Tag Archives: science fiction

On My Latest Short Story

I was working on this for several days before The Voice came through. In a taxi on the way to Rome airport. By the time I finished it we were in the clouds.

The Voice told me who it was about. I knew then that she was female, where she came from, and how she was about to die. “I was born on Mars in the year 2713,” she told me.

The themes, I suppose, are the usual ones for me. Alternate history, religion… Oh, and a dollop of Byzantine history.

It is only after you write something like this that you understand what it is about. The impossibility of living a moral life after the worst holocaust in history. Sorry, a bit dark, then. I will append some notes at the end on the technicalities of writing short fiction.



By Martin Waller


I was born on Mars in the year 2713.
Your year. We do not date our years from the birth of an obscure
prophet from a largely forgotten religion. We date our years from a
more significant event. But I am getting ahead of myself.
I can walk among you unseen and unknown. My clothes, the baggy dress you sport,
the trousers, the odd accoutrements, the belts, straps – they feel strange to
someone who cannot step outside her home without a face mask and a
full coldsuit.
In the year 2713 Mars is approximately half terraformed. We will be
able to walk unprotected  on the surface in about forty years. Our
years – shall we say one hundred of yours?
I will not see that, nor my children, or theirs. We live short lives,
because of… Once again I am getting ahead of myself.
I am astonished by two things, as I walk among you. The heat, plainly.
I was born 11 years ago, our years, in a tent city outside Vallis
Marineris. Step outside the tent and the temperature falls to about
the freezing point of water. How do you bear it? To exist in a
place that is at around the heat of your own blood?
We see things differently, then.
Let us now talk of the things that are not often spoken of. My great
grand-parents were from Greece, the place that was. On Mars, where you
come from is important, because there is no going back. My grandmother
would tell me of her homeland and her history, when I was a baby. She
died when I was in my first year, our years again. A good age, on
In the year 1071 the Byzantine emperor Romulus Diogenes decided to
attack the Seljuk Turks. The resulting disaster was so awful that the
Greeks always referred to the battle of Manzikert as The Terrible
Day. Likewise the event that places us where we are today. The Terrible Years.
And that second thing. The crowds. How do you bear it? Someone at your
side every second of the day, their breath in your face? All the time?
I step outside the tent and I am alone.
We grow food outside the tent. Gengineered chard, kale, pulses,
some corn. Martian food is largely vegetarian, heavy on spices. We eat
little meat.
You will see this. Unless I do the task which I am sent to do, in
which case you will not. Ever. I must hope so.
Death, my death, which I expect and will welcome, is not like true
death. No pain, no suffering. A sudden cessation of being. Where does
a flame go, when the flame goes out?
So I walk among you, looking for the place where I have to be. The
intersection of two people whose meeting must be prevented.
If I do this, billions of lives will be saved. Just cut that thread,
move that block, rearrange that chess piece and all changes. On this
timeline, at least.
This is what we do. We enter the portal and we go up to a place in
history where the least nudge, the smallest movement of history, that
chess piece on a different square, changes things utterly.
Byzantium does not fall. The Jesus shepherd does not die on the cross.
The thing we dare not talk about does not happen.
I cannot tell you where I am. But that businessman, in the grey
suit, must not meet that one, with the yellow and blue tie. With the
blond hair. (Our hair is never blond. Too small a gene pool.)
Their meeting will create a great business empire, which will lead to
the developing of… That clever device, the thing and that other thing that follows, und so
(Your languages are so strange. Why so many of them? On Mars we say, On
pesson di do sei, et voche copre. One person speaks this, and all understand.) So Grey Suit brushes by. It is the work of a moment to slip the spores into his pocket.
His meeting will take place, but later, at the hotel, he will become
feverish. The next meeting will not happen The empire will not be
born. On this timeline, no Terrible Years.
In your time, you would ignore the suffering of billions of your
fellow human beings but devote your efforts to alleviating the pain of
some randomly selected animals.
We do not have billions, just a few million scratching a living on a
cold, hard place.
We travel down the timelines changing this little event, this tiny
accident. And ensuring that on that timeline, the Terrible Years do
not take place.
Like the millions of those suffering creatures you cannot or will not
help, we can do nothing for those billions of other people across the
multiverse. We do what we can.
When I return to cold Mars, I will return to a future where I do not
exist. I will cease to be, like a soap bubble that bursts in the rain.
My alternates will continue, to walk the timelines and stop that
meeting, that event, that accident, that leads to the place where we
do not go, even in thought.That is what we do. And you do what, with your billions of

Notes: Writing short fiction,and in particular short science fiction, is an exercise in withholding information. You start with an intro. “Katie drives like a maniac.” “I always get the shakes before a drop.” Why? Who is Katie? What is a drop?

Then you slip in some details. Why are you walking among us? What do you want? A bit of colour – the food on Mars, say. Gradually you bring in the facts, the motivation. Then you know what you are writing about.

No dialogue here, because the central character is not engaging with those around her. What does she think of them, as she carries out her mission of mercy? There is a clue.

(There is a cheeky joke reference within this story. “We See Things Differently.” An utterly extraordinary story by Bruce Sterling, given when it was written. Nothing to do with the above.)



On High-Rise

They are making a film of JG Ballard’s High-Rise, his 1975 dystopia.

Actually, I am not sure that dystopian is the right word. Though Ballard shows a society disintegrating into warring packs inside a huge high rise block sealed from the outside world, he makes the prospect seem quite attractive.

This is a typical Ballardian trick, the unspeakable being made to seem humdrum, everyday. Cf Crash.

I have no idea what the film will be like; probably very violent. Ballard, with his usual perspicacity, was using the high rise as a metaphor for an increasingly unequal and stratified society. Those on the lowest floors war with those just above, the middle classes, literally, and so on up the block.

The film will lack one thing, though, one of the most arresting first sentences in modern fiction. “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

You would tend to read on, wouldn’t you?

On Paul Kantner

“And our children will wander naked through the cities of the Universe…”

Paul Kantner, American songwriter, 1941 – 2016.

Paul Kantner has died. Political radical, Utopian dreamer, singer/songwriter/guitarist with Jefferson Airplane and innumerable spin-offs, he was 74.

I don’t think much of his music has made it unscathed into the 21st century. Too much a product of its time, the San Francisco counter-culture of the late 1960s. “We’re doing things that haven’t got a name yet!” Yeah, right.

But his music meant a lot to me, and a lot of other people, once.

I first came across JA, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Steve Miller, in the very early 1970s. I was emerging from a difficult, dreary repressed adolescence. I have written here before how teenagers co-opt culture, music, art, fashion, as a way of finding their own identity.

That music spoke to me of freedom. Freedom to sleep with whomever one wanted, take whatever drugs one wanted, establish a community of like-minded souls and tell the rest of society to go hang. (I am reminded here of what some have written about Bowie.)

Those ideals, with the benefit of hindsight, do not bear much scrutiny. They led a lot of people down a path to squalor, chaos, addiction and death.

But Kantner believed in them. He used to leave rolled joints in telephone kiosks, in the hopes that people would try them and be tempted to adopt his lifestyle. Naive, probably. I believed in them too, once. Naive, definitely.

Some of his music survives. When I Was A Boy I Watched the Wolves has an eerie beauty, and contemporary resonance. Then there was Blows Against The Empire.

A song cycle about a bunch of people who hijack a starship and head off to somewhere, anywhere, it probably comes over today as maundering hippie self-indulgence. With some good tunes.

For a teenager already obsessed with science fiction, and seeking my own painful way out towards self-liberation, identity and free expression, it came as a powerful fantasy indeed. “Spinning out of the steel and glass/Mankind gone from the cage…

He also co-wrote Wooden Ships, with David Crosby, another song about freedom and redemption. (Crosby’s autobiography, Long Time Gone, is one of the best memoirs of the beauty, madness and horror of those times.)

Paul Kantner, musician, visionary. RIP.

“Have you seen the stars tonight/Do you want to go up on A deck and look at them with me… We are free.”

On The Man In The High Castle

One in two works of alternative history fiction, I read somewhere, is set in a world where the Axis powers won World War 2.

Len Deighton wrote SS-GB, a roman policier set in occupied Britain. Robert Harris wrote Fatherland. The best known work, though, is arguably The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K Dick.

This takes place in an America shared out between the Nazis and the Japanese as occupying powers, with a neutral slice in the middle of the country, in the Rockies.

It is a lot more than speculative fiction, having to do with the nature of art and the creative process, for example. The I Ching gets a mention – Dick was nothing if not a child of the 1960s. There is a terrifying scene when one of the characters, a Japanese, is suddenly faced with the inherent nature of evil, in the form of the Nazis, and loses all self-control and face in an important meeting.

The Japanese are the good guys here – Dick suggests they would no more set up concentration camps than melt down their own mothers. (One might disagree, given the nature and record of the Japanese military.) The next war, which would see the Germans using atomic weapons to wipe the Japanese home islands off the map, is looming.

Now Amazon has made a TV series of the book, produced by Ridley Scott, and it is being heavily advertised. More people will come to the book, then, though as with Scott’s Blade Runner, also based on a work by Dick, the adaptation is a loose one. The novel Blade Runner comes from, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is barely recognisable from the film, though it shares the same theme, asking just what is it to be human? If an android is created that is indistinguishable from a human being, are they not, then, human too?

The Amazon series takes quite a few liberties. The Germans have developed the Bomb first and used it on Washington DC. The Americans had to surrender. Several characters in the series do not exist in the book, though both contain The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a “fictional” work depicting a world where the Allies won World War 2.

It would have to diverge considerably from the book, to run as it does to ten hour-long episodes. There has been a lot of argument recently that such a ten-part series is the best way to adapt a work of fiction like High Castle, rather than try to cram it all into a single film.

From the look of the first episode, a lot of thought and money has gone into the production. I suppose one could argue that the outcome of WW2 was the defining event of the 20th Century, which explains why the converse result should have proved so popular with writers. It is our worst dream come true, though as the war recedes into history it will have less and less resonance.

On Frank Herbert’s “Dune”

“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” Opening words, Dune.

It is, I am reminded, 50 years since Frank Herbert’s Dune was published. (The actual anniversary falls in October, but still, commemorative pieces are already appearing.)

This is regularly cited as one of the greatest works, if not the greatest, in science fiction. Certainly up there with Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness, William Gibson’s Sprawl series beginning with Neuromancer, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.

SF is often and erroneously seen as a predictive medium. Actually, for every idea that comes to pass, Arthur C Clarke’s geosynchronous satellites, Verne’s submarines, there are ten that do not. Commuting by jetpack, holiday hotels on the Moon. (Why would anyone want to go there?)

What it does, cliche warning for those who know the genre, is reflect the fears and uncertainties of the time when it is written. Le Guin is about changing gender roles, Gibson about a world dominated by huge, omnipotent global corporations where life is increasing lived online (he did coin the term cyberspace). Haldeman served in Vietnam and depicts an endless, pointless conflict that only exists to serve the interests of the military.

Orwell wrote 1984 at a time when an enemy, Germany, had overnight become an ally and an ally, Soviet Russia, an enemy. He worked at the BBC and was responsible for churning out propaganda justifying this. Sorry if you already know this. And all those 1950s works when your neighbours turn out to be aliens, creatures that look like us but are different. Godless commies.

Herbert was a jobbing writer, a product of Cascadia, that imaginary land that lies between northern California and the Yukon. It produces more than its fair share of libertarians, free thinkers, those that do not have much time for the state. The book went round the usual 20 publishers who couldn’t see the point and then became an overnight success, winning the two main awards in the genre.

Whether Dune is predictive is not yet clear, because it is set 24,000 years hence. It depicts a galaxy dominated by feudal houses vying for supremacy. Its hero, Paul Atreides, flees into the desert after his own house is conquered and returns with a victorious army.

The book’s themes are ecology, Eastern mysticism and mind-expanding drugs. In the mid 1960s. On the West Coast. You will take the point.

The film, directed by David Lynch, is much derided but gets much of Herbert’s “future primitive” vision right, even if the Atreides troops look worryingly like the Afrika Korps. It is one of the great Hollywood foul-ups. Produced by a scion of one of the great dynasties there, it is incomprehensible to anyone who has not read the book. The studio, in an attempt to make it less so, produced a version that Lynch disowned.

Paul comes back with an army of desert-dwelling jihadis. Fanatics, who worship him as the Mahdi. (Herbert, to give him his due, expresses Paul’s concern at being made a living god, and at the billions who will die as his jihad sweeps though the galaxy.)

They are suicide troops. One death to kill seven Imperial Sardaukar is a good death. They have no remorse, and no hesitation in killing civilians.

Sounds familiar? Oh, and the emperor they overthrow is called Shaddam.

A predictive medium?

On SF Heroes, And Laura Roslin

The British Film Institute, as part of a series on science fiction, has been asking who is the favourite SF character ever. Top votes, Doctor Who and Ripley, from the Alien films.

If you believe, as I do, and as I suspect anyone has watched it does, that the reinvented Battlestar Galactica is the best SF series ever, by a huge long way, then… Gaius Baltar? Twisted, treacherous, probably mad? (Did she really exist? Or just in his head?)

Or President Laura Roslin? Who gains power by accident, discovers it requires some awful choices, awful compromises from what you know is right? (Spoiler alert.) Gets cancer. Dies. Happy.

A middle aged, not unattractive woman, but not a sex bomb, (cf Kara Thrace) with cancer. Not exactly the stuff of which SF superheroes are made.

Laura Roslin. But then, those who know BG will see that already. Those who don’t, if you like dark, morally ambiguous SF…. Remind me. Who are the good guys?

On Re-Reading Robert Heinlein

I do not give away much in this blog. You will know I am fairly left wing. You will know I have a religion. Not necessarily one recognised by the CofE. (Google Arianism. Suppressed by the early Church fathers.)

I have been re-reading the works of Robert Anson Heinlein. He is not an obvious influence. Heinlein is thought of as an extreme right winger, a libertarian, someone who is a proponent of the minimal state. Guns and liberty, the final frontier.

Unfair. Heinlein is best remembered for ‘Starship Troopers’, in which he suggested public flogging and hanging was a good thing, and that the vote should be limited to those who have performed military service. Made into a film by Paul Verhoeven. Which utterly corrupted what he had to say. So it goes.

Read again his posthumous ‘Expanded Universe’. Heinlein was a socialist in his youth and never lost his believe in the power of human freedom. He came round to a humanist belief of the transcendence of the human spirit. Way beyond the fascism with which he is lazily identified.

He talks of the poverty of Communist Russia, and the tour guide he met there who said her ambition for her family was to have a toilet of her own. ‘The  next aesthete who sneers at our American plumbing culture in my presence I intend to cut into small pieces and flush him down the WC he despises.’

And he says, of his belief of impending nuclear apocalypse, ‘if we are to die, let us die as men, eyes open, aware of our peril and striving to cope with it, not as fat and fatuous fools, smug in the belief that the military men and the diplomats have the whole thing under control.’

Hardly right wing. And ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’ is a very good book.

On Technology, Repression, and Science Fiction

Many years ago I read a science fiction story about a world where the authorities had invented technology that would allow them to track the moods remotely, from a special monitoring centre, of all citizens. Those that showed a particular spike in anger, for example, would have a police officer assigned to visit them to ensure they meant no harm to anyone.

The story shared certain themes with the film Minority Report. To what extent is a society allowed to prevent crime beforehand by intrusive surveillance of its citizens? Where does this leave free will?

The writer made it clear where he stood. The society described is bland, dull and lifeless, with all the rough edges ironed out. The central character, who is arrested when his anger is detected, is clearly seen as a victim, and the last free man.

The story is a fictional dystopia. Now we learn that scientists are working on devices that might, for example, disable cars where the drivers are shown, by physiological signs such as pulse rate and sweat, to be angry, and therefore prone to road rage. This may even be extended to other technology such as computers. This is apparently a serious proposition.

Should such a wretched state of affairs actually come about, one can be sure on one thing. It will be extended far, far further than that. All in the interests of public safety, of course. And what a gift to a repressive regime.

Science fiction is not generally a predictive medium, which is probably just as well given the storylines it often covers. In this case the writer, some decades ago, seems to have got it exactly and worryingly right.