It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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A writer’s life is not for me

Or so says Steph Swainston in a feature in Sunday’s Independent here. Coincidentally, I’d just read her first novel, The Year of Our War (see here), and as a result decided to track down its sequels. To date, there are three more books in the series: No Present Like Time, The Modern World and Above the Snowline. Swainston says there may well be more, but she’s asked her agent to negotiate her out of her current two-book contract, so who knows.

And the reasons she gives? Too much stress. The stress of producing a book a year. The stress of fans discussing her books on the internet. The stress of isolation. They are, to be honest, fixable problems. Actually giving up writing seems a somewhat drastic solution.

Different people write at different speeds, though publishers – and readers – do prefer a book per year. Publishing is, after  all, a business. But see George RR Martin, Scott Lynch or Patrick Rothfuss – each of whom have multi-year gaps between volumes in their fantasy series. (Having said that, they probably had robust enough sales for publishers and fans to wait out those long delays.) Charles Stross was, at one, point, writing three books a year – though he has said, never again.

Different writers have different levels of engagement with the internet. Some are actively involved – with blogs or live journals, twitter accounts, forums, etc. Swainston appears to have almost no online presence. But then any level is sure to draw some sort of fire from some quarters. Not everyone on the internet is approving. The medium itself seems to rob many people of tact. Or intelligence. But being ignored is, I would have thought, more stressful. To not know what people think to your story can be disheartening – even a negative review means someone has at least engaged with your fiction. Of course, they may not be very nice about it in that negative review, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Not everyone hides themselves away to write. Some write in their local coffee shop. Several writers I follow on twitter tweet from their local Costa Coffee or Caffè Nero. Others need total seclusion in order to write. I have, for instance, seen several conversations online regarding music and/or distractions when writing (not to be confused with displacement activites). Personally, I find extreme metal is the best music for me when I’m writing. Also, many published writers still have day jobs, and only write early in the morning, in the evenings, and on weekends. The issue for them is finding the time to write. Some writers have part-time jobs, giving them at least a a couple of days at home to focus on their fiction.

Then, of course, there’s the social side to genre writing. The conventions, the book launches, the parties… Not that these in any way characterise the life of a writer. But they do happen. I don’t believe Swainston is a con-goer, though she is Guest of Honour at next year’s Eastercon. Not every published writer engages with fandom in person, but many genre writers were actively involved in fandom before becoming writers and they haven’t withdrawn from it since turning professional.

In other words, there are lots of different aspects to the writer’s life, and lots of different ways of approaching those aspects. Swainston has chosen her solution. I don’t necesserarily agree with her choice, but it’s her choice to make. I still plan to read her books, and I do hope that she does continue to work on her Castle series – at whatever pace she feels comfortable. It’s always a shame when a talented genre writer turns away from writing. Swainston has a singular vision, and I think fantasy will be poorer for its loss – which is not something I can say of several writers of fantasy…


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Women in sf reading challenge #6: The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston

This post is a bit late because I had to reschedule my reading. I decided several weeks ago to make July a month of reading only women writers. But then I was sent three novels by men for review, with a deadline of the end of July. So I moved them to the top of the reading pile so I could finish them in June and not break my promise for July. Anyway, I managed to finish them in time, and so the first book of July was…

When I picked The Year of Our War for my reading challenge at the beginning of this year, I’d heard it argued that the book could be read as sf even though it was marketed as fantasy. I’d also heard it described as “New Weird”, although quite what that means no one seems really sure. But never mind: I wanted to read it, so I bent the rules a little. And, now that I have read it, I have to be honest and say that to me The Year of Our War seems very much a fantasy novel.

Jant Shira is half-Rhydanne and half-Awian. The Rhydanne live high in the mountainous region of Fourlands, are very much used to the cold, and are extremely quick. Awians are very much like normal humans except they possess small wings on their back. Because Jant has the Rhydanne speed and build, and the Awian wings, he can fly. He is the only person who can do this.

He is also immortal.

Two thousand years before, god left Fourlands. He put San, the Emperor, in charge and made him immortal. And in the years since then San has gifted fifty exceptional people with immortality. They form the Circle, and all have superhero-like names – Jant, for example, is Comet. Another member of the Circle is Lightning, a superlative archer, and one of the first people to be made immortal.

Around the same time god left, the Insects invaded Fourlands. These are pony-size ant-like creatures, and they have overwhelmed the northern quarter of the continent. But, after centuries of stalemate, more and more of them are now appearing and encroaching on human-inhabited lands.

The Year of Our War is, I believe, the first book in a series. Certainly, the novel does not resolve the bigger questions its plot asks. A possible source for the Insects is mooted, but not confirmed – and no explanation of that source is offered. Why god left is certainly never revealed. In fact, much of the story of The Year of Our War revolves around a fight for supremacy between a pair of immortals: Mist, the Sailor, and his wife.

There’s much to like in The Year of Our War. The story is narrated by Jant, who is a junkie, and he gives an interesting perspective on the plot. In fact, the entire cast are extremely well-handled. The prose is polished and very readable, although there’s a tendency in the first half of the book to describe everything everyone is wearing, often using unfamiliar and archaic terms. There’s a feeling of depth to the world of the story, as if the author has spent a great many years building it.

But.

Swainston names M John Harrison as an inspiration, and there’s certainly a little of Viriconium in Fourlands. There’s also that same refusal to be ruled by the “clomping foot of nerdism”. Which unfortunately manifests as gaps in rigour. Towards the end of the novel, for example, a famous sword appears and is described as a “katana”. But there’s a lot of cultural baggage that goes with such a weapon, and none of that is present in The Year of Our War. There’s a sense that Fourlands is built from magpie-like borrowings from the real world, but without the history and culture which underpins those borrowings.

The Year of Our War is a not a novel which makes immersion easy – there are too many details which throw the reader out of the world. Sometimes the characters respond in ways which rely on knowledge of the real world, not on knowledge of the world of Fourlands – in other words, they don’t always react like characters in a fantasy novel.The names of people and places seem… odd, as if there are no languages behind them, they’re just random conglomerations of letters. Also not helping is the story’s refusal to provide neat answers – or indeed, provide neat puzzles requiring answers. The concept of god leaving Fourlands, for example, and putting an immortal in charge is extremely cool – there’s an entire novel series just in that – but here it’s merely background. The presentation of the immortals as a sort of superhero team also feels slightly out-of-place in a fantasy world.

As I read The Year of Our War, I concluded I’d be unlikely to ever try its sequels. But as I drew nearer to the end I started to change my mind. And not simply because I wanted to find out what happens. The lack of rigour which had annoyed me no longer seemed to matter. Thing is, I’m not a big fan of fantasy. I’ve read my fair share, but I’ve found little to admire in much of that I’ve read. When reading KJ Parker’s Colours in the Steel last year (see here), I had a similar response to that I was having with Swainston’s novel. That book was a great shambolic monster of a story, which seemed to spend more time on world-building than it did plot. But the engine of its story was driven by such an innovative power-source (and I’m mixing metaphors here, but never mind) that I found myself liking the book more and more as I drew closer to the end. The Year of Our War is less inventive plot-wise than Colours in the Steel, but it does present an interesting – and perhaps even opposed – approach to its world-building. And that, I think, is enough to warrant further exploration.


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Results: Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Books by Women Writers

Back in 21 June, I asked people to nominate their five favourite fantasy or science fiction novels by women writers. And yes, I’m doing what everyone else does in these sorts of polls and conflating “favourite” and “best”. Well, it is a sort of popularity contest type poll…

Anyway, some twenty-nine people left comments. And I have now counted up the results…

Best/Favourite Novel
1 The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (7 votes)
2 The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (4 votes)
3= Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle; Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones; The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood; The Many-Coloured Land, Julian May; To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis; Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy (3 votes each)

A broad selection tying for third place there, though the first and second positions don’t really come as much of a surprise.

Best/Favourite Writer
1 Ursula K Le Guin (14 votes)
2 CJ Cherryh (7 votes)
3= Diana Wynne Jones, Gwyneth Jones, Joanna Russ, Margaret Atwood, Tricia Sullivan (4 votes each)

Le Guin’s success is not really a surprise. Most of her books are still in print, she consistently appears on best of the genre lists, and she has written highly-regarded sf and fantasy. Cherryh’s books seemed almost ubiquitous during the 1980s and much of the 1990s, but are less visible these days – which is a shame. In total, 58 authors were named.

Books by year

  1810s 2
  1920s 1
  1960s 8
  1970s 21
  1980s 33
  1990s 29
  2000s 21
  2010s 3

This probably says more about the age of those who voted than it does the success of women writers during those particular decades.

Given a wider pool of voters, the results might have looked different. But even so, this poll is as valid as any other genre list you might find on the internet.


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Don’t Look Back In Wonder

Andrew Wheeler gives a run-down on the Hugo fiction shortlists here, but it’s some of the comments he makes in passing that I find interesting. He first complains that Peter Watts ‘The Things’ is a “backwards-looking story … which retells a famous old story in a new way” and that “there have been far too many backwards-looking SF stories over the last two decades”. I don’t know about the “far too many” – I suspect Wheeler reads a great deal more sf short fiction than I do (and my reading will be skewed toward UK-produced sf short fiction anyway) – but I don’t recall all that many similar types of stories off the top of my head. Theodora Goss riffed off HG Wells a couple of years ago, I seem to recall. Even so, what’s wrong with approaching old stories in new ways? Science fiction is, after all, a genre in conversation with itself. Doing it too often, yes, can be bad, and I bow to Wheeler’s greater knowledge on whether that point has been reached. But in moderation I think it’s good and perhaps necessary.

Wheeler than goes on to say that Allen Steele’s ‘The Emperor of Mars’ “is the first really egregiously ‘gosh, wasn’t yesterday’s future so much better than ours’ story this year, flattering all of those aging Boomer SF readers who didn’t become the space-station jockeys and planet-hopping businessmen they all thought they’d be when they were twelve”. As far as I can determine, the story is not set in an alternate future – it mentions NASA missions to Mars during the 1990s, and the 2008 Phonenix mission – so if it is playing on a nostalgia for the space programme of the 1960s and 1970s, then it’s only doing so in imagining a renewed interest in crewed space exploration and colonisation in the next few decades. But how does that make it “yesterday’s future”? I can understand that baby boomers (I’m not one myself), who remember the excitement of Apollo, might look for something which harkens back to that in their science fiction. But why is that necessarily a bad thing? Wheeler goes further when discussing James Patrick Kelly’s ‘Plus or Minus’ and says, “monkeys in cans is so 1970”.

Er, what?

Magical spaceships are apparently twenty-first century? A complete absence of technological realism in sf is twenty-first century? Hardly – Edmond Hamilton and EE ‘Doc’ Smith were making up magical sf shit nearly 100 years ago. So what should modern sf be? Why should stories which attempt to treat space exploration and colonisation realistically – which doesn’t automatically mean they’re looking back to Apollo, of course – be bad?

Obviously, I enjoy stories which feature space travel and exploration. And I like stories which treat the topic realistically. Hence Rocket Science. And in my own fiction I’ve done both sorts of “looking back” that Wheeler identifies above: ‘Barker’, for example, re-imagines the first flight of an American into space. It’s retro in as much as it’s a re-examination of the historic flights of Alan B Shepard and Laika. But it’s not riffing off past science fiction, it’s riffing off history. I believe this is a perfectly valid approach to writing science fiction.

Yet any sf argument on the subject of “retro” or “looking back” is going look a bit foolish in the face of one of the genre’s most popular past-times: holding up sixty-year old works as the best sf has to offer. If that’s not “looking back”, then what is? Idolising old and not very good books simply because they’re are what introduced individuals to the genre makes no sense to me. It also seems an odd definition of “good”. Surely re-working those alleged “classics” is a valid artistic response to them? Likewise for reworking old tropes, or even old inspirations.

They say there is nothing new in science fiction anyway – there are no new ideas, only new spins on old ideas. And why limit the tools you can use when writing science fiction? Looking backwards is not always driven by a need for comfort. Sometimes, it can do the exact opposite.


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readings & watchings 2011 #5

Time for another journey through the cultural landscape as navigated by Your Somewhat Whimsical Cartographer. Bit of a marathon journey, I’m afraid – other projects have meant this has been delayed a week or two, and so grown a little larger than usual.

Books
The Arctic Marauder, Jacques Tardi (1974), I bought because Warren Ellis had raved about these on his blog. Tardi is a famous bande desinée writer/artist in France but isn’t well-known in English. Fantagraphics are translating all of his best-known works , and publishing them as handsome hardback volumes. I admit, it was the cover art which caused me to pick this one – and it was a good choice. The story is like Jules Verne on, well, on drugs. A young man survives a mysterious attack which sinks the ship he is travelling on in the Arctic. Later, he returns to solve the mystery, and discovers a pair of mad scientists in a floating fort disguised as an iceberg. Tardi’s style is very distinctive, but the story is very quick. I’m glad I bought it, though. I think I’ll buy some of the other volumes…

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole (1980), is apparently one of the great American comic novels of the twentieth century. Or so I was told. By many people. Perhaps they over-sold it. Because I didn’t like it all that much. I’m a firm believer in the Confucian maxim that “the funniest sight on the whole world is watching an old friend fall off a high roof”. In other words, slapstick makes me laugh. A great fat over-educated arrogant and self-deluded idiot like Ignatius J Reilly doesn’t. There is some wit in A Confederacy of Dunces, notably in the dialogue of the black characters, but too often the story is asking the reader to laugh at Reilly and not with him. Disappointing.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975), I read to honour Russ after her recent death, and I was surprised at how well the book has aged. It’s set chiefly in 1969, although it was published in 1975, and reads very much like a book set in the late 1960s – so it didn’t feel at all dated. But even the overtly sfnal sections have aged quite well. I’d remembered the book as an angry one, but I’d forgotten that as the story progresses, so does the book’s anger. Towards the end, it reaches quite astonishing levels. One chapter seemed more familiar to me than the rest of the book – which I’ve read only the once before during the 1980s. It didn’t take me long to figure out why – I’d read it as a short story titled ‘An Old Fashioned Girl’ in the anthology Final Stage: The Ultimate Science Fiction Anthology when I was about twelve years old. That anthology was one of the first sf books I ever read, and its stories have stuck with me over the decades (yes, even the Harlan Ellison one). I still have that original copy on my book-shelves. But The Female Man: I have the SF Masterworks edition, and it’s a worthy addition to the series – it’s one of those remarkably few sf novels which can change the way you view the world. This is a book I think I will be reading again. Regularly.

The Secret History Omnibus Vol 2, Jean-Pierre Pécau (2005), is, as the, er, title suggests, the second collected volume in English of a bande desinée.  In prehistoric times, four “archons” were each gifted with immortality and a rune of power. In the centuries since, they have fought each other, independently and in temporary alliances. During the early years of the Holy Roman Empire, an experiment went awry, resulting in the birth of William of Lecce, a monstrous boy who is committed to bending the world to his evil ends. Three of the four archons have battled William ever since. Volume 2 takes the story from 1918 to 1945, opening with St John Philby in the Empty Quarter hunting for the fabled city from which the Queen of Sheba ruled, and continuing on through both world wars to Hitler’s defeat. The Secret History cleverly stitches real historical events into its plot, and it’s especially obvious in this second volume. The Tarot as the story’s inspiration is also clearer. The story is not yet complete, and I believe it continues in another series under a different title. I’ll be buying them, then.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy (1985), got an honourable mention in my Best of the Half-Year post recently. It should probably have made the top five (especially since I only actually picked four), but, well, it’s such a bleak and monstrous story, and its cast behave like animals, that I can’t really love or admire it that much. I guess I’m just a big softy at heart. True, Blood Meridian is beautifully written, and McCarthy’s descriptive prose is often as breathtaking as the scenery he describes. A troop of Indian hunters in Mexico during the 1850s ride around the area, attacking both innocent and guilty Indians and Mexicans and collecting their scalps for a bounty. The characters have no redeeming qualities whatsoever and you can only wonder why they were permitted their depredations for so long. Turning cowboys into monsters may have been a novel approach to the western, but I can’t see that it adds much to the genre.

China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992), was May’s book for this year’s reading challenge, and I wrote about it here. I also cross-posted the review on the SF Mistressworks blog here.

The Styx Complex, Russell Rhodes (1977). Dear me, I’d forgotten how badly written most airport-bestseller books are. This one was published in the mid-1970s but I suspect there’s been very little increase in quality in the decades since. It’s probably got worse. Ava Bardoff is the mysterious, and beautiful, head of a global cosmetics empire which seems to have discovered the secret of eternal youth, and which appears to control a great many important people around the world. Philanthropist billionaire Hugo Montcrief has been trying to break Bardoff’s conspiracy for years but never succeeded. Along comes Bardoff’s god-daughter, Sarah, a trust-fund babe, who has decided to settle down. The billionaire recruits playboy athlete Michael, whose estranged father is a senior executive in Bardoff’s cosmetics company, to use Sarah to infiltrate and investigate Bardoff’s chateau headquarters near Cannes. The prose is eye-stabbingly bad, the plot is ludicrous, the characters are wildly implausible, and I can only wonder why I bothered to read it. Ah well.

The Horse and His Boy, CS Lewis (1954), is the fifth book by publication of the Chronicles of Narnia. And Lewis is at his most hectoring so far in this one. It doesn’t help that it’s not set in Narnia but in Calormen, which is full of nasty foreigners of a 1001 Nights persuasion. They even smell a bit too. Not to mention practicing slavery. One such young slave is rescued by a horse which reveals it can talk – because it’s a Narnian horse. So the two try to escape across the desert to Narnia, with the help of a young princess fleeing an arranged marriage and her talking horse, and en route they foil a fiendish plot by the Calormen to attack and conquer Narnia’s nearest neighbour. Even more so than the other Narnia books, The Horse and His Boy suffers from outdated sensibilities that really shouldn’t be taught to children in the twenty-first century. There isn’t enough charm in this book to offset that.

The Legend of False Dreaming, Toiya Kristen Finley (2011). Finley had one of the more inventive stories in the anthology Text: Ur (an anthology I recommend reading), and I liked it enough to track down some of her other fiction online. Her stories are strange and elliptical, and not always told in a straightforward fashion. Unfortunately, The Legend of False Dreaming is much more conventional narrative-wise. A young woman, fleeing her family, arrives in a town in which the inhabitants refuse to acknowledge the presence of the town’s transient population, who are themselves trapped by a strange magical fog which won’t permit them to leave. Not a bad story, but not as good as other ones by Finley I’ve read.

The Fifth Child, Doris Lessing (1988), is about a young middle-class liberal couple who buy a big house they can’t really afford because they want to fill it with children and live like bohemians. They get a bit of help from well-off parents and out plop a succession of kids. The relatives all come and stay for the holidays and a jolly good time is had by all. But then another little sperm slips through and the titular sprog appears. Only this one is different. Physically, he resembles a Neanderthal. Temperamentally, he resembles… well, some sort of cunning animal. As a result, the happy home is no longer a happy home. Though a light read, this book packs quite a punch. Lessing’s deceptively simple prose style lets the story slip down, though it’s an unpleasant one. Perversely, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the fifth child, and I wondered if that was Lessing’s intent – clues in the story sort of suggested it was the mother’s moral strength which was the point of the story.

Heat of Fusion & Other Stories, John M Ford (2004), is a collection of short stories and poems from a much under-rated sf author. These are cleverly done, though some are more involving than others. ‘Erase/Record/Play: A Drama for Print’ is especially good – a powerful story that refuses to tackle its subject head-on but works all the better for not doing so. Can’t say I was overly fond of the epic poems, which often felt more like clever word-play than actual poems. All the same, it’s worth tracking down a copy of this and reading it, if you can.

The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro (1995). I like Ishiguro’s novels, though I find them a bit variable and often insipid. And now that I’ve read The Unconsoled, I’ve read all of them – but I wish I hadn’t bothered. Ryder is a world-famous concert pianist, come to an unnamed East European city to perform. But there’s something strange about the city, about the people who live there, and about what he is supposed to do. Everything is dream-like: he is driven for miles out into the country to visit someone, then steps through a door in their house and is back in his hotel. The city constantly changes, Ryder finds himself rushing around from one errand to another, suddenly recognising the people he meets and remembering things about them… And the people, when they speak to him: they waffle, they repeat themselves, they go on and on and on… I was expecting all this to be explained when I reached the end of the novel – it’s clearly fabulist, but in service to what? Not Ryder’s role, because that’s never explained – it’s repeatedly hinted that it involves more than simply playing the piano. I expected answers. There are none. The Unconsoled just finishes. Bah. Rubbish book.

How Spacecraft Fly, Graham Swinerd (2008), I reviewed on my Space Books blog here.

Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1927), I reviewed on the SF Mistressworks blog here.

The Noise Within (2010) and The Noise Revealed (2011), Ian Whates, I read for review for Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. I know a lot of people like these books, but I found them a little too old-fashioned and slapdash for my taste.

God’s War, Kameron Hurley (2011), was the novel Niall Harrison persuaded a whole bunch of us on Twitter to buy. It was all ready on my radar – as any sf novel which makes use of Arab culture would be – and I’d read the first chapter online, but that hadn’t been enough to persuade me to actually order a copy. But when Niall raved about it – describing it as a cross between Gwyneth Jones and Richard Morgan – I thought it worth a go, and… I’m currently working on a piece about it which I’ll post up here when it’s done.

The Third Eagle, RA MacAvoy (1989), I reviewed on the SF Mistressworks blog here.

Robopocalypse, Daniel H Wilson (2011), I read for review for Interzone. It appears to be this year’s mega-hyped genre title from the US. Wilson has a PhD in Robotics, and is television’s go-to guy on the subject. He’s previously written other books about robots, some of which, like Robopocalypse, have been optioned for movies. So there’s plenty of money behind him. But, like all such books, there’s not much in the way of substance. The story is presented as a series of vignettes from a future war with robots. Some are better than others. The structure is actually quite annoying, and I’m not very convinced by some of the robotics used in the book either.

Films
Summertime, David Lean (1955). I’m not a major fan of Lean’s work, although Lawrence of Arabia is a favourite film. Summertime surprised me in two ways: I actually really liked it, and star Katherine Hepburn didn’t annoy me. Hepburn plays a spinster who is visiting Venice. It’s her first time abroad, and this holiday has been a lifetime dream. She meets a smooth Italian lothario who runs an “antique” shop, and the two enter into a relationship. The photography of Venice is excellent, which is perhaps the film’s chief attraction. The story is not especially ground-breaking, although Hepburn’s strength of will – she walks away from her lover at the end of the film – is surprising for a film of the period.

Millennium season 3 (1998), was the last of the series, although a final cross-over episode with The X-Files was used to tie up the last few loose ends. For a series that promised so much in its first series, Millennium did go out with a bit of a wet fart. Most of the episodes in this season were mythology-related, and over the previous two seasons that mythology had gone from vague protestations of biblical millennial doom! doom! doom! to some weird underground apocalyptic cult which began back in the Crusades and was now planning on bringing about the end of the world itself. Naturally, this pisses off FBI profiler Frank Black – who is now back in the fold of the Bureau – and he maintains a consistent petulance on the topic throughout this season’s twenty-two episodes. And speaking of which, a couple of the episodes in season three were good – the one set at Los Alamos in the 1940s was especially good. The one featuring KISS, however, was embarrassingly bad.

High Noon, Fred Zinnemann (1952), is a classic Western, though I will confess I watched it chiefly because it stars Grace Kelly. But then I’m not a big fan of Westerns, and have found only a handful over the years that I actually like – and only one, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, that comes close to being a favourite film. But, after all that, Kelly was a bit insipid as the marshal’s wife, though Cooper as the marshal projected an impressively steely competence. Parts of High Noon felt like a checklist of genre clichés, but it picked up towards the end. Not a bad film, then; but I doubt I’ll be returning to it.

You Can’t Take It with You, Frank Capra (1938). Every Capra film I watch I find appealing is a sort of happy, fluffy way – and this one is no exception. An anarchic bohemian family become embroiled in capitalist shenanigans when their refusal to sell their house prevents a nasty industrialist from buying up an entire city block for a project. This is not helped by the industrialist’s son being affianced to the daughter of the bohemians. It’s all very jolly and overtly liberal in an unchallenging way. The characters are appealingly eccentric, the dialogue has wit, and the story romps along with all the charm and geniality of a favourite uncle – the nice one, not the creepy one. I still intend to work my way through Capra’s oeuvre – I don’t think he’s as consistently entertaining, or as technically innovative, as Hitchcock, but I do enjoy his films.

Dark and Stormy Night, Larry Blamire (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista and you can see my review here.

The Bed Sitting Room, Richard Lester (1969), felt mostly like a play that had escaped from some 1960’s Brit comedian’s bottom drawer. It seemed to chiefly comprise a bunch of British comedy stalwarts wandering around a disused quarry in search of a plot. Some bits were good. I liked Ralph Richardson as Lord Fortnum, who was convinced he was going to turn into the titular chamber. And, in fact. did. The sections involving Harry Secombe in his fallout shelter I also liked. The Bed Sitting Room felt a bit like a very English “nice” version of a film by Alejandro Jodorowsky – although unlike one of Jodorowsky’s films, it wouldn’t need several beers to make sense of. Just a cup of tea; or a small sherry.

Journey to Promethea, Dan Garcia (2009), was another VideoVista review – see here – and also quite possibly the worst film ever made.

Container, Lukas Moodysson (2006). I have the Lukas Moodysson Presents box set (which contains Show Me Love, Together, Lilya 4-Ever and A Hole in My Heart), and I like the films in it. So I expected to like Container. Except, well, I’m not that big a fan of experimental cinema. Some of it I like and admire. But not this one. It’s seventy-two black-and-white minutes set in a shipping container, showing things sort of happening, with a stream-of-conscious narrative track. No amount of wine could improve it. And I tried.

Night And The City, Jules Dassin (1950), was one of the oddest noir films I’ve seen because, while it met the forms of the genre pretty much spot on, it was a) set in London, and b) had US stars. Richard Widmark runs around a night-time London, sweating profusely, playing a Yank wide-boy on the make who gets himself on the wrong side of a gangster who has the local wrestling scene tied up. I like noir, but I couldn’t get excited about this one – maybe because, to me, it has to be set in the US because part of it is the perversion of the American Dream. After World War 2, the US was prosperous and optimistic, and it’s the conflict with that which makes gives noir its sting. The UK, on the other hand, was grim, struggling to recover from the war, and still in rationing. It doesn’t make for much of a contrast with the typical noir worldview.

Star Trek (The Original Series) season 1 (1966), I borrowed from a friend because, while I remember watching these back in the 1970s when I was a kid, and I’d never been that big a fan of the original series, I thought it might be interesting to see what I’d think to them now. And the answer is… not much. Even Harlan Ellison’s much-celebrated episode ‘The City on the Edge of the Forever’ failed to impress – chiefly because it has a logical flaw in the plot: McCoy travels back in time and creates a paradox, except the original situation only occurs because they went back to fix the paradox… Despite the occasional mildly entertaining episode, there’s much to moan about. For all its vaunted sexual equality, all the women are pretty, have roles defined by their relationships to the male cast, and are always filmed in soft focus. The captain’s log voice-over is inconsistent throughout, being either a real-time commentary or an after-the-fact summation, and often both in the same episode. But then that’s on a par with the nonsense dating system used. This may be ground-breaking sf telly, but that’s not all that much to brag about really, is it?

They Met In The Dark, Carl Lamac (1943), is a quota quickie I reviewed for VideoVista, and a review of it should be up there soon.

The A-Team, Joe Carnahan (2010). Discussing books with Justina Robson at alt.fiction, I remarked that when I read a novel I like to come away with the impression the author is cleverer than me. Which means I certainly don’t enjoy watching films which make me feel like I’ve lost IQ points. Even if I do have several beers inside me at the time. And that’s what The A-Team is like. It’s like having a conversation with someone who thinks some really dumb stuff, which wouldn’t stand up to a nanosecond’s scrutiny, is totally cool. In other words, The A-Team is monumentally stupid. Even worse, it thinks being monumentally stupid is cool. The television series was risible, but this movie takes that to an entirely new level. The stunt with the helicopter was jaw-droppingly implausible, and you had to wonder why the film-makers didn’t at least be honest about it all and put the cast in skin-tight spandex. And then there was the set-piece with the tank in the transport aeroplane… After that, I was using more neurons drinking my beer than I was watching the film.

The Apple, Samira Makhmalbaf (1998), is perhaps the least successful of the Iranian films I’ve seen this year. A near-blind old man and his blind wife have kept their two young daughters locked up indoors for years – though not like that bloke in Austria. The neighbours complain to the authorities, who send round a social worker. The social worker persuades the old man to let his daughters out of the house, which he does. With the help of a neighbouring boy, they discover something of the world around them. It’s filmed like a documentary, is quite poignant in places, but I kept on waiting for something approaching a plot to kick off. But it never did.

Don’t Ever Leave Me, Arthur Crabtree (1949), I reviewed for VideoVista, and a review of it should be up there soon.

Iron Man 2, Jon Favreau (2010), I can actually remember very little about even though it’s not that long since I watched it. There’s this bloke in a metal suit. No, two blokes. And lots of robots. And Mickey Rourke, who looks like he’s been chewed up and spat out by a Great White. Although apparently he normally looks like that. And Robert Downey Jr wisecracks his way through a plot that’s even thinner than the first Iron Man film without actually making much of an impression on the viewer. I like superhero films, and I think they’re ideal material for blockbuster movies – but I’m beginning to wonder if the genre has reached the point of diminishing returns. No one really gives a shit about any multi-film story-arc, so why bother with sequels? A fresh new hero will pull in the punters, so all the director has to do is throw two hours’ worth of flash-bang-wallop at them, and everyone goes home happy. Anything else is like putting Smarties on a cheesecake.

The Warrior’s Way, Sngmoo Lee (2010), I reviewed for VideoVista, and a review of it should be up there soon. I was quite impressed with this – it’s the best attempt at using comicbook story-telling I’ve seen in a film.

Red, Robert Schwentke (2010), I rented because it’s based on a graphic novel written by Warren Ellis. The title is actually an acronym – RED: Retired, Extremely Dangerous. Which refers to ex-CIA hitman Bruce Willis, who has been chatting up on the telephone a woman who works at the federal office which issues his pension checks. Then one day, assassins come to call on him. Convinced the woman will be their next target, he sort of abducts her… and then introduces her to his old buddies – Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren, all of whom are also retired. The first half of the film is fun, with some entertaining stunts and mayhem. But then it all turns drearily predictable in the second half, and whatever charm the film had built up soon dissipates. Worth seeing, though.

The Reckless Moment, Max Ophüls (1949), is almost proper noir. It’s set in California, it’s black and white, and it has the American middle class being rudely accosted by society’s criminal underbelly. Unfortunately, said underbelly is in the person of James Mason who, despite an Irish brogue, is far too urbane to convince as a gangster loan shark / blackmailer. Joan Bennett plays the mum of a teenage daughter at art school who has taken up with a sleazy art dealer twice her age. When the art dealer tries to extort money from the daughter, she hits him and runs away, not realising he has subsequently stumbled and fallen onto an anchor, and died. Mum discovers this next morning (it happened at the family’s boathouse), panics, and hides the body in a nearby swamp. Mason then turns up with love letters from the daughter to the “murdered” art dealer, demanding money or he’ll send them to the police. Except Mason isn’t really cut out to be a blackmailer, and begins to fall for Bennett. Nicely played throughout, and nicely shot, but it didn’t quite have the edge real noir demands.

Micmacs, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2009). Delicatessen is one of my favourite films, and I like The City of Lost Children a great deal. but since splitting up, Jeunet and Caro have never quite individually managed to produce films as good as those two. Caro’s single solo effort, Dante 01, had its moments but seemed to fumble its way to a derivative ending. Jeunet’s career has been much more successful, though the overwhelming treacly whimsicality of his films has meant I’ve not greatly enjoyed them. Micmacs is perhaps not as cloyingly sweet as Amélie, or as twee as A Very Long Engagement, but is for much of its length surprisingly dull. A video-store clerk, Bazil, is an accidental victim of a drive-by shooting, and the bullet lodges in his brain. The surgeon decides to leave it in there, though there’s the possibility it may result in a sudden fatal aneurism. Bazil leaves hospital to discover he has been thrown out of his apartment and has lost his job. After living on the street for a couple of months, Bazil is adopted by a clan of lovable eccentrics who live underneath a rubbish heap. Meanwhile, Bazil has decided to have his revenge on two arms dealers – one who made the bullet which currently resides in his brain, the other who made the mine which killed his army bomb-disposal father thirty years before. So Bazil uses the peculiar talents of his friends to set up a con to bring both arms manufacturers down. There are a couple of clever set-pieces, but they’re not enough to carry the story over its 105 minutes. Disappointing.


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Free Fiction: The Contributors

I’ve never been entirely sure what to do with this story. It’s been bounced by half a dozen magazines, and I’m not really sure what sort of market it best suits. It’s a bit Ballardian, and very much about the current economic situation – yes, it’s science fiction about the real world. Some may find parts of this story uncomfortably familiar. I dedicate it to all the human resource managers of the world.

THE CONTRIBUTORS

During the night, someone had removed the wall opposite Webb’s apartment. He stepped outside his front door to find himself looking out over a black void. Warning tape had been strung the length of the gap, but it was no protection. Webb paused, and squeezed the door handle he still held in an attempt to hold vertigo at bay. The corridor was some ten feet wide, but the lip of that enormous gulf seemed only inches from his feet. Once he felt steady, Webb stepped away from his door. The opening stretched the entire half-mile of the corridor. He looked out into the space, first up and then down. The far end of the void was out of sight, the roof appeared to be about a mile above him, and he could see nothing below except vague shapes in the blackness.

Nothing about this had been mentioned to him. There’d been no warning on the news. Webb had never known what was behind the wall opposite his front door; he’d always assumed it was apartments much like his own. This was, after all, a residential district.

Not wanting to be late for work, Webb walked away from the mystery. He strode faster than his usual pace, and managed to make it in time for his normal train. As the monorail zipped along the track embedded in the tunnel’s ceiling, Webb pulled a ream of printout from his briefcase and prepared for the day ahead. But his thoughts kept on circling back to that vast empty volume which had appeared on his doorstep.

He couldn’t concentrate. He put the printout away and settled back in his seat. About him he heard the rustle and scratches of the other commuters busy with their own paperwork. Webb scanned the swaying carriage, but saw only familiar faces. He did not know these people, though he had seen them every day for years. If anyone was missing, he could not tell. If there’d been apartments on the other side of the wall, their residents might well have travelled each day on this monorail.

He looked out of the window beside him, something he could not recall ever doing before. Possibly because there was nothing to see: only a blank concrete wall speeding past. If he looked down, he could just see the tunnel floor, fifteen feet below the monorail carriage. It was as featureless as the wall.

The monorail tunnel resembled a great drainpipe, square in cross-section. Every day for the past twenty years, Webb had been flushed from home to work, from apartment to office; and back again. He had sat hunched over his printouts, oblivious to his surroundings, ignoring his fellow passengers. He preferred to commute by monorail. The thought of sitting in a car, stuck in traffic in a tunnel, did not appeal to him. The tunnel’s air would be thick with fumes. Also, of course, he could not work while he was driving–and he needed these thirty minutes before he arrived at the office. Not, he reflected, that he was making good use of the half-hour today.

On arrival at the station, the door in the floor of the carriage let down, forming a stair, and Webb disembarked with the rest of the passengers. Together, they filed out of the tunnel, and into another square passage. Yet more corridors led from this, each one smaller than the last, like a giant lung cast in concrete. Webb traced his usual route along passageways through the business district until he arrived at the entrance to British Small Parts Limited. He pushed through the swing doors into the firm’s reception area, nodded companionably at the security guard behind his sliding window, and continued into the company’s facility, soon reaching his office. He opened the door and entered the small room in which he spent his working days. He slipped off his jacket and hung it on the hook on the back of the door, then sidled around the desk and seated himself. He took the printout from his briefcase and placed it neatly beside a sheaf of requisitions he needed to send to Data Processing. Lifting the first sheet of the printout, he gazed at the columns of figures, but he could not think what they were for, what they signified. He could no longer remember what he actually did, why he sat in this office for forty hours each week. Everything seemed supremely unimportant. There were no clues on the blank walls—he had never put up calendars or posters or work schedules.

The tele-printer in the corner set up a loud clatter, startling Webb. He turned to see a sheet of paper being extruded from the device. A message. He ripped the paper from the feed once the printing had completed. It was a request for an update on one of his schedules. It was enough to goad him into work.

Two hours later, Webb was disturbed by a knock at his door. He told whoever it was to enter and the door swung open. It was Chapman from Human Resources. “Important meeting at twelve,” he told Webb. “Everyone in the department. In the big conference room.”

“What about?” asked Webb.

But the door had already shut.

#

At the instructed time, Webb made his way to the big conference room. They called it that, although it was the only conference room to which they had access. There was a smaller one, deeper inside British Small Parts’ offices, but it was for the use of senior management only. Webb had heard it contained leather chairs, a wallscreen, even wood-panelling.

As Chapman had said, the entire department was there. Additionally, two members of senior management sat at the head of the long table. There weren’t enough chairs, so most of the people present stood against the wall. Webb could not decide which worried him most: the scared looks on the faces of some of his colleagues, or the grim expressions of the two managers. He wondered if he’d missed a message or a memo; or perhaps some gossip had avoided him entirely. It would not be the first time.

Chapman asked for everyone’s attention. At a nod from one of the senior managers, he continued:

“I’m sure you’ve all heard the rumours. I’m afraid they’re true. The department is down-sizing. Resource allocation is down, so we’re having to scale back on Manufacturing.” He gave a weak smile. “I don’t pretend to understand the technicalities. This is something that’s come down from on high. It’s across the board, so don’t think it’s just you… er, us. Anyway, the focus for the foreseeable future is on Maintenance, so I’m afraid there’s less work for Production Planning. Sacrifices will have to be made. We’ll do this as fairly as we can, of course. Mr Smith and Mr Jones here –” He indicated the two senior managers; not that Webb recalled ever seeing them in the department offices– “Well, Mr Smith and Mr Jones have volunteered their time to go through everyone’s personnel record and make recommendations.”

One of the senior managers raised a finger. Chapman gave him the floor: “Mr Jones would like to say a few words.”

“We’re all adults here, you know the situation,” Jones said, remaining seated. His voice was as bland as his appearance. “When HMS Great Britain began her historic voyage fifty years ago, we accepted that production was paramount. When we broke away from the Continent, we knew we couldn’t afford waste, we couldn’t afford idleness. But the economy is currently in recession, and everyone has to tighten their belts. These things happen. We’ll sail to a new market soon, demand will rise, and all hands will be needed once again. There’s fifty million of us aboard this great ship, and everyone has to pull their weight.”

A doom-laden silence followed Mr Jones’ speech, and Webb wondered whether it had been intended to lay their fears to rest, or to prepare them for their inevitable lay-off. It had not been confidence-boosting.

Someone put up their hand: Compton, one of the quantity surveyors. “What happens if our services are no longer required?”

“I’m sure there are plenty of other opportunities out there,” Chapman replied. “I’m sure you’ll find something.”

As they filed out of the big conference room, Webb was jostled by a colleague. He looked up and saw it was Roberts, one of the inventory schedulers. “‘Plenty of opportunities’, my arse,” Roberts hissed in disgust. “Everywhere’s feeling the pinch.”

“You think we’re for the chop?” Webb asked.

“We wouldn’t have been in that room if we weren’t, mate,” Roberts replied. “Best start getting your files in order.”

He stalked off down the corridor.

#

It came as no surprise to Webb to discover he was one of the “casualties”. Chapman broke the news to him in the HR man’s office. There was no sign of Smith or Jones. “I am sorry,” Chapman assured Webb, “but you know how it is.”

Webb didn’t. He’d been in employment for twenty-three years, ever since leaving university, twenty of those years at British Small Parts. He didn’t know anyone who had been unemployed.

“What am I supposed to do?” he asked Chapman. “Who’s going to give me a job? Without a salary, I can’t pay my rent, or buy food, or anything.”

“There’ll be something, of course there will. There’s plenty of work available.”

“I was good at my job,” Webb protested.

“It’s not a matter of good or bad.”

“Of course it bloody is, you damn fool,” snapped Webb. “By getting rid of me you’re implying I was no good at my job. Or were the selections made completely randomly?”

“Well, of course they weren’t random. We have to do what’s best for the company. You had excellent reports, and we’ll be happy to pass them on as references.”

“But not excellent enough,” said Webb bitterly.

He wondered if Roberts or Compton had also been let go. Roberts had seemed to think the entire department would be. Webb asked Chapman if this were the case.

“I’m afraid I can’t say.”

“You don’t know?”

“Of course I know. But that information’s confidential. Could be bad for morale, you know.”

“My morale is already bad, you stupid idiot.”

Webb rose to his feet and marched out of Chapman’s office. He halted, briefly at a loss, as the door shut behind him. Which way was his own office? All these grey concrete corridors looked the same. Left or right? Not that it would be “his” office for much longer.

Remembering the way, he marched along the deserted corridor. After collecting his coat, he went home. His briefcase he left on his desk. It belonged to the department; he had only ever used it to carry printouts to and from his flat.

The monorail carriage was two-thirds empty. Webb recognised none of those present. Some had carrier-bags on the seats beside them. He tried to remember if he had enough food in the apartment. He had visited the shopping precinct, he seemed to remember, three evenings ago, so he should be fine for another four or five days…

And then what?

It was halfway through the month. Most of last month’s wages had already been spent on bills and such. He had enough money to feed himself for another couple of weeks, perhaps longer if he economised. But all his bills–rent, utilities, entertainment, etc.; when they came due, he wouldn’t be able to pay them.

The monorail reached Webb’s station. He trotted down the stairs from the carriage and turned absently towards the tunnel leading to his residential district. His mind a blank, he traced the route home, taking the necessary turns without conscious thought. It was only when he stood before his front door that he realised where he was. He slotted his key into the lock and turned the handle. Before opening the door, however, he looked at the other side of the corridor.

The void had gone–or rather, it had been concealed. A temporary wall of wooden sheeting, which looked thin and insubstantial, now covered the full length of the gap. Whoever had fitted it had not even bothered to paint it. Webb stepped across to it and tapped the wood gently, producing a hollow knock. The void was still there on the other side. The wood felt flimsy and Webb suspected it would prove no barrier should someone fall against it. He shuddered at the thought of plumetting down into that black emptiness.

Turning back to his apartment, he pushed open the door and stepped inside. Tonight he would celebrate his misery—finish that bottle of wine in the fridge and watch something on the wallscreen–and relish his self-pity. There was plenty of time to look for another job.

#

There was no work. Not for anyone with Webb’s experience and skills. His age also told against him. He wandered the precinct, furious at the blatant insincerity of the man in the recruitment agency. Webb had sat before the agent’s desk, a smile fixed on his face, knowing the agent’s glib assurances and mealy-mouthed apologies meant as much to him as the tea he’d spilt when he picked up his cup at the start of the interview. No one, apparently, was recruiting. The manufacturing sector was undergoing shrinkage. Even opportunities for cross-training were limited.

Webb stood on the mezzanine and gazed down at the lower level of the precinct, a wide grey pedestrianised street. The only dabs of colour were the shoppers, shuttling from store to store, resting occasionally at concrete benches. From his vantage point, Webb could see that several of the shops were closed, their plate-glass frontages boarded over with wooden sheeting. He shoved his hand in his pocket and fingered the few coins there. He was down to his last pennies. The bank account was empty, the bills were due any day. He had no money, and no means of earning any. He had no future.

He yanked his tie from about his neck and shoved it angrily into his jacket pocket. Stepping back from the concrete balustrade, he turned and headed towards the nearest monorail station. There was nothing for him here. The grey ceiling with its huge banks of fluorescent lights oppressed him. The blank angular faces of the buildings lining the precinct mocked him with their disregard. Even the brightly-coloured coats of the shoppers were a direct affront to his black mood.

During the trip home in the swaying monorail carriage, Webb brooded. He pulled his monthly travel ticket from his pocket and gazed mournfully at it. Two more days and it would expire. If he wanted to go anywhere after that, he’d have to walk. And it was at least five miles from his apartment to the shopping precinct–not, of course, that he could afford to purchase anything in the shops.

At his stop, he descended the stair from the carriage and walked with a heavy tread to his home. He shut the door carefully behind him and scanned his living-room as if seeing it for the first time. The three-piece suite, with its wood-veneer finish and wool upholstery. The wallscreen, glowing nacreously. The striped wallpaper in muted shades of brown and orange. The bookshelves, lined with the colourful spines of paperbacks…

He crossed to the settee and dropped into it. He considered switching on the wallscreen, perhaps setting it to display a view of the countryside on a summer’s day, a snapshot of England’s lost green and pleasant land. But it would mean bending forward and scooping up the remote control from the coffee-table before him. He rose to his feet, wandered desultorily about his apartment for ten minutes, and then went to lie on his bed.

Someone hammering on his door dragged him from sleep. He glanced at the glowing red digits of the alarm clock on the bedside cabinet and saw that it was nine o’clock the following morning. He’d slept the entire evening and night. He was still fully dressed. Feeling groggy from too much sleep, Webb clambered from the bed and padded through the living-room to the front door. He unlatched it and swung it open.

Standing outside, fist raised to hammer the door once again, was Webb’s landlord. Behind him, a muscular man in a polo-neck jumper loomed menacingly.

“Got next month’s rent?” the landlord demanded.

Webb blinked. He rubbed his eyes and yawned. “What’s this for?” he asked. Normally, Webb paid his rent directly, bank account to bank account.

“Heard you got the chop. If you’re going to stay here, I need to know you’ve the money for the rent.”

Bad news, Webb reflected ruefully, travelled fast. He shrugged. “I’ll have it for you,” he lied.

“When?”

“I don’t know; a week or so.”

“Not good enough. Pay up by the end of the week or get out.” The landlord jerked a thumb at the brute at his shoulder. “Or Mike here will chuck you out.”

Webb had never liked his landlord, but now he found himself hating him. The man’s reaction to Webb’s unemployment was not unexpected–in truth, everyone had reacted in the same way. No means of payment equals no services. And nothing was free.

“I’ll be out by then,” Webb said. “I need to figure out what to do with my stuff.”

“As long as you’re out.” The landlord turned away. Mike gave Webb a long, hard stare, and then followed his master.

Webb watched the two of them stride off, and knew there was no way back up. He had yet to reach bottom, but there was no escaping his inexorable slide downwards. There was no charity here, and the only fellow feeling offered was that which cost nothing. He closed the door slowly, and turned back to regard his living-room. His “stuff”: he could do nothing with it. He had no money to pay to store it; he did not have enough time to arrange to sell it. Even then, it was unlikely to raise enough money to pay for a month’s rent.

#

It was moot, anyway. As Webb discovered a few days later. He heard his front door splintering, and rushed out of the kitchen to see two uniformed men with axes chopping their way into his apartment. He recognised the uniforms–there was nothing he could do. Except:

“You could have just bloody knocked,” he said. But his heart wasn’t in the admonition.

“Sorry, mate,” said the first bailiff, shouldering his way through the hole he had made. “Standard procedure.”

The second bailiff squeezed through and explained, “We’re here to possess goods to the value of four hundred and twenty-seven pounds sterling and sixteen pence. In lieu of payment for one month’s subscription to Independent Syndicated Entertainment.”

“I don’t owe them any money,” Webb protested. “I paid for last month.”

“This is for next month.” The bailiff was big, with a battered face and hair shorn close to his scalp. His eyes, a curiously light blue, appeared more sympathetic than the set of his mouth. “Standard procedure, mate,” he said. “ISE always take money in advance. You got to give them one month’s notice if you want to cancel your subscription.”

They took away the bookcase, but not the books on it. The settee and matching armchair. And the colourful rug laid before the electric fire, which Webb had bought ten years ago in a curio shop.

The day worsened. While Webb was cobbling together lunch from what was left in the pantry, someone sneaked into the apartment through the ruined front door and stole his coffee-table. Later, he looked up from his jam sandwich and he saw a pair of faces at the door peering in. They shrugged guiltily and disappeared.

The landlord returned, with Mike in tow, and in a matter of minutes Webb found himself outside his apartment, a suitcase at his feet, while a carpenter repaired his front door and a locksmith fitted a new lock. Webb saw the flimsy wooden sheeting which formed the opposite wall of the corridor, and he thought about crashing through it, diving out into that great black space, and the long fall to oblivion. He thought about flying through darkness, downwards, ever downwards. He thought about the abrupt end–to his problems, to everything.

And he knew he could not do it.

Footsteps along the corridor drew his attention. Webb turned and watched a pair of policemen approach. They halted before him. “Move along,” one said.

“Where to?” asked Webb.

“You’ve nowhere to go?” asked the copper.

Webb shrugged.

“A vagrant, then,” said the second policeman; and reached forward and clamped a hand about Webb’s upper arm. “This way, sir.” He stepped back, hauling Webb with him.

“What about my suitcase?” Webb demanded. He glanced back over his shoulder as he was dragged way.

“You won’t need a suitcase where you’re going, sir,” said the policeman.

The whole incident had unfolded with such practiced ease, with such inevitability, that Webb had fallen into the role of felon without thought.

#

After a night in jail, Webb was arraigned before a magistrate, who found him guilty of vagrancy and remanded him to a debtors’ camp. He was taken to the camp in a police bus with covered windows—not that there was anything to see, only the blank concrete walls of road tunnels. Webb was one of a dozen being transported to the camp. Each of the transportees deliberately avoided making eye contact, but they all wore the same expression of bewilderment. They were not violent criminals, so they were unchained; they were merely people without the means to support themselves.

The trip took two hours, during which Webb tried not to think about what lay ahead. For more than twenty years, he had been in employment, he had paid his taxes and his bills. He had been an average law-abiding citizen of HMS Great Britain, a vast ship six hundred miles long, one hundred and fifty miles wide. How quickly that had changed!

At length, the bus drew to a halt, a prison guard boarded, and the prisoners were herded off the vehicle. Webb found himself in a large and typically featureless chamber with grey concrete walls, ceiling and floor. A tunnel for vehicles led into it from one side. On the opposite wall was a large metal gate. As he watched, the gate slowly swung open. More prison guards appeared and began shooing the prisoners towards the gate.

Webb had not expected this. A prison, perhaps, not this hangar-like space, not this shanty town made from tin and cardboard and corrugated iron, made from rubbish. And all the people milling about between the shacks and hovels. There must have been over a thousand of them, perhaps more, dressed in a variety of styles, chiefly hand-me-downs and homemade. While he stood there, unsure what to do, the gate closed behind him with a terminal clang.

The group of new prisoners were immediately approached by a welcoming committee. The leader was a short woman wrapped in many layers of clothing, with long thick grey hair in braids. She was accompanied by four men who had plainly been chosen for their size and menacing aspects.

“Are you perms or temps?” the woman demanded.

Webb didn’t understand. He was not the only new prisoner to look puzzled.

“Your debts: do you have someone outside who can pay them off, or not?”

In short order, Webb’s group was organised into two sections. The “perms” was the smaller of the two, only three including Webb himself. Someone led away the “temps”. The woman turned to the remaining three. “There’s food and shelter, and plenty of work that needs doing to keep the camp liveable. If you don’t work, you get nothing.”

“This is it?” demanded Webb. He was expected to spend the rest of his life in here? The woman, who looked to be in her sixties, had plainly been here for many years.

“What did you expect? You know how the economy works–if you’re not a contributor, you’re a drain on resources.”

#

There was a way out, but few took it. It was a last resort. They showed it to Webb after he’d been in the debtors’ camp for a month. At the back of the great chamber was a small metal hatch. Sellings, who had lived in the camp for over six years, spun the wheel on the hatch, and hauled it open. Webb followed the man through it and found himself in a small metal room, no more than ten feet by ten feet by ten feet. There was another hatch on the opposite wall. A strange smell filled the room, and it was a moment before Webb identified it. The sea. A clang sounded behind Webb. He glanced back to see Sellings had shut the first hatch.

In the yellow light of a single lamp, Sellings undogged and opened the second hatch. Bright light spilled into the room. Webb put his arm across his eyes. He could hear a strange rippling noise. The air was still and flat, but strangely invigorating, His eyes had adjusted, so he stepped forward and peered out of the open hatch.

He saw a vast expanse of blue. The dark blue, almost grey, of the sea below, and the clear azure of the sky above. Ripples in the water lapped gently against the concrete some two or three feet below the hatch coaming.

“We’re not moving,” Webb said.

Why was HMS Great Britain not sailing the seven seas?

“This is an island, mate,” said Sellings. “It can’t bloody move, can it.”

“But…” Webb didn’t understand.

“Think about it: a ship six hundred miles long and one hundred and fifty miles wide? How’s that going to sail anywhere?”

“So we’re still– Where are we?”

Sellings pointed out to sea. “That’s the Continent over there. Europe. France. You can’t see it, it’s over the horizon. About twenty miles away. That’s your only way out.”

“‘Way out’?”

“Swim it. You have to swim across to France.”

But it was twenty miles. No one could swim that far, could they? Webb said as much.

“Of course they can. People have been doing it for nearly a century. You need to be careful, and take your time, but it can be done.”

It seemed to Webb a somewhat drastic exit, but then he thought back to life in the debtors’ camp, the makeshift nature of it all. He’d learned the camp was only one of many, all sited along the south coast, where the great engines of HMS Great Britain were allegedly located. The forgotten, and discarded, of British society. Europe, Sellings assured Webb, was a free society. Better still, the Europeans looked after their citizens, provided for them when they were no longer fit or able to work. The French and the Dutch and the Germans and the Belgians… all of them, they provided free healthcare, education, subsidised transport, unemployment benefit…

Or Webb could stay in Britain, eking out an existence in the debtor’s camp, surviving on what he could scrounge, or beg, or earn keeping the camp tidy and safe.

“Twenty miles, you said?” he asked Sellings.

#

I have no one to write to, no family or friends, but I’m going to write this letter anyway. Perhaps I’ll put it in a bottle and throw it into the sea. I can’t see Great Britain from here, it is over the horizon, the great concrete “ship”, still anchored to Europe, despite the lies told the British population. I can see the water of the Channel through the chainlink fence surrounding this refugee camp. Above me is the open sky. No more concrete ceilings, no more fluorescent lighting. I’ve become used to the open air, in fact I find I now prefer the sky above me. I never really felt free in Britain, and perhaps that was as much because of the roof permanently over my head as it was the ceaseless drive to contribute to the economy.

We’re not allowed out of the refugee camp, but we want for nothing. The French authorities provide food, shelter and medical care. It’s basic, but it’s free. There are perhaps fifty or sixty of us here. Some swam across the Channel, as I did, although many apparently perish making the attempt. Others constructed floats or boats and came that way. We’re welcomed when we reach the French shore, and temporarily housed in these camps.

Yes, “temporarily”. The French are finding homes for us throughout Europe. They even give us a choice. I’m expected to find a job once I settle down—wherever I settle down—but it’s not a crime to be unemployed. I’ve been learning Spanish as I fancy living somewhere warm and sunny. In fact, there’s an area on the south coast of Spain which is untouched and apparently very lovely. I think it was the name which drew me to it—the “Sun Coast”. Costa del Sol. Yes, I think I like that name very much.

I think I shall be happy there.