Posts Tagged ‘scifi’

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.

***

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.

***

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.

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.

***

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.

***

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 have it at last. The final piece of the code. The last of the message hidden by God in his creation.

It took me years to understand where the code was hidden. I scoured holy books, trying to divine the secret alphabet they concealed. Years of research wasted in dusty rooms and crumbling manuscripts, scrutinising the conclusions of theologians and mystics, looking for the gaps in their work.

Then I realised that the message wasn’t in those texts, it was written into creation itself. That was why Noah had to build the ark. Each creature is a letter, and only when those letters are put together will we see God’s message for us.

I have them all now. Genetic code from every creature known to man. My computers have been analysing them, finding what is unique in each one. Those fragments of code will be the letters, and when I bring them together, joy of joys, His will be done!

I know that now is the time because now is when it has become possible. A decade ago, I couldn’t have extracted the individual letters and brought them back together, but gene editing has changed the world. This is what he preordained, calibrating our intelligence to work this out now, when the animals we know are the ones for the code. In his omniscience, he was able to see a path for us. Humanity is the tool with which he will perfect creation, and I am the sharp point of that tool.

Fingers trembling at the controls of the computer, I set the machine to put the final piece into place. What letter does the zebra represent? There is no A, B, or C here, but a holy alphabet thousands of letters long, barely comprehensible to the human mind. Still, I wonder what sound each letter represents.

Perhaps my creation – His creation – will be able to tell me.

The code is complete. Now it goes into the incubator, a vat of nutrients and electricity from which life can be born anew. Let it grow there, in this modern primordial soup. This is the darkness into which The Word will be breathed – a word beyond any we can fathom, recreated from the beings it set loose.

The weeks of gestation are long and gruelling, grinding my patience down to a nub. I snap at colleagues but cannot explain or excuse myself. If they knew what I was doing in the farthest corner of the lab, they would call me insane. They don’t understand. They never have.

At last the time comes for me to open the incubator. As I lift the lid, I imagine what might emerge. A glowing figure perhaps, like the Christ child in a renaissance painting. An angel even, wings spread and singing the glory of his name.

When I see it, I am struck not by wonder but by nausea. It is a terrible twisted thing, mismatched limbs barely able to drag its body out of the amniotic pool. It looks up at me with wide, desperate eyes and reaches out, dripping, toward my face. Then it collapses, gasping, twitching, hanging limp and feeble across the edge of the incubator.

This is no divine message. I have birthed an abomination.

I grab a syringe and fill it from a small and deadly vial. I force myself to touch the creature’s neck, to hold it steady while I slide the needle in. As skin meets skin, the creature looks up at me once more, pupils wide, and leans in towards me. I have to look away as I push the plunger.

I don’t wait for the abomination, still as stone now, to go cold. I haul it into a waste sack and drag it down to the incinerator. My terrible mistake is reduced to ash, its visage lingering only in my nightmares. No-one will know what I have done. I return to the lab and scrub every last surface clean.

I was arrogant, wrong-headed, thinking that I understood God’s message. In my hubris, I created something terrible and the experience has humbled me.

There is more to God’s message than just hidden letters. There is the ordering of those pieces, the spelling of His words and the grammar of His text. I must return to my studies. One day, I will complete His message for humanity, but today is not that day.

***

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.

***

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.

Context changes everything. Reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve found that one disaster has added to my experience of another.

The Alienation of Disaster

First published in 2015, Seveneves is a massive novel set in the near future. Within the first few pages, the Moon explodes. As people reel from this staggering change, a greater disaster looms. The pieces of the Moon crash against each other, creating a cloud of debris that will, within a few years, fall upon the Earth and wipe out all life.

In the face of annihilation, humanity must decide what can be saved, and how. Frantic effort and incredible ingenuity are poured into getting people into orbit, with the resources they will need to survive in space and to rebuild civilisation. The book explores both the scientific challenges of this disaster and the human side of the equation – how people react under terrible pressure.

If you’re reading this now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I probably don’t need to tell you why that’s resonated so much with me. We’re facing an incredible crisis in which scientists are rushing to find solutions while society struggles with the combined strains of fear, grief, and isolation. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not life as we know it either.

There’s a sense of alienation to current circumstances that runs like a thread of barbed wire through Seveneves, tearing at the reader. The space-based survivors of the disaster are the lucky ones, but their lives are nothing like they knew or expected. They’re cut off from family and friends, confined in space, not knowing what the future holds. Living through our current crisis has made that feel much more real.

Losing Control

Loss of control is always difficult to cope with, and it’s another way in which my reading of Seveneves has been transformed by current conditions.

There’s very little I can do about COVID-19. I’m social distancing and washing my hands a lot, but that’s it. I’m not a medical professional or involved in supporting them. I can do nothing to treat or stop the disease.

Even among people on the front lines, many will be feeling a sense of powerlessness. Supplies are short and promises of delivery unreliable. Tracking and containing the spread of the disease has proved difficult at best. There is no cure yet. Medical staff can help individual patients and they’re saving countless lives that way, but the big picture is outside their control.

There’s a similar feeling of powerlessness at play in Seveneves. For all of humanity’s efforts, the wrong lump of rock could fatally undermine the survival effort. The ill-considered actions of a few people can undo the good work of others. The characters can influence events but no-one has control over their own life, and that’s a big part of the feeling we’re all experiencing right now.

The Human Side of Natural Disaster

All of that has given me emotional reference points with which to process Seveneves, adding to my experience of the book and the immediacy of its story, but one specific point has rung true in a way that Stephenson can’t possibly have predicted. That point has spoilers for midway through the book, so if you want to avoid them, skip to the next header.

All clear? Then let’s talk about the president.

Julia Bliss Flaherty, the President of the United States of America, is one of the most important characters in Seveneves. As humanity is dying, she breaks the rules for who gets to survive, effectively stealing a space flight to save her own skin. Traumatised, powerless, and desperate, she uses her demagogic gifts to stir up some of the survivors against their scientifically informed leaders. She fosters terrible and unnecessary division to make herself important. Her actions add to the disaster.

If your political views are anything like mine, then by this point you’ve drawn the obvious comparison. Julia is a Trump-like president created before we ever dreamed he would get the job, never mind react to this crisis the way he has done. A character who would have seemed extreme if I’d read this a few years ago now seems all too plausible.

But Julia represents something wider as well. She’s a reminder that natural disasters are never just about nature. The scale of loss in any famine, flood, or plague will always depend on the structures of society and the way people react. We have ways to minimise disasters, but our social, economic, and political structures often exacerbate them. Just look at the Irish potato famine to see how that works.

While none of us can individually control the spread of COVID-19, collective human action is affecting how deadly it is. Swift responses in South Korea and New Zealand have minimised the disease’s impact in those countries. Global inequalities will almost certainly lead to a devastating death toll in sub-Saharan Africa. In every country, we can see examples of how no disaster is purely a natural event.

Recovery

This might make it sound like Seveneves is a terrible thing to read right now. Sure, it has greater emotional power, but it’s a bleak read in a time when the world already seems bleak enough.

Except that there’s more to it than that. The cover blurb itself states that this is also a story about recovery, about how humanity rebuilds thousands of years later. The final third of the book jumps forward to a very different society, in which the new humanity is resettling Earth.

This is the part that’s hard to see from the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic – recovery. Yes, this disaster is hideous, the loss of life unbearable, the emotional and social trauma immense. We’ll be recovering from this for years to come. But we will recover. We’ll rebuild. And while life will never be like it was before the crisis, it will become bright again.

For two-thirds of the book, current circumstances have shed light on Seveneves for me, adding depth to the emotional experience. But for the final third, it’s the book that’s shedding light on the current crisis, giving me a reminder of what is to come, a sense of hope in terrible times.

Context changes the way we read, but our reading can change the context too.

Social distancing has given me a chance to do more reading, which has turned into a mixed blessing. The books in my to-read pile have all proved excellent, but boy are they bleak choices for troubled times.

First up, as I discussed last week, there was Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s a dense, engrossing novel about a prisoner at the tail end of human civilisation, a man trying to get by as the world collapses around him. There’s even a section where he’s locked up alone. Definitely no bleak parallels with the present there…

Once I got through that, I read another of Tchaikovsky’s books, a new novella titled Firewalkers. It’s set in an environmentally ravaged future in which the rich are escaping into space, leaving the poor to die. I read that one just as stories were emerging of politicians making investment choices based on coronavirus while not acting to prevent it. Apparently people really are jerks like that.

And now I’m onto Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, which begins with the moon exploding and so dooming human life on Earth. It’s well written, crammed full of fascinating detail, and at 861 pages it should keep me entertained through a lot of time alone, but blimey, it is no way to escape the bleakness.

Is there a message to all of this? Well, I suppose there’s “be careful what you wish for” – I wanted more time to read and now I’ve got it. But once I’m done with this lot, I think it’ll be time to head back into an old, comforting favourite. Winnie the Pooh is calling me from the bookshelf, and I know he’s got nothing sad to say.

I love nights like this, when the air is clear and you can see the stars scattered across the sky. If you look hard, you can almost see all the way back to Earth. That’s where we were born, your grandma and I. It’s where we all came from, the first people on this planet.

You see that star over there, in the Great Ship constellation? That’s the one we call George. Doesn’t sound like much of a name for a star, does it? But there’s a reason we gave that name to the brightest star. Do you want to hear it?

Of course you do.

OK, so George was the co-pilot on the Endless Voyage – that’s the ship the Great Ship is named after, the one that brought us here from Earth. He wasn’t a great guy. He was brooding and surly, didn’t like spending time around people, could never let anyone else have the last word. If I’m honest, none of us really liked him, but he was a gifted engineer as well as a pilot, and that got him a place on board.

George wasn’t on duty when the meteor hit. Captain Vance had the honour of piloting our final flight into orbit, and I think George was pissed off that Vance had pulled rank. While the rest of us were watching our new home appear in the view screen, celebrating the fact that we’d made it at last, old George was sulking in his cabin.

Except that it turned out we were celebrating too soon. There was a crash and the Endless Voyage shook like mad. I tried to call Vance over the intercom, but there was no response. Then I saw the debris we were trailing. The bridge had been destroyed.

The controls were gone, the captain gone. We were hurtling towards landfall with our nose smashed open and the ship tearing itself apart. Bad as things were back on Earth, this was the most terrified I’d ever been.

Then George’s voice came over the coms. He told us that he’d jury rigged a control system from his cabin. He was bringing us in but he needed us to listen.

It was the first time we’d ever been glad to listen to George. Half the escape pods had been trashed along with the bridge, so he sent the kids and parents to the ones that were still intact. The rest of us were sent to the cargo pods and told to strap ourselves in.

I was one of the last into the pods. Standing in the doorway, I could feel the ship shift around me. I looked out and realised that George was turning us around, pointing our unbroken rear towards the planet.

I got him on coms, my voice still shrill with panic, and asked if we could even make atmosphere like this.

“Better than we can with our torn front end first,” he said. “Now get in that damn pod and lock the door.”

I did like he said and strapped myself down on a big heap of bags full of seeds. The ship was shaking, the whole frame screaming as it tore itself apart. People were praying, crying, holding each other tight.

I looked up at the ceiling and promised that if we got through this I was buying George a drink. I would put up with his nonsense for as long as he wanted, I was that grateful for him giving us a chance.

We were into the upper atmosphere by then. The air was getting hot. The shaking was so bad I chipped three teeth and my mouth was full of blood.

Then George’s voice came over the coms.

“I’m going to detach you all now,” he said. “Good luck.”

There was a thump and my cargo pod stopped shaking. Gravity took hold as we fell straight towards the planet, hurtling ever faster towards death.

Then I was jerked back in my straps. The parachutes for landing cargo had kicked in.

Those tears and prayers turned to whoops of joy. We were going to make it.

I got on the coms to tell George that we all owed him a drink, but there was no response. Then I remembered, he’d been controlling the ship from his cabin. George, the surly swine who no-one liked, had stayed behind so that we could live. He’d died to save us.

When I landed and got out of the pod, I could see pieces of the ship burning up across the sky. I cried at the thought that one of those pieces was George.

That’s why I come out here on clear nights. I look up at the star we named for him and I offer up a drink.

I’ll be gone soon. Ninety years feels all too short when you’re leaving behind the people you love, but it would have been a lot shorter without George. So I want you to come out here once I’m gone, look up at that sky on clear nights, and raise a glass to George, because we’re going to owe him a drink forever.

***

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.

***

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 might as well begin with a jaunt on the river; sounds jolly enough, no?
– Adrian Tchaikovsky, Cage of Souls

I could write for days about Cage of Souls, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel about a prisoner in a dying civilisation. I could discuss its inversion of Heart of Darkness, how it plays with prison drama tropes, what it takes to build a dying world. But instead I want to talk about one thing – how perfectly Tchaikovsky sets up the book.

Stefan Advani, Most Unreliable of Narrators

Set in the distant future, Cage of Souls is told from the point of view of Stefan Advani. We first meet Stefan on a boat heading for prison through an ungovernable swamp. As the story progresses, we learn more about Stefan’s past and his experiences in the prison, all seen through the filter of his perceptions. And as the book makes clear from the beginning, Stefan is not a reliable narrator.

“Where to begin?” Those are the very first words of the first chapter, and they set the tone for Stefan’s narrative. He’s making choices about what to tell us, in what order, and how to tell it. He’s framing the story to his own ends. He doesn’t even care whether we see him as reliable, sarcastically introducing his river trip as a jolly jaunt. He’d rather be seen as erudite than as honest.

This sets the tone for everything that follows. Stefan recounts his adventures as if they were true, but as readers we can never trust him. Another character even calls him out on this near the end of the book, accusing him of misrepresenting them. And the nature of Stefan’s unreliability tells us a lot about his character and what he values, including both his intelligence and his public image.

Stefan cannot be trusted, and the very first page makes that clear.

The Tension of Subjects

In a certain sense, this is also a book that can’t be trusted. For over a hundred pages, it dwells in the prison where Stefan is held. It builds up a claustrophobic drama about life in this one dreadful place, like some sort of post-apocalyptic Oz. But it’s not really about that one place. It’s about the whole of human society, in a future where that society seems on the brink of death. It’s a story that embraces Stefan’s whole world.

That tension between the immediate and wider subjects of the book is again set up on the first page. Stefan contemplates the topics he could start with – a criminal underworld, a rioting crowd, a parched and deadly desert. By offering up these possibilities and then snatching them away, Tchaikovsky hints at a much wider world and makes us want to know more about it. We’re sat waiting for the next 130 pages, stuck in prison while knowing that there’s a wider world to see, just like Stefan.

That introduction to other topics holds out a promise of what’s to come, and it’s a very important promise. If a book changes tack partway through, this can throw readers. Whether they like the new subject or not, they may feel confused and frustrated that the story is no longer what they expected. It’s possible to avoid that sensation by foreshadowing what’s to come.

Game of Thrones has perhaps the most famous example of this. Before heading into a grim, grounded story of political intrigue, George R R Martin provides a single encounter with something fantastic and monstrous. It’s easy to forget that chapter once you’re drawn into the story, but it puts a pin in the map, a marker that says “here be dragons, and they be coming back later”. It gives us reason to believe that there’s more to Westeros, and primes us for high fantasy elements to come.

The start of Cage of Souls does the same thing. It prepares readers for later sections of the book, when Stefan’s story will roam outside the prison. It creates tension, expectation, and an acceptance of what’s coming later.

Distance

Distance is one of the key themes of Cage of Souls. The distance between Stefan’s world and ours, between the prison and the city, between society’s wealthy and the criminal gangs living underground. And of course the psychological distance between very different characters and communities.

There’s a sense of distance in the way the story is told. By talking directly to us on the first page, Stefan doesn’t bring us closer. Instead, he creates a greater awareness of his presence as an intermediary. The book holds us at arm’s length, and those arms belong to Stefan. Though Tchaikovsky’s writing style creates moments of incredible immediacy, sucking us into action scenes and confrontations, he always comes back to Stefan eventually, holding us away.

That sense of distance is reinforced by the way Stefan relates to events. He misses many of the most important incidents in the book, and only survives because of that absence – this is the story of a dying civilisation, and our narrator lives by narrowly missing its death throes. He sees their aftermath or passes on the accounts of others – of course retold, removing any risk that they might be entirely true.

This distance reinforces something that could easily be missed – that Stefan isn’t really the protagonist. There are many scenes where he’s just the observer to others’ struggles, from the power plays of gangs to a deadly duel. Even in the overarching narrative, this isn’t really Stefan’s story. It’s the story of his civilisation, and he’s just the eyes we see it through. Though a reader can’t see this at the start, it’s all set up in that detached tone.

Decay

Cage of Souls is a story about decay. This is signalled in the descriptions of the first scene – an antique boat, festering jungle, ragged and stinking prisoners. A page and a half in, the word “decay” itself has already cropped up. The choice of where to start, a choice made within the book by Stefan and around it by Tchaikovsky, sets the tone for everything to come. Even though we won’t see what passes for civilisation for over a hundred pages, its rot is there from the start.

As I said at the beginning, I could write for days about this book. Fortunately, I don’t need to. The keys to the story are there from the start.

There aren’t a lot of comics dealing with how humans affect the environment. In some ways that’s weird, because the potential for striking imagery is huge. In other ways it’s less surprising – this is a difficult issue to face. That’s why a less direct approach is sometimes valuable.

Farmhand by Rob Guillory doesn’t read like an environmental parable. It’s a weird sci-fi story of a farmer who finds that he can grow human organs on plants, transforming and even saving lives through vital transplants. But as odd things start to happen, it becomes clear that the past is catching up with him and that there’s more going on with these plants.

Farmhand is worth reading just for Guillory’s lively, angular art, which made Chew such a memorable read. But if you’re looking for comics that talk about humans and the environment then there’s more to be seen.

This is a story in which people are directly affecting their ecosystem. The plant-grown organs amount to a genetic experiment, and one that’s leaking out into the world. Life can’t be contained, no matter how humans try, and their creations have gotten into the wild, creating effects they couldn’t have predicted.

There are also unpredictable effects on human beings. This is one of the things that we don’t talk about enough with environmental harm. Pollution doesn’t just poison animals and plants, it hits humans too. It’s affecting our immune systems, our food, the air we breathe. Even if you don’t care at all about nature, you can’t avoid its consequences.

And then there’s that tale of the past catching up with the characters. What better metaphor could there be for our relationship with the planet? Decades of abuse are catching up with us as forest fires rage and ice caps melt.

Farmhand is a great piece of storytelling and comics art, but it’s also more than that. It’s a timely reminder of how much is at stake.

Alec walked into the Hall of Ideas and took a seat at a terminal. A shiver of excitement ran through him as he took a data chip from his pocket and inserted it into the machine.
Today was the day. He’d been working for months on his design for a public mural. It was bright, vibrant, taking a whole new approach to the art style of public spaces. He had the vision. He had the materials. All he needed was approval from the algorithms. For several minutes, he sat staring at the screen, clasping and unclasping his hands. Around him, other people went through the approvals process – designers, musicians, public planners, all taking their ideas to the machine so that it could compare them with billions of pieces of data and determine what people would want. Only then, once the machine had proved that an idea was wanted, would they receive permission to proceed. At last, the screen flashed. A message appeared: “We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.” Alec sagged, despondent, in his seat. He’d been so certain. He loved the design, why wouldn’t other people? With a sigh, he got up and headed out of the door. He would just have to try again. * Alec walked determinedly into the Hall of Ideas and slid his data chip into a terminal, then took a seat while he waited for it to assess his idea. The new mural design was even more inventive than the last one. Bold juxtapositions of colour and shape, a bright and enlivening pallet, a valuable message about what it meant to be human. It had to be worth doing. Inside the machine, the AI sifted through its vast data store, looking at what people did, what they bought, what they had said about past works of public art. The totality of electronically recorded experience went into its decision. The screen flashed and a message appeared: “We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.” Alec frowned. There must be a mistake. He took the data chip out, put it back in again, and waited for the AI to process the design. The answer flashed up the same – a clear denial of his dreams. “What then?” Alec snapped. “What do you want if not this?” People turned to look at him, alarmed and confused by someone disturbing the calm of the Hall of Ideas. Alec blushed. He took the chip out of the machine, got out of his seat, and strode out of the hall. Next time, he would get it right. * Alec thrust the data chip into the terminal. Around him, the Hall of Ideas was busy, as it had been six months before, and six months before that. A year wasted on reinventing his design twice over. There was no denying that the mural would be better for it, as he had refined every last detail, creating something so extraordinary that the people he showed it to gasped in excitement. Still, the lost time frustrated him. The screen flashed: “We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.” “No!” Alec leapt to his feet. “You’re wrong, you stupid heap of junk. All you know is what people did before, what they liked before. You want everything the same as it’s always been. But we can dream bigger. We can do better. We can try something new!” Around him, people watched in shocked silence. Alec snatched the data chip out of the machine. “You’ll see,” he bellowed to the rafters. “This thing doesn’t know shit.” He stormed out of the hall and into the sunlit street. To hell with machine decisions and official approvals. He had the paints, he had the brushes, he had the design, and he knew a blank wall going spare. He would show the machine and everyone behind it that art didn’t have to match what had been loved before. Back in the Hall, people turned back to their screens. A few began to wonder, could they try something new? *** This story was inspired by an article by Cory Doctorow on the inherent conservatism of AI. Doctorow is a great commentator on technology and where it’s taking society, so his work is well worth a read. 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. ***

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.