Professor Kimani stood in the doorway of Green Eden Labs, watching the locusts swarm across the fields. She smiled to herself – all was well with the world.

A jeep came tearing down the track out of the mountains, bumping and jolting, dust flying behind it. It screeched to a halt and one of the passengers climbed out.

Kimani recognised him from snippets she had seen of the rebels’ social media. A tall man with a predatory grin and a Kalashnikov hanging from his shoulder, Joseph Mburu looked like a wolf prowling into a field of sheep. He was, depending upon who she listened to, the country’s last great hero or a terrorist whose hands would forever drip with blood.

“Professor Kimani,” he said. “I hear you have performed a miracle.”

“You’re too kind,” Kimani said, certain that kindness was no a feature of Mburu, whatever the merits of his cause.

“You have genetically engineered locusts that feed crops instead of devouring them, yes?”

“Correct.”

“Then I have come to buy your locusts.” Mburu signalled to his driver, who opened up a gym bag, revealing rolls of worn US dollar notes. “With them, I will be able to feed our poor freedom fighters and the abandoned communities they serve. You will be saving the soul of our country.”

“I’m sorry, but no.”

A flash of anger shone in Mburu’s eyes.

“Be careful who you say that to, professor,” he growled.

There was a shout from his driver. A BMW was rolling sedately between the fields of wheat, light glinting off its mirrored windows. It slowed as it approached the lab, decelerating quietly to a halt. Two white men in sunglasses stepped out, holsters visible beneath their jackets. They watched Kimani and his driver as a third figure emerged from the rear of the car.

Kimani recognised her from an international conference on genetic editing. A stately blond woman wearing discreet makeup and a perfectly tailored suit, Julia McKee had the utter confidence only a CEO could carry. She was, depending upon who Kimani listened to, the world’s greatest innovator in genetic technology or a parasite preying off the work of gifted minds.

“Professor Kimani,” she said, offering her hand. “A pleasure to meet you again.”

“And you,” Kimani said, wondering if McKee actually remembered her.

While Mburu eyed the businesswoman with a hungry grin, his driver and her bodyguards exchanged tense glances, their hands inches from their weapons.

“I hear that you’ve made an amazing breakthrough,” McKee said. “That your benign locusts will drive hostile swarms away.”

“Correct.”

“Then I have come to buy the rights to your locusts.” McKee drew a cheque from her pocket, revealing more zeroes than in the lab’s whole annual budget. “With them, I will transform pest control, empowering farmers and agricultural businesses around the world.”

“I’m sorry, but no.”

McKee barely blinked.

“This is just a consulting fee, professor,” she said. “Our full payment will set you up for life.”

“Hey, those are my locusts!” Mburu butted in. “They’re going to feed the downtrodden.”

“They will feed the world.”

“That’s what you capitalists always claim, just before you empty our pockets.”

A car horn blared out a tinny impression of the national anthem. They all turned to watched as a limousine roared up the road from the city, flags flying from the bonnet. It ground to a halt next to the BMW and three uniformed soldiers leapt out. While one held the door open, the others pointed their guns at Mburu and his driver, who waved their own weapons back. The air was full of angry shouts as McKee’s bodyguards dragged her into the shelter of their car.

“Please, stop this!” Kimani said, trembling as she stepped between the three bands of armed men. “If any of you want me to listen, you will stop this at once.”

Reluctantly, they all lowered their weapons, and a man stepped out of the limousine.

Kimani recognised him from a hundred news broadcasts. Short and round, dressed in an overstretched uniform with a string of medals across his chest, Charles Wambui carried himself like a man used to being obeyed. He was, depending upon who Kimani listened to, either the gifted politician who had reunited a troubled country or a corrupt bureaucrat leaching her nation of life.

“Sally,” he said, ambling over with his arms held wide. Kimani stepped back to avoid what looked worryingly like it might have turned into a hug.

“I prefer Professor Kimani,” she said. “Mister President.”

“Whatever you wish. I hear that you and your team have achieved amazing things, that your new locusts while breed with the old swarms, rendering them sterile and killing off these plagues.”

“Correct.”

“Then your country thanks you for your good work. We will be providing grants to help you continue, while we take your first creations and use them to protect the harvests.”

“I’m sorry, but no.”

Wambui frowned.

“I don’t think you understand, professor. I am the president. I am legally entitled to-”

“Your laws are grounded in lies,” Mburu yelled. “These insects should go to the people, so that-”

“You cannot keep this technology for a single nation,” McKee interjected. “The world deserves the chance to reap the dividends of an incredible moment in-”

“Enough!” Kimani yelled.

They all looked at her, stunned into silence.

She took a deep breath, surveyed the three most powerful people she had ever met, and tried to keep her voice from wavering.

“I will not be selling the locusts to any of you, because I can’t. Humanity cannot control nature, and I cannot control a swarm of insects. Look.”

She pointed across the fields. The swarms that had been there before were gone, flown away to protect and nurture some other crop.

“They are doing what they were made to do,” she said. “The people will benefit from it, not one of your causes.”

She turned on her heel and strode back into the lab, slamming the door behind her.

“Locusts,” she muttered angrily, shaking her head.

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

I’m a huge fan of the film Snowpiercer. It’s an exciting, action-packed story and a powerful modern fable. That’s also why I thought it would make a terrible TV show.

Snowpiercer is a parable about inequality. Following an environmental cataclysm, humanity has been reduced to the inhabitants of a single massive train, constantly rolling around the world. The inhabitants are strictly divided by class, with the wealthiest few living in spacious carriages at the front, the poorest crowded together in the rear, and a range of other ranks between. Pushed to the limit, a group of the train’s poorest inhabitants set out on a revolutionary journey to overthrow the hierarchy by fighting their way to the front of the train. As messages go, it’s not subtle.

As a film, it works because, in the short space of a couple of hours, you’re carried along by the pace of the story. You don’t pay attention to the things about life on this train that don’t make real-life sense, like how they’re managing to feed everyone. The film’s train works as a symbol, not a coherent reality, and you can brush over that for a two-hour parable. Not, I thought, for a long-form television story.

It turns out that I was wrong. The makers of the TV show have found a way to expand upon the setting of Snowpiercer, by showing us the other side of the fight for control of the train. Instead of portraying the train as a functioning self-contained system, we’re shown that it’s constantly on the brink of collapse, the people in charge struggling to hold things together. It’s like the middle third of Seveneves, where experts are desperately trying to save what’s left of humanity using the dwindling resources of a broken orbital armada. Viewers look at Snowpiercer‘s train-bound society, say “that couldn’t work”, and the characters look back at us and say “we know!”

This changes the nature of the story. The morality of the film was clear and simple – oppression bad, rebellion good. In the show, it’s more complicated. The people holding down the poorer class are doing so because they think it’s necessary to save humanity. I’m not sure that’s a good message to make relatable right now, when we’re seeing real-life authoritarians throwing around justifications for cruel and brutal behaviour. It’s certainly an argument though, and it will be interesting to see where the show takes a more nuanced and complex, but still tense and intriguing, version of its story.

It was in the spring of 1649 that I travelled from London up to Oxford, to fulfill a dream long considered impossible. King Charles had but lately been beheaded, propelling England into a bold and unprecedented age in which the people ruled themselves. Developments in clockwork, cogs, and lenses came to us from across the continent, each month delivering news of some previously unimaginable device. For the first time in my life, it seemed that anything was possible.

Doctor John Wilkins met me at the entrance to Wadham College, where he had but lately been made warden. A gentleman of charm and obvious intelligence, he greeted me as if we were lifelong friends, not merely acquaintances linked by ink and parchment. I was by then intimately acquainted with his remarkable scholarship in theology, natural philosophy, and most importantly the burgeoning field of astronomy, so it was in a state of giddy delight that I followed him to a courtyard in back of the college.

There, my eyes fell upon a most remarkable contraption, a boat of sorts, but with wings attached, large crank handles on the sides, and all manner of mechanical workings encased in its central section. I stared spellbound at Wilkins’ flying chariot.

I was, of course, acquainted with the precedents on which Wilkins had built his machine. The flight of the monk Elmer, Archytas’ wooden dove, Regiomontanus of Nuremberg’s iron fly, examples of human and mechanical flight stretching from ancient Greece almost to the modern day. And yet, as I considered the possibility of leaving the earth, questions suddenly filled my mind.

“Are you sure it has enough power?” I asked, laying a hand on the stern. The chariot’s springs had been wound and it was thrumming with barely contained power.

“My dear Bragg,” Wilkins said. “Modern gearing can upgrade mechanical energy by factors of thousands, more than enough to escape the initial attraction of the Earth.”

“You say initial attraction.” I tugged at my collar, releasing the unaccountable heat which was, of a sudden, making me sweat. “Might there be a danger of that attraction drawing me back after the clockwork has run out?”

“Not at all! Based on Gilbert’s De Magnete, I have calculated that the force of attraction will be nullified at twenty miles up. From that point, you will be safely airborne.”

Twenty miles up, and that only the beginning of my journey. I would be a bold explorer bringing civilisation to the inhabitants of the moon as Columbus had once brought it to the Americas. This was everything I had dreamed of in the comfort of my London home, everything I had sworn excitedly to fulfill. But now I was here, I started to see practicalities I had not considered.

“It’s awfully barren up there,” I said, staring at the empty sky. “Won’t I be deathly cold?”

“Away from the earth, in the realm of the sun?” Wilkins laughed. “You are a wit, Bragg.”

I forced a smile. “How long will it take?”

“Six months, based on travel times to the new world and the relative distances of America and the moon.”

“Alas, this will never carry enough food for six months.” I shook my head as I looked at the pitiful supplies in the front of the chariot. “Never mind for my return. Alas, we will have to rethink the whole business.”

“Never fear,” Wilkins said. “Once beyond the earth’s pull, you will no longer be exerting your spirits and so will not need the energy. You will have no necessity for sustenance.”

“So why is there food and drink on board?”

“For the same reason there are books – to keep you entertained.”

And there it was. I knew as well as Wilkins did the biblical, observational, and logical evidence that the outer air was breathable. I had no need for extra food or warmth, was well supplied with entertainment and all the power required for my journey.

I would be going to the moon, as I had dreamed.

Alone.

In a glorified rowing boat.

“You’re not having doubts, are you?” Wilkins asked.

“Of course not,” I said. Braggs never had doubts. Not my cousin Samuel who had been crippled fighting for the king, nor my brother Tobias who had died in the service of Parliament. If they could stand for what they believed in then so could I, and I believed in the endless possibilities that natural science foretold.

My legs felt heavy as I clambered into the flying chariot and took hold of the lever that would release its power.

“Godspeed,” Wilkins said, smiling even as a tear ran from his eye.

I pulled the lever. Gears whirred, wings flapped, and the chariot rose. The wind rushed past as I soared like a bird and I laughed at myself for ever having harboured fears of failure.

I shan’t bother you with the long details of my journey, for there were almost none. Wilkins proved correct in every assertion, making my travel smooth and comfortable. I set down on the moon one hundred and seventy-four days after leaving Wadham College – slightly under the calculated six months – and was greeted with friendly curiosity by the natives.

However, there is one complication we had not foreseen. While there was every chance that the locals would have no English or Latin, their understanding of the world is so different from ours that communication has proved impossible, and the rich exchange of ideas Wilkins hoped for has not come about. I shall attach this account of my adventure to a mechanical creation of my own devising, which I believe to be capable of reaching the earth. Wherever you are, if you find this message and can, by Wilkins’ principles, find a way to reach the moon, please send an expert in languages. I am, for now, at an utter loss.

***

 

Sometimes, history is weird. Dr John Wilkins was a real English priest and academic who eventually became Bishop of Chester, and he really thought and wrote, at some length,  about how to fly to the moon. His theory for doing this was grounded in the best understanding of the world available in the mid-17th century, an understanding rooted in a mix of theology, logic, and what we would now label as scientific observation. He was, in retrospect, completely wrong, but his arguments made sense to him and others at the time, and every point I’ve included here is an accurate (if limited) representation of Wilkins’ thinking. And honestly, I find the logic of it, while madly optimistic, both compelling and kind of brilliant in its twists.

If you want to learn more about Wilkins, I recommend Allan Chapman’s book  Stargazers, which depicts the careers of a range of European astronomers from the 15th to the 18th centuries, many of whom were equally fascinating, from the obstinate and argumentative Galileo to Tycho Brahe and his gold nose.

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

The Pace of Reading

Posted: June 15, 2020 in reading
Tags: ,

I’ve noticed a weird thing with the way I read lately – I always seem to speed up near the end of a book. It’s not that I’m skim-reading or rushing it and missing the detail, I just seem to be more enthused and more likely to keep reading the further along I go. I don’t know whether it’s being keener once I’m engaged in the content, or if I’ve got hooked on the satisfaction of putting a completed book away on the shelf. It’s kind of nice for the second half,  as I tear through books with a sense of glee, but the flip side is when I’m a little way in, not getting very far, and part of my brain checks out because it wants to cut straight to the final rush. It can make getting started on a new book feel more like work than it should.

Do you have any patterns like this to how you read? Are you a completionist who has to finish once they start something, a ten-books-at-a-time reader, or find your reading patterns shaped in some other odd way? Leave a comment, reassure me that I’m not the only one acting up.

I stared at the broken tanker in the middle of the waste ground. Green sludge swayed and pulsed around it, creeping towards the river. I could smell its putrid fumes through the filter of my cheap prison issue hazmat suit.

My last day. All I had to do was obey the guards and I would be out tomorrow, a year knocked off my sentence for the sake of biohazard work, work that had given me skills and a purpose for three years. Sometimes you really could win.

“I won’t do it,” Cyril said. He always protested at the jobs, but always did them in the end.

“Come on,” I said. “Cut to the end and let’s get working.”

“I’m serious. I won’t touch that stuff.”

The lead guard, Haverstaff, glared at Cyril. “You get down there and do what you’re told, or it’s solitary for all of you.”

A groan went up from the whole crew. The warden believed in the motivational power of collective punishment, but to us it was one more injustice.

“No.” Cyril folded his arms, but though he played at defiance, what I really saw was fear.

“Let me,” I said, and Haverstaff stepped back. He was always happy to let someone else do the work.

I prodded Cyril in the chest.

“I need this,” I said. “My kid are waiting to see me tomorrow, and that only happens if I do my last day.”

“I know what that stuff is.” Cyril stared in horrified fascination at the green goo. “If it gets through the suit, it won’t just make you sick. It’s an engineered parasite that will take over your body.”

“You idiot,” I growled. There was only one way Cyril knew this – his company had made it, before they were shut down for reckless endangerment. “You get down there and face the sick shit you made, or I’ll drag you down and throw you in.”

If he was considering resisting, Cyril stopped when he saw the look in my eyes. He followed me down to the spillage, where the others already waited.

What we faced wasn’t just a liquid. It was a living thing, pulsing and writhing, stringy tentacles rising from its surface. We fought them off with shovels and brooms while trying to suck it up with hoses and a vacuum tank. Acrid chemicals were spread over the thin traces left behind. After two years on the crew, I knew better than to let those powders splash my suit, but twice I had to stop new guys from reaching into the jars.

Halfway through the day Dunn, one of those new kids, stopped working and stood staring at the side of the broken container.

“I know this stuff,” he said in his slow drawl. “This is the stuff what took over my aunt and her kids. Good as killed them.”
Cyril froze at those words, sweating behind his plastic visor. He didn’t realise that Dunn and the rest had missed what he said. They didn’t know he was responsible.

Haverstaff glared at Dunn. He didn’t like it when inmates stopped working. The threat of collective punishment loomed again.

“Sorry, man,” I said, laying a hand on Dunn’s shoulder. “Let’s make sure this shit doesn’t kill anyone else, eh?”

Dunn was a good guy, despite his conviction for assault, and those words were enough to set him back to work.

But Dunn’s words plagued me. It wasn’t fair that people had died from this shit, when all Cyril got was a couple of years on the inside. I could have let Dunn know, let him balance the books with his fists, but it would have ruined the day’s work.

“Out of the way,” I said to Cyril, who stood tense amid the remains of the ooze. Since Dunn spoke, he’d been even more on edge, too distracted by Dunn to focus.

I swung the jar in my hand and chemical powder hissed as it hit the green ooze. A little of the powder landed on the back of Cyril’s leg, scorching tiny holes through his suit. I thrust the jar into his hand and grabbed the hose that he hadn’t moved in two minutes.

“Fuck’s sake, Cyril, I need to get this finished.” I swung the hose around and drips of green goo flew. It hit the back of his leg, just where the holes were.

“Hey, careful with that!” he said, stumbling back.

Suddenly, he froze and his eyes went glassy.

I leaned in close enough to whisper through the thin masks of the hazmat suits.

“Keep quiet, do the work, and we all get out of here, OK?”

The parasite that had taken over Cyril nodded.

I might have felt guilty, except there was screening on the way into the prison. They would work out what was wrong and isolate the thing that was in him. Dunn would have his revenge, I’d have my day’s work finished, the other prisoners would be safe. Justice for all.

“Last day nearly done,” Haverstaff said to me. “What you gonna do on the outside?”

I pointed at the biohazard. “I’ve got good at this work, figure I’ll get a job doing it for real. Decent protective suits, proper equipment, real pay…”

“That’s not gonna happen,” Haverstaff said, his laughter not cruel but patronising. “Wit ha criminal record, you’ll never get the licence to handle chemicals.”

He frowned at Cyril, who was staring vacantly around.

“What’s the matter with him?” he asked.

I froze. One more hour, that was all I needed. One more hour and my work was done. But if we didn’t finish the day…

Haverstaff prodded the thing that had been Cyril. “I told you, do the work or you’re all off to solitary.” He frowned at the stain on the back of Cyril’s leg. “What happened there?”

The creature stared blankly back at him.

“I said, what happened?”

The creature seemed to see the jar in its hands. It tipped it up and chemical powder fell around their feet.

“Jeez!” Haverstaff leapt back as the ooze around them bubbled. “Be careful with that shit.”

I wondered for a moment if I should just let things fall apart. Here I was useful. I was making the world safer for ordinary people, ones screwed over by the likes of Cyril. Out there in the world, I’d just be one more guy signing on for government help or working in a convenience store.

But I’d be one more guy with my kids.

“It’s OK,” I said, grabbing Cyril’s jar. “I’ve got this.”

“Hurry up and finish,” Haverstaff said. “I want to get out of here.”

He wasn’t the only one.

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

I recently watched Contagion, a film about a pandemic sweeping around the world. Inspired by Folding Ideas’ moving video essay on watching the film during lockdown, I wanted to go through that experience, to see what insight or catharsis an imagined pandemic could bring.

Like watching real reactions to the pandemic, it was a strange mix of alarming and comforting. It certainly felt more real in the light of recent events. R numbers, social distancing, face masks, the difficulties of making a vaccine – many things that have become all too familiar in 2020 are present in this 2011 film. But there was one thing that was notably absent – people being reasonable.

There’s been a lot of alarming and selfish behaviour around covid-19,  from hoarding to anti-lockdown protests to attacks on telephone masts. There have also been dramatic examples of selfless, generous, even heroic behaviour, from the long hours worked by medical staff to the armies of volunteers feeding and supporting their communities. But what I’ve seen the most of, in between the clickbait headlines, is people being calmly and undramatically reasonable. Following the rules, both in their letter and their spirit. Finding ways to stay sane while they can’t get out. Rebuilding their social support structures online to get through the constant, low-level mental health grind that is living in strained circumstances.

The reality of covid-19 has been Zoom meetings, online pub quizzes, extended video calls with family and friends. It’s been waiting for hours to get a delivery slot for groceries so that you don’t go out and risk spreading the infection. It’s been everything from wine tasting to book clubs to entire business departments going virtual with a lot of ingenuity and very little complaint.

It’s not dramatic, and perhaps that’s why these reasonable moments are missing from Contagion. Or perhaps its creators couldn’t predict that this was how most human beings would behave under pressure – not moving to extremes of selfish or selfless acts, but simply, quietly, cooperatively finding ways to get on with life.

Portrait of a Girl’s Head by Sir George Clausen

I dragged myself through the last tangle of thorns, leaving scarlet trails across my hands and face, and emerged into a clearing. In the centre was a pool of deep water reflecting the clear blue of the sky. A woman sat beside it in flowing robes, and as she turned to look at me I instinctively straightened my tailcoat.

“My lady.” I doffed my hat. “I have journeyed around the world to find you.”

“I know.”

Her sigh was the fluttering of butterfly wings.

“I am Sir Gideon Whiting,” I continued, “scholar, adventurer, knight of the realm. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”

“I’ve heard of everyone, Sir Gideon. It happens when you have eternity to fill.”

“So it’s true!” I sank to my knees beside her.

“I know everything, yes. Every detail of your story, from the abandoned child in the industrial slum to the trek through deserts and jungles that brought you here. I know your true mother’s name, your deepest regret, the thrill and the shame of your first kiss.”

I was astounded, yet also disconcerted. She matched my vision of an immortal, full of beauty and grace, but where was the power and pride of an omniscient immortal?

“So you see it all?” I asked, feeling a little embarrassed as the implication sank in.

“History is a circle, Sir Gideon. I am fated to survive each turn of that circle and be there for the start of the next. I know about you because you have told me it all before.”

“Amazing,” I whispered.  “The things you must have seen.”

“Yes, I have seen and heard and tasted every detail of this world, done it so many times that I know it all. I am utterly, unbearably bored.”

“Perhaps there’s something I can do to entertain you?” I asked. “A joke, a story, a song…”

“We’ve tried that before. Trust me, you get boring pretty quickly.”

“Oh.” I slumped. “So what do you want from me? Can I help you to end this cycle?”

The thought was a terrible one, but sometimes terrible acts were needed, and my revolver sat ready at my hip.

“You think I haven’t tried? After a while, even blowing your own brains out gets boring.”

“Then what’s the point?” I asked, staring at my fat, useless hands. “What’s the point if I can’t change anything?”

“Go back and enjoy your life, Sir Gideon. Be grateful that it’s the only one you have.”

***

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By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

The second of two comics I wrote for the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, Durand’s Dunkirk follows the crew of a French SOMUA S35 tank. With the French armies shattered and the Allies in retreat, Regis Durand and his indomitable crew gain a new mission – to hold up the advancing Germans and allow the British to evacuate through Dunkirk.

A Story of Sacrifice

Both Durand’s Dunkirk and its companion comic, Dodger’s Dunkirk, are stories with a message, but those messages are very different. During the Dunkirk withdrawal, the British showed that there could be courage and even triumph in a well-executed retreat, that not every battle should be fought to the bitter end. But the French army showed how sometimes you have to fight on, one person’s sacrifice becoming another’s salvation. The French fought hard to buy time for the Dunkirk evacuation, even knowing that it would leave their country undefended. That’s the battle that Durand fights.

Just as the evacuation didn’t only rescue British troops, the stand that made it possible wasn’t only fought by the French. The film Darkest Hour touchingly demonstrates this, in a section dealing with the fate of British troops in Calais who fought on as a distraction for the others rather than being given a chance to escape. But it was the French army that provided the greatest barrier to the advancing Germans in those last days.

An International War

Another point of this comic was to explore the international nature of the World Wars, a point I bang on about so much it’s probably getting boring, but that bears repeating.

Originally, Durand and Dodger’s comics were pitched as a single script, one that showed how the very different fates of the withdrawing British and the French rearguard were connected. I wanted to celebrate the British success at Dunkirk while remembering how many other countries were involved. It was thanks to my editor at Commando that the one story became two, and I’m really glad I got the chance to expand on that original idea.

In England, we refer to the First and Second World Wars but often neglect that “world” part. Our stories tend to be focused on British experiences, which is understandable but also a bit repetitive, limiting how many facets we see of an incredibly complicated story. There have been some interesting exceptions in recent years, such as the film Hurricane and the recent inclusion of a Sikh soldier in a scene from 1917. I think it’s good that we’re doing that more, as it makes the stories more interesting and more representative of reality. So of course I wanted to depict the French as much as the British in exploring Dunkirk, and also to show other nations, such as the Belgian soldier who plays a key part in both these stories.

One of these days, I might stop banging the drum on this subject. Today is not that day.

The Myth of National Character

This story is also about one of the big myths of late 19th and early 20th-century military thinking – the power of superior national character.

Across Europe, every country found a way to convince itself that it was inherently superior to the rest and that this was reflected in its armed forces. A superior fighting spirit would ensure their victory over a far less impressive enemy. This is a myth that Durand, the tank commander of this story, buys into.

The inherent flaw in this thinking is obvious – if everybody has a superior national character then nobody is actually superior. The myth falls apart based on logic, never mind evidence. It can be a useful myth in motivating troops, but it’s also a dangerous one if it encourages soldiers, commanders, and politicians to ignore reality. Germany didn’t win the Battle of France because of superior national character, but because it had better tactics and the element of surprise. Russia didn’t defeat the Germans in the east because of a greater fighting spirit, but because of superior numbers and a willingness to spend lives in a war of attrition.

Durand goes into the story believing in a superior French fighting character. The question the story asks is how that attitude can stand up to the prospect of defeat.

Out Now

Both of my Dunkirk comics are out now. Both work as standalone stories, but together they create something more complex, showing the same events from different angles. You can buy them electronically through Comixology, or get paper copies wherever Commando is stocked.

There was blood on the beach. Somehow, in spite of everything, Louis hadn’t expected that. He’d seen the soldiers here, thousands of them lining up to board the boats. He’d seen the heaps of equipment they left behind. He’d heard the bombs falling and the rattle of gunfire as planes flew across that teeming crowd of men. And yet somehow he hadn’t anticipated those dark stains, turning patches of sand into sinister, crusted lumps.

The salt smell of the sea was a familiar one around Dunkirk, but now it had a different edge.

Photo by Sean MacEntee via Flickr Creative Commons

There were no more boats. That he had expected, or rather feared. No way out. He walked across the sand, between piles of discarded equipment, some of it burned to stop the Germans using it. What was he hoping to find? An abandoned row boat? An uninflated dinghy? Enough wood to make a raft that could survive the crossing to England? Each idea was more absurd than the last. The gulls mocked him with their screeching laughter as they pecked at the remnants humans had left behind.

He looked back towards the shop fronts facing the harbour. More soldiers had appeared, ones in different uniforms. He had seen them in the newspaper and he knew what they represented. Reluctantly, he raised his hands and walked back up the beach.

One of the soldiers pointed a rifle at him and shouted in heavily accented French. “Stop! Stop or shooting!”

“I’m not going to make trouble,” Louis called out in German. So many sailors and travellers passed through town, he had picked up a smattering of a dozen languages and enough for conversation in three. “I own that café.”

He pointed to his building. He’d closed up shop days ago and shuttered the windows. By that point he’d sold or given almost all he could to the waiting soldiers. There had been no point continuing, especially not with bombs falling and planes strafing the promenade.

“How do I know you’re not lying?” the soldier said. Others were gathering around him, some watching Louis, others staring warily at the nearby buildings. “You could be a soldier in disguise, looking for a way out.”

“May I lower my hand? It will help me prove this to you.”

“One twitch of trouble and you’re a dead man.”

Slowly, Louis lowered his trembling right hand, slid it into his pocket, and pulled out his keys.

“May I?” he asked, gesturing toward his front door.

The German watched him with narrowed eyes, but stepped back to make the way clear.

Louis walked up to his café, turned the key in the lock, and opened the door. The whole way, those guns kept pointing at him, and it was all he could do not to freeze in fear. One slip of a finger and he was dead.

He let the Germans walk in first, three of them, pointing their guns at the counter, the tables, the hat stand, as if any of them might hide a British soldier. Louis was glad that he’d hidden the cash box already. He would give it up in an instant if they threatened him, and leave himself destitute in the process, but the dead had no use for money.

“Would you like coffee?” he asked, easing his way between. “I got my supply from a Brazilian sailor fresh off the Atlantic run. There’s only a little left, but it’s very good.”

One of the soldiers grinned and pulled out a chair, its legs scraping against the tiled floor. Sweat ran down Louis’s back, sticking his shirt to his spine. If these men looked around properly then he would be in a world of trouble, but he couldn’t just kick them out. He had to be cooperative, had to keep them happy, had to show that he was compliant.

“No time for coffee,” the oldest soldier said. “Not until the town’s secure.”

His comrades pulled faces, but they followed him out the door.

One of them turned in the entrance and smiled at Louis.

“You’ll be open later, yes?”

“Whenever you want,” Louis said, with the same forced smile he gave to poor tippers and people who broke his cups. “After all, I have new customers in town.”

The soldier laughed and left.

Louis waited until they were out of earshot, then closed and locked the door. He let out a deep sigh, then trudged up the stairs, walked into his bedroom, and opened the wardrobe door. A heap of blankets unfurled, revealing a man in uniform, bloodshot eyes wide with fear.

“No way out now,” Louis said. “We’ll need to find you a better hiding place.”

“So I’m stuck?” the man asked in English.

“Give me time,” Louis replied, remembering the Germans in his café, their own looks of exhaustion and excitement, distracted by something as simple as a cup of coffee. “We’ll find a way.”

***

As well as this story, I have two comics out this week about the Dunkirk evacuation –  Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk. You can buy them electronically through Comixology, or get paper copies wherever Commando is stocked.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

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From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

I have not one but two Commando comics out this week, with matching covers by the excellent Keith Burns.

Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk tell the stories of two soldiers, one French and the other British, taking part in the fighting that led up the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. The two stories stand alone but are connected, with events and characters crossing over between the two. It’s one of the coolest projects I’ve had at Commando, and I’m really pleased with the results.

You can get both Dunkirk issues on Comixology or wherever copies of Commando are sold.