Thursday, 15 June 2017

Meditations on editorial correspondence (again)

Something unusual.  A posting with potential for a character arc and a moral.

You see, last time I posted a blog entry with this title, I said that what mattered to me was "independent verification by somebody who doesn't know me through anything other than my writing that [my story is] worth putting in print".

But an exchange back in the spring with an editor has made me question whether that's enough.

The editor in question is Ty Drago of Allegory.  Don't know the man at all, but from his reviews, he appears to produce a decent line in genre fiction himself.  It all started with this:

Robert -


Your story, [title deleted as it's still up for grabs] has been accepted for publication in Volume 31 of ALLEGORY, due to hit the web on May 8, 2017.

Here's how it works:  In the next week or so I will send you out a contract, which will outline all of the details of our publication agreement, including compensation.  Please read it carefully, sign it, and then send it back to me.  I will also need you to please email me a brief biography.  The content may be anything you like. Optionally, you may send an author's photo to include with your bio.

Again, congratulations - and thank you!  This is a great story and I am proud to publish it.

- Ty Drago

- Publisher

Which is nice.  I don't get enough of those sort of emails.  And it would make my third sale of the year.  Target met.

It was then that I thought I'd get a better handle on Allegory.  Now, at this point, you could legitimately argue that the time for due diligence is prior to submission.  And I did do what I consider reasonable from a writer's point of view: check their legitimacy on the watercooler, and so forth.  

But I guess what I didn't do (and don't do, and don't feel a great need to do, ever) was any due diligence from a reader's perspective.  And what I found was... well, read on:


Many thanks for this, and my apologies for not responding sooner.

I have no issue with the terms of the contract, but since receiving it I have been trying, without success, to get a handle on Allegory's online presence.  Google 'Allegory ezine' (or similar) and I find, your own website apart, a number of calls for submissions, but little else.  I see nothing from readers and no reviews, anywhere - which, given you're on volume 30 (or is it 57?), I find bizarre.  I see your website cites 19,000 hits a month, but how many copies of the ezine do you sell?  You have a personal presence on Goodreads (and your own books are well received), but Allegory can't be found there.  Odd.

In short, I'm not sure how anybody who doesn't already know about Allegory would even stumble across it accidentally.  Given that I've moved on from simply seeking publishing credits and the warm glow brought by knowing that the pint in my hand can be attributed to the publication of a particular story, and view short story publications as a means of ultimately getting readers to my longer works, I'm not convinced Allegory would achieve that for me.  Grateful if you would correct my assumptions about the breadth of Allegory's readership if I'm way off the mark.



Is it just me?   Or do you find it odd as well?  An editor who is himself on, but hasn't made sure his longstanding publication is there?  Am I being paranoid?  This was Ty's understandably knarled reaction:

Robert -

This is a first, but okay.

Allegory was founded in 1998 as free online venue for SF, Fantasy, & Horror.  Since then, we've published hundreds of stories from all around the world.  We are not a business and never have been.  We don't sell copies.  Access to the site is completely free and every member of our staff, including myself as publisher, works strictly as a volunteer.

According to our visitor stats, we received close to 400,000 hits last year.  That's pretty typical.  Obviously traffic spikes in May and November, when new issues appear.

At nearly twenty years old, we've outlasted most online e-zines and, while we're not a major market like Asimov, Analog, or Space and Time, we've earned our chops.

Now a question for you: Why are you asking all this now?  You submitted a short story, which then went through our rather rigorous review vetting process, and are now occupying one of only twelve slots in the coming issue, having beat out more than 500 other writers.  If you have no faith in Allegory, why did you even bother?


I'm trying to be diplomatic here, but I'm left wondering how many of those 400,000 hits were by prospective writers rather than readers, given the only starting points to get to Allegory seem to be the Grinder, Duotrope and the like.  I probably account for a dozen or more hits - more if you count individual page views - and if everybody who submits (by implication 1000 a year) goes on to the site does the same, and then you have all the writers who decide Allegory isn't the right market for them, or mentally bookmark it for later.

And, all the time, Ty just has to say 'here's a link to a review of the last issue '....



Similarly, it's the first time that I've found myself asking the question.  It's not an issue of 'no faith', more one of seeking reassurance that you have a readership.  It may be a product of having a name which doesn't lend itself to googling (other uses of  'allegory' flooding the results), but, as I said, the only hits I found for your Allegory, other than your own website, were aimed at writers rather than readers.  Which made me stop and think.  Perhaps if you could point me in the direction of a couple of online reviews  of the November 2016 issue?  I'd be happy to sign the contract with that assurance.  Indeed, it was because of your longevity that I was surprised not to find anything posted by readers; I'm sure that you as a volunteer editor, as much as me as a writer, want to know that Allegory is being read and enjoyed.


I don't think that's too Et tu Brute, stabby-in-the-back, is it?  But it brings forth this fairly quick response:

I have to tell you, I've had enough of this.  After twenty years I don't have anything to prove.  I'm a published novelist myself, and so I understand your interest in managing your brand, but I find the idea of you challenging the legitimacy of my publication insulting.

Let's forget the whole thing.

Which I was happy to do, with correspondence ending there.

A confusing tale, but, having straddled the divide between the creative and non-creative industries, illustrative of an attitude that isn't that rare.  And I am only posting this to illustrate; Ty is free to run his publication as he sees fit.  And, if it ever makes it onto or similar, I hope it garners good reviews.

The moral?  Well, here's two.  On a personal basis, I've learnt that just getting a sale, just getting a credit, is no longer enough.  The publication has to be creditworthy in its own way.  And, secondly, and we all know this anyway, there's an awful lot out there on the web that's written but not necessarily read.

I should know; I see the stats for this blog.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Like a picnic in the park prepared by supermodels

I appreciate that this is some 45 years late, but I would like to review Andrei Tarkovsky's cinematic adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris.

Would like to, but I'm not sure I'm any the wiser.  It took me two evenings to get through it, and even then I fell asleep.  I jolted awake and found Kris Kelvin wandering around in his underwear.  I don't remember him undressing.  How much did I miss?  And did it explain the lingering close ups of a Bruegel landscape?  Or any of the other overlong and pointless scenes, almost too many to count?  Like the tedious elongated motorway scene, confusingly through a Japanese city?  I can only assume the editor was trussed up in the boot.

I suppose a starting point would be to regard this as Soyuz to, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey's Saturn 5.  America got a man to the moon and back.  Russia didn't.  America produced a film worth re-watching.  Russia didn't.  I don't want to make anything of the limited special effects, reflective of technology and budget then available.  But the vision, regardless of how it's realised?  Wood panelled libraries filled with books?  Big comfy swivel chairs?  Candelabra?  If there's one thing we all know about space it's that there ain't much space in space.  And, remember, this was made when the world was already familiar with what life in a spacecraft looked like.

My copy of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die doesn't seem to have a problem with such issues, and credits it as a "sci-if masterpiece".  IMDB gives it 8.1/10.  They make it sound like a picnic in the park with supermodels.  A picnic prepared by supermodels, maybe: not much, spread too thin.  But this is what they say:

"A brilliant experience of duration and big ideas combined with ascetic production values, Solaris is an argument against the ambivalence of lived reality in favour of fantasy's all-inclusive satisfaction.  Through Kris's journey from indifferent outsider to being literally the centre of a world created just for him, we see the unmaking of a rational mind by sheer desire.  As such, Tarkovsky's film uses the widescreen frame and lengthy takes to organise truly beautiful imagery.  In this fashion, Solaris externalises interior states to embody the mood of its protagonist."

Even with a first degree in philosophy and a masters in philosophy and psychology, I'm not sure what this all adds up to.  Other than Emperor's new clothes.

You see, film is good for seeing and hearing things, but not good for emotions - I recall Clive Hopkins, who taught a screenwriting workshop I attended almost a quarter of a century ago, hammer home the point that a screenplay should have what you see and what you hear and nothing else.  When you get into the world of sights and sounds that supposedly signify emotions I think you need emotional gullibility as much emotional intelligence to buy completely in.  A film can't take you inside the head like a book can, despite claims otherwise.  You're always outside looking in.  It's the difference between being on an acid trip and being in the same room as someone on an acid trip.

But whenever you hold your hand up and say that you just don't get such semiotics, or Rothko or Miro or fauvism, or practically any poetry that doesn't scan or rhyme, you inevitably run the risk of being branded a philistine.  Poor you, brain so limited that it thinks post-structuralism is what holds fences up.  It's the peer pressure that stops you pointing and shouting 'arse' when all around you are declaring it art.

But this is arse.  It's clearly arse.  The book may be brilliant - it's been filmed three times, and the Soderbergh version is a taut 98 minutes - but the film is arse.

Didn't Goebbles argue that if you make the lie big enough then it will be believed?  It's the same with art.  Art or arse?  In the medium distance we can all spot buttocks wobbling.  But Leviathan arse?  So big we can't avoid having our faces pressed up close?  That chocolate starfish begins to resemble some exotic plant, all leathery leaves, folds and ridges.  Anal hairs get mistaken for antannae, listening for signs of alien life against the cosmic background radiation.  Blemishes can be mistaken for beauty.

But it's still arse.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Et in Cascadia ego

I think I may have missed a trick in my writing career (by the way, am I the only one for whom the word 'career', in whatever context, summons up images of cars crashing through Armco, exploding at the bottom of ravines?).

You see, I've always used my real name on my work.  I haven't really had a strategy on the subject, neither hiding behind a nom de plume or choosing a different byline for each genre I write in, nor shouting my name over and over and over on social media until it becomes ingrained in our psyche like Starbucks or the Zika virus.  It's not a sexy name, but it is solid, and - in today's world importantly - unusual enough to be searchable without being unnecessarily outrĂ© or bizarre.  (I wonder if the other Robert Bagnalls Google me?  I do them.)

What I didn't bargain on was it being unpronounceable.

One of my happy, go-to memories, alongside the time a colleague mangled the alternative spellings 'disc' and 'disk' and sent out an all-points email asking if anybody knew what her 'hard dick capacity' was (completely true - and hi, Jane, if you're reading this), is standing in Waterstones on Oxford Street when two women strode through, one saying to the other, "Of course, it's pronounced 'Trollope-aye'."

You could feel everybody else in the store clench and mutter "TRO-LUP" as one.

In the same way, I didn't think it was possible to mangle my dour Staffordshire surname - BAG, as in sack, NUL, as in 'and void' - but I'm indebted to JS Arquin of the Overcast for flagging up potential future problems with the brand by making a bit of a car crash (there's that image again) of it in the recording of my story The Trouble with Vacations as Overcast 54.  I was asked to provide advice on tricky to pronounce words, but I didn't think there was one so close to home.

Perhaps, like Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, I should consider changing my moniker to something a bit more monosyllabic.  Something easier on the brain.

But, in every other respect the podcast is an outstanding job, with exactly the right balance of pathos and absurdity that I could have wished for.  And, without wishing to pat myself on the back too much,  I've written enough bilge to recognise the story as being a half decent little tale.

But, of course, I'm far too close to the subject to judge.  So please, please head over to Overcast 54, settle back for twenty minutes or so, and leave a review.  It really does matter to grass roots publishers who are trying to provide a varied literary diet.

Yours sincerely,

Joe Doe

Or maybe VJ Smith.  How about Michael Carmichael?  'Cheddar' George Albertine?  Arthur C Clarke?  Oh, hold on, I think that one's taken...

Thursday, 4 May 2017

The dress

I've been taken by the return of the 2015 internet meme that was 'The Dress' thanks to research by NYU's Pascal Wallisch.  What Wallisch posits is that how we see the dress comes down to your circadian rhythms, with owls seeing the dark colours and larks the light.  I haven't read enough to know whether one causes the other, they share a common cause, or it's just some inexplicable correlation.

Whilst a sample size of four is about as far from statistically significant as I am from the Moon, I found it curious that the theory works perfectly within our family.  We have two owls and two larks and, on this, we conform to type perfectly.  I'm an uber-lark, often up before 6am, whilst the good lady wife is 100% owl.  I don't even get brought a cup of tea on my birthday.  To me I cannot comprehend how the dress could ever be blue and black, which is as she sees it.  Likewise, she finds my view baffling.

Letting my mind wander around and over the issue, it struck me that the whole thing is akin to handedness.  Curiously, we're also split down the middle with left-handed owls and right-handed larks in our family, but with an even gender and generational mix in each camp. Handedness is, itself, a mystery well worth exploring in its own right, the fact that only a small but stable proportion of people in general are southpaws being especially resistant to explanation.  Those for whom the dress - or is it The Dress - is black and blue are also in the minority, even if the proportions differ.

So, what, I wondered, could account for people being larks or owls?  What could the evolutionary benefit be?  I've been doing a lot of thinking on this subject, which is not, lest we forget, the same as doing science.  And the conclusion I've drawn is that it all comes down to hunting.

Think about it.  You want mastodon and chips for dinner.  They're big sods, not easily taken down.  You want everything on your side.  What are you going to use?

Low sun.

Yep, you want to be coming out of the sun at that shaggy behemoth with your sharpened stick, animal pelt and big smile.  You want to maximise your odds, maximise the chances of eating tonight.  Because those that eat get to live, and those that live get to reproduce.

Which leads to populations of larks and owls, with the mad dogs and Englishmen who go out in the midday sun getting trampled due to their lack of tactical advantage.

I offer this baseless supposition up in the hope that I'll be able to refer to it in future years when some researcher, having put in decades of donkey work, comes up with this self-same idea, albeit founded on an evidence base of admirable solidity and detail.  Unlike his or hers, my approach isn't science, but it is prescience, and it's that that'll get my name, not theirs, on the theory.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017


Whilst wandering around cyberspace with no particular place to go, I stumbled across the Wikipedia entry for the sci-fi author Robert Silverberg, which contained this odd phrase: "In 1959, the market for science fiction collapsed..."

Yes, collapsed.  Like October 1929, but for science fiction, not money, although they are, arguably, both abstract and immaterial concepts.

Something about this statement, the unequivocal nature of it, piqued my interest, and I thought that I'd dig a bit deeper and blog my findings.  Except, of course, an explanation far more eloquent - and possibly a tad more embittered - than any I could construct has already been written by Barry N Malzberg at detailing the various factors at play, not least the forced divestiture of the magazine distribution arm of American News Service.

That last point provides the explanation for the cliff edge nature of events of 1959, but there's a plethora of context to be taken into account as well.  One is that the parallels between 1959 and 1929 don't seem so far fetched: in both cases we're dealing with bubbles with an unrecognised oversupply or overvaluation leading to a market correction.  1929 is well documented; in 1959 it was the belief that the readership of science fiction could continue to grow exponentially whereas, in reality, it was made up of spotty youths who were just filling in the years until the family acquired a TV.

Which led me to wonder why the market for science fiction hadn't moved to television and cinema, rather than "collapsing".  Perhaps part of the reason was that, by Malzberg's account at least, the writers had become somewhat fat and lazy, needing to churn out a mere thousand words, derivative words at that, each day before indulging in whiskey and "wife exchanging".  TV would have demanded more, much more, and the market only actually collapsed for the dinosaurs.  Perhaps it was because, for Malzberg, the market is defined narrowly, as anthology and magazine publishing, and this marketplace was in New York whilst television and cinema was based on the opposite coast.  Perhaps it came down to personalities: the need to collaborate on a TV production doesn't sit well with a person who takes on a blank sheet of paper in single combat.

But I think there's another angle to this.  Compare, say, Melies' Le Voyage dans la Lune with something modern, for example The Martian or Gravity (both of which score virtually the same on IMDB, albeit with Melies' classic ahead by a nose).  There's a sense of utter joyful, ridiculous fantasy to Melies' classic, whilst the modern yarns labour the accuracy of the science and technology.  Sure, there's plenty of cartoon fantasy courtesy of Marvel and DC, but it ain't science fiction in the sense that magic powers ain't science, even when science gone bad is supposed to have endowed them.  Melies takes science - a rocket - and creates a fiction.  And in 1902 that fiction could take us almost anywhere; today we know that a rocket can't realistically take us anywhere other than our nearest neighbours, and they're all barren rocks anyway.  We've lost a lot of the freedom of movement in constructing a story whilst retaining a straight face.

Malzberg alludes to this when he says, "Sputnik in 1957 had made science fiction appear, to the fringe audience, bizarre, arcane, irrelevant.". However, I don't buy this.  If anything, Sputnik should have moved science fiction up the agenda: it showed we could really leave the confines of Mother Earth without suggesting the impending failure to find anything out there.  That all came later.

Classic science fiction up to, say, Star Trek, exists in a Goldilocks zone between technology being invented for us to explore the stars and us discovering that there's nothing out there to find.  The joyful youth of sci-fi, I think, ran until roughly the same time that Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon unwatched by native fauna - because there isn't any.  That's a full decade after 1959's "collapse".

Curiously, I found this extended timeline supported by some wonderfully unscientific research by Castalia House.  It makes an interesting read, even if you feel unable to sign up to its findings.

So where does this leave us?  Science fiction is dead?  Not at all.  It's just that the genre has moved on from stories that just happen to be set in space.  Think about how many spaceships are really just sea-going vessels with a different view out of the portholes, or aliens who are just re-employed redskins.  Science fiction in its cynical middle age has had to find stranger stories than a man wearing a goldfish bowl on his head wrestling a sentient octopus.  And, whilst that may make for the niche, cult, and distinctly un-populist, I think it's rather good at it.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Rise of the robots - I know how it begins...

Paperboy, barman, political speechwriter.  Physicist, engineer.  Aeronautical R&D.  Vacuum moulding machine operator, croupier.  Travel journalist, radio comedy writer, screenwriter.  In my case all of these jobs, careers and specialisms can be prefixed with either 'former' or 'failed'.  Which may be a cause for a massive shrug of the shoulders given the latest story on how robots will take all our jobs.

In the light of this approaching socio-economic apocalypse I'm all the more delighted that my current career choice (admittedly not the only egg in my basket) is as an author, given what fell out of the BBC's Secret Science of Pop. In this a rather sad looking evolutionary biologist, who professed no knowledge of or interest in pop music, tried to engineer a hit record by conducting deep statistical analysis on half a century's worth of top 40 hits.

And, guess what?  He fell on his arse.  He may have got back on one elbow by showing that his algorithms can pick a decent tune out of a bucket of pre-existing tracks by wannabe racket-making beat combos, but as for the actual creative process?  Pulling the inspirational hook, line, riff, melody or lyric out of the ether?  Sorry, no amount of coding will get you there.  At least not yet.

By extrapolation, my reading is as long as people want creative products then there'll have to be creative people to provide.  Including writers.  Not robots.  People.

Frank Lansink, chief executive for Europe at IPsoft is quoted as believing that fighter pilots are the least at risk of having their jobs taken by ones and noughts.  Given the rise of drones that aren't subject to the limits imposed by the human body's frailty under G-force I'm not sure I agree that they're even candidates.  Drone versus piloted aircraft in a dogfight?  I'm betting on the drone.

More prosaically, I've seen electricians and plumbers cited as protected species; their ability to combine practical, applied problem-solving with wriggling between the floorboards being something a robot can't yet deliver.  Of all the professions and specialisms in my CV perhaps paperboy is the one that comes closest - if it wasn't for the fact that the content is already delivered paperlessly to our devices, and will soon, in part, be written by algorithms.

I've mentioned Humans in previous postings.  Contrast it with - and this is a long way from sci-fi, I'll grant you- Further Back in Time for Dinner, which charted the changing culinary habits of a nation.  The servant class was represented by the irrepressible Debbie.  Skivvying at the start of the 20th century as a maid of all work, by the midpoint she has the vote, far greater social mobility and work options.  As somebody who has on occasion produced gender pay comparisons, don't think I'm saying that the back had been broken of gender inequality, but a great deal had been achieved between Britain losing and gaining a female monarch.

Debbie circa 1900 is, of course, the robot of 2030.  It took a couple of world wars, during which time the women took the men's jobs whilst the men lined up to be slaughtered, to upset the social order to the degree that the foundations of gender equality could be laid.  What will it take for a conversation about 'sentient rights'* to be started?  What will the robots have to do - be forced to do - to make the same transition that firstly slaves, then women have made?

Terrorists or freedom fighters, will this be what starts the robot wars?

* Bad news: I don't appear to have coined this phrase.  Good news: previous uses appear to apply to animals and New Zealanders, so perhaps I have expanded the definition.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Counting backwards (compatibility)

There's an exchange in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that I have heard credited as demonstrating cinema's greatest tacit understanding of history.  Those lines are:

Large Man with Dead Body: Who's that then?
The Dead Collector: I dunno, must be a king.
Large Man with Dead Body: Why?
The Dead Collector: He hasn't got shit all over him.

Why so hailed?  Because it pithily grasps both that the faces of even the powerful wouldn't have been immediately recognisable - bizarre to us in a world where we celebrate the famous for simply being famous - but your station could be surmised by dress, number of attendants and, yes, the last time you washed.

(I'm also very fond of the similar theory that the richer you were the stronger your beer - you didn't drink the water in those days - with those with the greatest political power on the strongest brews.  An examination of historical decision-making - declarations of war, marriages, etc. - in this context becomes enlightening...)

Why am I telling you this?  Well, because I think we're still waiting for an equally canny exchange capturing the essence of the future.

The future's meant to be shiny.  It's meant to be seamless.  It's meant to be infinitely functional yet so intuitive that a toddler can use it.  That's what the marketing tells me, and when has advertising ever lied?

But I'm really not sure that's where we're heading.  And unless the uber-lords of Facebook, Apple and Microsoft et al engage in some sort of coding and hardware civil war, the winner forcing us to adopt their technology across every aspect of our lives (am I the first to coin the phrase 'digital slavery'?) I don't think we will ever get there.

There's a classic episode of Star Trek - The Devil in the Dark, apparently Shatner's favourite, and one that last week celebrated it's fiftieth birthday - where the Enterprise comes to the rescue of a mining colony whose nuclear reactor has been sabotaged.  Unfortunately, the damaged part is obsolete, but Scotty rigs a temporary replacement from parts on board ship.

That even a temporary solution is possible, that spare parts knocking around The Enterprise fit with and talk to the colony's reactor, is possibly the most credibility-stretching aspect of an episode involving a rock-chewing polystyrene monster reminiscent of The Magic Roundabout's Dougal.  Most of the kit in my house cannot talk to each other and it's pretty much all sourced from the same place, and here we're dealing with a multi-national team assisting a distant mining colony.

We're about to embark on the Internet of Things - did I mention my most recently published story is on exactly that? - and the Americans are still on Imperial units...

Let me give you a real world example.  I have an ancient MacBook, which has all 27.82GB (I just checked) of music and podcasts; a 3rd generation iPod Nano, which is dying; two docking stations, each of which is compatible with the iPod (in theory), and a Moto G 2nd generation, which is also coughing up blood, metaphorically.

To replace both iPod and Moto G I've settled on a iPhone 4s.  Yes, I'm going to invest in technology some 5 years old in a world in which anything over the age of two may as well live up a cave and scratch its arse whilst dreaming of fire.  Because that's the most recent iPhone that can take the SIM from my Moto, and talk to my MacBook and docking station.

This is my conclusion.  Essentially I - and by 'I' I mean we - have two options: either replace all your kit - and by 'all your kit' I mean everything that has a plug from the toaster upwards - in one go, or seek out a baseline of consistent redundancy.  Old technology that at least fits with what you've got.  Like old people in a home shouting at each other, at least they'll be shouting in a shared language within earshot of each other, assuming the batteries in their hearing aids are charged.

The Sunday supplements will paint us a picture of a joined-up digital life, whereas I foresee a world of being unable to get into your own home, the curtains inexplicably opening and closing as you watch from your drive in the drizzle.

Perhaps the only realistic illustration of how (in)compatible technology really is in practice was in the Cold War German drama Deutschland 83, where the East German spies stare at a floppy disk wondering how they are to extract the stolen NATO report when what they expected was a file of papers.  Brilliant, and brilliantly prescient.

I await the day when a science fiction character holds a 16-pin plug in one hand and an 18-pin socket in the other with a look of defeat on their face. Only then will I feel it has any claim to be grittily realistic.

Perhaps HAL simply wasn't compatible with the pod bay doors?