solid too.  I don’t know any of the other contributors at all, but again, there’s no reason to believe their stories won’t be up to scratch.  So from the point of view of the writing, I make no judgement at all.  I may well even get round to reading it.

But as to the mission statement –


Okay, first off, let’s look at the evidence.  The driving force behind Hieroglyph appears to be coming at least in part from scientists, so you’d think they’d want to apply an evidence-based approach, right?  According to that BBC article, the concern is that too much negativity in visions of the future is cramping the ability of people to Dream Big and so come through with genuine scientific innovations in the real world.  If we want to have better futures says project director Ed Finn We have to have better dreams.  Right – where’s the evidence for this?  Dystopian SF as a significant sub-genre has been kicking around since the seventies at least, with a really big uptick around the rise of Cyberpunk in the eighties.  Has this, then, resulted in a drastic slowdown in the rate of scientific innovation and invention as all those who grew up with Cyberpunk feel their innate ingenuity crushed by the weight of dystopian future visions?

Uh – no.

In fact, the rate of scientific progress appears to be rising with almost exponential speed.  In computing, in communications technology, in medical advances at all levels from molecular up to basic prosthetic, in materials technology of all types, in cosmology – it’s all roaring ahead like a forest fire.  So if we take an evidence-based approach, clearly one of two things is true: either dystopian SF is really good for scientific advance, or – more likely, in my humble opinion – there’s no fucking correlation at all, and the type of SF we read, dystopian or otherwise, has absolutely nothing to do with the advance of human science and technology.

So where’s the beef?

Oh, wait up.

Wait just a moment.  I get it.  Twenty kilometre tall steel towers, citizenship of an innovation hub on a moon of Mars, 3d printers on the Moon…..  This is about the bloody space programme again, isn’t it.  All that talk about Big Dreams and Better Futures – it’s that old gnawing chagrin that we have’t yet sent a manned mission to Mars.  It’s the angst that we aren’t already out there terraforming the Red Planet, mining the asteroids, building O’Neill habitats and generally doing the whole Space Cowboy thing.  It’s Interstellar.  It’s the terror that if we don’t Answer the Call to the High Frontier and Colonise Space like the rock-ribbed men of the Old West, then we’re doomed to a long fall into decadence, cultural death and extinction.

Never mind the fact that medical technology has lifted life expectancy close to double what it was a century ago.  That – for example – the most common age of death in the UK has gone from age 0 in 1964 to age 87 in 2014; that British infant mortality in the first year of life has fallen from one in six in 1900 to one in over two hundred and fifty now.  Never mind that we’ve wiped out smallpox globally, more or less eradicated polio and look set to take down malaria in the not too distant future.  And that the coming advances in gene therapy are going to make even those achievements all look decidedly small-scale and basic by comparison to the health and longevity genentech will offer.  No matter that we carry little slabs of coms tech around in our pockets that make the communicators in the original Star Trek look like something out of a steampunk fantasy.  No matter that we can cross oceans in a handful of hours, talk to people from every other culture on the planet as if they were sitting in the same room with us, consume for a few quid healthy and nourishing foods grown on the other side of the world that only a handful of decades ago only the super-rich could permit themselves.  No matter that present day cosmologists have a pretty good idea what shape the entire fucking universe is, and that physicists can spend time on the Franco-Swiss border hunting the particles that define existence itself.  No, no – none of this matters, none of this means anything at all, if we’re not in space!  We’re just not dreaming big enough!

Not dreaming big enough penises maybe.

(Perhaps no coincidence there’s so much excitement about that twenty kilometre tall hard steel tower, eh?  Look at the size of that, darling!)

Because, when all is said and done, I suspect that’s what this may be about.  This conquer-the-stars schtick is at base very male.  It’s about Boldly Going, Ruggedly Enduring, Standing Heroically Tall.  It’s about carving out a domain in the wilderness, about Hard Men conquering Hard Terrain and putting their mark upon it.

In short, it’s a Golden-Age-of-SF dream, filled with all the heroic – and erroneous – images of space colonisation the Golden Age gave rise to.  And as such, it’s a bust.

The truth, of course, is that we are in space.  We just landed on a comet, for fuck’s sake.  We have a crew of international astronauts in permanent orbit.  There are so many probes on Mars that pretty soon we’re going to have to start allocating parking spaces.  We’re out past the gas giants to the edges of the solar system and beyond, we’re cataloguing Earth-type planets around stars at hundreds of light years’ distance.  Not dreaming big enough, my arse.

Of course, none of this resembles the Golden Age dream of rocket-ships full of explorers, settlers, traders and rogues criss-crossing the solar system like sailing ships of yore, brave new independent statelets spring up on Mars and Ganymede or, for that matter, space opera dreadnoughts slugging it out between the stars.  No, we’re not going ourselves, thank you very much, because the distances are bloody vast, the conditions insanely hostile and our increasingly magnificent space-going ICT is a far better fit for the job.  But so what?  No-one goes to work on a jet-pack either.  That era of SF story-telling got it wrong, is all.  Medieval European trade adventurism, Napoleonic naval conflict and the conquest of the Americas turn out not to be very good imaginative templates for how space exploration works.  We don’t get to be cowboys/conquistadors/pirates/ranchers/marines or merchant princes in space after all.  Boo hoo.

Our vision has moved on.  These days, we tend to see with cyberpunk eyes.

The big thing that Cyberpunk did – and that some people still seem unable to forgive – was to invert the telescope and turn the focus inward.  Wetware, genentech, cyberspace – suddenly all the interesting stuff was going on at the infra level.  Cool SF was inside us now, cutting us open and splicing us up, getting icky and up-close and personal (instead of rock-ribbed and distant and in cool Kirk-like command).  It was territory that the New Wave had helped open up, of course, along with a handful of early iconoclast practitioners like Bester and Sheckley and Pohl, but Cyberpunk was the critical mass – the point at which general realisation dawned that we didn’t have to leave the planet to have mind-blowing futurist adventures.

And of course along with this shift, came another lurch toward the internal – politics.  The cyberpunk politics of SF, instead of shooting for Imperial Rome among the Stars or the Declaration of Independence on the Moons of Jupiter, suddenly became concerned with a model much less masculinely rousing and much closer to home – neoliberal corporate dominance and the military-industrial complex; the destruction of the social contract and regression into oligarchy via consumer addiction, misinformation and rising proletarian ignorance.

Which, as it turns out, was a much closer fit for the future we’re actually having to deal with right now.

Some might see all this as dystopian or defeatist.  Cyberpunk borrows liberally, after all, from the Noir tradition, which is itself infused with a deep (and invaluable) cynicism about human affairs.  Damaged, disillusioned men were its luminaries – writers like Hammett and Chandler, who’d seen the face of war up close and the crucifixion of the poor that followed, and were locked in struggle with their own internal demons and disappointments.  There was a weariness and a wisdom to their fiction that Cyberpunk co-opted and poured into the new future sensibility.  With Cyberpunk, you suddenly didn’t need to worry about encroaching alien menaces, because there weren’t any.  Better start worrying instead about nightmarish government agencies and corporate thug squads, because those were the guys who were really going to get you.  You don’t get to seek out brave new worlds in Cyberpunk, and colonise them in proud defiance of a distant oppressive overlordship, because the world you already own has been sold out from under your feet while you weren’t looking, and like ninety percent of the human race, you’ve been dumped in the underclass, sonny, where your chances of getting your rocketship pilot’s license is about the same as fucking the movie star of your choice.

Grim?  Dystopian?  Welcome to the whole fucking point.


The truth is that the sentiments expressed in those linked articles (and in that nice German lady’s thesis) are utterly and fatally flawed in their whole perception of what fiction is and how it works.  If someone writes a powerful novel about the slave-owning American south, that doesn’t mean they think slavery is the only viable labour institution for the human race.  Fiction about the Holocaust – The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, for example – isn’t written to suggest and celebrate the fact that we are doomed to an eternity of genocide and brutalism.  A story about a woman dying of cancer doesn’t imply that there can never be a cure.  And dystopian futures aren’t there to tell us that there is no hope.

Does that shit really need saying?  Apparently so.

Look, good fiction isn’t a TED lecture or an IKEA assembly manual.  It can’t be, it’d be catastrophically anodyne if it were.  Good fiction is wild, unrestrained, malcontent and looking for a fight.  Good fiction is human – it examines the world and the human condition, turns it restlessly  this way and that, sees its flaws and tries to get a handle on them.  William Gibson’s early cyberpunk fiction doesn’t celebrate the rise of corporate dominance, the death of the middle class and the hollowing out of society into Haves and HaveNots – it’s an examination of those trends and a warning (and a pretty prescient one too, as it turns out).  The whole point of dystopian fiction is that it rings the alarm bells, it points at what’s going to happen if we don’t wake up and pay attention, at what is in fact happening all around us, even now.

And this isn’t a very new thing, either – dystopian warnings have been kicking around in science fiction since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927.  They are to a great extent the very lifeblood of SF as a genre.  It’s a big part of what we do.

And in connection with this, here’s what I think I find most irritating about Hieroglyph’s mission statement – it takes a wide-eyed and utterly ignorant view of how human society works; it assumes a one-to-one beneficent relationship between a better future and better technology, and this simply isn’t the case.  Gibson again - the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.  He was right on the money.  We already have the technology, right here and now, to end world hunger, to see that no child dies of simple preventable diseases, and we have not fucking done it.  It’s not lack of tech that’s stopping us having a better future, it’s us – humans and the social and political systems we’re hardwired to prefer.  Global warming isn’t happening because we don’t have enough technology, it’s happening because we haven’t yet learnt to control the technology we already do have in a sane adult fashion.  The Socialist dream didn’t fail because of a lack of technological innovation, it failed because it doesn’t fit the human psyche.  The Middle East isn’t on fire because we just haven’t come up with the right scientific advances yet.  All the cool technology in the world hasn’t prevented the devastation of the American middle class, the creation of record-breaking levels of wealth inequality in the most developed nation on Earth, and the brutal rolling back of human rights legislation everywhere.

People accuse me of writing dystopian fiction, but to be honest all I do is look around and extrapolate.  I look at neo-liberal economics tearing down public health services all over the world, driving down wages and milking national budgets to fight stupid illegal wars, selling cheap and lethal foodstuffs to populations too ill-educated to grasp what’s being done to them, telling people freedom lies in being able to choose which insanely expensive shiny mobile device you mortgage yourself to own and which of the hundred and fifty seven TV channels full of recycled shit you watch, and when I see all that, do I think these problems are going be solved by building a twenty kilometre steel tower, an innovation hub on the Moon and a colony on Mars?

Do I feel the need to write some cheery, upbeat fiction about how future technology’s going to save us all?

Fuck, no.

Notice Anything Different?

Well, that’s a relief.

Yes, please put your hands together and welcome back my new webmaster (who used to be my old webmaster, actually, until he dropped briefly out to get a real job for a while), descendant of highwaymen past, resolute Mancunian, web-gent and genre fan extraordinaire – Darren Turpin!

Darren has, as you see, totally overhauled the site and hauled it kicking and screaming into streamlined modern form.  You’ll find tonnes of new linkage and functionality now, plus a fresh easy-on-the-eye colour scheme and text base.  The work is actually on-going right now, we’ll have book extracts up and running shortly.  But meantime, have a poke around, see what you think, and if you hit any snags, let us know.  Oh, and if you’re hankering after a shiny new web-presence yourself, delivered swiftly, painlessly and professionally with a smile, you can find Darren’s services over here.

Oh yeah – and, in case you hadn’t picked it up from the multiple shout-outs on site, as of yesterday, The Dark Defiles is now out in the US in trade paperback and electronic formats.

Fireworks!  Applause! Buy it!

Here in the UK, Defiles won’t hit the shelves until November 20th, but it will include a rather handsome hardcover edition, so if you’re prepared to wait that long, your patience will be richly rewarded.


Last Call (Next Time you See this Stuff, it’ll Be in a Book)

He woke from a dream of winter sunset out on the steppe, long, low spearing rays of reddish light that spilled and dazzled across his eyes as he rode, but failed to warm him at all.  He was riding somewhere important, he knew, had something to deliver, he thought, but there was a faint terror rising in him that whatever it was, he’d lost it or left it behind somewhere on this long cold ride, and now the remainder of his journey was a hollow act.  He should have been able to see the Skaranak encampment by now, the thin rise of campfire smoke on the horizon, or the dark, nudging mass of grazing buffalo herds at least.  He raised up in the saddle, twisted about, scanning ahead and side to side, but there was nothing, nothing out here at all. He was riding alone, into a rising chill and a dwindling red orange glow……

Egar blinked and found the fire sprite hovering in his face.

He flailed at its red orange radiance with a stifled yelp.  One blank moment of panic.  Then full wakefulness caught up.

He sat up in his blankets and stared around.  A pallid dawn held the eastern sky, pouring dull grey light across the sleep-curled forms in their bedrolls around him, the scattered packs and the blue radiant bowls now gone opaque and glassy, like so many big stones gathered from a river’s bed.  Across at the stairway entrance they’d come in, Alwar Nash waved casually from where he sat huddled at last watch.  Everyone else was still out cold.

“Early yet,” the Throne Eternal commented when Egar had stumbled to his feet and wandered over to join him.  “Another hour to full light at least.  But our friend there seems pretty agitated about something.”

He gestured and the Dragonbane saw how the sprite was now floating directly above Archeth’s sleeping form, flickering rapid shades of orange in her face.

“It tried her first,” Nash said.  “Guess she’s too wrung out to notice.”

Egar shook his head.  “Always been that way.  When she sleeps, she really sleeps.  Seen her snore right through a siege assault at Shenshenath once.”

“Must be that Black Folk blood.”

“Must be.  Had the lizards a hundred deep at the walls that time, couple of blunderers smashing their heads in against the stonework because they were too stupid to find the gates……”  Lost in the skeins of memory for a moment, and then understanding hit him in the head like a bucket of cold water.  “Shit!  Nash – start kicking them awake.  We got to move.”

“Move?  But-”

“Scaled Folk.”  He was already on his way to Archeth, calling back over his shoulder.  “Lizards don’t get up early.  Something to do with their blood; their heritage or…….  Look, just get everyone moving.”

Can’t believe you forgot that, Eg.  Not like the war was that long ago, is it?

  Is it?

And he had a couple of seconds to feel suddenly very old, as he realised that Nash, in common with most of the others, had not only not fought in the war, he had in all probability never even seen a living lizard before yesterday’s fight.




They got everyone awake inside a couple of minutes, gave soft instructions to load up and be ready to move out.  When Archeth blinked initial sleepy incomprehension at him, Egar gestured at the fire sprite’s agitated bobbing and flickering.

“Someone’s in a hurry here.  My guess?  It wants to get us someplace before the lizard hour.”

Her eyes widened.  “Oh, shit.  Got to be, yeah.”

She flung off her blankets.  Flinched as the movement caught the wound he’d stitched for her the night before.  Impatient grunt of pain held down, and the flare of anger in her eyes at her own unwelcome weakness.  She settled her harness and knives about her with a blunt lack of care that looked to the Dragonbane like punishment.  She must have tugged on the wound more than a few times in the process, but to watch her, you’d never have known.

“Alright, then,” she said tightly when she was done.  “Let’s go.”

They filed rapidly down the staircase behind the sprite and let it lead them out into the street.  Any actual sunrise was still a good way off, and down at ground level there was a lot of gloom.  The jut and slump of broken architecture around them worried at the Dragonbane’s attention, sketched hints of a thousand phantom enemies, crouched to pounce every few yards.  Every darkened gap in the rubble they passed seemed to promise an ambush, every glint of something shiny in the low light was a reptile peon’s eye.  Egar, yawning despite the heightened tension, marched with a prickling at the nape of his neck and tried to recall useful detail from the tactical lectures given by the Kiriath commanders during the war.

Like any reptiles, the Scaled Folk like heat better than cold, but they seem to have adapted beyond this in ways their smaller cousins on this continent have not. They do not depend on warmth to the same extent, and can function quite sufficiently well in cooler conditions.  Yet their ancestry tells upon them in a number of ways which may be helpful to us.  They are drawn instinctively to warmer climes and to discrete heat sources; they appear to accord some sacred significance to the roasting pits they build and ignite; and they do not stir early in the day if they can avoid it.

  Sounds like me, muttered Ringil to him in the back rank where they stood, and Egar tried to stifle an explosive snigger.

They’d both been a lot younger back then.

  You have something to contribute?  Flaradnam, seamed black features glaring into the ranks.  He waited a beat, got no response.  Then shut the fuck up and listen, all of you.  What we tell you here today could save your life.

Across the shattered pre-dawn city, then, threading through empty streets and plazas, picking their way up and over mounds of rubble bigger than any intact building he’d ever seen, even in Yhelteth.  Once again, the fire sprite led them a crooked, seemingly senseless path through the ruins.  They backed up and twisted and turned.  They followed thoroughfares straight as arrows for miles, then turned abruptly off them into tangled, broken ground, worked difficult, meandering routes, only to spill out onto what Egar would have sworn was the same thoroughfare an hour later and head onward as if they’d never left it.  Once, some way along a broad boulevard similar to the one they’d been attacked on the night before, the sprite led them directly off the street and up a punishingly steep rubble slope, then along a windy, exposed cliff face of ruined facades that ran for at least half a mile and tracked the boulevard directly.  It was tricky work, and in some places involved clinging and edging their way forward with the risk of a lethal fall, while all the time below them, the boulevard stretched on, devoid of apparent obstacles and utterly deserted.

“You think,” he asked Archeth, breathing hard, as they rested at one of the infrequent safe sections.  “That this thing has a sense of humour?”

She looked out to where the sprite hung blithely suspended a couple of yards away in empty space and a hundred feet off the ground.

“Either that, or it thought we’d like the view.”

“Yeah.  Well worth the climb.”  Egar glowered out across the fractured landscape, and the pale grey wash of another cloud-shrouded morning.  “Like Gil would say if he was here, I’m particularly enamoured of the……”

She glanced round curiously as he trailed off.  He squinted, wanting to be sure, then pointed outward, what he estimated had to be north-east from their position and a dozen miles off or less.

“You see that?  Past that torn up pyramid thing?  Where the three boulevards cross, then back a little and left.  See the……..what is that?  Looks like…..”


As if a broad expanse of the city’s structure had broken like pond ice under the weight of some vast, lumbering black iron creature, which now clung to the ragged edges of the hole it had fallen through with huge claws sunk in, struggling not to go down into an abyss below.  As if several gargantuan black spiders out of one of his father’s tales hung suspended in a shared, irregularly shaped ambush burrow, only their limbs extending up and out to grip the edges of the gap on all sides, poised to spring.  As if dragon’s venom had splattered on the city’s flesh in overlapping oval pools, had eaten its way in and left splayed black burnmarks all around, or……..

It dawned on him then, full force.

It looks like Kaldan Cross.

As if the Kiriath had laboured here as they had at Kaldan in Yhelteth, delving down into the bedrock for their own obscure purposes, reinforcing the sides of their pit with outward clamping iron struts, but on a massively larger scale.

“Look familiar?” he asked.

“Well, it’s Kiriath built, that’s for sure.”  Archeth, shading her eyes against the glare the rising sun had put into the clouds.  “And whatever it is, it goes down.  Aerial conveyance pits, right?”

“You reckon?”

“I reckon it’d be a pretty huge coincidence otherwise.”  She propped herself carefully upright against the facade at their backs.  “Come on, let’s see if our flickery friend there feels the same.”




They followed the facade almost to its end before the sprite dived into a gap in the stonework and led them down through a series of collapsed and angled spaces that might once have been rooms.  They crowded in behind, relieved to get away from the sheer drop, but none too happy with the confined quarters and gloom.

Our scaly pals show up now, they’ll have us quicker than a shaman’s shag.  Egar’s gaze flickered about, making the odds.  Barely enough room in here to swing a fucking long knife, let alone a sword or axe.  And gaps on every side – floors, walls, ceilings, it’s all up for grabs.

Still, he slapped down any comments in that direction from the men at his back, told them to shut the fuck up and watch where they stepped.  While ahead and below him, Archeth’s lithe form braced its way downward with boots and elbows and arse, backlit into silhouette by the sprite’s onward beckoning fire.

Not bad, Archidi, for someone with a sewn gash across the ribs big enough to stick your whole hand in.  And not a grain of krinzanz to sweeten the ride.

He didn’t know if she’d used any of the powders they were gifted with at An-Kirilnar, but somehow he doubted it.  There was a gritted edge on Archeth right now – if anything, she seemed to be using her pain for something, maybe as a substitute for the fire the krin habitually lent.

“You alright?” he asked her, when they finally spilled out into the light at street level and he stood close at her shoulder.

She didn’t look at him, took no break from scanning the street ahead, for all that the sprite was already drifting steadily along it.  “Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”

“Stitches holding up?”

“Well, you should know – you put them in.”  She glanced round at him, face tightening up into a grimace as her body twisted.  “Stings worse than getting head from a cactus, if you really want to know.  But it’s some beautiful fucking work, Eg.  I don’t reckon Kefanin stitches my riding leathers this well.”

He shrugged, mask for the enduring bitter taste the skirmish the night before had left.  “All part of the service.  If I can’t keep you from getting hurt, at least I can patch up the damage afterwards.”

“Works for me.”

The last of the men dropped out of the gap in the masonry behind them and straightened up with vocal curses of relief.  Egar shut them up, got them formed into a loose wedge, and led them out once more behind Archeth and the sprite.

The rest was hard marching but uneventful.  They cut across the mounded rubble a few times more, leaving one boulevard in favour of another, trading plazas for streets and vice versa, but it was all open ground, ruined masonry packed solid underfoot or sections of stairway and raised platforms that had taken no more than superficial damage in whatever cataclysm had snuffed the city out.  Clear views on all sides now, no real risk of ambush, and their pace picked up accordingly.  Egar began to catch traces of a familiar reek on the wind.

He jogged forward, caught up to Archeth who was striding a few yards ahead.

“You smell that?”

“Yeah.  Like the stacks at Monal.  Must be getting close.”

Sometimes at An-Monal, the winds blew in from the south, and then you caught an acrid whiff of the chemicals at play in the Kiriath brewing stacks on the plain below.  The Dragonbane had never been very sure what it was Archeth’s people made in those towers, he’d only understood that they preferred to make it at some considerable distance from where they lived.  Watching at night as huge, unnaturally coloured flames leapt and gouted atop the miles-distant darkened towers, he didn’t much blame them.  Whatever they had trapped in there, you wouldn’t want to be standing very close if it ever got loose.

He remembered asking Flaradnam about it once, one banquet night out on the balcony shortly before they all headed out for Trelayne and then the Wastes.  He might as well not have bothered – as was so often the case with the Kiriath, any reply you got left you with more questions than you’d started with, and this time was no exception to the rule.  ‘Nam glanced around the table at the various commanders’ faces in the bandlight, then dropped some cryptic comment to the effect that most of the Kiriath’s more useful alloys had to be grown to full complexity or some such shit.  That it was in fact a process less like smelting and smithing, and more akin to raising crops or, in its finest expressions, breeding warhorses or – a fond side-smirk at an embarrassed Archeth – children.  What all that actually meant, Egar had no fucking clue and was too half-cut at the time to pursue any further.  And later there was no time, they were all too busy, and a couple of months after that, Flaradnam was beyond all asking.

The smell was growing stronger, there even in the gaps between the bluster of the wind.  He sneaked a glance at Archeth, wondering if it kicked her back as thoroughly to memories of her father.

But in the grey morning light, her face was as impassive as the flat of a blade.

They came over steeply-piled mounds of rubble the size of hills, started a descent through isolated crags and outcrops of architecture that looked like the drowned upper levels of buildings once dizzying in height.  And then, abruptly, they were looking down at the edge of the Kiriath earthworks from not much more than five hundred yards away.  The holes gaped there, larger than some lakes he knew back on the steppe, but empty, shadowed and dark.  More than ever, it looked as if these were wounds the city had sustained, and the vast black iron protrusions that sprouted from them on all sides some kind of surgical clamps to prevent healing.  As if the Kiriath had dropped something from a great height on their enemies here, and then left it in place to grow and sprout, just the way all those complex alloys were supposed to grow in the stacks at An-Monal.

The fire sprite came to a flickering halt just past a standing ruin a handful of storeys high, paused there perhaps to give them time to take in the view down across the rubble.  The air was warmer now.  Even the occasional gusts of wind carried some stale-tasting heat along with the brewing stack odours.  Egar fetched up at Archeth’s shoulder again.

“See a way down inside?”

She cupped both hands above her eyes to shade them, peered for a while.  “Not from here.”

“At Kaldan Cross, you got those things like big mason’s hods running on cables, but they’re sort of tucked away, under the lip.”

“Yeah, I know.  I was there when they built it, remember.  This is a fuck of a lot bigger than anything at Kaldan.”

“Well,” he shrugged. “Bigger hods and cables then.  Maybe.”

The warm wind came and went, gusts and gaps, blowing directly across the open plain and the huge iron-clamped holes in it.  The acrid chemical reek rolled in again, but it brought something else with it this time, another note to the mingled odours that –


Or not.  He’d lost it again, in the buffet and gust of the wind.  He turned his head, breathed deep trying to get it back.  He cast about, a sliding sense of doom behind his eyes.  Saw the fire sprite turned jumpy and irresolute, slipping back and forth in the air beside them.  Archeth, lost in peering down at what her people had built here……    

Sudden, sharp spike of aniseed in his nostrils.  The wind came banging back, brought with it the sandalwood again, stronger now, no room left for doubt.  He heard comment murmur among the men, men too young or too lucky to know what it meant.  He stared down at the gaping holes ahead of them.  Felt the warmth in the air again, as if for the first time, and understanding fell on him like the ruin at his back.

  Oh no…..

But he knew it was.

And now the stealthy chill, waking and walking through his bones.  The grinning skull of memory, the bony beckoning hand.

  Well, well, Dragonbane.  Here it comes, after all these years.

He grabbed Archeth by the shoulder.  “Snap out of it, Archidi.  We got trouble.”

“Trouble?”  She blinked, still lost in thought  “What’s the…….”

She caught the blast of spices on the breeze.  Her eyes widened in shock.  Egar was already unslinging his Warhelm-forged staff lance.  He shed the soft fabric sheaths at either end, let them drift to the ground without attention.  Plenty of time to chase them up later.

If there was a later.

“Clear your steel,” he snapped to the men at his back, as they gathered in around him.  “And get back inside that ruin, find yourselves some cover, fast.”

“Is it the lizards again, my lord?” someone asked.

He had time to offer one tight grin.  “I’m afraid not, no.”


Across the wind, out of Kiriath pits below them, it came and split the air.  A shrieking, piercing  cry he’d thought he’d never hear again outside of dreams.  A cry like sheets of metal tearing apart, like the denial of some bereaved warrior goddess, vast, immortal grief tipping over into the insane fury of loss.  Like the drawn-out, echoing rage of some immense, stooping bird of prey.

“It’s a dragon,” he told them simply.  “Pretty big one too, by the sound of it.”

Racoons with Guns

So there’s been a bit of talk about this, and how it heralds the End of Grimdark (rumble), a Return to Core Values (drumroll), some sort of genre re-set maybe, at least within the context of superhero movies.  I don’t see it myself – but then I haven’t seen it and I don’t suppose I will for quite some time (my son’s only 3, so a little young yet for that avalanche of self-righteous gun violence and fisticuffs that passes for PG entertainment in Hollywood these days).  So I’m not about to start passing judgement on either the film itself or the contention that it represents some kind of paradigm shift within genre.


I can’t help noticing that the much vaunted opening take of 94 million dollars ranks quite a long way down this list, and that the last Dark Knight movie, floating right there in the top five, took close to twice that amount.  Presumably all the people who paid to see that one haven’t undergone a sudden revulsion against the Gotham Gloom they were so eager to partake of two years back, and though many of them probably went quite cheerfully to see the Racoon with a Machine Gun this month, they would presumably also hurry just as cheerfully back for another instalment of the Grim Dark Knight if anyone’s prepared to serve one up.  And I don’t see anybody crying out for a return to the Adam West days on that particular  franchise.  So there’s that.

But beyond that, I have to ask – what is all this desperate longing for an End to the mythical Grimdark?  What’s with the whinging about collateral damage in Man of Steel?   I mean, who are these people?  What parameters are they using?  Have they really been going to cinemas to sit through superhero movie after superhero movie over the last ten years with gritted teeth because those movies are just not Shiny Happy enough, just not Black and White enough in moral tone?  Seriously?  Did they just……fall asleep or something, and miss sixty years’ worth of cultural growth and diversification?  Have they also been sitting at home with the TV, stomaching HBO and Nordic Noir with a bitter grimace, dreaming wistfully of a return to the glory days of TJ Hooker and The A Team?  Is this a constituency so totally bombproof resistant to cultural shift that they want to go back to a fictionscape dreamed up in the middle of the last century, back when women and coloured folks still knew their place, the cop on the beat was a lovely cuddly (white) guy, war was a glorious endeavour undertaken against dastardly foreign foes, and real men walked like John Wayne?  Do they really feel so threatened?

Look, this mythical Grimdark overlordship just doesn’t exist, it never has.  Want Shiny Happy Superhero movies?  You got ‘em.  Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy straddles the previous decade, box-office triumphant, and the grimdarkest thing that happens in those movies is Tobey McGuire going briefly rogue, which in the end added up to what?  Wearing a bit of black, not showing up to work on time and leching at women in the street.  Oooh, shudder.  What else?  Well, the much reviled moral landscape of 2007’s KickAss actually features the squeakiest clean gang of heroes you could imagine going up against cackling evil Mafia bad guys (oh, but Hit Girl swears a lot and she’s a girl – Hey. Deal with it.)  Even Chris Nolan’s Batman never really lacks for clear moral justification, his antagonists are all chips off the old Supervillain block, and he gets a straight up Happy Ending to round the trilogy out.  And is someone really going to try to tell me that the Iron Man movies are dark?

Even in the arena of fantasy literature, where Grimdark has perhaps kindled to life as an actual thing, a conscious sub-genre, it’s still never been the dominant form.  Anyone recall the name Paolini?  The Inheritance Cycle?  That sucker’s sold over 33 million copies since 2002.  And it’s not exactly grimdark in its thematic assumptions.  Lord of the Rings hasn’t gone anywhere either, it still shifts copies by the tonne, and so do books that are its direct thematic heirs.  Sure, George R R Martin and Joe Abercrombie sell, but so too do Terry Brooks and Trudi Canavan. The only thing that’s really happened in fantasy is a diversification of form – something for everybody, a spectrum of story-telling reflecting a spectrum of demand.  And in the shifting matrix of that marketplace, what still sells more than anything else – just go back to that opening weekend list – is straight up Good guys vs Bad Guys with the Good triumphant and a Happy Ending every time.

So where’s the beef?  Why do people get so bent out of shape about this minor thing called – for want of a better, more nuanced, more fucking grown up descriptor – Grimdark.  Why so desperate for its limited influence to be over?

It seems to me that for a certain sub-section of genre consumers, it’s not enough that Grimdark exists as a limited aspect of the genre landscape and that there’s plenty of other, brighter and cheerier stuff to consume elsewhere.  Grimdark is like the latte-sipping elites so railed against by Republican Right pundits in the US a few years back – it’s a construct that offends by its very existence.  Never mind that childlike story-telling completely dominates genre cinema.  Never mind that such grimdarkness as has actually managed to creep into superhero movies is at most a veneer on a largely unchanged black and white moral base.  No, the mere intimation that there might be more to a heroic narrative than the heroes are the Good Guys, the villains are Bad Guys and the heroes should Win a rousing Victory appears to be in itself such an offensive contention that it arouses a kind of defensive knee-jerk hysteria just by surfacing.  Get that Grimdark out of my sight!  How dare you imply a moral relativity in my fictionscape!  There’s no place for that shit in this town.  I want capital E escapism, dammit, and so should every other decent person on the planet!

Guess some of us just aren’t decent.

In fact, some of us wish SF movie-making could manage to import a sensibility that looks a bit more like this.

Now there’s a movie I’ll be queuing to see.

Grimdark ain’t over, it’s just hanging out elsewhere under its real name.  Look for the mailbox labelled Nuanced Adult Thriller.

If you only read one science fiction novel this year…

…make it this one!

Looks cool, don’t it.  And I happen to know for a fact that it is cool, because I was lucky enough to snag a super-early advance reading copy at the back end of last year.  Peter Watts is one of a very small list of writers, and an even smaller list of writers within the SF genre, who make me genuinely jealous when I read their stuff (full disclosure, he’s also an occasional work colleague, and a friend).  Blindsight blew me away with how head and shoulders above the general standard it was – there was a poetry to the prose, an intensity to the characterisation and action, a bare-knuckle no-holds-barred emotional honesty to the storytelling that rarely surfaces in genre fiction of any stripe, and barely exists at all in the rarified cerebral vivarium of so-called Hard SF.  Blindsight left me painfully aware of how lacking those qualities tend to be in genre fiction, and it left me desperate for more.

Now there is more.  Echopraxia picks up a bit less than a decade after the finale of Blindsight, and like its predecessor, it puts the whole of the rest of the genre in the shade.  It deserves to walk away with the Clarke, the Hugo, the Nebula, the BSFA, and pretty much any other genre award for which it’s eligible.  It’s off the scale.

What’s it about?  Well, here’s my attempt at a blurb, some of which you may or may not see adorning the jacket of the book when it hits the shelves next month:

  • Ever wondered what X-Men or Avengers Assemble might have looked like if it were written for adults and based on actual bleeding edge science – now you don’t have to; Peter Watts is back after cometary absence and burning bright as ever across the genre skies.  Zombies, vampires, post-human prophets and invasion from outer space – Echopraxia reads like some dark, twisted superhero ensemble piece, but with all the prose gravitas of a novel by Cormac McCarthy or Philip Roth.  Its late twenty first century future feels at one and the same time dizzyingly outlandish and all too grimly real, exploding with high-end concepts, laced through with harsh human truths.  If science fiction can really be claimed as a literature of ideas, then Watts is without doubt its premier practitioner – Echopraxia is a depleted uranium shot across the bows of complacent, by-the-numbers SF, and a bright rallying cry for the soul of the genre.  Fucking awesome!

And here is my rough-cut, less-than-honed initial impression, once I’d put the finished book down and got my breath back:

  • Makes Blood Meridian look like Bonanza

I suppose that last comment is a warning of sorts, because if you thought Blindsight was kind of bleak, well, prepare to revise your parameters – Echopraxia takes bleak to a whole new level.

But it’s a beautiful kind of bleak, and as with any kind of beauty, you’re going to find it very hard to look away.