Imagine an age of enlightenment

VIDEO

If only it were real. But it’s by Canny AI, an upstart company in Israel (of all places). My point in posting is that we’re living in an age where the lines between truth and fiction are almost indistinguishable, and where Artificial Intelligence could make it impossible to tell fake news from reality.

It doesn’t have to be like this. If only this divided world’s future leaders could forget their nations’ differences and personal agendas, and unite in a common cause to save our only home, this fantasy might be a lesser stretch of the imagination.

If only it were that simple. All we need to do is keep talking.

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The invention of the pencil case

If it wasn’t for humans, other people would have the time and space to write

FLASH FICTION

Dog Pencil Case

THE INVENTION OF THE PENCIL CASE

The strangest lunch I ever had was with a veterinary doctor, and it was the meal which finally turned me vegetarian. I should note at the start, we didn’t eat any domestic pets.

I first met Dr Hannah Jones when we worked on a film together, and we’d remained friends since. We’d meet up every now then, I’d tell her stories from the writing world and she’d give me ideas from her field of science. It was Hannah who’d suggested we meet, as she said she had something important for me.

We met at a pop-up cafe at the Camden end of Regent’s Park. It was an indifferent day weather wise, unable to decide what it wanted to do. We sat outside nonetheless, as we both like to people-watch: me making up stories of what people in the park might be away from that setting, Hannah priding herself on identifying the bits of cross-breeds and mongrels, and sometimes scoring the dogs’ humans on parts of their anatomy.

The Camden end of the park is quieter nowadays, and at one point on that particular Saturday, we counted only 16 legs besides our own. It’s been that way since the last fire at the zoo, and that’s what Hannah said she wanted to tell me about. But first we ordered food. I went for a rare steak with fries, and Hannah chose a vegetarian pizza.

The cafe backed on to the old zoo, now a construction site. The distant sound of hammers and saws competed with the clatter of dishes from the cafe, which was quite arresting. The animals’ former home was being demolished in the background, while I was waiting for part of a former animal to arrive before me.

So I turned to Hannah, and asked her what she wanted to tell me. Something she’d been working on perhaps, some veterinary breakthrough, or anything I might use as a story.

You remember the first fire,” Hannah said, “and the cause was unknown?” She didn’t have to remind me. The London Zoo fire of 2017 killed four meerkats and Mischa the aardvark, and the cause of the blaze was never made public. I nodded. “Well,” she continued, “some colleagues of mine found out what started the latest one.”

Many more had perished in the great fire of 2020, and there was extensive structural damage. Most of the remaining exhibits had been moved to other zoos, and all who remained were the rarest and most threatened in the wild. Our food arrived and suddenly, char-grilled animal wasn’t terribly appetising.

So what was it?” I asked, as Hannah chewed righteously on her veggie pizza.

The kind of thing,” she said, “that is never likely to be made public.”

So why would you tell me?” I wondered.

Because you’re a fiction writer. If you write it, no-one will believe you.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I smiled nonetheless as I ate a fry.

Go on then,” I prompted. Hannah looked at my steak.

Aren’t you going to eat that?”

It doesn’t have the same sort of appeal it once had,” I said.

But that’s such a waste.” She was right. “Such a shame that not only does someone have to die to feed you, but their selfless act is unappreciated and their sacrifice goes to waste.” She had a point. “And pity the poor chef, cooking that for you, only to have it returned like there’s something wrong with it.” The only thing wrong was me eating it. As I chewed reluctantly, Hannah told me the story of the great fire.

I’ve got a friend who was in the forensics team. She told me this, and she told me not to tell anyone.”

So you’re telling me,” I said, “because if I write about it, no-one will believe it.”

But you’ll believe me,” she replied. “So, after the fire brigade put out the fire, they identified the seat of the blaze, in a pile of hay.”

Someone’s bed?” I wondered. “Did it catch in the sun?”

No,” Hannah replied, “it was deliberate.”

Someone started it deliberately?”

Yes.”

Arson. Why?”

We don’t know if it was. It started in the mountain gorilla area.”

Someone threw a lighter in?” I imagined it wouldn’t take long to work out how a lighter worked.

No,” Hannah said again. “It was all enclosed in strengthened glass.”

A keeper dropped a lighter?”

Nope.” She was getting quite smug now, knowing what I didn’t. I tried again.

So maybe the sun did start it, like the magnifying glass effect.”

All of the above remained possibilities for a while, and that’s how it’ll remain on the public record. Just like the first one: cause unknown.”

So what do you know which no-one else does, including me?”

This.” She unfolded a sheet of paper, a photo, and handed it to me. It was like a scenes of crime picture: little plastic signs with numbers on, dotted around the ground, like a golf course for ants, and an arrow pointing to a singed spot of earth about the size of a dinner plate. “That’s the seat of the fire.”

And this is inside the gorilla enclosure?”

Yes. Where this came from.” Hannah rummaged in her bag, then handed me something rolled in newspaper. “It’s what’s inside.”

Inside was a piece of dried wood about the size of a pencil case, with a small crater burned into the centre.

What the actual…” I didn’t finish.

Hold on,” Hannah said, “there’s this as well.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out what looked like a burnt pencil.

I knew by now what it really was, and it had a much bigger story to tell.

It seemed somehow poetic to write it down, lest anyone hear, so I used the charred, sharpened end:

THEY DISCOVERED FIRE?

Hannah nodded.

© Steve Laker, 2018

Simon Fry first meets Doctor Hannah Jones in Cyrus Song, where this story was born.

Buy me a coffee one off

Life can be a gift (subject to status)

FLASH FICTION

Life in Tory Britain is subject to status. With social budgets cut, services out-sourced to the cheapest private bidder (usually a company one of the cabinet or a spouse is a stakeholder in), and parts of the NHS poised to be sold to US ‘care providers’, it’s nothing short of social cleansing. If you have money, you can afford to live. If not, the fascist regime will grind you down…

Ticks TowersGetty Images

TICKS

To continue enjoying this programme, please top up your viewing card. Thank you for choosing Living Loans.

She’d embraced the Living Loans rep at their first meeting. So friendly, right down to the company logo, a smiling cartoon figure, with comically long arms. Short-term credit loans were just the icing. The cake was the free Smart TV: fifty inches of ultra high definition, with all the streaming services her and the kid could eat. The rep installed it for her, and did away with complicated and confusing subscriptions. Weekly loans were loaded onto a single debit card, which doubled as a viewing card. Her whole life, on one simple piece of plastic.

Topping up was a simple £2 call on her Living Loans mobile. The week just lived was paid for. Television time would have to be rationed, and food for her and the kid would come from the bank.

With the kid fed and asleep, she microwaved a ready meal, with an extra 30 seconds, ‘just to be sure’. She lit a candle, and got cosy in a Onesie for Eastenders.

To continue enjoying this programme, please top up your viewing card. Thank you for choosing Living Loans.

£2 can do so much. With a quick call, it can summon another human soul, a friend to talk to and sort out problems. A chat with a smiling person, with long arms to reach into their pockets and help. She eagerly signed the new contract, ticked the boxes, and regained her life. She needn’t fear the postman any longer.

***

Dear valued customer,

There are insufficient funds in your account to maintain your contractual agreement with Living Loans. We understand that you may be experiencing financial difficulties and we are sympathetic to any partner who finds themselves in this position, so we would like to assist you in any way we can.

To ensure that you continue to enjoy the benefits of your Living Loans membership, we simply ask that you join our exclusive Living Lives Health Plan. Members are automatically contracted out of the National Health Service and benefit from private healthcare in our nationwide network of clinics. Our clinics offer one-to-one consultations, treatments and surgical procedures.

What’s more, initial consultations are free, so that you can get a feel for the level of care which we offer at our clinics. Thereafter, to receive ongoing medical care, simply insert your Living Lives membership card into any of our on-site drug or treatment administration terminals, located conveniently around our facilities.

The Living Lives Health Plan, brought to you by Living Loans: Loans for Life.

She signed where the crosses indicated, and ticked the boxes.

© Steve Laker, 2014.

My books are available from Amazon.

Note from previous self (1984)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Dear future self,

I made an electronic poster for you:

Mirror Test Card

If this monitor was a mirror, you’d see the interference from the Big Bang left over in radio waves all around us in the cosmic static. Unfortunately you adopted digital broadcasting to free up the communication waves, and your government encrypted much of what was left behind.

Let me know if you get this.

Piss art on the streets of any town

POETRY

streetlamp

“This place is heroically awful”

HORROR FICTION

Blood dripping

When the kebab shops close, I go out for dinner in my mind. Sometimes I visit an old haunt and talk about something else. I read ancient graffiti in a different place. This is a story from my second anthology, of a writer moving from one field to another. It’s a tale of dark mirrors and cult followings, of a human consumed. Dining in the belly of cults…

Ash TrumpDonald Trump In Famous Horror Movie Scenes (BuzzFeed)

AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S DINER

If the proprietors of this new place in Islington were looking to make it almost impossible to find, then make diners regret the effort when they did arrive and found a shuttered steel door, they have succeeded magnificently. But this was just a prelude to the rest of a pleasingly disturbing night at London’s first horror-themed diner, in a converted old warehouse on the edge of Holloway.

The weirdness begins as soon as my partner and I walk in on a gloomy Friday evening, not to anything resembling a restaurant, but an old lighting shop, frozen somewhere in the 1980s, and a large sign: ‘No children’. The business had clearly been one of selling lights, lamps and an array of artists’ materials. The shop – or showroom – occupies a large studio on the ground floor, where the previous tenants had apparently manufactured their own designs as well.

A plastic pink elephant, big enough for a child to sit on, holds a human skull in its trunk, and the skull’s eyes glow green. There’s a naked androgynous shop window mannequin, decapitated, and the head replaced with a shoulder-width light unit, with red, amber and green bulbs. It’s like a humanoid hammerhead cyborg traffic light. On the far side of the studio, a metal sign bears the previous occupant’s name: SHADES. But the first letter is obscured by a neon pink, flashing arrow, pointing down some stairs to what is now HADES.

Downstairs, the basement restaurant is starkly and sparingly lit with bare red bulbs, like those still in front of singed lace curtains in some of old Soho’s upstairs windows. And again, ‘No children’.

The place is like a horror and cult film museum, with rare old posters framed on the walls. I note Night and Fog, Man Bites Dog, Gummo, August Underground’s Mordum, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. I somehow think the night will be.

There are display cabinets, some free-standing on the floors, and others on the wall. In the larger displays are costumes, including Pinhead’s leathers and Freddie Kruger’s jersey, hat and glove. There’s a stuffed alien in a cabinet, and a face-hugger pickled in a jar on the wall. There’s a stuffed St Bernard (presumably Cujo), and (my favourite) an E.D.209 enforcement droid outside the toilets. I could go on (about the Bates Motel guest book, Damian Thorp’s tricycle and lots of other paraphernalia), but I’m here to review the food. For a moment, I think I see Grace Dent at a distant table.

A few other diners are dotted around: a young couple, having a horrifically romantic evening, and a group of business types, clearly working on someone’s bonus or expenses. There’s a dog under the young couple’s table, a beagle I think. Dogs are okay here, but children aren’t.

We’re seated in a booth, and I discuss my next project with my guest. After this restaurant article, I’m embarking on a slightly new path, that of horror fiction. How a food critic came to write horror may be the subject of future stories, by me or by others. But with this opportunity providing the perfect link, it’s perhaps relevant to fill in some details.

I’m here with my agent, which is entirely in parallel with the journey I’m about to make. It was he, after all, who advised me to stick with factual writing, and specifically food, when I foolishly tried to convince him I could be a horror writer. With the benefit of hindsight, he was right to keep me away, and indeed my restaurant reviews have picked up what I like to think of as a cult following (and I do have spellcheck on).

The problem with a cult (it’s still on), is that once it gets too big, it ceases to be. So it seemed logical to maintain that status by going underground, where only the determined and curious follow. Therefore, it is completely logical for me to now be sitting in an underground horror-themed restaurant with the agent who has held me back, as I move from one life to the next.

One of the businessmen clicks his fingers and shouts “Garçon!”, which I’m not sure is the correct etiquette here.

The menu is like a coffee table book. There’s the menu itself, with ‘Jemma’s’ at the top. Then before the dishes, an obituary for Jemma Redmond, an Irish biotechnology pioneer and innovator, who first used human stem cells in 3D printer ‘ink’, then developed the technology to make it affordable and portable. The upshot: Replacement human organs, on-demand where needed. Jemma Redmond died 16.08.16, aged 38.

After the menu is a history of the kitchen, presented as a retro-futuristic brochure for ‘Kitchens by Jigsaw’, with photographs of industrial food processing and preparation machinery, like room-size interlocking clockwork engines made from brushed steel. There are mechanical drawings of the industrial cutters, grinders, mincers and cooking appliances, like Cenobite puzzle cubes splayed open into diagrams by Maurits Cornelis Escher.

The book finishes off with a few short stories by writers who already enjoy cult status in horror. They’re like Lovecraft, Kafka, King and Poe, but sick and twisted Teletubbies, writing tributes to the YouTube trollbot films of old, made from spliced children’s shows. Seeing Lady Penelope gang-raped by Thunderbirds, Zebedee nailed to the ground, and Dylan decapitated, will turn anyone from food critic to twisted fiction writer, trying to excuse what they’ve seen. And at the bottom of every page, the message is repeated: ‘No children’. This seems almost a mission statement.

The menu itself is horrified, with things like ‘Steak by Leatherface*’, ‘Suicide Club Fugu*’, ‘Triffid salad*’, and the simply-named ‘Naked Lunch*’. There’s a nod to the trollbots, with ‘Peppa Pig, hand-prepared by Kruger’s’, and there’s ‘Specials’, more akin to challenges, in the size and heat of dishes.

A ‘Crispy aromatic hind quarter of suckling’ at 64 ounces, can be had for free, if it’s eaten in under an hour. I’m more intrigued by what kind of animal could still be suckling when a part of it is that size. It comes with ‘optional extra ghost sauce’, implying that a dollop of burning ectoplasm has already begun to eat into the flesh (you get fries with that).

Another is ‘Dante’s wings’, described as ‘Nine wings of increasing fire, before you wish that more heat might rescue you from the hell pain of death.’ (That comes with fries, too). If I’m to remain outside Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and ‘survive’, the book of the dead says I will go free.

*Vegetarian options can all be printed.

As this is on me, I pay. I settle up when we order, so as to be done with the formalities. There’ll be no quarrels over splitting the bill, and the tip from my anticipated earnings is sufficient to cover any kind of evening we decide to enjoy.

I’ve seen a few staff walking around, like cosplay characters at Jack Rabbit Slims. But where Tarantino’s joint was staffed by 1950s and 60s film stars, August’s has horror icons.

Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees serve tables, while Pennywise and Leatherface work behind the bar. Freddie Kruger taps his fingers on the counter, speaking to Pinhead (presumably both have more than one set of clothes). And they really get into character here too. If it wasn’t for the (understandable) adults-only entry, I could imagine those two gleefully popping birthday balloons at children’s tables.

Samara Morgan approaches the business types and reminds one that “Garçon means boy.” The server is a young Japanese girl, so perhaps she’s Sadako Yamamura. After she leaves, one of the men says something and the others laugh, attracting Pinhead’s gaze. I wonder what a headbutt must feel like.

We’re served by Candyman (or one of them), and I wonder what it might be like to come here on one’s birthday, would these characters sing ‘Happy birthday’? Perhaps, but only before killing the patron who’d asked for such a thing, so that they may not speak of it again.

The Candyman character isn’t all bad (really, if you read the story): The Candyman of legend emerges from a mirror. He has a hooked hand, he’s covered with bees, and he has revenge on his mind.

The Candyman was once a slave, called Daniel Robitaille, who was an accomplished painter. The plantation owner asked Daniel to paint a portrait of his daughter, and she and Daniel fell in love. Her father, the racist, had Daniel hunted down by a mob and run out of town. They chased him until he collapsed, exhausted, then cut off his hand with a rusty saw, smothered him in honey and threw him into a beehive, chanting “Candyman, Candyman…” Before he died, Daniel vowed to return and exact his revenge upon them.

Conversely, many classic fairy tales, enjoyed by children for centuries, have their origins in ancient folk tales, myths and legends. Little Red Riding Hood is a particularly gruesome one, based on a 16th century French fable. Back then, rape wasn’t a crime. In fact, there wasn’t even a word for it. The story is a warning to young girls, of all that stalks the night. The wolf is a representative predator and the woods a metaphor for the world beyond childhood. The girl collects flowers before going to her granny’s house, where the wolf entices her into bed, dressed as her granny. The wolf eating the girl is a metaphor for rape (and the granny before, the man this wolf represents being a particularly perverted individual). The huntsman cutting them free can be seen as a metaphor for childbirth or abortion. It’s no wonder the stories are dressed up, but those ancient horrors served to protect. Like ‘No children’ here.

One of the men from the other table nearly bumps into the E.D.209 as he walks in an arc to the toilet, and the remainder carry on talking quietly. The young couple seem oblivious to the horrors around them, as they’re lost in their own story of dark love. If I were to guess, I’d say they’re art school graduates, or possibly musicians. The dog seems content, with a steady supply of food handed down to it.

I order a steak from Leatherface’s list of prime cuts, a rare rump (you get fries with that). My companion orders from the printed menu, and I wonder if he’s a vegetarian. Our working relationship has been distant, so we’ve never dined before. Truth be known, I’d never have taken him out for a meal unless it was to celebrate us parting company.

The tension only became tangible recently, when in fact it’s been simmering away for some months now, as I’ve been finding myself, and trying to redefine myself, but I’ve felt restricted, bound and gagged by an employer who dictates and dismisses rather than listen. Perhaps I shouldn’t be using a restaurant review to slag the guy off, but he’s paid me for this and I want to use it as a crossover, an artistic gift to demonstrate to someone who’s set in their ways, that people can change. He says writers should stick with one discipline, where I grow restless when compartmentalised. I want to express myself more, and write more useful things.

He says a food critic is useful, as are all factual writers, because they inform people. My point has become one of having many points to make, and fiction will better allow me to do that, like all those classic fairy stories. For starters, I can tell of the wonders in this place, while making it very clear why they have a ‘No children’ policy. I believe more than he does that more people can be spoken to through fiction, because while one demographic might see a wonderful story, another may see the unwritten parallels and warnings. The man’s a total arse, but in a way, I’m doing him a favour. Let’s face it, I’d never get paid for another review after this one. But a shocking venue deserves a similar review.

I’m bored of writing for the same people, the kind of people who can afford to come to a place like this, but it was from within those that some of my cult following (still on) emerged, and it was their encouragement which gave me the push I needed. So readers, you know who you are, I salute you and I will see you in other places soon. As for the rest, try this place (but don’t bring the kids).

The businessmen are still one short, as they continue their muted banter. The young couple are still young and in love, and the dog asleep.

There’s nothing shocking about my steak when it arrives, perfectly cooked and seeping blood (you get fries with it, to mop up). But it’s curious and surprising in its taste and texture.

Although I just called my agent an arse, there is one word I will never use, in a review or elsewhere. It’s that word beginning with ‘M’, so beloved of some foodies, but if I even see the word on a menu, I’ll leave a place immediately and vow to never return. I’ve seen some savage cinema but that word is a monstrosity on its own and in any context.

This steak is juicy, sweet, marbled with fat and perfectly seasoned. A quick glance at the menu again and I learn that the meat is produced on the premises daily. The burgeoning horror writer in me imagines the kitchen by Jigsaw extending into an on-site abattoir, with this old warehouse site easily able to accommodate one. I’m slightly disappointed when the businessman returns from the toilet. The young couple are still very much into the atmosphere, and one another.

We choose desserts from the ‘Peter Davidson trolley’, all of which are from ‘The Universe at the end of Upper Street’. My ‘Ectoplasmic jelly’ is a green snot-like goo, which I can’t help think kids would love for its sheer grossness. But although it looks like a freshly caught Slimer ghost, it tastes of toasted marshmallow. My companion has something resembling a splayed vagina, which he says smells of fresh body odour (it does) but tastes like scented cream (lavender). It tastes to me like something I couldn’t mention, even in horror fiction. It’s that fucking M-word.

We finish with cocktails from a list of horrors, which aren’t the drinks themselves but the theatre which surrounds their delivery. Our bloody Marys summon the Candyman with our drinks, then Pinhead offers olives, from his head.

The businessmen are getting raucous and the young couple amorous, so we decide to leave, bidding the place farewell.

Back outside, it’s long since dark and a few of the other buildings around the old warehouse are lit up, a couple of accident repair and MOT units, and a children’s adventure play centre.

Now we go our separate ways. He’s off to pander more to the privileged, while I remain a cult and still poor, writing more fiction. Some will be horrible tales, but with a moral message.

As for August Underground’s Diner, for the kind of people who can afford to come here, I’d say bring the kids and leave them in the play centre. For those who can’t afford it, try one of the food challenges and eat for free.

© Steve Laker, 2018

MoS2 Template Master

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

Parlez-vous les kangourou?

ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS

Is it possible to write animal language? This was a question asked directly of me on Quora, and it’s all down to interpretation. After all, no matter what anyone says, they have no control over how that message is received, but that’s a larger sphere for another discussion.

There’s a story (possibly apocryphal), of an explorer pointing to an animal he’d never seen before and asking a native what it was: “Kangaroo”. But ‘kangaroo’ simply meant ‘I don’t know.’ Do animals want to tell us something? All rabbits look like they have something on their mind, all the time. Is it possible to write animal language?

Apps for catsApps for cats

It’s something probably within near-reach of current technology, but while it remains theoretical, there’s always the fictional. Is it possible to write animal language(s)? I gave it a go, because someone had to let everyone know what the animals are thinking on this home world we all share. They were here first. It’s theirs, and we are only guests, with a moral responsibility to clean up our mess.

As this question was requested directly from me, I shan’t shy from mentioning my science fiction novel, which is central to my answers (it may be because I wrote that book that someone asked me specifically).

Cyrus Song has two main premises, and it’s a tribute to two people who’ve been influential on me in my literary and scientific lives: Douglas Adams and Stephen Hawking. It was the famous quote by the latter, sampled on Pink Floyd’s song ‘Keep Talking’: “For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk…” Of course it refers to humans, but I turned it on its head and wondered what it would be like if we learned to talk with the animals. Incidentally, the alternative title to that Pink Floyd track is ‘Cyrus Song’, Cyrus being a name for our parent star, Sol.

Then I had Douglas Adams and his original invention of the universal translation device: the Babel fish, which eventually disproved God in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I put that to use as a quantum computer program in Cyrus Song, to come up with a universal translation device for animals. Cyrus Song is clearly fiction, but my near-future sci-fi will always have a grounding in current science, at least scientific theory. I like to think my science fiction is plausible.

We already have universal translation, and can hear most human languages translated to our own as we speak through a device or algorithm. We’re on the verge of quantum computing and the vast power they represent, unimaginable in current computers. And we’re already setting AI to task on working out the really difficult questions we can’t yet answer, because our brains can’t process the huge amounts of data (a cure for cancer, the search for extraterrestrial life). With a greater human awareness of the other people we share a home with, humans are researching animal communication more (we know that much of what they say it outside our audible range, that whales and dolphins have incredibly complex languages, and that some animals can use a form of telepathy) and could yet build that tower of Babel.

I predict that something like the Babel fish could be with us in about five years, but for now it’s imagined as one possible answer to mankind’s biggest questions, of life, the universe and everything. I figured if we could talk to the animals, we might change.

I believe that humanity is at a pivotal evolutionary point, where we could equally save or destroy ourselves with the science and technology we’ve made. With the world seemingly just waiting for WW3, the only saviour I could see would be the sudden intervention of a common foe, to unite previously warring factions.

The same science and technology could take us to the stars, leaving this planet for those who were here before us. We have a lot of mess to clear up first, and for now we’re stuck here. So instead of a common foe, I see a common interest which we can all unite behind as one race, the human race. That’s our shared home. And when we look around, the answers we’re looking for are everywhere.

Is it possible to write animal languages? I did my best to interpret what I think they’d like us to know. If we take the time to listen, we might be better guests in their home.

Cyrus Song (with perfectly plausible answers to the questions of life, the universe and everything) is available now.