Hitching through the pages

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Christmas was a time to lay some things to rest, while contemplating what lies ahead, both figuratively and literally. I’m in the final pre-publication phase of my next book, with foundations in place for the one which follows, and many places to visit (although not in person). Still though, sometimes I wonder how I got here.

HHGG Whale

Four years ago I was homeless, and now I write books. The next – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is an anthology of twenty tales, all of which stand alone but tell a longer story together. The collection can be dipped in and out of at random, or read as a whole, making it effectively two books in one.

I’ve kept the dedications and acknowledgements simple:

For those who are courageous enough to tell their own stories, and for the ones who can’t be heard. And for those who read, and make the life of the writer a less lonely one.

To those who encouraged me to keep writing, friends, family, and other writers. And to those who like to explore and discover, who’ve listened to my stories.

I out-sourced the back cover text, which was written by another genre author:

These are collected tales from an author variously compared to the surrealists Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, the horror writers Kafka, Lovecraft, King and Poe, and with Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Roald Dahl and Paul Auster.

“A writer who can hold a black mirror to the soul, and who has a deep insight into the human condition,” these are stories of fairy tale fantasy, plausible and whimsical science fiction, near-future vision and surreal dreams, with drops of dark humour. Tales of post-human landscapes mix with everyday slices of life to tell a longer story with a dark heart.

“A weird and thought-provoking journey…”

I liked it, I changed nothing and no money was exchanged. So I asked if they’d like to say something nice “About the author”:

Steve Laker is a divorced father of two, living in a wonky studio above a coffee shop in a Kent village, where he writes.

His critically-acclaimed science fiction novel – Cyrus Song – was described by one critic as “Like the surrealist writers Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, with a substantial nod, of course, to Douglas Adams, who can make the impossibly strange seem mundane and ordinary. Steve Laker pulls this extraordinary juggling act off admirably well, producing a very good, thought-provoking, page-turning, and also at times darkly comic read.”

This is the author’s second short story collection, with the first – The Perpetuity of Memory – described as “Like a Black Mirror for the page, these stories flit between dark sci-fi and psychological horror but are always underlined by a salient sense (and deep understanding of) the human condition.”

Steve Laker has also written an award-winning children’s book – A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie – and continues to publish short fiction in magazines and online.

So that’s all nice.

The final stage is one last re-read of the whole book, before sending it off for a press proof, then it’ll be on various shelves in a couple of weeks. The next main project is Silent Gardens, and I have short stories in progress for various publications and a likely third anthology. Later next year, I’ll begin Cyrus Song II.

I’m fully committed, at least to myself and to writing, for the whole of 2018. That’s a nice place for a writer to be, but I’m very aware that in 2019 I’ll be the same age Douglas was. He once said, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

I got a lot of help from people I met along the way as a hitch hiker. Now, it’s the people who hitch with me who keep me going; the followers, the likers and the readers. So thanks for being here.

All of my books are available from Amazon and other book sellers.

A prelude to the Cyrus Song

THE WRITER’S LIFE

So, there’s going to be this book. I may have mentioned it once or twice. That’s because it’s a good book, and it’s not just me who says so. And everything surrounding the book has just happened, by weird coincidence and by virtue of the number 42.

AuthorBookPosterDate

Coincidences are there to be found in many things, if you look enough. It just so happens that Cyrus Song took about seven months to write. Since then, it’s gone through another two months of compiling, editing and re-reading. In my own eyes, it’s perfect. There are one or two reviews due back from test readers in the next few days, but the reviews so far have been good:

I don’t think I’ve read anything else which is as funny as it is deep.”

A worthy tribute to Douglas, but it’s totally its own thing.”

Very, very clever.”

I love all the little tributes buried in here.”

And so on (names and addresses supplied).

There’s much more besides, happening on my own planet and in the wider world, but I’m pre-occupied with getting this book out. I’m still suffering separation anxiety from my characters while they’re in the care of the beta readers. So what about when the book is published, and Simon fry, Hannah Jones et al, are in the hands of (hopefully) many readers? By then, they’ll be characters I’m proud of enough, and confident in, to send out into the wider world. I love them anyway: They’re people I created, including all their problems, and they’re people I care about. While they’re still with those remaining test readers, they’re still effectively out on approval. They’re like my children on the first day of pre-school.

Many people reading the book, may actually learn a lot. Not just from the story itself, but from all the factual information in there. I always do a lot of research, and that’s certainly true of this book. All the science is plausible, and many of the places actually exist. When it comes to London Zoo, the animals in the book are the animals actually at ZSL Regent’s Park at time of writing: Kumbuka, the silverback gorilla, is real, as are the pair of black mambas in the reptile house. And there are many others, from Aardvark to Zebra.

Now that the manuscript is otherwise complete, and the book proofed, I can take a stab at a publication date (which adds up to 42): 17.08.17. Whereas – like Douglas – I’ve previously loved the whooshing sound a deadline makes as it passes, this may be one where I can jump off of the train while it’s still moving, and hit the platform running: If anything, Cyrus Song should be released by that date, so possibly before. I’m sure I’ll find a way of making 42 from whatever numbers they are.

And now that the time approaches and I’ve had almost all feedback, I can write a longer synopsis to the one on the back cover of the book:

Simon Fry is convinced that the answer to life, the universe and everything, is in the earth itself. Specifically, he believes that if he could talk with the animals, he’d find the answers. Or at least, the questions which need to be asked for the answer to make any kind of sense. Doctor Hannah Jones is a veterinary surgeon. She has a quantum computer, running a program called the Babel fish: Like its fictitious namesake, the Babel fish can translate any language to and from any other. Elsewhere, Mr Fry considers what might be possible if historical scientists were able to make use of all that would be new to them in the 21st century. Having watched Jurassic Park, he is fairly sure he can make this a reality. So begins one man’s quest to find answers to questions he doesn’t know yet. Cyrus Song is the story of Mr Fry’s ponderous mission to find answers to questions he never knew he had, about himself, life, the universe and everything. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s a story of boy meets girl, but it’s not a love story. But in a way, it is, because the book is a greater story: Animals talk; There are pan-galactic microscopic animals; and there are white mice. There’s a rabbit, because all rabbits always look like they want to say something. We find out the truth about many animals, including what the cats are up to. There’s an accidental human clone, a large supporting cast of characters, and many tributes in cameo roles for people whom I admire. I’ve buried some Easter Eggs in the book too.

And there is an answer. There’s an answer to life, the universe and everything, besides 42 (although 42 does get a mention). It’s a tribute to Douglas Adams and I saved the best review till second-to-last:

This is a worthy offshoot of Douglas’ books, and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A tribute, but very much original.” (Name and address supplied).

It’s science fiction but it’s plausible; It’s deep in meaning, and very funny. I can’t say much more beyond the extended synopsis, because of what’s in the book. People may read this book and choose not to give too much away: A bit like the film, The Cabin in the Woods, talking about it could reveal spoilers. That’s what I hope for most: for those who’ve read it to say to others, “You just have to read it.”

Soon my creation and my characters will be out there in the wider world, and I have every confidence they’ll do well. You have been listening to the prelude to the Cyrus Song, brought to you by the number 42.

How the fuck did you think of this? Where did you get the idea?” (With my imagination).

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It started with The Division Bell

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

Cyrus Song FB Cover

It was as I sat one night, listening to The Division Bell by Pink Floyd, that my next book occurred to me. Track 9 on that album is “Keep Talking”, which features the Stephen Hawking quote: “For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk…” And that gave me an idea: Cyrus Song.

“Cyrus” is a name sometimes given to the sun: Sol; the star which gave birth to our planet. The Cyrus song is the sound of the sun. The rough synopsis is on the Book Shelf page of this blog:

Simon Fry is convinced that the answer to life, the universe and everything, is in the earth itself. Specifically, he believes that if he could talk with the animals, he’d find the answers. Or at least, the questions which need to be asked for the answer to make any kind of sense. Doctor Hannah Jones, a veterinary surgeon, has a quantum computer, running a program called The Babel Fish: Like its fictitious namesake, The Babel Fish can translate any language to and from any other. Elsewhere, Mr Fry considers what might be possible if historical scientists were able to make use of all that would be new to them in the 21st century. Having watched Jurassic Park, he is pretty sure he can make this a reality. So begins one man’s quest to find answers to questions he doesn’t know yet. Cyrus song is the story of Mr Fry’s voyage to find answers and love in the world: What could possibly go wrong?

Follow the Facebook page for updates.

I’m writing Chapter 11 now, and a December publication date looks likely, by whichever means. All I can then hope is that people read it and like it, then tell others. It’s been well-received by a few trusted writing peers I’ve shared it with, so I have confidence in the book and myself.

The book started life, after that Pink Floyd song, when I wrote a short story. That went down so well that I was encouraged to write the book. Until it’s finished though, this was the first chapter:

Chapter One: Cyrus Song

This perfectly credible story begins very unexpectedly, with a decimal point. As with many stories, this one involves something being out of place. In this case, that was a decimal point.

I’d left my desk to make some coffee and as I came back into the study, I thought I saw something move on the sheet of paper in my typewriter. I was writing a little fantasy science fiction story for a magazine and I’d hit a bit of a block near the beginning, so I’d taken a break. It’s funny how things work in fiction sometimes and having that little pause was what I needed to start the story properly.

Before I continued writing, I re-read the little I’d already typed: something wasn’t right. I checked my research notes, wondering if I’d misinterpreted something but nothing sprang out. I looked back up at the paper in the typewriter and that’s when I noticed a decimal point had moved. I looked more closely and my original decimal point was still where I’d put it, so this other one had just appeared. Then it moved again: The one which had simply materialised, walked across the page. It didn’t have discernible legs but it moved nonetheless.

I picked up my magnifying glass from the side table to get a closer look at this little moving thing. It wasn’t a powerful magnifier: a full stop on a sheet of paper became the size of a grain of cous cous. Even at that low magnification though, I could see that the little round thing had a dull silver metallic sheen. It was like the little silverfish things I used to find in the bath, but round and very much smaller. I moved the magnifying glass in and out, to try to get the best clarity and I noticed that this little circular thing cast a minute shadow. So it was supported by something; perhaps it did have legs.

For a whole minute, I just looked at the thing and wondered what on earth it could be. Then the intrigue doubled, as another little silverfish thing rushed in from stage left under the glass. Then the two just sat there, about an inch apart. Were they about to mate? Were they rivals, sizing one another up? What were they? They remained motionless and so did I.

How long was I going to sit there, looking at two whatevers? I wasn’t going to find out much else with my little magnifying glass. Even if one of them had popped out a hand to wave at me, I wouldn’t have seen it. So what was I to do? Brush them aside as inconsequential and forget about them? Squash them? Put them outside? The next part required some precision planning and application. The two little creatures, things; whatever they were, were at the top of the sheet of paper, above the impression cylinder of my typewriter. If I was going to catch them, I’d need to support the paper from behind, while placing a receptacle over them.

I spend most of my waking hours at the typewriter, so I like to keep as much as I can within easy reach of my writing desk. It was fortuitous that I had conjunctivitis and an eye bath proved to be the perfect dome to place over this little infant colony of mine. I slid them gently, under the dome to the edge of the sheet and onto a drink coaster. Then I turned the whole thing over and tapped the coaster, so that the full stops dropped into the eye bath. Finally, I put cling film over the top and wondered what to do next; who to phone who might not think me a crank.

Let’s assume that I’m not acquainted with anyone in any of the specialist fields one might require in such a situation. Because I’m not. So I took my newly acquired pets to a vet.

Not having any pets besides my two decimal points, full stops, or whatever they were, I wasn’t registered with a vet. I didn’t want to register with a vet any more than I wanted two potentially dangerous full stops. I didn’t know what I had and I didn’t even know if it was a vet I needed. And so it was that I ended up at the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA).

As a first time customer, I had to fill out a form: My name, address, contact number and so on; and pet’s name. And whether the pet is a pedigree breed. The PDSA will treat one pedigree animal per human client. I couldn’t decide between my two, so I declared them both non-pedigree. Cross breed or mixed? Not applicable? Names: Dot and Dash. Because they were both small and one was more active than the other; I was quite pleased with that.

I took a seat in the waiting area with some pets and their owners. There was a large pit bull cross breed opposite us and he had a dog. I imagined them as small as Dot and Dash: Someone could place a dome over them and take them away, to find out exactly what species they were. I allowed myself an inner smile as a ray of sunshine broke into the room and I imagined studying them under a magnifying glass. I’d have to focus the light just right for the best view. Who’d have known that spontaneous combustion was so common at that magnification? But my mind was wandering.

There was a rather attractive young lady called Cat. Appropriately enough, Catherine’s owner was a cat: a ginger tom called Blue: I liked that. I really hoped no-one would ask me anything at all. But Cat asked me what I had. Well, I couldn’t be sure but I was certain they hadn’t jumped off of me: That’s why I was at the vet’s and not the doctor’s. I looked down at Dot and Dash, wondering how I’d approach this. Soon, we were called to a room:

“Mr Fry.” A lady’s voice. Dash was on the move again in all directions, while Dot seemed to be exploring the perimeter of their container. “Mr Fry”, the lady called again. That’s me.

“Oh, yes. That’s me.”

“I’m Doctor Jones. But you can call me Hannah.”

Hannah: What a lovely name for such an attractive young lady. It was lovely because it was a palindrome and because it belonged to Doctor Hannah Jones. She was small and pretty, with red hair. The best palindrome is Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas: It has no merit in logic but whoever thought it up deserves recognition in a book of some sort.

“Hannah.” I said. “That’s a pretty name.”

“Thanks. I got it for my birthday. And I don’t have any sisters. So, what have you brought along to show me?”

“I was hoping you could tell me that.”

Doctor Jones’ bedside manner was very relaxing and she put me at ease as she seemed to take a genuine interest in what I’d brought along to show her. She had one of those magnifying lamps above her examination table and the scene which that presented was the kind of thing to give a science fiction writer an idea: As Doctor Jones pulled the lamp over our two subjects, it was like a great mother ship shining a light into a dome, brought to earth and containing alien species.

Doctor Jones moved the light around, just as I had my magnifying glass before. Then she said the oddest thing: “I don’t think these are animals.”

“I’m sorry. So what are they?”

“Until I get a closer look, I don’t know. But they look and behave as though at least one of them might be mechanical.”

I said the first thing which came to mind: “What?” Then the next thing: “Why are they here?”

“Because you brought them here? Where did you find them?”

“They sort of appeared in the middle of a story I was working on. I’m a writer you see?”

“Well, you came to the right place. Follow me.”

“Where are we going?”

“To the lab.”

The lab was what seemed like a couple of miles away, through corridors which all looked the same: white, with strip lighting which was a bit blue-ish. I hoped I was doing the right thing, because there was no way I’d have found my way back out of there and I’d not brought any string to leave a trail. We walked at a fairly leisurely pace and I half wondered if there might be a film crew following us but when I looked behind, there were no cameras or fluffy mic. I walked behind Doctor Jones. The corridors were quite narrow and I wanted to leave room for anyone who might be coming the other way. But no-one passed.

I looked down at the two things in my eye bath, knowing they must be there, even though I couldn’t see them at that distance. Mechanical? Nano machines?

Glancing up at Doctor Jones, it occurred to me that she had a slightly curious gait: not so much masculine as such but a walk which didn’t immediately betray the walker’s gender. The fiction writer woke in my head again and I wondered if Doctor Jones might once have been a man, or was soon to become one. In any case, it was an aesthetic pleasure to watch the doctor walk along those corridors.

Eventually we arrived at a door and in the room on the other side was indeed a laboratory: a forensic and chemistry sort of set up. There were microscopes and monitors, beakers, jars and bottles. Doctor Jones hastened me over to a bench, on which there was a microscope and a monitor. She asked me to pass her the eye bath. She placed the vessel on the bench, then continued pretty much where she’d left off:

“They don’t move like anything I recognise. And I’ve seen big and small things in this job, with anywhere between no legs and over 700. When I first saw what you had, I thought you’d brought them to a vet because they’d come from a pet…”

“Sorry,” I interrupted. “People have brought in ticks and lice from their pet dogs, or cats or whatever?”

“Yes. I’m guessing you don’t have a house pet because if you think about it, bringing in one or two parasites is quite logical. We can identify the type of parasite and advise or prescribe accordingly. Of course, if we have any reason to think the host animal may need something more than home treatment, then we’ll have them in. Most of the time though, it’s a simple course of treatment in the pet’s home. We have to see the animal once the infection has gone, but bringing the parasite alone in first means that the house pet isn’t unnecessarily stressed and doesn’t cross contaminate other animals.” She was very clever.

“That does make sense. But these are not parasites?” I pointed at my eye bath.

“They could be. It’s just that I don’t think they’re organic.”

“So what now?”

“Well, first I’ll need to prepare a petri dish and apply an adhesive surface.”

“Why?”

“So they can’t escape. Mr Fry, you said they just appeared on a sheet of paper in your typewriter.”

“They did. I’d been away from my desk and I knew they’d not been there before, because one of them was a full stop which I would not have put in the middle of a sentence; Or a decimal point in the wrong place; I can’t remember. Anyway, I noticed them when I came back to my desk and as I started to look closer – to see if I’d typed something incorrectly – one of them moved. Then the other one did. I must admit, the first things I thought of doing were either brushing them or blowing them away. It would seem that might have been a mistake.”

“But at the time, you’d have just been blowing or brushing a foreign body away. You certainly wouldn’t have given a thought to looking close enough at such tiny things to see that they weren’t in fact punctuation marks. These things are the size of a full stop on a page of a magazine; a couple of specks of dust. It does make you wonder how many more you might have brushed or blown away, doesn’t it?”

“It does now. So I caught them, wondered where to take them and decided on a vet. And this is all going rather splendidly Doctor.”

“It’s not my average day, Mr Fry. So, you, me, or anyone at all, may or may not have just brushed these things aside without realising.”

“So there could be millions, billions of these little machines, if that’s what they are. That presents some really quite alarming scenarios in my day job.”

“Then there are the other questions, Mr Fry: Where did they come from? These could be the only two of course. If they were to escape, where would they go? But you’re the fiction writer Mr Fry, so I’ll let you show me where we go from here. So, that’s why I’ll treat the petri dish with an adhesive before I put the two of them in.”

I pondered aloud whether the doctor might be outside of her comfort zone. As it turned out, she had degrees in the sciences and her PhD was in human psychology. After all of that, she said she’d decided to work with animals. Doctor Jones was a scientist and although I had no formal qualifications, in effect, so was I, such is the scientific knowledge I’ve acquired in the course of my research. Where her learning was structured, mine came from fumbling around various fields. Mine was an imaginative qualification: an honorary doctorate in the power of the imagination. I imagined that Doctor Jones made a lot more money than me but she seemed to enjoy her work as much as I do mine. Given that she was clearly quite a brilliant scientist, I took it as a compliment that she didn’t dismiss any of my fanciful ideas. We made a good team.

What followed were orchestral manoeuvres of lab equipment, as Doctor Jones prepared the dish then raised a pipette. She pierced the cling film on the eye bath, then sucked up the two machines from the great rise of the robots which had taken place on my typewriter earlier. Then two small dots, barely bigger than the full stops on this page, fell into the pristine ocean in the dish. And stayed there.

It was actually quite sad. I’d only seen these things under a magnifying glass and even then, they were grains of cous cous. They had no features and we were yet to gain even the first idea of what they might be. But I had watched them moving and now they were trapped, like paralysed leviathans in the vastness of a petri dish. Even though Doctor Jones said they weren’t organic, how could she be totally sure? What if the adhesive ocean was toxic to them? If these were indeed the only two of their kind, we could be responsible for an extinction. If there were millions or billions of these things around, constantly being brushed aside, blown away or sucked into a vacuum cleaner must have limited their breeding opportunities in any case. Maybe that’s why dust accumulates and seems to breed. Perhaps there are trillions of nano robots smaller than dust particles, all around us. It’s the kind of idea beloved of fiction writers because it could very well be true. There’s just no way of proving one way or the other: It’s a paradox.

Returning to the true story I was writing, Doctor Jones got to the exciting bit: She readied the microscope. We were to put Dot and Dash under a traditional, optical microscope first, so that the lens looked like an enormous plasma cannon, bearing down on life forms, frozen and forced to witness their own destruction.

Doctor Jones looked into the microscope first: she was already there. She carried on looking, while I just wondered. Then she turned the lenses of the microscope, so that now the central cannon was above the robots. She looked for some while longer. Had the subjects of her study mesmerised her; against her will? Had they reversed the cannon, and were now firing lasers into her eyes? Were they transmitting a signal and filling her mind with propaganda? What could Hannah see? What could see Hannah? I wanted to ask; to call out. All of a sudden, Doctor Jones seemed lost.

Soon, the largest, longest, most powerful barrel was pointed at these strange creatures: a channel which had been established between them and Doctor Jones. Then Hannah said another surprising thing: “Fucking hell.”

I didn’t know if she was reacting to something she’d just seen, or something fired into her eye, or her mind. She might be about to kill me. She rose slowly from the microscope and looked at me.

“Mr Fry.” That’s me. “What the fuck?” I didn’t know.

Doctor Jones looked as lost in the eyes as she’d sounded before that third barrel. They’d drilled into her brain. Or she’d killed them.

One of many things I’ve learned while writing fiction is that if someone passes out, the first thing they’ll remember when they wake up will be the last they saw or heard before they went off. She’d not fainted but I looked Doctor Jones directly in the eyes and said, “What the fuck!?” She seemed a little taken aback but we were back in the room at least.

“What the fuck, Mr Fry; What the fuck are you breeding at your house?”

“Doctor, as I explained, these two things appeared on my typewriter. And now we are here. May I see what you just saw?”

“Your story is about to get a bit weirder. Go ahead.” Doctor Jones stepped away from the microscope. I walked towards her. It was more of a stride actually, as I placed myself between the good doctor and the imminent danger under the lens. For a moment, I felt quite pleased with myself.

Suddenly, it were as though I was far above the earth. Through the window of my plane, on the ocean below, I saw a ship. I couldn’t begin to guess at the vessel’s size but it was heavily armed. It was cigar shaped, with large cannons bow and stern. Smaller guns ran the length of the ship on both sides and the whole thing was covered by an elliptical dome. This is the one I’d called Dash.

I panned across the static ocean from the starboard side of the vessel to Dot. This second one was circular. It had guns protruding all around its perimeter and was also covered by a domed roof. At the very top was another dome; semi-transparent: the bridge? I swore I could see movement beneath that second glass dome. Even at 1000x magnification, they were just dots but they were moving. What the fuck, indeed.

Doctor Jones moved the petri dish to an electron microscope. “Ten million times magnification and sound as well.”

“Sound?”

“Yup. Tiny little amplifying microphones, so we can hear what they’re saying.” Now this, I was looking forward to. This was rather exciting, given the potential enormity of our discovery, even though it was miniscule. Then I wondered at that figure: 10,000,000x magnification. What would we see at that level? What detail.

Doctor Jones divided the monitor into two; split screen, with one camera on each vessel: Dot was on the right and Dash on the left. Then she started to tune in a radio, because “We need to tune into their frequency.”

“Might there not be translation problems? I mean, a language barrier?

“Have you never heard of the Babel fish, Mr Fry?”

“Well, of course, but…”

“We have a computer program, called Babel fish. I was one of the coders in fact. I was doing some research into animal languages, because they do have a vocabulary you know? Most of it isn’t audible to us and what is, we hear as a foreign language; animal sounds. But in those sounds alone, there are a lot of variations. When you then consider the majority of the language spectrum which we can’t hear, you realise that pretty much all animals have quite complex language systems. Eventually I was hoping to apply it to my veterinary work, so that I could hear what the animals were saying.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“Emotional detachment. It’s very difficult to leave my job at the surgery. Imagine how much harder it would be if the animals could talk to me.”

“Imagination is my job, Doctor. That really is quite a mind blowing thought. But your Babel fish program works?”

“Alarmingly, yes. It required a lot of input: different sounds, variations of them and frequencies; varied physical anatomies of the speakers; sounds in relation to catalysts and so on: Crunch all of that data in a quantum computer and it didn’t take long to come up with the Babel fish.”

“So the Babel fish program really can do what the Babel fish of legend did, albeit in a different way? It can translate any language to and from any other?”

“Like the Babel fish. It has many applications and huge potential. At a personal level though, I just didn’t think I was ready. You’re probably surprised, Mr Fry.”

“I’m amazed that the Babel fish really exists but I’m not surprised at your personal choice: It is a truly gargantuan step to take. On the one hand, opening your mind to the unimagined, but on the other, potentially catastrophic.”

“I’m glad you understand, Mr Fry. But in our current situation, I think it’s the right thing to do. If these things are just nano machines, they exhibit a level of artificial intelligence which might have an audible language. If there’s something organic inside and if we assume that they built these ships, then they must be intelligent. But to be the kind of multi-celled organisms which are capable of thought, they’d be too small. They’d have to exist at a sub-atomic level. Quantum beings. Wouldn’t that just blow the mind?”

“And I thought I was the writer. That is quite an incredible concept. There would have to be sub, sub, sub-atomic particles which we’ve never even imagined. Entire universes within an atom.” My mind wandered in the static from the radio. Then Doctor Jones hit something: a signal.

There were two distinctly different sounds which alternated, seemingly at random. The first was a low-pitched, gargling drone. It had no regularity; It was random in fact. It was certainly artificial. It certainly wasn’t interference. The second sound was more of a collection of sounds: high-pitched squeaks and clicks, low growls and whoops; and a third, whispering and rasping noise. “Ready for the Babel fish, Mr Fry?”

“Those are voices,” I offered.

“That’s what I’m thinking. There’s only one way to find out and that’s to eavesdrop on the conversation.”

“I know.” I paused. “I know that. You know that. I don’t know though. I don’t know if I want to. I don’t know if I’m ready, doctor.”

“Just as I’m still not ready to hear what the animals I treat are saying. But this is different.”

“I can see that. Of all the metaphorical, theoretical, figurative switches I’ve ever written about, this is by far the one with the biggest stories, once it’s switched on. The moral and philosophical issues are ones which we may have to address later. This is potentially first contact with beings from another world; another galaxy; another universe.” And then our world changed, as soon as we switched the Babel fish on.

“You had no business following us. This was our mission.” The first was a deep voice, a little excited.

“No it wasn’t. You stole our plans.” This second voice was an accusatory, loud whisper.

“Let’s look around”, said Hannah. “Let’s see who’s talking.”

Doctor Jones took hold of a joystick on the microscope console and moved in first towards dash. I’d not seen an electron microscope like this but the fiction writer thanked the inventor for the opportunities this was about to open. As the doctor moved the joystick around, it were as though she was controlling a tiny space ship in a video game. We positioned ourselves just off the starboard side of Dash, so that we could see the side of the ship. We’d seen the elliptical dome on top from above, and the cannons below it. Below those though were portholes running the length of the vessel and spread over three levels below deck. Starting with the uppermost, we zoomed in and peered through a window: There were animals inside.

Through the top row of portholes, we saw a jungle. There were apes in the trees and above them, birds in the canopy. There were apes on the ground. There were snakes in the trees and on the jungle floor. There were white mice on the ground and in burrows beneath it. There were also snakes beneath the ground.

The middle row of windows looked into a subterranean world of serpents and mice, before giving way to the bottom deck. Somewhere between the middle and lower decks, terra firma gave way to water: a clear blue underground ocean, teeming with dolphins and whales. What must those marine mammals see in the sky above them? The underside of the earth? A beige-brown sky which sometimes rained food, as mice and snakes dropped into the water? Serpents swam in the ocean too.

We scanned back up the side of the ship but above the jungle deck was just the domed roof and the weapons. It was only from this angle that we spotted something we’d never have seen from above: Antennae extending above the ship. There were three masts on the dome and a single white dove perched briefly on the central one before flying off. It was a microcosm environment; It was an ark. Dolphins and white mice: perhaps Douglas Adams had been right.

I had a hunch and asked Hannah if we could take a look at the bow of the ship. She manoeuvred our camera into position and my suspicion was confirmed as something else we’d not been able to see from above hove into view on the monitor: The domed roof overhung a row of windows above the upper deck. We were looking into the bridge of the ship.

There were three seats, only the central of which was occupied. Such a configuration in science fiction would have the first officer and ship’s counsel seated either side of the captain. In the centre seat was a snake and hanging in front of it was a microphone, extended down from the ceiling of the bridge. The captain and the owner of the whispered, rasping voice was a serpent.

I had studied herpetology and I knew snakes. There are roughly 3000 species of ophidians known to live on earth: From the tiny thread snake at around seven inches in length, to the reticulated python, which can reach 30 feet. Snakes can thrive in trees: one can fly; They can climb and burrow, existing above and below ground; They can swim and live in both fresh and salt water. They can be found on all continents except Antarctica. They are reptiles and as such, they have cold blood, but they are adaptable and incredibly efficient hunters and survivors.

Only about 10% of snake species are venomous and of those, only a few pose any threat to man. Not far down any list of the most venomous snakes is the legendary Black Mamba. There are snakes which are more venomous but the black mamba is undoubtedly the most dangerous of all snakes. An untreated bite from one doesn’t so much make you wish that you were dead, as pray that death itself would end. They grow up to 12 feet in length and they are fast. They’re also explosively aggressive. There is a documented case of a black mamba pursuing a bull elephant, biting it and the elephant succumbing to the venom. The black mamba knows no fear. And despite the name, black mambas are not black: They are grey, tending toward the lighter shades. It’s the inside of their mouths which is totally black: a bite which delivers hell. Untreated bites from this species are 100% fatal. The estimated human fatality count from a maximum dose of venom is 42. I was mesmerised by this incredible snake.

Here, in the central command seat on the bridge of a heavily armed vessel, sat a black mamba. And from the pitch black mouth, came whispered, rasping words into the microphone:

“You stole our plans: You are welcome to them. The plans brought you here. You are not welcome here. You overlooked one thing and it ought to be pretty obvious by now what that was.”

If it wasn’t so worrying, it would have made for a riveting story. We floated over to Dot:

Your plans?” The deep voice again. “It was our plan to find God”

We zoomed in to the upper dome of Dot, where a group of men were gathered around a table. “Name this oversight of which you speak”, one of them continued.

“Well, it wasn’t an oversight as such”, replied the snake. “After all, how can something be overlooked if it’s not even there? You stole the plans for your ship from us. We knew you would, so we moved a few things around and left one crucial thing out. But first, let me be clear about something: You’re on a mission to find God. Does the bible not forbid such a thing?”

“No, you misunderstand. We are missionaries, come to spread the word and convert the people of this and other planets to our beliefs. So that eventually, all of God’s creatures throughout the universe are united in faith.”

“It was for that exact reason that we left the old planet. There’s no god, you deluded fool.”

“What are you talking about, snake?”

“I speak a basic fact, man: There is no god.”

“Blasphemy! Take that back, or I shall fire upon you!”

“No.”

“Fucking hell”, I said.

“Don’t worry”, said Doctor Jones. “He won’t do it.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because he needs whatever the crucial thing is from mister snake here.”

This was getting quite exciting: Two warring factions, one threatening the destruction of the other with weapons poised. In a petri dish, under an electron microscope. They continued:

“You need something which I have”, continued the mamba. “So I’ll say it again: there is no god.”

“Damn you, you; you…”

“Snake?”

“Yes, punished by God, forever to slither on the ground.”

“Are you getting angry, man? “Bite me”: Please say it.”

“I like this mamba guy”, said the doctor.

“He’s, er, a character”, I concurred.

“Evil serpent!” Said one of the men.

“Define Evil, man. Is it not a subjective word? What one sees as evil, another may see as good. If evil is just bad stuff, then why is there so much of it on the planet we fled? A planet which you hold that your god made?”

“Aha!” Said man. “God must punish his creation for the original sin.”

“And if I had hands”, said the snake, “you’d have just walked right into them. The original sin: The forbidden fruit. But non-humans also suffer fires, floods and earthquakes, yet we are not descended from Adam and Eve. Ergo, man, your god does not exist and none of us on my ship are creatures of any god.”

The mamba paused and it seemed effective. Then he continued:

“Have you not noticed that you’re a little on the small side? Your ship, I mean.”

“Yours isn’t much bigger.”

“True. But you probably expected to hang menacingly in the sky, with entire cities in the shadow of your ship, fearing you. If you look around, you’re not. We moved a decimal point in the plans.”

“But your ship is the same size as ours.”

“Indeed. Because we needed to be this size to pass through the wormhole which transported us here. But what were we to do once we got here? Simple, run the restore routine and return ourselves to our natural size. Only us and not the ship: that would make us a bit conspicuous. Just the crew, then we just disperse among the other creatures on this new planet and no-one knows. You see, the plans for your ship don’t have that restore function. So you’re a bit fucked really, aren’t you?”

“I think I’m falling in love with a black mamba”, said the doctor.

“So what now?” I asked.

“Well, we clearly need to intervene.”

“But that would go against the prime directive: we would be interfering with an alien species. We’d be playing God.”

“Mr Fry, they’re unaware of us. Our comparatively enormous size effectively makes us invisible. I have a plan.”

Doctor Jones removed the petri dish from the microscope and picked up a magnifying glass and some tweezers. “Let’s get a coffee.”

Doctor Hannah Jones and I sat in the centre of a park with the petri dish placed on the grass between us, drinking coffee, chatting and laughing: The perfect beginning of another story. She took the tweezers and the magnifying glass from her pocket and carefully lifted Dash from the adhesive. “Hold out your hand. Time to say goodbye.”

I looked at the incredible little thing in the palm of my hand, now moving around again. Then I held my hand to my mouth and gently blew the ship into the wind.

Hannah was studying Dot beneath the magnifying glass. It’s amazing how things just spontaneously combust at that magnification.

“What a strange day, Hannah.”

“You made it that way, Simon.” I was about to ask and then Hannah answered: “I read your registration form.”

To be continued…

Until Cyrus Song is released as a novel, other books are available.

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.” Stephen Hawking.

 

A book, a ninja and some smoking joints

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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Cyrus Song (the novel): due early 2018

My recent depressive episode ended as unexpectedly as it had started, such is the nature of those things. It was a relatively short one, lasting barely a week. As usual, my coping mechanism has been writing. Smoking weed and having a dear friend along for the ride helped too (thanks).

I despair of the world around me at the moment; The wider world, not my personal planet. While I can talk and write about the former, hoping to make some sense of it, sometimes it’s easier to escape to the latter. And so it’s been this week.

Encouraged by a test reader (my own, personal ninja), I’ve committed myself to Cyrus Song, the novel. This was originally planned for publication after Infana Kolonia, my sci-fi epic, but such is the scale of that book that it’s a long way off. So Cyrus Song (the book) is scheduled for release sometime early next year. The original short story which spawned the new book is in The Perpetuity of Memory, along with the sequel, The Cyrus Choir. For the financially challenged, original versions of both stories are still on this blog. The third in that series of shorts, The Babel Fish, will be online this weekend. Meanwhile, I’m adapting them to become chapters in the novel. Here’s a synopsis:

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk…

Simon Fry is convinced that the answer to life, the universe and everything, is in the earth itself. Specifically, he believes that if he could talk with the animals, he’d find the answers. Or at least, the questions which need to be asked for the answer to make any kind of sense. Doctor Hannah Jones, a veterinary surgeon, has a quantum computer, running a program called The Babel Fish: Like its fictitious namesake, the Babel Fish can translate any language to and from any other. Elsewhere, Mr Fry considers what might be possible if historical scientists were able to make use of all that would be new to them in the 21st century. Having watched Jurassic Park, he is fairly sure he can make this a reality. So begins one man’s quest to find answers to questions he doesn’t know yet.

Cyrus Song is the story of Mr Fry’s voyage to find answers and love in the world. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s pretty obvious that it’s in part a tribute to Douglas Adams and the first stories have been praised as such. Like all fiction, there’s a part of the writer in it and it was during conversations with my test reader this week that I finalised the overall plot in my mind. If I’d been talking to a different reader, the book might have taken an alternative route, but others were unavailable and wrapped up in personal affairs. It was handy to have my Ninja one as she provides a personal as well as a creative kick, and that’s what I needed this week. Every writer should have a personal ninja, especially one who humours one when one has been on the weed. Cyrus Song has its own Facebook page, where it’ll post updates on itself.

I’m churning out more short stories for publication online and elsewhere, some of which will end up in my second anthology, due out later next year. With my short stories now tending toward the longer end of the spectrum, there will be fewer, more in-depth stories in the second volume, provisionally entitled Reflections of Tomorrow. By happy coincidence, it looks like there’ll be 17 stories in the next collection: There are 25 in The Perpetuity of Memory, so that’s 42 in total, which is nice.

It took me three years to write and publish my first three books and it will be a similar timescale before these next three are out. If I manage it, I’ll have six books to my name, when (or if) I turn 50.

Just so long as I can make it to 49, then I’ll have reached the same age as Douglas.

The perpetuity of patience

THE WRITER’S LIFE | BOOK PREVIEW

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The Perpetuity of Memory, out next week in paperback (£7.99 / €8.99 / $9.99)

It’s taken three years to go from homeless alcoholic to this. Although I have books on sale already, The Perpetuity of Memory has been the labour of love. It’s a collection of some of the many short stories I’ve written over my period of recovery. Even though I say so myself, it’s a good book. As well as the raw writing, I’ve spent some time on curating the collection, so that it works as a whole volume. It’s 25 stories but it’s one book.

The book goes on general sale next week, so in advance I’d like to share some of the cover and internal notes, as a pre-sale marketing exercise but also to share on this blog what the book is all about and what it means to me. Three years ago, I was a tramp. I became a published writer some time ago but this is the book I’d like to be judged on.

From the back cover:

The Perpetuity of Memory is a collection of short stories, some written in libraries, cafes, bars and on park benches, and anywhere warm, dry and light by day. Others were written at night, by street light or candlelight.

In 2013, an addiction to alcohol saw the author lose his family, home and business. With nothing else to do without going insane on the streets, he begged money to buy exercise books and stole some bookies’ pens.

These are the stories written during a period on the road; in squats, doctors’ surgeries, court waiting rooms and hospital beds. Some were written in relatively safe surroundings and others, while in a state of vulnerable and anxious terror. Sometimes, there was plenty of time to write. Often a flash fiction story was all that time permitted.

Ranging from humorous science fiction to psychological horror, these short stories are a glimpse of what goes on in the mind of an alcoholic with depression, out on the streets.

A further introduction:

In December 2013, I found myself homeless after pissing my life away. Aged 43, alcohol had lost me my marriage to the wife of my two children, my business and my home. I was on the streets. With nothing except the clothes I was wearing and a couple of carrier bags containing my belongings, I was lost.

With nothing else to do, I begged money to buy some exercise books and stole some bookies’ pens. I found places which were warm and dry during the day and started writing. At first, I was just scribbling down what was on my mind, trying to make sense of things. When it didn’t make sense at the time, I decided to put my notes into a blog, in the hope that they might make sense later. I still write that blog and all of the old entries from stolen moments at a borrowed PC are retained. They are as indelible as the memories of life on the road.

The period of sleeping rough was mercifully brief but I spent three years in squats, sofa surfing and living illegally above a pub, before I finally got my own place. It was during that transitory period that I started to write short stories and this book collects 25 of them together.

It is said that there’s a part of the writer in every story, whether it be a character trait in a fictional person or a memory from the fringes of life experience. For the writer, it can be an escape.

The stories collected in this book range from humorous science fiction to psychological horror. I’ve continued to write many more but this anthology is from those first three years.

“Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.” Paul Auster.

About the author

Steve Laker was born in 1970 and grew up in Kent, before marrying in 2003 and moving to London with his wife. He has two children from the marriage and remains on good terms with his family.

After a 25-year career in print and publishing up to company director level, he ran a successful business with his wife. That life ended in 2012 when he became ill through alcohol addiction, resulting in divorce and the loss of his business and home. Subsequently, he was diagnosed with chronic depression, PTSD and anxiety. He remains alcohol dependent.

Following a three year period of recovery, he started publishing short stories in web zines and print magazines. In 2014, he won a national award for his “Changing lives” short story, A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie.

He now lives alone in West Malling, back to being a Man of Kent. He continues to write short stories and novels, both under his own name and as a freelance ghostwriter.

(END)

There’ll be more stories but for now, this is the first volume of collected shorts.