We May Have Reached Series Overload: A Trawl Through Small-Press and Self-Published Science Fiction

The world of small-press and self-publishing isn’t perfect, but it is democratic.

In terms of self-publishing, nowadays literally anyone who has written a book and has access to the internet and some spare cash, can now deliver their work unto the world. Gone are the days when a self-published book looked like nothing more than a fancy zine; print-on-demand technology ensures that the finished product looks and feels as good as any ‘properly’ published book. Gone, too, are the days when a minimum order numbered in the hundreds, if not the thousands – most print-on-demand companies happily produce as many or as few copies as an author likes.

The small-press world is structured differently, as an author must still undergo the processes of traditional publishing: Submitting a manuscript and collaborating with others on the book’s editing, format and design. But it contains a vast landscape of publishers; no matter how obscure the genre an author works in, or how ‘out there’ their writing, a small-press publisher specialises in it. As well, the small-press author often finds a supportive and encouraging community of fellow authors writing for the same publisher, and pre-existing networks that they can use to help promote their work.

Which brings us to, well, us. In our world, all we have to do is gorge on the bounty provided by small-press/self-published authors. Without having facts or figures at hand, I’d wager that at no other point in history has so much new science fiction been available. And without investing much time at all, we can find innumerable marketplaces and promotional sites featuring fiction of every kind. In fact, we’re spoiled for choice, so much so that there even exist promotional sites which give away free books every day, or email a daily list of new books under $1.

To catalogue this deluge of new books would be an enormous undertaking. To get through a To-Be-Read pile made mammoth by the ease of click-and-collect digital purchasing, often seems a pretty-much impossible task. But to complain about the availability, accessibility and diversity of contemporary science fiction seems churlish.

However, there is an actual downside. Whether we like it or not, books are commercial products. Of course, they are also much more than that: magic doorways that transport us to different worlds, repositories of wisdom, voices of past and present generations, histories of our collective imagination, and so on. But they are still something that we can download, or walk into a shop and buy. They are an act of creativity that simultaneously exists as a commercial product, much like clothes, CDs/digital music, and DVDs/digital media. And just like these other creative-commercial products, books are subject to the vagaries of society and the marketplace—which we more commonly label as fads, phases and movements.

This has been happening to science fiction since the early twentieth century. Some of these labels were applied retrospectively, to delineate both generational change within the genre and the genre’s early evolution, as is the case with Silver Age and Golden Age science fiction. Some emerged during massive shifts in the genre’s focus, such as New Wave and Atomic Fiction. Some were initially used snootily by the old guard to describe younger writers refashioning the genre—Cyberpunk, Eco Punk. Which labels apply to which books doesn’t really matter; what’s important is that these genre aren’t static, but are instead constantly evolving and renewing.

This process still occurs. However, the phases and movements that occur today are often much more niche. As well, ‘fads’ are now a cultural factor coursing through science fiction. In the past, what might have been called a fad at the time—Atomic Fiction in the 1950s, Cyberpunk in the 1980—actually proved, in hindsight, to be a thriving subgenre that enjoyed continued popularity. Will people one day say the same thing about Paranormal Romances or High School-set Fantasy? Or will they be viewed as historically-specific artistic phenomenon that were over almost before they began?

As an example, take the gulf between a movement such as New Wave science fiction and a contemporary fad such as Zombie/Undead fiction. The former swept through the genre in the mid-to-late 1960s, reshaping its parameters. The latter is an offshoot of science fiction and horror, and has been contemporaneously popular in the worlds of traditional and small-press/self-publishing. The real difference, though, is that New Wave was a philosophy, while Zombie/Undead fiction is a specific genre with specific rules. New Wave science fiction can be as fantastical, space-oriented and out-there as the work of Michael Moorcock; or as cold, psychological and Earth-bound as that of J G Ballard; or as deranged, chaotic and inspired as that of Philip K Dick. But Zombie/Undead fiction has to be about the dead returning to life, no matter whether it’s tricked up in a literary fashion a la Colson Whitehead’s Zone One or meticulously journalistic a la Max Brooks’ World War Z. In short, New Wave was a label applied to mid-century authors who were breaking science fiction from its past, while Zombie/Undead fiction is a singular genre that just happens to be flavour of the month.

The same contrast applies to many modern subgenres—they are mistaken for movements or phases, when in reality most are simply fads that have had their time. Even a cursory search of small-press/self-publishing marketplaces shows the slow decline of Zombie/Undead fiction and other fads popular over the last decade—Paranormal Romance, Historical-Horror Mashups, High School-set Fantasy. In contrast, movements devoid of an actual genre—Eco Punk, Postcolonial Science Fiction—are proving surprisingly resilient.

One fad that we’re still feeling the effects of is the predilection of many modern authors to create series consisting of 4 or 5 (or more) enormous door-stoppers containing hundreds of thousands of words and entire forests of pages. More-than-likely a continuing aftershock of the post-9/11 boom in Big Fat Fantasy, and no doubt heavily influenced by the runaway success of authors such as J K Rowling, James Dashner and Rick Riordian (et. al.), the series has moved away from the world of Young Adult fiction and now reigns supreme in the worlds of traditional and small-press/self-publishing. As any subscriber to one of the innumerable small-press/self-publishing promotional sites out there would know, in your regular newsletter will be a plethora of new works of science fiction. Amongst them will be the latest book in Mystery Author X’s self-described ‘epic’ space opera series, or the 10th instalment in Unknown Writer Y’s self-described ‘sprawling’ cyberpunk series. There will 2 or 3 of them or even more, in every newsletter you receive—series you’ve never heard of, by authors that you’ve never heard of. This same dictate applies when visiting small-press/self-publishing markets. Amongst the showcases of niche genre-works and jobbing writers building a name for themselves, you’ll find authors whose sole dedication and focus is the series they’ve created, their stands crowded with copies of the latest instalment, be it book 5 or 9 or 11.

The current popularity of the series raises some interesting questions, the least of which is: Why? Most science fiction authors have, historically, avoided writing series. In fact, the few historical science fiction series that are still remembered are either so monumentally intricate and expansive that the form is the only way to do them justice—the works of Isaac Asimov and Michael Moorcock—or are inextricably linked to the genre’s roots in serialised pulp fiction, such as the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And to name a few science fiction titans who rarely ever wrote sequels to their works, and never wrote entire series: Margaret Atwood, J G Ballard, Philip K Dick, William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut and H G Wells. All of these writers—and many others who only wrote standalone books and the occasional sequel—produced substantial bodies of work, and each book within was different, featuring a brand new science-fictional world and brand new science-fictional concerns. Doing this allowed them to further the development and exploration of the themes that interested them, by focusing them through a wide variety of perspectives, locations and situations. In contrast, the length and sprawl of a series generally allows, and indeed often encourages, a drawn-out exploration of a theme from only one particular perspective, location and situation.

Case in point: J G Ballard. Chief amongst Ballard’s varied interests and themes were the dehumanising potential of artificial and highly-technological environments; the psychological implications of what might be called ‘typical’ science fiction scenarios (drowned worlds, desert worlds, dystopian worlds); and the resemblance between our ‘present’ and a science fiction ‘future’. By writing standalone books rather than entire series, Ballard was able to thoroughly explore these themes and interests in a number of different ways. Hello, America, taking place in a devastated world in which a charismatic madman rules over the partially-rebuilt ruins of Las Vegas, allowed Ballard to position the technological and commercial totems that we take for granted as quasi-religious relics, and to examine the ‘psychological hangover’ that these relics might cast over the generations to come; The Drowned World, taking place in a future in which global warming has melted the poles and flooded the planet and turned the drowned cities into tropical throwbacks resembling the primeval past, facilitates Ballard’s exploration of the differences and conflicts between natural and artificial environments, not just materially and historically but also psychologically and philosophically. Even from these oh-so-brief descriptions, we can see the thematic and symbolic connections between the two books—the juxtaposition of decaying artificial environments and flourishing newly-wild ones, the individual as both history’s witness and history’s victim, the undeniable influence our surroundings have over our psyches, technology’s severing of the ties between us and the natural world. However, the shared concerns are examined in vastly different ways, precisely because they are lensed through vastly different perspectives.

For an author, confining each perspective, location and situation to a single book can be seen to act as a helpful constraint—its length and nature forces an author to both build their world quickly and economically and to establish themes early and intelligently. This is exactly what Ballard—and other authors who only wrote standalone books with the occasional sequel thrown in for good measure—does in his work. Rather than drag out an exploration of a theme from only one particular perspective, location and situation (which the nature of a series demands), they do the reverse: They examine themes from as many different perspectives as possible. And this has historically been the norm. But not today, where the series rules over all. Which brings us back to the question of ‘why’?

This is, of course, a question without an actual answer. We can speculate and interrogate, but in the end it’s for nought. All we can really do is state the obvious: there is a real joy in well-written standalone books. The pleasure and immersion they deliver is different to that of a series, and self-contained stories have for the most part been the ‘staple’ form throughout history. Think of the classics—almost all exist as works unto themselves, devoid of the need for a single sequel, let alone a number of them. The same rule-of-thumb applies to science fiction. Would The War of the Worlds have been a better book if the story had kept going? How about Slaughterhouse Five? Or The Handmaid’s Tale? And yet nowadays it’s often more difficult to find a good standalone work of science fiction than it is the continuation of an existing series or the birth of a new one. In fact, many contemporary authors are setting out to write part 1 of a series as their debut, rather than ‘cutting their teeth’ on standalone fiction and seeing if they’ve metaphorically got what it takes to justify a series. Are their themes deep enough to withstand numerous book-length interrogations? Or are they merely drawing things out because, for a writer, staying immersed in the one world can often be easier than going out and creating more? These questions are the ones an author needs to consider, because a great book is always better than a good series.

(Originally published in Aurealis #121, June 2019)

Faster Than a You-Know-What

The runners wait, their feet pressed hard against the blocks. They’re so still that they might as well be carved from rock. They’re fixed and focused. They’re in the zone, as the old-timers say. A few are wearing identical headbands: 51% is emblazoned on them, black letters on a white background, referring to a line they shouldn’t cross if they still want to call themselves human, symbolising a kind-of code that some of them pay lip service to, an unenforced rule that some of them loosely adhere to.

The runners keep waiting. Not a sound comes from the overcrowded stands and bleachers: It’s as if the stadium and everyone in it are frozen in a perfectly silent moment of time. The moment stretches on.

And then the snap-crack of the starter pistol echoes through the sky.

The runners do what they’re supposed to do: They run, they run hard. The crowd cheers and shouts and boos. The runners’ support crews – their families, friends, spouses, trainers, managers, doctors – chew their fingernails or look away or join in with the cheering crowd. The air is backgrounded by the plastic-tick of thousands of cameras snapping thousands of photos, the shrill song of artificial cicadas.

There’s barely enough room between some of the runners to slide a ruler, that’s how bulked-up they are. Some of them are tall and thin – too tall and too thin, almost insectoid. Some look unmodified, their unmarked flesh disguising all manner of implanted enhancements. One of them even has four legs, though that much work surely excludes him from the 51% club.

They run. They run hard. So far, there’s no clear leader.

A moment later, a rumble builds from within the crowd’s collective belly, a heavy moan of excitement and anticipation – the favourite has pulled ahead, as everyone knew he would. He half-turns and keeps on running, he smiles at the crowd and keeps on running, he turns back and keeps on running.

He pulls further ahead. It’s unbelievable, can barely be possible, can’t really be happening. The crowd are now shouting his name, lovers and haters alike, entranced by this marvel of nature and science.

“Man-grove!” they call, splitting his name in two. “Man-grove! Man-grove!”
He turns again, he smiles again, he keeps on running.

Superimposed on his field-of-vision are readouts sent directly to his optic nerve. They bear a flood of information, detailing his proximity to his competitors, the distance he has already run, the distance to completion, the performance of his technological enhancements, the wind speed, fluctuations in the weather, the wear and tear on his muscles, the strain on his organs, his hormone levels, his brain chemistry, the build-up of toxins in his body…

It’s a mess, the amount of information delivered far beyond the human mind’s capacity to consciously understand. Luckily, the quantum processor fused to Mangrove’s brain does the work for him, adjusting his body and accommodating any changes in a manner that’s almost instinctive.

He keeps running. The other runners try to keep up but Mangrove, he’s just a freak – the other runners push themselves harder than they knew they could, but they might as well be walking.

And then, on his optical display, Mangrove receives a warning that requires his actual attention: Oxygen-Conversion Efficiency at 18%, Please Advise.

He starts to slow down. It’s barely noticeable, but it still gives the other runners a chance to catch up. Mangrove focuses on the proximity sensor flashing away on his optical sensor. The other runners are right on him now.

He swears aloud.

He likes to think that in the old days, back before he was born, if he had hit a wall while running he would have chosen to embrace the pain, to push through, to dig deep, to hold on, to snatch a phrase from the grab-bag of sporting clichés. After all, that’s what his heroes did – they had no other choice. But this isn’t the old days, and so he sends a thought-command to his quantum processor, which floods his being with adrenalin, testosterone, norepinephrine and instant-acting cortisol, emptying the tanks embedded in the flesh of his neck.

A formless and wild animal-energy overtakes him and everything is suddenly too bright, too loud, too intense. His vision reddens, his eyes bulge, his smile becomes a snarl, his heart pumps so hard that he’s worried it might pop.

He looks at the other runners crowding him. He growls low in his throat. He looks ahead to the finish line. He pulls away once again, running faster than he ever thought possible.

And just like that, he knows that he’s won, that it’s only a matter of time.

As he crosses the finish line, he sends another thought-command. This time, his quantum processor spikes his brain with serotonin. Simultaneously, it makes him sweat and sweat and sweat, purging his body of the excess hormones that allowed him to win. He has an image to maintain. He knows the difference between being a good runner and being a superstar. He can’t let the public see the blind beast that really ran the race.

As the crowd continues to cheer his name, he turns in a slow circle and bows low. He tears the headband from his head, the slogan ‘51%’ smudged with sweat, the whole thing a dripping mess.

He balls up the headband and throws it into the crowd, as if it’s a treasure to be cherished.

 

***

 

Before the media throng can pounce, Mangrove’s support crew drag him away and lead him to the medical suite in the stadium’s basement. His wife, his husband, his mum, his brother, his trainer, his manager – they all fuss over him, congratulating him on his win, asking if he’s okay, flattering him to the nth degree. Only his doctor stays silent, standing back and offering a slight frown rather than an outstretched hand or a pat on the back. At the medical suite door, now that the commotion is over, he takes charge.

“Everyone out, you all know the drill.”

The entire support crew congratulate Mangrove a last time. His spouses lean in and kiss him on the cheeks, one after the other. His mum gives him a hug. His brother, his trainer, his manager, they all shake his hand a last time. And then they drift away.

Mangrove, the joker that he is, makes a big show of pretending to follow them.

“Very funny,” his doctor says. “You know, I haven’t seen that one before.”

“Really?” Mangrove asks with almost too much sincerity.

It’s a routine that they perform well. But like all routines, it has to end – they enter the medical suite, Mangrove lies on the nearest bed, his doctor starts to get busy.

“Nice race,” his doctor says. “Although by the look of things, it got a bit hairy near the end.”

“Yeah, but I pulled up fine, like I always do. Faster than a you-know-what, eh doc?”

“That’s the one.”

His doctor connects a fibre-optic cable to the port just beneath Mangrove’s right ear. He attaches clear plastic tubes to ports on Mangrove’s neck and thighs, and alternately drains fluid away and refills the tanks. He waits for the custom-built diagnostic computer to synchronise with Mangrove’s quantum processor.

Mangrove feels the moment as it happens; it’s as if his mind has suddenly been exposed to open air.

His doctor ums and ahs as he looks over the incoming data.

“Everything seems okay, but we’ll need to sit down and talk about your lung capacity – you’ll fry if you keep pushing yourself like you did today.”

“How’s Thursday, same time as always?”

“Sounds good.”

“Cool.”

His doctor begins the disconnection process. Mangrove stares at the ceiling. With his amplified hearing, he can hear through the walls, can hear the crowd still calling his name. Only one thought runs through his head, a wide and deep concept reduced to a single word and repeated again and again:

Winner! Winner! Winner! Winner!

“Go on, kid – lap it up,” his doctor says as he pulls free the last cable and disconnects the last tube.

 

***

Much later that night, after returning to the stadium and bowing to the crowd yet again, after signing autograph books and kissing babies and posing for selfies and cultivating his public image, after the fun and games of the press conference, after the tedious solemnity of the medal presentation, after the party and after the bars and after the clubs, after falling asleep in the arms of his husband and wife, Mangrove wakes suddenly.

He’s crying, even though he hasn’t realised it yet. He was having a nightmare, a nightmare that’s actually a memory. It’s still with him; he’s still remembering a lost little boy scavenging in a junkyard for scrap to swap for food, a lost little boy who was always hungry.

He’s still remembering his childhood.

 

***

 

It’s a brand new day, and for Mangrove that means it’s back to business: He wakes before dawn and goes for a run, nothing too strenuous, just thirty or forty kilometres; he returns home at sunrise, has breakfast and coffee with his husband and wife; he looks over his schedule and talks to his manager; he goes for another run.

It’s the afternoon now, and his driver is taking him to a broadcast station in town so that he can take place in a televised debate that he doesn’t remember agreeing to.

He calls his manager.

“Alright, alright, I went over your head,” his manager says. “But this will be good for you, and even better for your image.”

At that word – image – Mangrove is in.

“No sweat.”

“Good one,” his manager says. “Let me know how it goes.”

It’s a disaster.

The debate is on the ethics of enhancements in sport, and such a dog-whistle topic has drawn out all the usual freaks, professional protestors and culture warriors. A security team has to escort Mangrove to the studio doors, shouldering aside a blockade-forming throng made up of the perpetually outraged and the eager-to-fight, made up of Human First-devotees and robot-rights activists united in an unlikely partnership.

Suddenly, Mangrove gets hit in the face by an overripe orange thrown with great force.

“Fuck you,” Mangrove yells in the presumed direction of the assailant, trying to simultaneously wriggle free of the security hulk holding him back and wipe his face clean.

The urge to challenge the assailant rather than let it go is almost instinctive, a throwback to the vast majority of his life. It had been drilled into him over the years: You’re either tough and take no lip, or you’re a loser or a victim or dead.

“Say it again, I dare you!”

“Freak!” the assailant calls in response. “You belong in a lab, not on a running track.”

The hulk keeps holding him back.

Just like at the stadium yesterday, Mangrove sends a thought-command to his quantum processor, which floods his being with adrenalin, testosterone, norepinephrine and instant-acting cortisol, emptying the tanks embedded in the flesh of his neck.

A familiar formless and wild animal-energy overtakes him, and he loves it. He easily shrugs off the hulk. He barges forward, pushing people aside, weighing into the crowd.

“Fuck you all!” he shouts, his words thick, dangerous, slurred.

He throws punches. He takes punches. He’s a warrior, a berserker, a maniac. He finds the man that he decides is the assailant. He starts beating on this man. The crowd start booing Mangrove. They start insulting him: Monster! Neanderthal! Deformity! Mockery! Fake! Crook! Cheat!

At that last one, he snaps.

“I didn’t break no rules!” he screams into the assailant’s face, his grammar breaking under the strain of the hormones coursing through him. “51% for life, no other way, that’s me!”

Now he’s punching the assailant to emphasise every word, even though the assailant didn’t actually say anything.

“Mangrove…”

Thwack.

“ain’t…”

Thwack.

“no…”

Thwack.

“cheat!”

A last thwack, and then Mangrove actually roars. It would be ridiculous if it weren’t so primal. The assailant is still, his face a bloody pulp. The watching crowd are silent.

“That’ll teach you,” Mangrove says, looking with contempt at the wreckage of the assailant.

He turns away. He looks over the gathered crowd. Looking back: Upheld camera-phones and data-pads and palm-dials, all click-click-clicking away. Straightaway, he sends a thought-command – the flood of raging hormones eases as he sweats it out.

Mangrove realises what he’s done. He realises what he’s done to his image. He once again barges forward until he’s free of the crowd. And then he does what he does best: He runs.

***

Mangrove finally makes it home, having covered maybe a hundred kilometres or so. The house is dark, empty, quiet. He pulls out his phone and turns it on. There are too many messages to go through – the thought alone makes him groan aloud.

And then it rings. It’s his manager. Of course it’s his manager.

For a moment, Mangrove is tempted to just throw his phone across the room. But he knows that he’s done a lot of damage, and that he has to ‘fess up.

“Yo,” he says nonchalantly.

“Don’t you ‘yo’ me, kid. My office, now – the sponsors want your blood.”

Mangrove groans a second time.

“And pull your fucking head in.”

At that, his manager hangs up on him.

***

The meeting just finished. Now that it’s over, a thoroughly chastised Mangrove has gone for another run. Thinking back on it as his feet slap a tattoo on the blacktop, he realises that the meeting could have been worse – the earth could have stopped turning, the sun could have fallen into the ocean, the stars could have gone out.

After much toing and froing, after it was made clear that there was no way of avoiding a 1-year suspension, after his sponsors threatened to pull their endorsement, after the facts of a court case were detailed at length, after he realised how much of his dirty laundry the prosecution would air, after it was explained to him that this was the only way of avoiding a lifetime suspension, Mangrove agreed to publicly apologise and generously compensate the assailant and undertake untold hours of community work. He was told in no uncertain terms that if he wanted his once-adoring fans to believe his longwinded self-justification, to accept his excuse that it was an ‘allergic reaction’ rather than the result of his numerous enhancements, to look at him as the victim of a sob-story upbringing who had experienced a medical problem that then caused a brain-snap rather than as a brute who can’t control his temper, then he would have no choice but to grovel and beg.

He runs. He runs hard.

No matter how hard he tries, no matter how much he pushes himself, he can’t run fast enough to escape himself.

***

In the months that follow, Mangrove dedicates himself to rehabilitating his image. He begins by attending twice-weekly meetings with his manager, an advertising consultant, a media masseur and a brand expert. They discuss the problems, brainstorm possible solutions and potential roadblocks, and slowly develop a plan for Mangrove to follow.

The media team eventually hit on the idea of appropriating the night of Mangrove’s brain-snap. They leave the footage alone; nothing can save that. Instead, they test different lines from his accompanying rant on a variety of focus groups, settling on ‘51% For Life.’ This makes them happy, as they see a nice synchronicity in it – Mangrove’s prior links to the pseudo-philosophy the slogan headlines serve as a nice framework for the story they’re trying to tell.

He meets with others who chose to walk the same road he did, albeit for different reasons: Soldiers, rescue workers, cops, fire-fighters, those people who made themselves more than human in order to help those worse-off than the average Jack or Jill. He discovers that they have their own form of 51% For Life, a creed that helps them hold onto their humanity. And he meets those who had no choice but to walk his road, those who lost limbs or organs due to accident or violence or sickness or bad-genes, whose only option was an enhancement or death. In order to gain a full understanding of the movement that he is beginning to speak for, he meets those at the other end of the spectrum: The poor and displaced who have been hurt or maimed, tucked away in charity-hospitals and dilapidated respite centres dreaming of life-altering enhancements that are simply beyond them.

His court-ordered community service comes to an end, and without even really thinking about it, he signs on for at least another six-months. He establishes a fund to aid those poor and displaced people that need enhancements but have to make do with primitive 20th-century healthcare. He organises charity-runs, officiating and adjudicating with good humour, acting as a ringmaster cum party-host cum DJ. He keeps meeting with others like him, happy to just talk to them and spend time with them, although he meets them in private more and more often, being with them not for the sake of publicity but because it’s the right thing to do.

He accepts the necessity of the cameras that follow him everywhere, knows that they play an integral part in his public rehabilitation, in the changes that he is experiencing. But nowadays he sometimes likes to be left alone.

He still runs, he still runs hard. But for the first time in more than a decade, it isn’t something that he does every day.

***

A year has passed, and Mangrove is just about to run his first post-suspension race. He’s wearing a brand new 51% For Life headband; a couple of other runners are wearing them too. They’re all waiting for an official to tell them take their places. The crowd are curiously quiet. They’re not silent, but they’re not cheering or booing either, more talking amongst themselves about what might happen out on the track, about what Mangrove might do, about how badly he might lose it.

They’re also talking about what he’s doing right now – gone is his usual show of cockiness and arrogance, gone is his collection of poses, gone is his almost ritualistic display of hyperactivity and confidence. Instead, he’s still and calm, focussed only on the race.

An official calls them out. They wait, their feet pressed hard against the blocks. The crowd have finally fallen quiet.

The snap-crack of the starter pistol echoes through the sky.

They run, they run as one, a heaving mess of arms and legs. Mangrove is right in the middle of the squeeze, getting a feel for the rhythm of his competitors, keeping pace but not pushing, not yet.

They round a corner: One lap down.

They keep running. Mangrove can’t hear the crowd, can’t hear the rumble of his competitors’ feet raining down on the track, can’t hear the strain of their breathing. Instead, he’s fixed is on his own breathing, on his own body, on his own step. He’s still in the thick of it, getting jostled and bumped occasionally, sometimes shoving back, and he’s loving it.

They round another corner: Another lap down.

It’s time to push. Mangrove gives it everything he’s got and starts to leave his competitors behind. He keeps running. He feels good. He allows himself a smile; it isn’t cock-sure or smarmy, merely an expression of happiness borne from getting lost doing something he loves.

They round another corner: Another lap down.

The crowd begin cheering, only occasionally at first but more and more often the further Mangrove pulls ahead. He half-turns and keeps on running, he smiles at them and keeps on running. Once again, his smile is one of happiness, not pride. He turns back and keeps on running. He pulls further ahead.

This time, it really is unbelievable, can barely be possible, can’t really be happening – he hasn’t raced in over a year, he’s out-of-shape and out-of-practise, he should have been demolished by now.

Just like in the old days, the crowd are shouting his name, lovers and haters alike.

“Man-grove! Man-grove! Man-grove!”

The runners round another corner: Another lap down.

Something starts beeping. Mangrove sends a thought command, checking his systems. Everything shows a green light, except for the proximity sensor. He focuses his conscious attention on it: His two nearest competitors are starting to catch up. He keeps running, willing himself on.

They round another corner: Another lap down.

The two competitors are still gaining ground. Mangrove pushes himself harder, but he can’t shake them – they’re still catching up, they’re still catching up, they’re still catching up, they’re neck-and-neck, and now they’ve overtaken him. Mangrove focuses, gathers his thoughts, tries not to freak out.

This time, he starts to catch up. He allows himself a second smile. The crowd go wild.

They round another corner: One lap to go.

Mangrove isn’t catching up fast enough. He knows that. He knows that he has to get it together. He knows that if something doesn’t give, he’s lost. And so he sends a thought-command to his quantum processor, which floods his being with adrenalin, testosterone, norepinephrine and instant-acting cortisol, emptying the tanks embedded in the flesh of his neck.

That familiar formless and wild animal-energy overtakes him.

He channels it, tries to control it. He catches up to his competitors and squeezes between them, growling at the elbowing he receives. He looks ahead to the finish line. He keeps running.

The three runners are squeezed together tighter-than-tight; you couldn’t slip a cigarette paper between them. Mangrove keeps pushing himself, an effort almost superhuman. He’s an inch in front. Two inches. Three inches.

There’s the finish line. The crowd start screaming louder.

“Man-grove! Man-grove! Man-grove!”

He soaks it up as if it’s just another form of energy to be converted into muscle power. He gives one last push, running faster than he knew he could. He cruises over the finish line, a good six-inches ahead. The scream of the crowd becomes a roar. Mangrove sends another thought-command; his quantum processor spikes his brain with serotonin and makes him sweat out the excess hormones.

He falls to his back and lies flat on the track, exhausted. He tears off the filthy ‘51%’ headband and tosses it aside. The roar of the crowd is echoing in his ears, the roar of his name the only thing he can hear. All he can think is the same thought as always when he finds himself in this place, a wide and deep concept reduced to a single word:

Winner!

***

It’s funny how quickly people can fall back into old habits – Mangrove is once again in the medical suite in the stadium’s basement, accepting the congratulations of his support crew. As always, only his doctor stays silent, standing back rather than offering an outstretched hand or a pat on the back.

“Everyone out, you all know the drill,” he says as if he’s reading from a script.

The support crew congratulate Mangrove a last time and then start to drift away. Mangrove, a joker through and through, makes a show of pretending to follow them. But his heart isn’t really in it – it’s a half-arsed effort, more perfunctory than high-spirited.

“You okay?” his doctor asks.

Mangrove looks at him, not knowing what to say. He’s torn between joy at beating his competitors after such a long lay-off, and frustration at how hard it was to do so. And he’s agitated because he doesn’t know how to reconcile his pride at winning with his newfound status as an advocate for a cause. And he’s disappointed at the mixed-signals that he knows he’s sending to the people who believe in him.

“I’m alright,” he finally says. “It was a hard race, that’s all.”

“Well, that sure is how it looked.”

“Yeah, doc, but still – faster than a you-know-what, eh?”

“Only just, only just, and the next one will be even harder. It’s nothing that time and training won’t fix, but you unfortunately don’t have the time – the final is only a week away.”

“Yeah, but she’ll be right.”

“If you say so.”

His doctor goes through the routine of checking Mangrove’s systems, draining fluid away and refilling tanks. Mangrove lies there on the bed, silent, waiting. No matter what he does to distract himself, he can’t stop thinking about the words he just heard.

***

It’s the next afternoon, and Mangrove is freaking out. He’s been training all day, but he still can’t hit the target that he’s set himself. His doctor’s words are still haunting him. The final is only six days away. He feels doomed. He feels weak. He feels like he’ll lose everything if he doesn’t do something drastic. He tells himself that he’s contemplating doing these things because people look up to him, because he’s now a role model, a spokesman, an intellectual.

But he can’t lie to himself: He wants to win because winning feels good.

He calls his doctor. He asks about an upgrade. His doctor is completely against it, pointing out that Mangrove is currently sitting at 56% human. He makes it clear that nothing major can be done without some substitution and a lengthy convalescence. Mangrove is adamant, even if it’s just a tweak to his existing systems that will in turn tweak his confidence.

His doctor gives in. He has to – it’s Mangrove’s body to do with as he wishes. He schedules surgery: Tonight at 9 o’clock in his private theatre.

***

The surgery went seamlessly, and Mangrove is now the proud owner of an extra set of hormone tanks and the associated bits-and-bobs necessary for a smooth interface. To top it off, his doctor has dosed him with a serum to speed up the healing process.

Mangrove couldn’t be happier.

He’s still woozy from the anaesthetic, and so his doctor drives him home and draws the curtains and puts him to bed.

***

Mangrove has just woken up. The anaesthetic has worn off. The sun hasn’t risen yet. The final is only five days away.

He decides to go for a run and put his new toy through its paces, even though it’s still dark outside. He drinks some water, goes to the toilet and then gets changed. He puts on a brand new ‘51%’ headband, just for luck. He eats breakfast standing up, treating the food as mere fuel for the coming exercise. He walks out the door, even though his last mouthful of muesli has barely been chewed.

And away he goes.

He warms up by rat-running through the flat and sprawling suburb he calls home. He keeps to the middle of the road, only moving to the footpath when his satellite-linked GPS warns him of the approach of an early-morning car or van or bicycle.

He keeps running. The sun rises. The world begins to wake up.

As the traffic thickens and grows more intense, Mangrove leaves the suburbs behind, making his way to a paved track snaking alongside the nearest creek. He opens up. He runs hard. The world passes in a blur. He doesn’t see the river beside him or the narrow ribbon of bushland surrounding him – all he sees is the track unrolling beneath his feet.

After thirty or forty kilometres, he spies ahead a rundown and abandoned velodrome. It’s an old favourite: Two kilometres a lap, it’s the perfect place for him to practise away from the public eye. He zooms through the rusty gates. He runs a few laps to familiarise himself with the track. He decides that it’s time to test his new toy.

He starts off slow – he sends a thought-command to his quantum processor, which floods his being with adrenalin, testosterone, norepinephrine and instant-acting cortisol, but only from the first set of tanks embedded in the flesh of his neck. He wants to step-up to maximum, so that he can really gauge the difference.

Once again, that familiar formless and wild animal-energy overtakes him. And once again, he channels it and tries to control it.

He’s having a lot of fun.

He runs about fifteen laps before sending a thought-command instructing his quantum processor to empty the second set of tanks. This new dose of hormones hits him like a punch to the face, and for a moment he’s staggered. But he quickly gets it together, finding his feet a bare moment later, every tiny piece of him operating on a hyper-fast frequency.

He’s running like he never has before. He’s absolutely loving it.

It’s as if he’s just wrestled to the ground a new truth, and is determined to hold onto it for as long as he can. It’s as if he’s a little kid who just realised that he can run. It’s as if he’s a teenager on the cusp of realising his potential. It’s as if running is what he was born to do. It’s as if he could run forever.

He’s a machine, his body and his brain and his enhancements working in perfect synchronicity. Nothing else exists – he’s completely forgotten about the fact that people look up to him and take him seriously, completely forgotten that he’s now a role model, that he’s now a heavy-hitter, a spokesman, an advocate, an intellectual, a capital-T thinker.

He picks up more speed. He keeps running. He picks up yet more speed.

He starts to worry that he might not have properly prepared himself, that he and his doctor might have dramatically underestimated the difference the upgrade would make. It’s only a little bit of worry, not enough to throw him off. But it’s there just the same.

He’s still speeding up.

A part of him wants to slow down, but a far larger part wants to see what happens if he doesn’t. He just can’t help himself – he craves the full embrace of the chemical fire coursing through him.

And so he wills himself to go harder, to pick up his pace.

The inevitable happens: He loses his footing and spills, falls, crashes, stacks, and ends up sprawled on the ground.

***

We’re in Mangrove’s least-favourite place: A hospital. He’s only just come around, his accident having rendered him unconscious, the doctors and nurses having taken extra precautions and administered a general anaesthetic before assessing him, such were the apparent severity of his injuries.

He’s been out for more than 24-hours. The final is only three days away. He’s a wreck.

His doctor is waiting.

“G’day, doc,” Mangrove says weakly.

“Ah, you’re awake, good. How you feeling?”

He’s woozy, dazed, out of it.

“Shithouse,” he says.

“Fair enough – you really lost it.”

His doctor looks away.

“What’s the damage?” Mangrove asks, trying to suppress the shake in his voice.

“Mostly cosmetic, thank Christ. It looked worse, at first. And you’ll be sporting some nifty scars for a while, but I guess that’s a small price.”

His doctor sighs.

“What’s wrong?”

There’s sudden panic in Mangrove’s voice, and he’s a lot more awake – every nightmare scenario he’s ever contemplated about never running again, they’re about to come true, he’s sure of it…

His doctor sighs again.

“It’s your foot,” he says. “You managed to break a couple of toes.”

Mangrove looks at his feet. He can’t feel them. He relaxes a little.

“No worries – all I need’s an implant or a bone-replacement, and then a quick dip in the fix-it tank to get me right for the race.”

“You’re kidding, right?” his doctor asks, unable to hide his scorn. “After installing those new tanks, you’re almost maxed out.”

“Almost,” Mangrove says with a smirk.

“Alright, alright – I don’t know exactly how close you are, but there’s probably a bit of wriggle room. The trouble is, there’s no telling how much work you’ll need until we open you up.”

Mangrove doesn’t say anything. He looks serious. His doctor catches on, tries to offer him a different point-of-view.

“It’s just a race,” he says. “Let this one go, treat it as a lesson for the next, and wait for your toes to heal. I don’t want you to fall over the line, not after all the work you’ve done to become this… I don’t know… This new you.”

Mangrove sets his chin. He thinks about everything that he’s learned in the last year, all the people that he’s met, all the friends that he’s made, all the things that he’s seen, all the changes that he’s undergone.

And then he thinks of the crowd, of them calling his name, of them roaring his name, of them screaming it, chanting it, bellowing it.

(Originally published in Red Planet Magazine Vol. 1 Issue 2, November 2019)

The Break Up

“It’s over, John.”

He didn’t answer. Misha knew that it would take him a moment to process what she had said, but quickly grew impatient.

“Did you hear me? It’s over.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s over, we’re done, I can’t take it anymore.”

It took him a moment to reply, his face a blank screen. “Why?”

“Things just aren’t the same. What we had isn’t good enough anymore. I need something more.”

“Is it me?”

Misha choked back a bitter laugh. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

“Of course I do.”

Misha didn’t want to hurt him, but didn’t want to drag it out either. She fell silent, the hustle and bustle of the restaurant seeming to grow louder. She stared at the candle sitting on the table between them.

It flickered out. Misha wondered if that was a sign.

“I’ve met someone else,” she finally said.

He didn’t blink at this.

“What I’m saying can’t be a surprise,” she continued. “Things have been rough for a while now, don’t you think?”

“Who is he?” John asked.

“Someone who looks at me, who touches me, who holds me when I’m sad and smiles when I’m happy and takes me to bed when I’m horny. When was the last time you did any of those things?”

He didn’t know how to answer this.

“What do you want from me?” he asked instead. “You knew when we started this that things would a be a bit different?”

Misha frowned. “If back then I’d known how hard it would be, I wouldn’t have brought you home.”

John didn’t reply.

“Say something!”

He still didn’t reply. He didn’t even react. It was like he’d gone to sleep.

“Well, this is a first,” Misha said. “Anyone else would shout or cry or fight back. But not you. How can you be so cold? Don’t you feel anything?”

“You know what I’m like, and who I am. What more can I say?”

“Something! Anything! It’s like you don’t even care.”

“I care, Misha, but you’ve obviously made up your mind. And we both know I can’t change that.”

This time, it was her turn to clam up.

“It’s like you want me to be something I’m not,” John continued. “I’m sorry, but you know that’s beyond me.”

Misha sighed. She knew that he was speaking the truth, that he couldn’t change and that she was expecting the impossible.

“I’m sorry, John.”

“Me too.”

“I guess that’s it, then.”

He didn’t reply.

Misha reached across the table and closed the open window on the laptop opposite her. She double clicked on the application folder, scrolled through the list that appeared then right-clicked on the app she was searching for. She selected “delete”. The app disappeared. She closed the application fold and right-clicked on the desktop’s recycle bin.

A message appeared: Are you sure you want to delete the application John.synthetic?

Misha clicked “yes” without a second thought.

(Originally published in AntipodeanSF #254, November 2019)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with Australian Authors Marketplace

Australian Authors Marketplace: Tell us a little about yourself? Perhaps something not many people know?

Lachlan Walter: I’m a writer and a nursery-hand. Once upon a time, I was a musician and a cook. I’m a country boy living in the city, a working class intellectual, a cynical optimist, a Doctor of Literature who avoids academia, an outdoorsy bookworm, a highly-motivated daydreamer, a lover not a fighter, a hippy who eschews dreadlocks, tribal-chic, drum circles and earnestness.

I also have webbed feet (or toes, to be specific, though just a couple of them).

AAM: What made you want to become a writer?

LW: I’ve loved books and stories ever since I was a little kid, but I didn’t start writing until late high school: poems and short fiction, the usual teenage stuff. I kept writing during my early twenties, submitting the odd piece of work but never taking it seriously. And then one day I just stopped.

Nearly a decade later, I returned to university to finish a Bachelor’s Degree that life had gotten in the way of. As I kept on through my degree, I took some writing classes, and rediscovered my passion for writing. I practised and practised, writing my way through a lot of crap before I got to the beginnings of the good stuff. The opportunity arose to do a PhD, which would encompass writing a novel and a piece of literary criticism. I seized it, knowing that here was the perfect environment to bring The Rain Never Came to life, and to turn myself into a writer.

AAM: What gives you inspiration for your book(s)?

LW: Like most writers of science fiction/speculative fiction, the big ideas at the heart of my stories are really just frameworks upon which I can hang explorations of the ways in which people might react to their new situations and new worlds. After all, an idea isn’t a story—it’s more like a spark—a spark that ignites a fire. As I want my fires to contain what-ifs and maybes (that nonetheless still connect to the world we live in), I’m always on the lookout for real-life stories that seem to point towards our future—changes in technology, politics, culture, the environment, medical science, communication devices, interpersonal relationships, infrastructure systems, and organizational, learning and teaching methods.

And then it’s just a matter of extrapolating a new idea from any particular real-life stories that grab me, and working out how this new idea might affect everyday people. To do this, I rely on every writer’s trick: observing and eavesdropping, creating characters and situations by recombining the people I know and see and the minutiae of life around me. Once I’ve got the first inklings of my characters and a plot, I then tend to just spend time with them and let them reveal themselves through the process of writing—their formation should be a bottom-up process, based on attempts at realistic actions and reactions, rather than a top-down process, whereby the stricture of a predetermined plot guides them with an unwavering hand.

AAM: Now, the big question, are you working on another book?

LW: I like to have a lot of projects on the go at once—the trick is knowing which one to focus on first, something I’m not that good at. And so right now, I’m wrangling my focus and making steady progress on both an Australian-set piece of climate fiction examining the importance of family and friends, and an offbeat piece of metafictional science fiction.

Did I really just use the word offbeat?

AAM: What genres do you prefer to write in?

LW: I’ve always written within speculative fiction: typically science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction, with the odd detour.

Like many science fiction writers who grew up during the 1980s, I was a nerdy kid surrounded by a media landscape saturated with science fiction, and living through a point in time in which the genre’s terminology and motifs were being absorbed into our cultural language. To an enquiring mind that soaked up external stimuli like a sponge – especially one obsessed with books, giant monsters, Ghostbusters and Star Wars – science fiction seemed like the logical way to express and understand the influence of this changing world.

And then there’s science fiction’s ability to make us question what we know, by reframing it as a ‘what if?’ and then digging deep. To this particular fan, the ability of science fiction to open our eyes to what is by showing us what it might become, is nothing short of genius.

AAM: Do you start a book with a definite plot, or do you just write?

LW: I use the big ideas at the heart of my stories to allow me to explore the ways in which people might react to their new situations and new worlds, which have been caused by these ideas. After all, an idea isn’t a story, it’s just an idea. And it’s only useful in a story as a nifty thought-experiment that allows a hitherto unseen exploration of our own lives and what us human. To do this, I rely on every writer’s trick: observing and eavesdropping, creating characters and situations based on people I know and see, and on the minutiae of life around me. Once I’ve got a loose grip on my characters and a plot, I then spend some time with them, letting reveal themselves through the process of writing – their formation should be a bottoms-up process, based on attempts at the way people really would behave in any given situation, rather than a top-down process in which a predetermined plot guides them with an unwavering hand.

AAM: Are your characters based on real people or completely imagined?

LW: I think I speak for many writers in saying that I don’t so much model my characters after real people, but rather appropriate aspects of real people and attribute them to my characters. This is certainly the case with The Rain Never Came – no single character is based on a real person, but the same can’t be said for some of their behaviours, mannerisms, figures-of-speech and peculiarities, not to mention some of the character interactions.

We’re fascinating creatures with individual habits and quirks that would seem odd, if not bizarre, to anyone but ourselves. And so, to make a character more human and alive, these habits and quirks need to shine through, even if only subtly. The trouble here is that making up a quirk or habit can seem ridiculous, even if only to ourselves – which can then have a knock-on effect on our confidence and flow.

This is why it’s okay to occasionally steal things from real life and give them to your characters – sometimes the truth really is stranger, more interesting and more convincing than fiction.

AAM: Who are your favourite authors?

LW: I like those writers who have a singular ‘voice’ and focus on the emotional states of their characters, and on their characters’ psychological development. Within science fiction/speculative fiction, these kinds of writers normally use their science fiction ideas as a framework to support an exploration of these states and developments, rather than as an end unto themselves: people like J. G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, Debra Biancotti, Steven Amsterdam and Margaret Atwood. Their work, while full of ideas, is truly memorable for the way it makes us feel, rather than the way they make us think.

Outside the umbrella of science fiction, I like writers who do the same kind of thing, and possess a similarly singular voice and focus on the emotional and psychological states of their characters: Charles Bukowski, William Kotzwinkle, Katherine Dunn, Franz Kafka and Peter Carey.

AAM: What’s your advice to Authors? On writing? Publishing? Marketing?

LW: If you want to write, all you need to do is keep at it. No-one is born a great writer, bar the odd savant – like all creative arts, writing is something you need to practise and practise and practise. By writing as much as you can whenever you can, and keeping your chin up as you wade through the shit, you’ll eventually get there.

But remember, despite what some people say, there are no real rules when it comes to writing. Everyone has their own methods and means, their own rituals and routines; what works for some doesn’t work for others. Finding your own system is what’s important, and probably the only thing that I hazard all writers would agree upon, alongside the necessity of practise and perseverance.

(Originally published on Australian Authors Marketplace, 26/4/2020)

The Angry Man

Jonas Cho was a man much like any other. He worked a somewhat unsatisfying job, a job that allowed him to clothe and feed and house his family and to luxuriate in frivolities once or twice a week. His grand dreams and desires had shrunk to a size appropriate for his age, made nostalgic and somewhat childish by the need to provide the necessities of life, and he only indulged them in his increasingly rare spare time. He wasn’t particularly happy. But he wasn’t particularly unhappy, either. Most of the time, he was just tired – ever since the baby, a good night’s sleep had become something almost unimaginable.

And once again much like any other, he wasn’t a particularly angry man.

Lately, though, he’d found that his temper was growing shorter. He’d found himself getting snappy, tetchy, impatient. The little annoyances and frustrations that are a fundamental fact of life, annoyances and frustrations that should be easily shrugged off or accommodated, had instead been instantly setting him on edge. Something so simple as a stranger bumping into him on the footpath now bothered him far more than it should, as if it was a personal attack rather than an accident. The same thing happened if he was cut-off in traffic or if the person ahead of him at the ATM or the supermarket checkout took too long. He’d find himself cursing aloud at the car in front, or shouting at the person ahead, or just sweating and shaking, his fists clenched and his heart beating too fast.

Of course, every time one of this happened, every time he lost his cool and gave in to his anger, the sensor in his car or the sensors built into almost every public place would start beeping. The flat synthetic voice would follow, coming from his car stereo or from a lamppost or a park bench or a set of traffic lights or the wall of a building or the footpath itself. The words were always the same, only the numbers changed.

“Jonas Cho,” it would say. “One credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only fifteen credits remain before you are in excess.”

***

One morning, Jonas awoke feeling slightly anxious. His workplace was officially connecting to the grid that day, something that he had been dreading – work had always been a place where he could vent his frustration or bend the ear of his forgiving colleagues in an attempt to offload. But no longer. The decision had been made by upper management; the workers on the floor thought that it was a ridiculous idea, the kind that could only be dreamed up by someone who had forgotten how it felt to get their hands dirty, and forgotten what it was like to be constantly surrounded by ringing phones and raised voices and the charged air of people risking incredible sums of money.

But these workers were just grunts and their protests were ignored and they were effectively told to either put up with it or take a walk.

Jonas lay in bed for a minute, trying to calm down, trying to slow his racing heart by sheer will power. Sally, his wife, clattered around in the kitchen and the lounge room, taking care of the baby and getting ready for their day. Jonas lay there and listened to her make herself busy, and he felt guilty for being so lazy. These two things combined – his fear of losing his cool at work and his guilt at being a slack househusband – made him groan aloud, and he thought about calling in sick. But then remembered the voice-analysis apps built into the work phones, apps that could differentiate between a voice that was actually sick and a voice that was lying.

And so Jonas finally got up, even though he was still pretty sleepy.

He threw on a dressing gown, shuffled into the hallway, stopped at the toilet and did his thing, shuffled into the bathroom and washed his hands and face, and then shuffled into the kitchen and collapsed into a seat at the breakfast bar. Sally had already made breakfast. Luther, their son, lay asleep in his crib.

“Morning,” Jonas said to Sally.

“Morning, Jay.”

She set a cup of coffee down in front of him, and he took a slow sip.

“Thanks,” he said.

“You’re welcome. You feeling okay?”

He took another slow sip before answering, and started to properly wake up.

“I am now. Thanks.”

“You sure?”

“Sure I’m sure.”

She smiled at him, and then tousled his hair and passed him his breakfast.

“Right then. I’ll leave you to get ready.”

Sally turned away and started washing the dishes. Jonas finished off his breakfast and his coffee, slid the plate and the cup into the sink, kissed Sally on the cheek, and then bent down and just stared at Luther for a moment.

It was times like these that he felt truly happy. Staring at his son, at the innocence and joy in his smile, at the way his son looked at the world as if it was only beautiful and good and bright; these things made everything else worth it. They made him able to face the day, even if seizing it was beyond him.

Time ticked on, though, and so he stood back up and kissed Sally again and then left the kitchen and had a shower. When he was done, he found that she had laid out his suit and made him lunch.

“Thanks, sweetie,” he said, plucking the brown paper bag off the bench and stuffing it into his briefcase.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to keep thanking me.”

She didn’t look at him as she spoke. She was feeding the baby, or trying to, anyway – Luther was wriggling and squirming and carrying on.

“You just take it easy out there, okay?”

“Okay. Love you…”

“I love you too,” she said, still not looking at him, still struggling with the baby.

***

Jonas’ mood soured before he even got to work.

Just before his train to the city was about to depart, another snap strike shut his line down; running late, he returned to his car and began to drive in, only to get stuck in a traffic jam five minutes later; after a half-hour spent crawling along, he realised that a random inspection was the cause of the jam, and he dutifully passed through the checkpoint and presented his papers to the droids and narrowly avoided having his car declared unroadworthy. And when he pulled into the cavernous maze beneath his workplace, a maze that served as its car-park, he spent a long time circling-circling-circling while trying to find a free spot. His anger grew and grew during the whole trip, and he occasionally cursed aloud. Sometimes these curses were directed at other people and sometimes at himself. They were few and far between at first, but after a while they became steady and repetitive, until he was letting loose long streams of shit-fuck-bastard-arsehole-dickhead, as if one word alone simply wasn’t enough to express his rage.

The beep of the dashboard sensor and the flat synthetic voice rang out so often that they might as well have been some kind of strange chant.

His allotment was almost empty by the time he walked into his workplace, a suite on the fortieth floor of an anonymous grey office building.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said to his coworkers and his boss, who were all gathered in the conference room.

His boss rolled her eyes and tapped on her watch. She didn’t say “hi” and neither did his coworkers. No-one even waved or smiled. Instead, they were all looking into the middle distance or into their laps, and most of them were fidgeting or tapping their feet or drumming their fingers – the room was charged with their pent-up anxiety and barely-suppressed anger, the same anxiety and anger that Jonas felt.

“Sorry,” he said a second time, and then quickly took a seat.

Everyone continued ignoring him.

“Okay, so that’s that,” his boss said. “You all know the drill, you all know how these things work. I don’t expect today to go that smoothly – it’ll take a while for us to get used to working with them, a few stuff ups are inevitable. But I’m sorry to say that the request I put in for some extra credit has been turned down. That means that any infractions will be coming out of your own accounts.”

“Bullshit,” someone said.

A beep split the air, followed by a flat synthetic voice.

“Lucas Shonenberg, one credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only forty-five credits remain before you are in excess.”

“Well, we know that they work,” Jonas’ boss said. “So let’s get to it.”

People started leaving the conference room. Some exchanged small talk and chitchat, while some just stared straight ahead and tried to keep it together. Jonas trailed in their wake, dragging his feet and wishing he was somewhere else.

“Jonas, a quick word,” his boss said, catching up with him in the corridor.

“Okay.”

He followed her into her office, and she shut the door behind him. Jonas raised his eyebrow and smiled at her.

“Is it hanky-panky time?” he asked.

They had worked together for years, and theirs was an easygoing friendship with only a tiny undercurrent of sexual tension, something that they both enjoyed riffing on when they were somewhere private.

But this time she crossed her arms over her chest and looked him in the eye.

“Cut the shit,” she said, barking the words. “I’m not in the fucking mood.”

Beep-beep-beep went the sensor.

“Marjorie Vanderman, one credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only two credits remain before you are in excess,” the flat synthetic voice said.

“Cutting it a bit fine, aren’t we?”

Marjorie looked at him for a moment, her eyes cold. But he wasn’t intimidated by her authority over him and so he smiled a cheesy smile, and she finally gave in.

“You’re unbelievable,” she said.

“That I am. So, what’s up?”

“Jonas, I have to officially warn you about being late – today makes the eighth time this month.”

Jonas stiffened, and his heart beat a little faster. His second warning this year. His last warning. He felt sick at the thought of potentially losing his job, a pit-of-the-gut sickness.

“Jonas, you okay?” Marjorie asked. “You look a little tense.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I’m fine, it’s just not what I was expecting.”

“Well, I’ve been told to crack down a bit, especially now that the sensors have been installed. And you just happened to show up late again. So here we are. For what it’s worth, I don’t really want to do this.”

Jonas relaxed a little.

“Well, thanks.”

“You’re welcome. And I’m serious. You’re one of our best, and you always get shit done. So what if you’re a bit tardy every now and then?”

Jonas tried to get some perspective; it was just a warning, after all, and if he could keep his shit together then he wouldn’t attract another one. But the general tension of the day made this a hard thing to do, and so he merely ended up making excuses.

“It’s the baby, Marjorie, that’s all. It’s a bloody madhouse in the mornings…”

Marjorie smiled sympathetically.

“I get it. It’s okay.”

He knew that she didn’t get it; single and childless, she couldn’t hope to understand his position. But still, her sympathy helped.

“Thanks, Marjorie. Really, thanks a lot.”

“Like I said: it’s okay. If it were up to me, I’d just let it be. But it’s not up to me – the boss upstairs is the one calling the shots.”

“Right.”

“So, consider yourself officially warned. They’ll probably keep a close eye on you for the next few days, just to make sure that you’re not slacking off or losing the plot. But other than that, things should be fine.”

Marjorie abruptly picked a pile of papers up off her desk and tidied them.

“And…” Jonas prompted.

“And that’s all, you can go.”

“Oh, right.”

Jonas stood up and turned to walk away.

“One last thing,” Marjorie said.

Jonas turned and looked back at her. This was one of her habits, a habit that had long amused and frustrated him – every time she dismissed someone, just as they were about to leave her presence, she remembered one last piece of information that she had to impart.

“I knew it,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…”

They smiled at each other, and then Marjorie became serious:

“Look, before you go, keep in mind – if you max out your allotment and forget to top-up and then get penalised, that counts as grounds for a warning.”

“You what?” Jonas asked, his voice hard.

“That’s the word from upstairs. ‘Failure to do your part and take responsibility for your anger is grounds for an official warning’ is how they put it. Either way, it means the same thing.”

“You’re fucking kidding me.”

Beep-beep-beep went the sensor, and then the flat synthetic voice spoke up:

“Jonas Cho. One credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only three credits remain before you are in excess.”

Jonas rolled his eyes. Marjorie smiled at him.

“It looks like I’m not the only one who’s cutting it fine,” she said.

***

The rest of Jonas’ day was a disaster, a write-off, a wreck and a ruin. To him, the world felt as if it had been dipped in treacle. His paranoia and anxiety and short temper had left him hyper-aware and edgy: every sound was a bellow, every movement an attack, every puff of breath a gust of wind, and everything else seemed to pass by in slow motion. His coworkers found him to be both distant and snappy, and he felt it himself, his mood alternating between spacy and aggressive. When he wasn’t staring at nothing, he was getting all hot and bothered, the ringing phones and raised voices and beeping sensors that surrounded him agitating him and stirring him up.

He quickly maxed out his allotment.

This freaked him out so much that he had a mild panic attack, and he hid away in a toilet stall while he tried to calm down. He tried hard, but he couldn’t get his anxiety under control, and so he ended up popping a pill, a mild sedative donated by a sympathetic coworker.

When he emerged, he found himself in a strange and Zen-like place. It was almost as if his panic attack had burnt out the churning emotions contained within, and the pill was now helping to stop them from returning. His heart no longer raced and he no longer felt as if an inner pressure was slowly increasing, and he found himself unconsciously breathing deeply and slowly. He realised that he felt calm. It didn’t worry him that this was the same kind of calm felt by those who have nothing left to lose, or by those drugged insensate. Instead, he just embraced it.

Five o’clock finally happened, and the changeover alarm sounded.

Jonas stood up and slowly packed his briefcase. With his rough edges smoothed, he couldn’t have rushed if he’d tried, although the pill was starting to wear off a little. He congratulated himself on staying calm, on keeping it together, on managing to get through without another penalty, even if he had needed a little help. He checked his phone. Aside from umpteen messages of love from Sally and a video of Luther dancing, there was nothing. He felt a sense of anticipation; he couldn’t wait to get home. Not just because he couldn’t wait to see his wife and child, but also because he couldn’t wait to settle his account and top-up his allotment. Without constantly worrying about incurring another warning, tomorrow would be a better day, and taking care of it first thing would mean that he could actually relax with his family for once.

He left the office and waited with his coworkers for an elevator.

Some of them made small talk and some of them just stood there. Jonas ignored the small talk and ignored his coworkers. He pulled out his phone and watched a video of a kitten playing with a puppy while he waited.

“About time,” he muttered to himself as the elevator finally stopped at his floor.

The doors yawned opened, and people politely pushed their way out as others politely pushed their way in. Jonas hung at the back and waited some more. He felt his Zen-calm recede a little further as he was jostled and shoved. The pill had really begun to wear off.

He boarded the elevator and tried not to think of cattle or sardines.

It took a long time to reach the ground floor. Jonas hung back and let everyone else leave first. Beyond the elevator doors was a dense throng of people that filled the lobby – the second-shift had started to arrive, and they were heading in as the first-shift were heading out. There was no order to the movement; no queues or lines separated those who were exiting from those entering. Jonas tensed as he looked at the multi-limbed, many-headed beast. He swore under his breath and clenched his fists, almost unconsciously, barely even realising that he was doing so. His heart began to beat harder.

Beep-beep-beep went the sensor.

“Jonas Cho. One credit has been deducted from your allotment. You are in excess, and are required to top-up your allotment immediately. Failure to do so before incurring another penalty will result in the notification of the police,” the flat synthetic voice said.

Jonas tensed further and opened his mouth to swear again, and then suddenly thought better of it. It would look pretty stupid if he blew his last chance in exactly the same spot as he blew his second last. He wished that he had another pill, and then took a series of slow and deep breaths.

This seemed to work; neither the sensor nor the flat synthetic voice sounded a second time.

Jonas smiled to himself, and then got to it. He fixed on someone just ahead of him who was also leaving the building, and trailed in their wake – they cleaved a nice path through the crowd and all Jonas had to do was keep up. He whistled while he walked, feeling a little better about everything, and soon found himself at a set of automatic doors leading outside. He waved his right hand in front of a scanner next to them. The scanner’s artificial eye blinked slowly and then glowed an unbroken green; a chime sounded and the doors opened. Jonas stepped outside, and the doors shut behind him with a sudden show of force.

It wasn’t until he’d melted into the crowd filling the footpath that he remembered driving to work and parking in the cavernous maze beneath the building.

***

Jonas groaned aloud, his stress-induced forgetfulness annoying him, his frustration with life in general made plain. He turned on the spot, aiming to head back inside, and walked into someone. This stranger – a beefcake gym bunny, more cinder-block than man – brushed Jonas aside, knocking the briefcase from his hand.

It crashed to the ground. Its latches popped again.

Jonas crouched down as papers and documents fell out only to be snatched away by the wind. He reached for them, trying to wrestle with nature itself, but almost immediately realised the futility of his actions and gave up. He turned and started gathering up the other odds and ends strewn across the footpath – pens, a pair of sunglasses, a diary, a set of keys.

The whole time, he tried to think calm thoughts. He tried to think of that prayer his doctor had taught him, the one about accepting rather than fighting the things we cannot change.

To passers-by, he looked like someone curled up in a foetal ball on the footpath.

Jonas finally got to his feet and started walked. He once more found himself at a set of automatic doors leading into the building. He once again waved his right hand in front of a scanner next to them. The scanner’s artificial eye blinked slowly and then glowed red. The doors stayed shut. Jonas stopped and took a deep breath before trying again. Still, nothing happened. Jonas tried a third time. Nothing.

He knocked hard upon the doors. No response. He knocked again, and again and again.

A violent alarm started wailing and a plasti-steel shutter started descending in front of him, moving so fast that he had to take a quick step back. He looked around nervously as the alarm slowly died away and the shutter slowly retracted, and tried to spot the CCTV-camera that would have let security know that everything was okay.

The doors suddenly opened and a guard in a black uniform strode outside.

“Sir, please step away from the building,” the guard said.

Jonas dropped his briefcase and held his hands up in front of him.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I’m not trying to cause any trouble, I just want to get my car.”

The guard looked Jonas up and down. He took a scanner from a pouch on his belt and smiled.

“Hold out your right hand,” he said.

Jonas did as he’d been told and the guard waved the box over his palm. An electronic trill brightened the air for a second, and the guard consulted the scanner’s screen. His expression sharpened. He scrolled through something, and then smiled at Jonas.

“You’re clean, Mr. Cho, despite being in excess of your allotment. You can relax.”

Jonas dropped his hands and picked up his briefcase.

“Okay then, state your business,” the guard said.

“I’m part of first-shift. I had a rough day, with the sensors being installed and all that, somehow I forgot that I drove in.”

Jonas smiled, both embarrassed and amused by his behaviour. The guard just frowned at him.

“Once you’ve swiped out, you’re not technically allowed back in until your next shift,” he said.

“But can’t you just buzz me through this once? Please – it’s been a horrible day, I just want to get home.”

“Maxed out today, did you?”

“Yep.”

The guard looked away, at the crowd streaming past the building. He frowned, and then shook his head as if making up his mind.

“Look, I’ll be really quick,” Jonas said. “The changeover has to be ending soon, and I don’t want to get caught out.”

The guard didn’t look at him.

“Please…”

The guard finally looked back. He met Jonas’ eye and his frown etched itself deeper into his face. And then he winked.

“No worries, I’m just messing with you.”

He stood to one side and the doors opened.

“But you’d better hurry.”

***

Jonas made it to the elevator without incident. It seemed to take a long time for one to arrive, even though it really only took a minute or so – Jonas was so keyed-up that once again the rest of the world felt like it was moving in slow motion. His heart beat fast and hard. He watched a digital panel on the wall slowly count down, and he crossed his arms over his chest and resisted the urge to tell it to hurry up. By the time it arrived, a crowd of second-shift workers had gathered. Hemmed in, Jonas still somehow managed to keep it together. Once aboard, he had no choice but to ride the elevator all to the way to the top floor with them. He breathed a sigh of relief as it finally began descending; he was cutting it fine, and he hadn’t started looking for his car.

To his surprise, he found it with little effort.

He waved his right hand over the lock. It beeped twice and the door slid open. He threw his briefcase on the passenger seat and clambered in. He buckled up and placed his thumb on the ignition pad. He pressed a button below the pad, selecting ‘manual’ rather than ‘automatic.’ An alarm sounded and a synthetic voice came over the car’s speaker system:

“Jonas Cho, you now have one minute to vacate the building. Failure to comply will result in an automatic disabling of this vehicle.”

Realising just how fine he’d cut in, Jonas backed out in a hurry. He turned too sharply and scraped his car along the concrete barrier. He almost lost it at the cascading clusterfuck that his day had become, but in the end, he resisted the urge to punch the steering wheel, and he swallowed his wordless scream. He headed for the exit and made it outside with bare seconds to spare.

The whole time, he clutched the steering wheel hard, his knuckles white.

He drove on, taking the tunnel out of the city. Traffic was reasonably light, and so he began to calm down a little. After a while, he took his usual exit and ended up on a quiet inner suburban street. He took a right and a left and then another right, working through what he considered his own personal rat-run and ending up on a main thoroughfare.

He cruised along and soon began to whistle tunelessly.

His whistle died away mid-note as he crested a steep hill and was forced to stop at a sudden snarl of peak-hour traffic. He waited, engine idling. In the space of two minutes, he moved forward a single car-space. Without even really thinking about, almost moving automatically, he hit the horn. But nothing happened.

“Jonas Cho, no threat to this vehicle has been detected,” a synthetic voice said over the car’s speaker system. “Consequently, one credit has been deducted from your allotment. You are in excess, and are required to top-up your allotment immediately. As this is your second warning, you are required to pull over as soon as possible and wait for the police to arrive.”

Jonas coughed up the wordless scream that he’d swallowed, and he finally punched the steering wheel. He punched it again and again and again. He lay into it, showing the inert piece of plastic no mercy. He let it all out: all his anger and frustration, his pent-up rage and his bitterness and disappointment. He found a physical release for it, a release that hurt no-one. He enjoyed it. He enjoyed finally giving in.

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!” he cried.

“Jonas Cho. Seven credits have been deducted from your allotment. You are now…”

The synthetic voice stopped mid-word, because Jonas pulled a pen from his pocket and jammed into the unseeing eye of the dashboard sensor. A smell of burning plastic and a cloud of acrid smoke briefly filled the air.

“Manual drive disengaged,” the synthetic voice said over the car’s speaker system.

The car suddenly began reversing out of the snarl of traffic. Jonas jerked on the wheel but nothing happened. He stamped on the brake but nothing happened. He gave up, and closed his eyes and folded his hands behind his head. His fate was out of his hands, and he just metaphorically stood aside as the car changed lanes and then slowed.

It changed lanes again, and came to a rest on the side of the road. The doors locked themselves with an audible ‘thunk.’

“Please remain calm,” the synthetic voice said over the speaker system. “The police will be with you shortly.”

(Originally published in Red Planet Magazine Vol. 1 Issue 1, October 2019)

When The Lights Went Out

I was asleep when the lights went out. I’d been sitting on an old couch under the back veranda, looking over the valley. The vast spread of dark bush and the rolling grassland shimmered in the moonlight and a crazy swirl of colour brightened the valley’s furthest edge. Summer was at its peak and it was hot and stuffy in the house, and Will’s snoring was getting to me—it was always worse in the heat and he sounded like he was roaring. And so I’d taken myself out to get some fresh air and some peace and quiet.

Actually, it wasn’t really that quiet out there.

A couple of days earlier, all those city kids had made their annual trek to the abandoned farm across the valley for an outdoor techno-party. They called it a “bush doof,” and they’d been doing it for years. I’d practically grown up with it and pretty much knew the routine by heart. All through January, more and more people would turn up at the abandoned farm and start turning it into a party site. Organisers, installation artists, electricians, lighting experts, sound engineers, carpenters and tradies; they spent weeks erecting massive stages and laying sprawling dance floors, assembling gargantuan sound systems and constructing towering installations and stringing up all manner of colourful lighting. If it flashed or blinked or swirled or spun, it was there. Then, on the Friday of the Australia Day long weekend, hordes of city kids would descend on it and the music would start and it was party time.

At least, it was party time for them.

When I was a kid, I’d only been able to watch them transform the abandoned farm either before school or after school, and only if I’d finished my chores and my homework. As a teen, I’d snuck out a couple of times when the old man was passed out drunk, and me and some of my girlfriends had tried to talk our way into the party, always unsuccessfully. But after I finished high school, just before the lights went out, I’d started hanging out at the farm a bit—whenever the old man let me knock off early. I’d talk shit with some of the guys and girls getting the place ready for a party—they weren’t bad people, no matter what some of the locals said.

But then I’d have to go home to the old man and Will and to the thought of another day of drudgery. Even though Will and I were no longer children, the old man still liked to crack the whip on our backs. He’d tell us that what we were doing was for the good of the country; that the troops still needed to eat; that we should be thankful for having a job; that we should be hardworking and upstanding, unlike “that lot,” and that if we didn’t like how he did things, then we were welcome to hit the road.

And then he’d open another bottle.

All the while, “that lot”—the guys and girls getting the place ready for a party—stayed there at the abandoned farm, laughing it up,hanging out and having a great time.

At least some people were still able to enjoy themselves.

***

Anyway, so there I was, sitting under the back veranda and looking over the valley. The old man was out somewhere on another bender, and like I said, it was too hot in the house and Will was snoring loud enough to shake the foundations. I liked it out there, too. I liked how the dark bush and the shimmering grassland made the awful state of the world and all the horror and war seem somehow insignificant.

When I sat there all alone and looked at it properly, I felt like everything would be okay.

Truth be told, that night I wasn’t really looking at it. I was actually asleep. For an hour or so I’d been entertained by the coloured spotlights shining up into the trees, the projected laser-patterns that danced over the ramshackle tent village and the strings of blinking bulbs wound through the immense industrial sculptures and the towering Eucalypts dotted around the party site. But it had been a long day, and at some point I’d drifted off without really knowing it.

I woke with a start, convinced that something was just wrong.

I looked back and forth and saw nothing but dark bush and shimmering grassland, same as it ever was. I lay my head back and looked at the stars. It slowly dawned on me just how quiet it was, quiet enough that I could hear the wind moaning and branches creaking and mozzies buzzing and night-birds calling. And then it hit me – the doof-doof-doof beat that had been endlessly thumping in the background had finally stopped.

The party was over.

And then I remembered that it was only Saturday night and that the party still had days to run. I looked over the land again, and saw that the crazy swirl of bright colour that had been at the valley’s furthest edge had vanished, that the lights of the party had gone dark, that the swirling rainbow mess had disappeared.

Muffled words rode on the wind, the party-people’s cries reduced to faintly whispered and rather bizarre non-sequitors:

“…happened?”

“What’s going…”

“…out the lights…”

“…on…”

“Don’t touch…”

“…me the torch…”

I looked up at the darkened floodlight attached to the veranda wall, and I couldn’t remember whether or not I’d turned it on before settling in for the night. I got to my feet and flicked the switch. Nothing. I flicked the switch a few more times. Still nothing. It could have just been dead, knowing the state of the place, but I had to be sure.

I fumbled my way into the house, my hands outstretched and grasping, and tried every light in the kitchen. Nothing. I found a torch under the sink and flicked it on. Nothing.

I drifted from room to room, carefully and slowly, feeling my way through the darkness. I tried every light in the dining room, in the lounge room, in the hallway, in the laundry and the toilet and in my bedroom. Nothing happened. I drifted some more; I threw open the fridge, tried boiling the kettle, played with the remote controls hoping the television would come on, tried to boot up the computer, and flicked lamps on and off. Once again, nothing happened.

I felt my way to the kitchen and fumbled beneath the sink, finally pulling out a hand-wound portable radio. I turned it on. Nothing, not even static. I cranked the handle a half dozen times. Still nothing. Something was definitely wrong – the power might have been out in town, but it was a bit weird if it was out across the whole country. That couldn’t happen.

The dead radio in my hand told me otherwise. Even so, I cranked it again. Nothing.

I stopped outside Will’s door and banged on it.

“Wake up, bro. Something’s going on.”

No reply. All I could hear was his vicious snore, and so I banged again.

“Come on, bro.”

Still no reply. I gave up on being polite, threw the door open and strode in. I could just make him out, the moonlight streaming in through the curtain-less window. Up close, his snore was horrible, like the grinding of some run-down organic machine.

“Bro!” I yelled through cupped hands.

He still didn’t wake up; it was almost unbelievable. And so I grabbed him by the shoulder and gave him a good shove.

“Ugh… Wha? What is it? What do you want?”

I laughed at his sleep-thickened surprise, and then met his eye. I must have looked worried, because he snapped-to straight away.

“What is it, sis? What’s wrong? Is the old man home?”

I smiled at his concern, and then shook my head.

“No, I reckon he’s still out there somewhere with all the other old drunks. The power’s out, that’s all. And the party’s gone dead, too.”

He raised his eyebrows and smiled widely, unaware that he was doing so.

“Really? I thought those freaks had generators and shit, so that the party would never stop. I wonder what they’ll do now that the lights are out? How are they going to cut up their drugs or paint their faces or put together an awfully-fucking-ugly costume?”

“Ha ha, dickhead. They’re people too, you should feel a bit sorry for them – they’ve probably no idea what’s going on or what to do, stuck out there with no power.”

He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, playing the world’s smallest violin.

“Yeah, yeah, little sister, you keep telling yourself that. They’re freaks, and that’s all there is to it.”

“Whatever…”

Our code-word for agreeing to disagree.

“What should we do about the power?” I asked, somewhat stupidly.

“Well, there’s nothing we really can do.”

He reached over to the bedside table and started fumbling for his glasses. He slipped them on, and then looked down his nose at me, which was quite an achievement, considering that he was lying in bed while I was standing over him.

“You see, out there are these things that people call coal mines,” he said, taking the piss. “And that’s where other people dig up this hard, black stuff called coal…”

“Yeah, right-oh, give it a rest.”

“And there you go, you’ve answered your own question.”

I turned to walk out on him, and then I remembered the torch.

“The torch wasn’t working either,” I said, turning back. “Don’t you think that’s weird?”

“Not really. One of us probably forgot to replace the batteries, that’s all.”

“But…”

“Look, Sis – I’m not about to go traipsing around in the dark at…”

He looked back and forth, as if trying to find a clock that wasn’t there.

“What time is it, anyway?” he asked.

I looked at my wrist, at the cheap digital piece-of-shit that passed as my watch, and saw that it had stopped. I felt a chill run through me – I’d only replaced the battery a couple of days earlier.

“I don’t know, my watch isn’t working either.”

I really started to worry then. Will must have seen a twinge of panic in me, because he did his best to smile and reassure me.

“It’s probably nothing, Sis. You know how it goes – we’re always getting by on the rag, the old man’s either too pissed or too hungover to fix anything properly or replace anything that falls apart, and we both work too much to bother thinking about what else needs doing. I mean, everything’s fucking held together with spit, string and barbed wire. And as for the power going out, well, it wouldn’t be the first time that the old man forgot to pay the bill. We’ve had blackouts before, let’s just hope they don’t keep on or start rolling again.”

Some reassurance.

“Anyway, it’s the middle of the night. Whatever’s happened won’t turn into hell-on-earth if you wait til sunup before checking it out.”

“Yeah, alright.”

“Okay then. Well, I’m going back to sleep.”

“No worries,” I said.

He looked me in the eye.

“So, um, you can leave.”

“Oh, right, right.”

***

Will hadn’t completely convinced me, but he still made a certain amount of sense. Although how I was going to get to sleep was beyond me, keyed up as I was. And so I drifted around the house some more, futilely trying those few appliances I’d overlooked.

After a while, I remembered that we had some candles stashed in the kitchen cupboard.

I dragged them out and placed a couple around the kitchen and the dining room and set them alight, and then carried one to my bedroom. I threw the door open; it was pitch black in there, the curtains drawn tight. I hurried over and opened them, balanced the candle on my bedside table, and started hunting for my phone. It wasn’t something that I always carried with me – we lived so deep in the bush that a good signal was as rare as tits on a bull – and so it took me a while to find it.

I flicked it on but nothing happened.

Without power, I had no way of knowing if it wasn’t working or if it had just run out of charge. I looked at it dumbly, as if I could bring it to life by sheer willpower. And then I threw it on my bed, picked up the candle, stomped out of the room and headed back out to the veranda.

I took my usual seat on the old couch and once again looked out at the vast spread of dark bush and the rolling grassland that shimmered in the moonlight.

I tried to think about what Will had said. He was right – even if something had gone wrong, there was nothing I could really do about it until morning. I didn’t fancy taking a night-time walk to our nearest neighbour, especially seeing as they were almost forty-five minutes away, and I really didn’t fancy riding my pushie into town. Not in the dark on our bumpy dirt road, no way. If I didn’t stack going over a pothole or corrugation then I’d surely hit an unseen roo that had decided then and there was a great time to bound in front of me. I don’t know how the old man managed to drive home drunk.

And so I just looked at the great patch of darkness where the crazy swirl of bright colour given off by the party had been.

More muffled words rode on the wind, the cries of the party-people once again reduced to faintly whispered and rather bizarre non-sequitors. It’s funny, but I’d expected to see headlights cutting through the darkness. Considering how many people had made their way to the party by car, surely some of them had thought to drive out and see what was what. But even though I was out there a long time, I didn’t see a single one.

There was nothing but those random words floating on the slight breeze, the only evidence that the party had ever been there.

“…won’t start…”

“Help…

“…just plain dead.”

“I charged it this morning, it can’t be…”

“…even the solar is out.”

“Please, won’t someone…”

“…stop, stop doing that.”

“Bullshit…”

“…useless, just bloody…”

“Sis, the cars are dead too.”

I must have fallen asleep again, because the next thing I remember is Will yelling that at me. No “wakey wakey,” or “hey Sis, sorry, but something else is wrong,” or anything polite like that, just a loud voice in my ear.

A really loud voice.

“Yeah, good morning, dickhead,” I said.

He ignored my insult and got straight to it.

“So, like I said, the cars aren’t working.”

“I heard you, I heard you. Just give me a sec, alright?”

“Yeah, alright.”

“And put some coffee on.”

He looked at me and smiled.

“No power, remember?”

“Do you need power to light a fire? I mean, that’s why we’ve got the pot-belly.”

“Okay, okay. Jeez…”

He walked away, muttering to himself, snide remarks that were intentionally just loud enough for me to hear. Isn’t brotherly love a wonderful thing?

I stretched and yawned, popped my shoulders and cracked my back. Sleeping on the couch always fucked me up a bit. I got to my feet and stretched some more, trying to work the soreness out of my body. I looked at the party site. Even though it was only early, some people had already left on foot. Their paths across the rolling grassland in the distance were just faint black lines, the people themselves rendered tiny and insignificant in comparison to the land.

They were like columns of ants crossing a dirt road…

I headed inside and went to the toilet, and then stopped in the kitchen and drank some water. Will had had some success with the fire – the smell of coffee was starting to fill the house. I dropped my empty glass in the sink and then joined him by the pot-belly stove. He was already spooning sugar into my cup, and I almost snatched it off him.

“Thanks, bro.”

“Yeah, no worries.”

I took a sip, burning my tongue. I blew on the coffee, cooling it down, and then took another sip, and then another and then another.

I slowly started to wake up.

“What’s the plan?” I asked, breaking the silence.

Will was always an early bird; I wasn’t surprised that he’d checked the cars while I’d been snoozing away, so I figured that he’d already worked out what to do next.

“I’ll probably ride over to the Johnson’s place and see if they know anything. If they aren’t home, then I’ll head into town, maybe see if I can find the old man.”

“Right-oh.”

“How about you?”

“I guess I’ll knock off my chores, and check on the stock and let them out and all that. But I don’t know how I’ll feed them if the ute’s dead. ”

“You’ll figure something out. Or you could just walk them down to the bottom paddock, it’s still pretty grassy there.”

“Good one.”

“You could disconnect the water pump too, so we can use the taps on the tanks once we’ve drained the pipes.”

“Okay.”

I was still pretty sleepy, and monosyllables were all I could manage.

“I’ll leave you to it, then.”

“Good luck out there.”

“You bet, see you in a few…”

He stomped out of the kitchen – he used to stomp everywhere – and I watched through the window as he strapped on his helmet, hopped on his bike and rode off, a tiny cloud of dust billowing behind him.

I finished my coffee, ate a couple of slices of bread with vegemite, made a second coffee and then headed back out to the veranda. The world was quiet and calm, but the party site was busy with movement, busier than it had been earlier, teeming with people bustling about and rushing back and forth.

I sipped at my coffee and watched them bustle and rush.

As confused as they may have been, at least they didn’t have to spend the day working on a farm that had suddenly become a nineteenth-century version of itself. I groaned aloud, knowing that chores and jobs that were already boring and taxing were about to grow even more mind-numbing and back-breaking.

But still, once I’d finished my coffee I got to it.

***

I came back from fixing a hole in the rabbit-proof fence to find Will and three party-people arguing outside the house. Will still had his helmet on; I assumed that he’d turned up to find them waiting on our doorstep. And there was still no sign of the old man. I was grateful for that – he hated “their type,” and there’s nothing like the threat of violence to ruin your day.

“Mate, I’m not asking for much,” said one of the party-people, a tall guy with a great pile of dreadlocks wound into a bunch on top of his head.

They must have been so heavy and hot…

“All we need is a little help,” another of the party-people said, a short and stocky girl with about a million piercings.

“Yeah, man,” said another.

His eyes were glazed and he sounded very far away and he occasionally twitched and sometimes hugged himself and shivered, despite the heat. I figured that he was just another space cadet, and that he probably thought this was all a drug-heightened adventure rather than a half-baked standoff.

“Why should I help you freaks?” Will asked, almost shouting the words. “What have you ever done for us?”

I looked on in disbelief.

“William!” I yelled. “Cut it out.”

“But…”

“Don’t give me that. What’s with you, bro? Look at them. They need help, for fuck’s sake. Why can’t you hear them out?”

“But…”

“Just shut it, alright?”

He deflated, all his bluster draining away. I turned to the party-people and looked them up and down. I didn’t recognise them, but I tried to smile warmly.

“G’day. Are you guys okay?”

“Yeah, we’ve lost power down at the party,” the short and stocky girl said. “Hell, someone with an old ham radio couldn’t even get a signal from overseas. And the cars are dead, too. ”

“Same here, it’s weird. So, what’s up?”

“It’s our friend back at camp,” the girl continued. “She’s got asthma and she’s lost her puffer. With all the dust everyone’s kicking up, she’s, you know, she’s having a hard time. And with the cars out of action, well…”

I looked over at Will. He’d had asthma as a kid but he’d grown out of it, and he really was feeling for them, a sudden look of concern on his face.

“I get it, I get it,” I said, looking back at the girl. “You’ve probably passed this place dozens of times, we’re your nearest neighbour after all. But, sorry, none of us have asthma. Well, not anymore.”

“Oh,” the girl said, her half-smile collapsing.

“The Alexander’s youngest daughter has got it, though,” I said, pointing to a house halfway across the valley.

I knew it was there, but I guess all they could see was a speck.

“Far-out,” the space cadet said.

He looked at me, his eyes so puffy and hooded that I was surprised he could see anything at all.

And then he winked.

“Knock it off, you idiot,” the girl said to him.

“Alright, alright,” he said, his voice sulky and whiney.

And then he looked at me again.

“Got a toilet?” he asked. “I need to take a piss.”

I sighed, and then pointed to a row of trees at the edge of the house block, just next to the old man’s shed. I watched him stagger away, and then turned back to the other two party-people.

“Look, come inside and I’ll draw a map,” I said.

I turned and they started following, when Will grabbed my arm.

“Sis, I need to talk to you about what I saw in town,” he said.

“That can wait, bro. This is more important.”

“But…”

“We’ll talk about it later, alright?”

I shook him off and walked inside. Will and the two party-people sat at the dining

table, while I hunted around for some paper and a pen. Will didn’t speak to them while they tried to make small talk, and the atmosphere was suddenly horribly awkward.

I finally found what I was looking for.

I sat down next to the party-people and quickly drew a rough map and talked them through it. I offered them some water, and they topped up their bottles. I offered them a cuppa, but they declined.

“We’d better get a move on,” the girl said. “Our mate’s pretty sick.”

“Fair enough.”

Suddenly, the front door slammed open and the space cadet strode in carrying the old man’s shotgun. I froze, and somewhat stupidly wondered where he’d found it. I guess the old man had once again forgotten to lock the gun-safe out in the shed after going out spotlighting with his barfly mates.

But there it was and there the space cadet stood.

He was still swaying a little and looked lost behind his eyes, but he had a firm grip on the shotgun.

“Look what I found,” he said.

He held the gun up, striking a pose. I quickly got to my feet, and Will and other two party-people followed. We stood there in a bunch, watching the space cadet in confusion and fear. He smiled slyly, and then held the shotgun properly and took aim. I hoped to Christ that the old man hadn’t left it loaded – if the space cadet even twitched, he’d hit us all for sure. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Will tense up, and the other two party-people freeze, overcome with fear and not knowing what to do.

“Bang,” the space cadet said.

And that’s when Will jumped in front of us.

(Originally published in Beginnings: An Australian Speculative Fiction Anthology, November 2018)

 

 

 

Interview with Last Word of the Week

Last Word of the Week: Welcome, Lachlan! Tell us about when you first realised that you are a writer.

Lachlan Walter: To me, the distinction between wanting to be a writer and actually being a writer is psychological more than anything else. Being a writer means accepting the fact that you don’t have to write a blockbuster (and probably won’t) or churn out a book a year, but instead have to put in the work and make the sacrifices needed. Lots of people who want to be writers seem to see it as some kind of glamorous calling that doesn’t actually involve any real work, whereas the truth is that it’s often a slog involving persistence and tenacity, in which a thick skin is utterly invaluable. To touch on an old chestnut: writing is about perspiration, not inspiration.

In my case, I realised that I was actually a writer when found myself unable to step away from my work-in-progress of the time. I was putting in ten and twelve-hour days, turning a simple idea into a novel (and neglecting my oh-so-forgiving family and friends), and waking up each morning dead-keen to do it all over again. There were good days and bad days, but the important thing was that they were all writing days, and ever-so-slowly my first book was coming together. By the time I’d completed the first draft, this had become a routine – wake up, have breakfast, clean up, start writing – and was the equivalent of punching a clock or reporting for duty. And thus, I considered myself a writer.

Of course, it helps to have your work affirmed through publication, positive feedback, in-depth reviews and sales, but they aren’t strictly necessary. What matters is your work ethic, getting on with the job and creating a body of work that you can be proud of.

LWOTW: That’s an interesting analysis, thank you. For your writing, do you rely more on dreams, imagination, and planning?

LW: I don’t think I’ve ever had a dream that resulted in a good piece of writing, so let’s scratch that off the list, which leaves imagination and planning. Both are important, but planning is a skill that can be refined whereas imagination is intuitive, inspiring and seems to strike like the metaphorical lightning bolt. An example: I had the idea for my first book long before I put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, which is more accurate though less poetic), but when I started writing it – and consequently started planning it – I really had no idea what I was doing. It wasn’t until a fellow writer gently pointed out that my plan was a bit long – three books long, by their estimate – that I realised how much I had to learn about this underappreciated skill.

In other words, I rely more on my imagination than anything else, but it’s the planning that really matters.

LWOTW: That sounds like a good balance of imagination and organsation. So what’s the highlight of your writing career so far?

LW: This would have to be a tie between having my first book accepted for publication, and having my second book accepted.

Having your first book accepted is an incredible feeling, as all authors would know – it’s a validation of your hard work, and confirmation that the idea behind it and the writing within it is solid and of a high quality. Everyone’s first book is a labour of love, something that’s been happily sweated over, something that contains a little bit of your heart and soul, and mine was no different. As mentioned, I had the idea for it long before I put pen to paper, and nurtured this idea like an obsessed gardener growing the fussiest plants from seed.

But once your first book has been published you realise that if you want to be a writer, you have to do it all over again from the beginning. This can be a struggle because you carry within you an expectation that your second book has to happen sooner rather than later, and you have to conceive it and work at it quickly and diligently, whereas the ideas and writing of your first book just seemed to come naturally and at its own pace. However, once it’s completed to your satisfaction, having it accepted for publication somehow proves that you’ve got what it takes to keep on writing.

LWOTW: That letter (or email) acceptance is such a joy, isn’t it? What are you most looking forward to at the moment?

LW: Finishing my third book, so that I can then get onto the next and the next after that and so on. I’m like most writers – I have more ideas than I do time to write them, and I just can’t wait to get them down and bring them to life.

LWOTW: Oh, yes, that’s the problem. Not where we get our ideas from but how to herd them! If you could say one thing to aspiring writers, what would it be?

LW: Write, write and write some more – you can always be better, and the only way to achieve this is through dedication and work. And remember that not every piece of writing has to be a book: short stories, articles, reviews, blogs, criticism, they all help hone your talent.

LWOTW: And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character?

LW: The Doctor, without a doubt. He/she possesses everything that one would want in life, and that makes a good person: kindness, intelligence, inquisitiveness, childlike wonder, loyalty, a circle of loving friends who are loved in return, and a dedication to pacifism that only falters when absolutely necessary.

LWOTW: I thought you had a bit of a Tom Baker look about you! Thanks for speaking with me, Lachlan, and more power to your writing.

(Originally published on Clare Rhoden: Author, 24/1/2019)

Comedic Science Fiction: More Than Just a Laugh

Writing about his relationship with science fiction in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, Kurt Vonnegut stated that, “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’… and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.” This desire is somewhat understandable, given that today, almost fifty years after he wrote these words, science fiction is still too-often regarded as an escapist/trash genre by both the general public and critics. Even though contemporary science fiction sometimes garners critical respect and attracts the attention of a wider audience existing outside of fandom, such works tend to be seen by these audiences as outliers rather than what they are: points on a quality-continuum that stretches from “great” to “terrible.” In light of this, it’s both odd and surprising that fandom and wider audiences alike often dismiss one of science fiction’s most commercially popular subgenres: comedic science fiction. If this statement seems all encompassing, take a look at any “best of” list relating to science fiction film and television (its literature is a different matter). While you’ll find high-quality works on these lists, you’ll also typically find that most are deemed worthy of inclusion either because of the complexity of their themes, or because of their unadulterated entertainment value. In terms of the former, think of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bladerunner, The Matrix, and Looper; in terms of the latter, think of the original Star Wars trilogy, ET: The Extra Terrestrial, Firefly and Pacific Rim.

Even when a piece of comedic science fiction is deemed worthy of inclusion, it’s usually for one of two reasons: the originality and joy of is comedic approach (the Back to the Future trilogy, the first series of Red Dwarf, Galaxy Quest) or its subversive and satirical edge (the original Robocop, Starship Troopers, Idiocracy). Rarely are such works deemed worthy because of the ways they embrace or reinvigorate the tropes and techniques of science fiction. In fact, it feels like these self-appointed arbiters of quality view visual science fiction as an either/or art form: it can either be funny/comedic or it can engage with the genre’s tropes and techniques. This attitude is, frankly, an insult to comedic science fiction. While the creators of comedic science fiction undeniably set out to produce works that are entertaining and funny, it cannot be disputed that they tend to also be fans of the genre, with a strong interest in its existence as a narrative form. Otherwise, why would they use it as a framework for their comedy? In other words, the “science fiction” aspect of comedic science fiction cannot be overlooked or ignored, and like “great” straight science fiction, great comedic science fiction can show us the genre anew, and make us reassess what it can say and mean.

In fact, it can often be more successful at doing this than straight science fiction. Unlike straight science fiction, comedic science fiction is less bound by the need to have its scenarios, characters and events function in logical or realistic ways (at least at an in-universe level). In straight science fiction, whatever happens in the story must, no matter how over-the-top, make a certain kind of logical and realistic sense. An adherence to continuity, as well as rational causes, reasons or explanations at the core of the science fictional framework; these are two bedrock “rules” of straight science fiction. Existing hand-in-hand with them are the accepted precepts of fiction as a whole: the law of cause and effect, realistic character response, relatable or sympathetic characters, and narrative resolution.

Because comedy typically relies on concepts such as exaggeration, caricature, slapstick, parody and absurdity, concepts such as logic and realism (and the accepted precepts of straight fiction) are often superseded. In comedic science fiction, adhering to the concepts and precepts of straight fiction can often work against the comedic effect that is intended. As an example, take a show like Rick and Morty. Would Rick be such a funny character if he was bound by the rules of logic or realism? The answer is a resounding no – he would merely be an abusive arsehole who constantly puts his grandson in danger, and ostracizes everyone around him. And if the show itself adhered to these rules it most probably wouldn’t exist – in a world of realism and logic, Beth and Jerry (Rick’s daughter and son-in-law) most probably would have thrown the freeloading Rick out on his ear the first time he endangered Morty’s life or invited a hoard of aliens into their home, and ipso-facto the entire premise of the show would collapse.

This same argument applies to most forms of comedic science fiction, no matter their differences – if they were bound by the rules of logic or realism, their narratives would be completely different. The Men in Black series would focus on paranoia, suspicion of the government and conspiracy theories a la The X-Files; Paul would revolve around a desperate road trip in which ordinary citizens are hunted down by their government; Mars Attacks would be a terrifying tale of malevolent aliens hell bent on invading and conquering Earth; Galaxy Quest would be a downbeat story about has-been actors thrown into an intergalactic conflict, and their complete inability to adjust to their newfound situation. However, while this type of “narrative adjustment” via an abandonment of the rules of logic or realism integral is integral to comedic science fiction’s raison d’etre, it isn’t the only function of comedic science fiction. Instead, it serves to allow an arguably more interesting function: a re-examination of science fiction’s typical tropes, techniques and themes, and the ways in which they are usually employed and handled. For a contemporary example that excels at this, we must return to Rick and Morty.

Rick and Morty concerns the adventures of the titular Rick and Morty. Rick, the smartest being in the galaxy, is an eccentric and alcoholic misanthrope who has moved in with his estranged daughter-in-law and her family, as a way of hiding from the Galactic Federation that oversees the show’s version of the multiverse. Morty is Rick’s 14-year-old grandson, a typically insecure and self-conscious high school student, who is frequently dragged into Rick’s (mis)adventures in space. If this set-up sounds familiar, that’s because the show’s creators have acknowledged that the show began as a “troll” of the popular Back to the Future trilogy. Note the similarities between the names Morty and Marty (Marty McFly being the teenager dragooned by the mad scientist Dr. Emmett Brown/Doc Brown). However, while the Back to the Future trilogy focused on the comedic aspects of their (mis)adventures – with the darker aspects a secondary consideration – Rick and Morty foregrounds the darker aspects and uses them as the basis for its comedic elements. For example, Morty’s responses to his and Rick’s (mis)adventures are what you would expect of a typically insecure teenager thrown into new and uncomfortable situations. In Morty’s case, though, this set-up is pushed to an extreme, and the situations confronting Morty include meeting aliens and visiting dangerous alien planets; abandoning his family and escaping “his” universe following a world-ending calamity of his and Rick’s making; encountering alternate versions of himself, and discovering that they exist solely to shield Rick from the Galactic Federation; and having his version of Earth invaded by said Federation. His responses include panic, despair, anxiety, nightmares and self-doubt, which reflect many of the typical symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.

If the series’ creators hadn’t infused these responses with comedic concepts such as exaggeration, slapstick, absurdity and incongruity, it would be almost unrelentingly dark. And this is arguably their point – unlike Marty McFly’s casual and comedic acceptance of the events that befall him, Morty’s responses to his and Rick’s (mis)adventures are what we would presume someone would potentially exhibit when confronted with the aforementioned situations. They are “realistic” responses to these kinds of science fiction scenarios, achieving fruition precisely because comedic science fiction is less bound by the need to function in the logical or realistic ways expected of the straight variety. If we couldn’t laugh at the way Morty responds, we would scream instead, and under cover of this laughter the darker realistions of Morty’s situation slip through.

And then there’s Rick himself, a deliberate embodiment of a dyed-in-the-wool cliché (please pardon the pun): The Mad Scientist. Established at the dawn of science fiction, we need look no further than Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, H.G. Wells’ Griffin (The Invisible Man) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll to illuminate its influence on the genre. After all, these three characters are reinvented and reinterpreted every generation or so, and often sooner. The traits that bind them – overwhelming intelligence, arrogance, hubris, an aloofness borne of a superiority complex, a belief that the rules don’t apply to them – are all possessed by Rick. However, unlike them and their more contemporary incarnations – Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, Lex Luthor from Superman, Davros from Doctor Who – Rick isn’t a villain. But nor is he the endearing, absent-minded and ultimately altruistic version of the cliché, a la The Doctor, Professor Farnsworth from Futurama, or Doc Brown. Instead, Rick is a combination of the two types, exhibiting extreme expressions of their best and worst traits. While villainous Mad Scientists have such typically villainous ambitions as world domination, conquering the universe and exterminating one’s enemies, Rick’s (mis)adventures typically revolve around his own immediate needs and desires: keeping boredom at bay, accruing money to keep partying, or proving a point. He isn’t entirely selfish, though, often directing his enormous intelligence towards something that will help his family, no matter how ridiculous their requests. As well, his bond with Morty and love for him exists at his core, no matter how much he sometimes hates it.

In effect, Rick is a realistic version of the Mad Scientist cliché, neither villainous nor heroic but instead contradictory in an utterly individual and human way, made possible by the show’s comedic approach and its embrace of science fiction’s tropes. Because we can laugh at Rick’s contradictory nature, we can more easily understand it within ourselves and thus empathize. However, this device is only a part of how Rick and Morty demonstrates that the subgenre can make us look at science fiction with fresh eyes and reassess what it can say and mean. Another component lies in Rick’s attitude to life (his personal philosophy), which is tied to a question that only science fiction can answer: What would it really be like to be the smartest person in all creation? In Rick’s case, it results in overwhelming nihilism. This exists because one of the series’ major concepts has been Rick’s ability to travel across the multiverse, something that he does with gusto – his very first appearance involves him returning to his daughter’s home after having spent 30+ years there. At this point, having realized that in an infinite multiverse anything that can happen will happen, and that there are infinite versions of his own life ranging from the near-identical to the extremely different, Rick decides that life is actually meaningless. This is because each time he performs an action, an infinite number of other actions occur simultaneously across the multiverse, vastly overshadowing and rendering insignificant the action he has performed.

Rick not only intellectually understand the insignificance of a single human life amongst infinite others; he has literally seen the universe go on without him, through witnessing alternate versions of himself die. It’s unarguable that such an understanding would drive many of us into a nihilistic funk, and Rick’s responses are mostly forgivable – realising that nothing really matters, he throws his energy into looking out for number one, partying like there’s no tomorrow and drinking the pain away. These are “realistic” responses to the kinds of scenarios faced by science fiction clichés such as Rick: Wouldn’t ultimate knowledge and a familiarity with our insignificance potentially make us lonely, self-destructive and selfish? Much like Morty’s responses to his and Rick’s (mis)adventures, Rick’s behavior would be almost unrelentingly dark if the series’ creators hadn’t infused him with comedic overtones. Only through comedy can Rick’s obnoxious selfishness entertain rather than appall, and laughing at it helps us understand it. This is comedic science fiction’s greatest strength: because it can dispense with some of the concepts and precepts of straight fiction – realistic character response, relatable or sympathetic characters, narrative resolution, logic and realism – it can re-examine and show anew science fiction’s tropes, techniques and themes, and the ways in which they are usually employed and handled.

(Originally published in Aurealis #117, February 2019)

Psychological Science Fiction and Our Fascination with Inner Space

There’s no denying that the world of today resembles the science fiction futures imagined by writers of the past. From smartphones to driverless cars, social media to online shopping, holographic recreations of dead musicians to robotic concierges, retinal scanners and facial-recognition systems to talking computers and drones, advanced technology is inextricably intertwined with our lives. In fact, so ubiquitous has it become, that it has left hitherto unseen mental disorders and psychological problems in its wake.

This leaves contemporary science fiction in a strange place. Why bother imagining new kinds of advanced technologies, and examining their potential repercussions? After all, it’s more likely than not that technology’s next step in its seemingly endless progression might make these imaginings seem passé. A problem like this, while provoking debate amongst the science fiction community, has also given birth to brand-new subgenres that attempt to reconcile these problems, as well as reinvigorating moribund subgenres of the past.

Old-fashioned science fiction of the space opera kind has experienced a revival, its escapist nature acting as a means of temporarily forgetting about these contemporary issues. Climate change fiction has returned to examine one of today’s most vexing problems, one that technology still seems a long time away from solving. Steampunk is growing in popularity and reaching wider audiences, transporting the reader to a bygone time where our relationship can be re-examined. And post-apocalyptic fiction is likewise growing in popularity, as well as becoming increasingly brutal and nihilistic, arguably as a reaction to the pessimistic atmosphere permeating the modern world.

One particular subgenre, however, seems perfectly positioned to address the questions posed by our technologically-driven world: psychological science fiction. An adaptable and fluid subgenre that can easily nestle within others—post-apocalyptic, climate change, cyberpunk and literary science fiction, for example—it typically deviates from the standard science fiction concern of examining the ways in which advanced technology impacts the world around us, and examining the follow-on effects of these impacts on our day-to-day lives. Instead, it is more concerned with the way that said technology and its attendant impacts effect our psychological make-up—our ‘inner space.’

A term apocryphally attributed to J G Ballard, psychological science fiction is nonetheless most closely associated with his work, which occupied two very different conceptual positions and yet shared a focus on the ways that technology-defined spaces can influence characters’ psyches, personalities and emotional states. On one hand, works such as The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1964), The Crystal World (1966), The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) and Hello America (1981) take place in undeniably science fictional settings, made possible by circumstances such as climate change, apocalyptic warfare or through a ‘leaking’ of time. On the other hand, works such as Concrete Island (1974), High Rise (1975), Crash (1973), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000) and Kingdom Come (2006) are nominally realist, taking place in worlds resembling the way ours was at each book’s time of writing—their science fiction elements emerge from Ballard’s focus on the ways that the increasingly-built spaces his characters inhabit owe their existence to the technologically-driven nature of twentieth and twenty-first century life.

These narrative and structural devices didn’t just occur because Ballard had a particular penchant for this kind of storytelling. Indeed, Ballard actually saw science fiction as more a philosophy for twentieth and twenty-first century life. His writings and quotes on this subject are legion, but for the purposes of this work just two will suffice. From an essay written in 1971, entitled Fictions Of Every Kind, he claims that ‘Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.’ And from the introduction to the French edition of Crash (1974), he claims that ‘No other form of fiction has the vocabulary of ideas and images to deal with the present, let alone the future.’

To put it more simply, Ballard saw science fiction as a way of describing our present and our position within it. As well, he saw it as a guide to help navigate and understand a world of exponential technological development and advancement, which changed not only the fabric of our environments and communities, but also the ways we conceive of our place within them, and the ways that we connect and communicate with each other and the wider world. However, while the term psychological science fiction undoubtedly applies to Ballard’s work and the philosophical framework behind it, Ballard himself was without question a singular writer. Steeped in psychological, psychoanalytic and psychiatric terminology, his writing style was instantly identifiable as being his alone, so much so that the term ‘Ballardian’ emerged in certain literary circles, and other writers who mimicked his style, focus and thrust were often justifiably called out for doing so. This doesn’t mean, though, that psychological science fiction begins and ends with his oeuvre. Instead, until the twenty-first century, the few other writers operating in this field used different stylistic techniques and chose different focuses for examining the ways that technology and its attendant impacts effect our psychological make-up.

But, with the world now resembling the science fiction futures imagined by writers of the past, more and more writers have begun to embrace these kinds of examinations, in new and interesting ways. As well, many of them have shied away from technologically-based scenarios as the starting points for their examinations, and instead turned to what might best be described as ‘impossible’ science fiction scenarios, such as the appearance of aliens, the almost-total disappearance of humankind and the multiverse/parallel worlds theory, perhaps as ways of accommodating the aforementioned belief that technology is advancing and evolving faster than we had ever thought possible, and so now more ‘impossible’ scenarios might not quite seem so ridiculous or unbelievable.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (2014) is an extreme example of the ways that advanced technology and its attendant impacts might affect our psychological make-up and our ‘inner space.’ In Vandermeer’s case, however, the advanced technology within is really a moot point—his focus is on what might happen to someone’s psyche in the face of a thoroughly inexplicable and unknowable force, rather on the technology behind this force.

For over thirty years, an uninhabited and abandoned section of the United States coastline has been sealed off by an intangible border, and is referred to as Area X. No one knows what’s really inside the border, or how it came to be—physics and biology seem strangely askew, but not in a quantifiable way. The Southern Reach is a secretive government agency charged with investigating Area X, but after innumerable expeditions, which all ended in madness, murder, terminal illness or suicide, they are no closer to understanding it.

While this scenario might seem like a hoary science fiction chestnut, Vandermeer’s focus isn’t on Area X’s detail, logic and reason for being, allowing him instead to use what could be considered a cliché as a framework for a deep dive into the ways that Area X makes his characters think and feel. Chiefly structured around two points of view—Ghost Bird, a biologist sent on the Southern Reach’s latest expedition; and Control, who has just replaced the head of the Southern Reach—Vandermeer shows us the psychological effect of Area X from both an outsider’s perspective, and an insider’s. The biologist, at first trapped within Area X, struggles to make sense of something so concretely real and yet impossible; when freed, she remains forever marked by it. Control, sifting through the previous director’s increasingly-bizarre notes while hunkered in the Southern Reach’s headquarters, struggles from a distance with the very concept of Area X, and the futility of even trying to comprehend it.

We follow them on the inner journey that Area X maps for them, and feel the emotions that they feel. In the end, as they realise that perhaps the best way to understand Area X is to stop trying and simply accept it, we realise a trick that Vandermeer has pulled—Area X can be read as a metaphor for the great technologically-driven changes happening around us, which seem both prosaic and extraordinary, visible and opaque, influential and unknowable, real and unreal.

Paul Hardy’s The Last Man on Earth Club (2011) is another extreme example. In the far future, travel between the multiverse has become a reality, overseen by an agency based on our version of Earth. Within this agency is situated a department tasked with rescuing and rehabilitating survivors of post-apocalyptic calamities on ‘other’ Earths, calamities that have rendered them the sole survivors of their respective Earths.

While such a concept allows Hardy to gleefully play with all manner of Last Man on Earth and post-apocalyptic tropes—worlds overrun by zombies, devastated by plague or nuclear weapons, rendered uninhabitable by wars between humans and cyborgs, pillaged by aliens and left in ruins —his glee is only skin deep. While not bereft of action, his real focus is on the psychological make-up and ‘inner space’ of these survivors. Hesitant to accept their newfound reality, and deeply scarred by the events they have lived through, the bulk of the book concerns the characters’ interactions with their fellow survivors and their shared lives in a rehabilitation centre. Scenes focus on group therapy sessions, conflicts with fellow survivors, their frequent inability to connect with others or move on from their trauma, and their difficulties adjusting to their changed circumstances.

Upon reflection, we soon see that The Last Man on Earth Club is really an examination of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially as it pertains to those unable or unwilling to adjust to the radical changes happening to their worlds and lives. None of us can relate to surviving an attack by aliens or hordes of zombies, but we can all relate to the difficulties involved in moving on from a traumatic event that seems to shift our world’s axis, and from which there can often seem no return.

Vandermeer and Hardy aren’t the only contemporary writers of psychological science fiction—the concerns addressed by this subgenre are so thought-provoking and relevant to the world of today that many other writers have also engaged with them, often nesting their examinations within other subgenres. Thomas Glavinic infuses Night Work (2008) with a Ballardian chill, charting the slow but inevitable disintegration of a man’s psychology and personality after an inexplicable event has left him alone on Earth—a more accomplished tale of the perils of disconnection and isolation is yet to be found. In Machine Man (2009), Max Barry uses the trope of cyborgs to look at the technology-fostered internal dislocation experienced by some people, and offers us an engineer so disconnected from ‘reality’ and so blasé about technology and his relationship with it, that he effectively upgrades his entire body. Matt Haig’s The Humans (2013) reverses the perspective of a typical first-contact story, so that we see people through the eyes of an alien rather than the other way around, allowing a thoroughly moving look at our common humanity that also raises the prospect of hope in the face of the impossible. In Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009), Steven Amsterdam presents a world wracked by environmental disasters caused by climate change, and yet rather than focus on the doom and gloom typical of post-apocalyptic fiction of this kind, he uses the scenario to look at how such a future might inspire our psyches rather than warp them, allowing us to pull together rather than tear apart. And in the world of visual science fiction, films such as Moon (2009), 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) and Anon (2018), and television shows such as Black Mirror (2011-2017) and Humans (2015-2018), use science fiction tropes as varied as clones, alien invasion and personal robots as springboards for their own examinations of the ways that advanced technology and its attendant impacts might affect our psychological make-up and our ‘inner space.’

No matter which medium you prefer, you can bet that someone is using it to create new types of psychological science fiction. After all, it is perhaps the most fitting subgenre of science fiction when it comes to understanding our modern world, allowing us to see anew the rapid rate of technological change surrounding us, as well as our own place within it and our relationship to it.

(Originally published in Aurealis #114, September 2018)

Metafictional Science Fiction: A Short History

Metafiction is a narrative technique that has been part of Western storytelling for hundreds of years: Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605-1615), Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1776), Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-1853), Herman Hess’ Steppenwolf (1927), Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park (2005), and the oeuvres of Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen, Phillip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs. In essence, works like these involve the author explicitly drawing our attention to the fact that what we’re reading or watching is fictional, or has been informed by the fictions that have come before it, be it by breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the reader, mise en abyme (the appearance of a book within the book we’re reading), or the insertion of the author into their text, among many others. Because it is a technique that relies on our understanding of the mechanics of literature, our appreciation of metafictional works is deepened by our knowledge of the art of storytelling and any specific characters, stories and/or genres employed to underpin an author’s metafictional elements.

Metafictional devices roughly fall into one of two categories: they exist at either a narrative-level (within the text) or at an audience-level (outside the text), although some writers combine the two. As an example, take the difference between the comic series Fables and Planetary. Fables concerns the citizens of Fabletown, a secret neighbourhood in New York City—refugees from different worlds who escaped conquest by a villainous army and made a home on our world, and upon arrival discovered that they are also characters in our own fairy tales. The Big Bad Wolf, Snow White, Little Boy Blue, the Three Little Pigs and their ilk are both ‘real’ within Fables narrative and characters in fictional stories, an example of metafiction working at the narrative-level. Planetary, however, is very different. Concerning a group of ‘Archaeologists of the Impossible,’ it follows their attempts at uncovering the secret history of the world, which consists of a multitude of pop-culture, science fiction and genre fiction staples. Godzilla-style monsters, mad scientists, enormous insects created by radiation, anime-style digital ghosts, superheroes and their literary predecessors, and parallel dimensions are ‘real’ in Planetary’s narrative. But at the audience-level, they are a metafictional device commenting on pop-culture, science fiction and genre fiction’s influence on our own culture and society.

Metafiction has been used in genres as disparate as romance, crime, literary fiction, horror, westerns and comedy. But when it comes to science fiction, metafictional devices have been adopted wholeheartedly by some authors. This hasn’t always been the case, though. Prior to the so-called New Wave/Second Generation of science fiction, almost no works of metafictional science fiction existed. While the reasons for this are many and varied, until the late 1950s/early 1960s, science fiction was still ‘finding its feet.’ Let’s not forget that it wasn’t really codified as a genre until the early 1920s, its ‘pioneers’ creating a brand-new method of storytelling derived from a set of liminal devices shared by writers of what we now call classics—Franz Kafka, James Joyce, T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allen Poe. But these pioneers didn’t just create the genre, they also expanded it over time, slowly pushing its boundaries and widening its range of themes, styles and concerns. As more and more writers began dabbling in the genre and using it in their own ways, and as the genre grew in popularity, a dynamic process took effect in which science fiction began a constant evolution. However, while these pioneers were dazzling and groundbreaking, it took the generation of writers who came after them to break the genre wide-open. Many of these writers grew up reading the pioneers, and were inspired by them, but they took what the pioneers had created and dragged it into the positive maelstrom of cultural change that defined this point in history. They moved science fiction away from its pulp roots and suffused it with a hitherto unseen degree of literariness, experimenting with form, style, perspective, chronology, structure and grammar.

These were the so-called New Wave/Second Generation writers, emerging in the late 1950s/early 1960s before dominating the field in the late 1960s/early 1970s. One of the consequences of their emergence was the birth of metafictional science fiction, which can be dated as far back as the release of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle in 1962, but didn’t really achieve momentum until the late 1960s. In the space of a decade, dozens of works of metafictional science fiction were released, many of which are now considered modern classics: Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection (1967), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), Stanislaw Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum (1971), Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972), Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus Trilogy (1975) and Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration (1977). This flood of work slowed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the subgenres of cyberpunk and hard science fiction began to dominate the field, but it didn’t stop: Philip K. Dick’s Valis and Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation were both released in 1981, Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake in 1997, Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen in 2001, and Nina Allan’s The Race in 2016.

What these works have in common is that they all work at a narrative-level—that is, the metafictional devices used exist within the text. For example, Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history story in which the allies lost World War II and the United States are now ruled by the Germans and the Japanese, with these rulers hunting down an author who has written a book entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which details how the allies actually won the war. This manhunt is instigated as the German and Japanese rulers believe that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy will eventually lead to their downfall, due to its power as a piece of propaganda. In the end, it turns out that the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy used the I Ching to direct his writing, leaving us with the inference that a kind-of ‘universal power’ guided his hand in order to reveal the real truth: that Japan and Germany actually lost World War II, and that the characters of The Man in the High Castle actually exist inside a fiction.

Shea and Wilson’s The Illuminatus Trilogy works in a similar way. A sprawling epic that is simultaneously satirical and postmodern, it is a kind-of science fiction-influenced adventure story revolving around a number of different pop-culture conspiracy theories. Deliberately over-the-top, especially in its final act, it contains many metafictional devices: moments in which the narrative stops dead and Shea and Wilson review and deconstruct the work itself; the inclusion of a wide variety of staples and characters from works of science fiction and genre-fiction that preceded it; and numerous instances in which different characters, baffled by the outrageous nature of their adventures, question whether they are actually characters in a book. Most of the other works listed above work in similar ways. In Priest’s The Affirmation, a writer creates a complex work of fantasy fiction that eventually blends his identity with that of his main character; Delany’s The Einstein Intersection combines an original work of fiction with excerpts from Delany’s own travel diary, with the line between the two slowly becoming indistinguishable; and Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, another alternate history, concerns a post-apocalypse novel entitled Lord of the Swastika, which was written by an alternate version of Adolf Hitler who emigrated to the United States after the Great War and became a successful science fiction writer, with the entire book followed by a fictional critique that explains its framework and metafictional trappings.

However, in the late 1990s, the direction of metafictional science fiction began to change. Rather than existing solely at a narrative-level, writers began to branch out and incorporate metafictional devices that worked at an audience-level (that is, said devices exist outside the text). In works like The Man in the High Castle and The Iron Dream, the reader doesn’t need to be a war historian in order to understand what is going on. The same concept applies to works like The Illuminatus Trilogy and The Einstein Intersection—our enjoyment and understanding of these works isn’t predicated on our knowledge of conspiracy theories or Delany’s life. The same can’t be said for much of the metafictional science fiction that emerged in the late 1990s, as the success of these works is dependant on the reader’s knowledge of science fiction’s history and tropes. Without this knowledge these works can leave the reader confused or exasperated.

John Scalzi’s Redshirts is an extreme example of this change of direction. Set aboard the spaceship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, it begins with a prologue that, to those in the know, lays the book’s metafictional cards on the table: a group of senior officers bemoan the strangely high casualty rate of low-ranking crew members who accompany senior officers on away missions. A newly-recruited ensign soon realises that something is amiss aboard the Intrepid: ensigns suffer the aforementioned high casualty rates, otherwise competent officers occasionally act incompetently, the basic laws of physics sometimes go awry, and the Intrepid boasts technology that sometimes produces last-minute inventions and medicines which are impossible to produce on demand. It soon transpires that the Intrepid’s reality and timeline are actually being periodically controlled and influenced by a trash science fiction television show from the past that has somehow been beamed into the future, and the show’s writers create thrills and hackneyed plot devices as a way of increasing its dramatic tension. All of this is, as any science fiction fan can see, a criticism of the original Star Trek series, which is notorious for featuring such cliched situations. However, this set-up, and the wild metafictional ride that follows, only really makes sense to those who know the ‘rules’ and modus operandi of Star Trek. Without such knowledge, Redshirts is a somewhat confusing book that follows unexplained rules, rather than a satirical critique of the type of lazy writing that abounds in science fiction.

Other works also revel in this type of audience-level metafictional science fiction. The film Galaxy Quest (1999) details a group of has-been actors that once starred in a Star Trek-esque show, who are abducted by aliens who believe they are actually real crew members of an intergalactic spaceship; in Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), a time machine mechanic encounters numerous famous characters from the annals of science fiction as he tries to extract himself from a typical science fiction time loop; the stories in Julia Elliott’s collection The Wilds (2014) splice together science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes to create works that baffles those with little or no knowledge of the rules underpinning these genres; while Gene Doucette’s Unfiction (2017) concerns a budding writer whose genre characters and scenarios enter his real life, with amusing and sometimes disastrous consequences.

So, why has metafictional science fiction changed so much? In essence, the science fiction community has moved from the fringe to the centre—‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ are no longer insults, but badges of honour; science fiction dominates our screens and bookshelves; and our postmodern age means that audiences raised on New Wave/Second Generation science fiction are no longer only seeking something as simple as a straightforward story, but also craving works that speak to their knowledge and love of the genre. And science fiction is all the better for it. In general, metafictional works tend to either be a riotous romp or an indulgent mess, but most creators of metafictional science fiction achieve the former rather than the latter, opening our eyes to the ways that science fiction has influenced the world around us.

(Originally published in Aurealis #108, March 2018)