Thursday, 16 November 2017

Cezanne or Picasso?

2084 by Robert Bagnall, now available from, or direct from Double Dragon, for your enjoyment.

I recently took in an episode of Malcolm Gladwell's brilliant Revisionist Histories podcast called Hallelujah.  It's on the subject of why genius takes time.  Or, sometimes, it doesn't.

He contrasts the slap-it-together, finished by lunchtime ethic of Picasso or Bob Dylan with the drafting and re-drafting of a Cezanne or Leonard Cohen, where works are never finished, merely abandoned needing to be monetized.  Sometimes it even takes another person to pick up what you thought had been taken as far as it could be to reveal the gold beneath the tarnish, just as Jeff Buckley, John Cale and a host of others did with Cohen's Hallelujah.  Or, like Elvis Costello reworking Deportee, it takes an older you revisiting what the younger you had declared as good as it was ever going to get.

Why mention this?

Well, I see myself as a Cezanne.  I have stories on my spreadsheet which were first drafted in the last century, western crime capers rewritten for the edge of space; flash pieces that have grown beyond their original intentions; longer pieces that have been boiled down to not much more than a flash.  I'm a honer, an editor, a re-writer.

So, you'll understand that it is with a tad of bemusement that I look back on the year so far and realise that my two most recent sales are both for pieces freshly drafted, with virtually no rewrites, and certainly no opportunity to take a mental step back.  Picassos.  Bob Dylans.  Not Cezannes.

One, I've already mentioned: 'They Have Been to a Great Feats of Languages and Stol'n the Scraps' in Daily Science Fiction.  As I put in the author comments:

Some stories have a difficult gestation, the product of long walks and hot baths, always just out of reach, more stared at than written over the course of weeks or months, until they emerge into the light, never quite as good as that elusive first idea that you loved, now lost sight of.

This story wasn’t like that.

Its genesis can be found in a jokey posting on my blog suggesting that Shakespeare’s famous lack of books could be explained away if he was actually a time traveller, and challenging somebody to take the idea and run with it.  Suspecting nobody would, I picked up the gage that I myself had thrown, as Shakespeare would have said.  The tale was written on a single damp spring morning and polished over a latte after lunch.

I know many of you would like to think we suffer for our art.  Not this time.  Sorry.

Well, added to that I can let you know that my story 'Storm Warning' will be appearing in Azure Keep's Tales of Ruma sometime early next year.

Which is nice.  Even if it leaves me not really sure what kind of artist I am.

(Who said 'piss'?  Come on, own up, who was it...)

Thursday, 2 November 2017

More human than human

2084 by Robert Bagnall, now available from, or direct from Double Dragon, for your enjoyment.

Contains spoilers

No, this isn't going to be a review of Blade Runner 2049.  I'm sure there are enough of them out there, although I've been avoiding them in order to watch the film unencumbered.

Instead I wanted to dwell on world-building and the Blade Runner universe, a world that I've always been a sucker for, even if the story itself made only passing sense - like, why does Leon need a Voight-Kampff Test when they have photo id?  Having said that, some have tried to fill such plot holes, with varying degrees of success and retention of dignity.

Actually, in story terms, the original is quite a simple one: a truncated act one which sets up the storyverse and gives Deckard his challenge: to air four replicants; act two: hunting down the easy ones; act three: the operatic set piece of killing the most cockroach-like of them.  Yes, there's an interweaving subplot with Rachael but, essentially, that's it.

But that world... a triumph of set design and paranoia, mostly delivered on a tiny corner of the Warner's backlot.

Blade Runner 2049 extends and expands the vision.  The rain has turned to snow, the advertising blimps to free-wheeling holograms, and there still appears to be no sense of leadership or government, just rules and regulations.

And the blade runners are now unashamedly skin-jobs.

This surprised me: I'd have thought Denis Villeneuve would have kept us guessing on that front but, instead, wrong-foots us with the revelation up front.  Yes, the bait that maybe, perhaps, K is different from the rest is dangled before us before being snatched away.  And - maybe I misunderstood, because it doesn't seem to have put this debate to bed - isn't it confirmed that Deckard is a replicant, because he was "engineered to fall in love with Rachael" or somesuch?  (Though why they needed a ruse so contrived to create life from artificiality is beyond me).

But, anyway.  In the opening, K sends up his targa top-cum-drone camera to photograph the surroundings of the farm where he encounters the film's first replicant wrong un' for later review.

And, this got me thinking when we (soon after) found out that K is a skin-job himself: why?

I'm a fan of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (not that I'm not a fan of the remainder of the trilogy; I just haven't read them).  Leckie's world-building game-changer is that the ship and the semi-catatonic, semi-mesmerised slave-cum-troops it carries are mentally as one.  With the ship destroyed and troops decimated, one survivor keeps that mental thread, that continuum of awareness alive.

K is a replicant.  Engineered.  Surely it wouldn't be that much as a technological leap to give him a live camera feed?  Leckie's ship sees everything its cadre of soldiers sees.  This is the Robocop of his time: less armour, more moody looks.

But, instead, all the technological innovation appears to have gone into making him human, but with skin you can peel and glue back on.  I'm not sure whether K feels physical pain; but the mental pain is there for all to see.  Bottom line: in 2049 they seem to have perfected synthetic emotions before Bluetooth.  Given everything else they've achieved - and I'm looking forward to the hundred-foot naked dancing girls - you'd think that'd be easy.

There's an element of wanting your cake and eating it, wilfully obscuring the issue with smoke and mirrors to make it all look more philosophical than it is.  What are replicants, anyway?  Are they robots or genetically engineered humans?  The story wants them to be one at some points, and the other at other times.  All the morgue scenes would suggest the latter, although that wouldn't make the issues any the less - just think of GMOs and the controversy they stir up, despite looking just like 'normal' vegetables and grains.

Take this line from the wikipedia page on replicants: "Although the press kit for the film explicitly defines a replicant as "A genetically engineered creature composed entirely of organic substance", the physical make-up of the replicants themselves is not clear. In the films’s preamble, it is noted that replicants are said to be the result of "advanced robot evolution.”". 

Just about sums it up, cake eaten, but still there on the plate.

Or, maybe, the point is that there is a level of engineering beyond which the distinctions between robot and genetically engineered human become pointless and illusory.  Either route involves manufacture and artificiality, its just a case of the size and nature of your building blocks.

But, most strikingly, it's 2049, and they still haven't invented a better bra fastener.


Friday, 13 October 2017


2084.  The world remains at war.

A chaotic city in the Eurasian desert.  Twenty-year old Adnan emerges from a coma with memories of a woman he loved in a strictly ordered world of steel and glass: The Dome.

Adnan learns what the Dome is, and what he was inside it.  He learns why everybody fears the Sickness more than the troopers.  And he learns why he is the only one who can stop the war.

Persuaded to re-enter The Dome to implant a virus that will bring the war machine to its knees, the resistance think that Adnan is returning to free the many - but really he wants to free the one.

2084, my dystopian science fiction novel, is now available from,, or direct from Double Dragon for your enjoyment.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Nobel prize for economics? Me!! Me!! Me, please!

You may, or probably may not, know that most semi-professional (or, if you're HMRC, hobby) writers, like me, have other lives and proper jobs.  For my part, I work as a human resources consultant, words I type with, metaphorically, my hand in the air and eyes to the floor; hearing, but not quite believing, that it's okay, I'm amongst friends.

I actually like the fact that I have a second life; otherwise I fear ending up like the comic shop guy in the Simpsons, self-obsessed, overweight and balding... oh, hold on.

No, seriously, I've seen people like that: there are things about you that you wish could remain forever sixteen years old, but your sense of humour isn't one of them.  An external perspective gives you material that isn't in any way related to science fiction to inspire you.  You never know where this stuff will take you.  Sci-if is a broad church, just as your sources should be.

For example, take the productivity conundrum.  I could describe it, but a picture says a thousand words (except when you hand in an envelope of seaside postcards instead of a PhD thesis - bastards); just take it as read that what holds true for Blighty applies far wider:

Image result for productivity since 2007

Basically, productivity, our ability to add value in our daily working lives, which took off around the time I entered the labour market and steadily rose for a decade and a half, went into reverse about ten years ago.  A lot has been written about what's stopped that steady upward curve.  Which isn't going to stop me throwing in my penny's worth.

You see, to me, the answer is obvious.  Every generation gets to see a transition; my grandfather's was from horse to car, my father's was consumerism.  My privilege was to enter the world of work in an office with only primitive PCs that weren't joined to anything more significant than the mains.

And, boy, that probably explains the initial sky-rocketing of the thick blue line, although I like to think I helped.  Being in a paper-centric, desk-bound civil service job, I'm sure the ability to throw away the Dictaphone (old joke: ever used a Dictaphone? a finger's easier) and type the document out yourself impacted on us more than most, although there was a thick strata of dinosaurs who resisted for as long as possible.  Primitive e-commerce soon followed for proper organisations that actually contributed to GDP.

I worked through that period of arrow-straight growth when the internet took off and employers, on the one hand, heard the words about how connectivity could transform business and, on the other, busied themselves writing digital usage policies that denied their workers access, although they were holding back the tide.

What was their fear?  Distraction.  And it came with a vengeance in the form of social media.  Facebook was founded in early 2004, but didn't break out of universities until late 2006.  Less than a year later it had 100 million users, which doubled in eight months, and doubled again in another ten.

And, oh look, where does productivity hit the buffers?  Exactly in line with the Facebook explosion.  Case solved.  Facebook destroyed the world's productivity.  Or, rather, our primitive desire to share and like pictures of our lunch did.

But don't think this blog is about blaming Zuckerberg - I don't have the budget for lawyers.  He was just the biggest surfer with the loudest shorts riding the wave of technology.  The first YouTube video was posted in 2005, and its history mirrors Facebook, going from a niche for funny cat videos to uber-broadcaster of funny cat videos.  And then there's Google.  I could go on and on, but I think the point is pretty obvious.

But not to the commentators.

You see, the error is that people who write books on economic history have a surfeit of intrinsic motivation.  They like their jobs.  They'd want to write the books even if nobody was paying them.  They continue their college lecture to a different audience over merlot and turbot in the evening (see what I did there?).  They're not bored at work.

Two things happened.  Our employers gave us internet access in the belief that joined-up businesses made for bigger profits.  And we all signed up to Facebook so that we could continue pub conversations and YouTube so we could watch cats fall off worktops, or whatever they do.  And, yes, we could go hunting for new business leads, but, hey not until we've watched... hey, come here and see what this cat does...

I mean, what an I doing here?  I'm meant to be writing another chapter of a science-fiction thriller novel, but instead I'm researching this blog posting?  I'm my own employer and even I'm skiving... 

Friday, 15 September 2017

Praised with faint damning

Stumbled across this review by Eamonn Murphy of "Shooting the Messenger" within a generally upbeat write-up of "Best of British Science Fiction 2016":

Shooting The Messenger’ by Robert Bagnall features Dave Kite, an ambitious young journalist looking for a story in Pakistan, a war zone with the Taliban. I get the impression that Bagnall made this up as he went along, which you can do with a short story. It’s certainly unpredictable! I liked it. Authors having fun is something I’m glad to see in ‘the heavy industry that professional writing has become’ as Bernard Berenson wrote to Ray Bradbury.

Made it up as he went along?  Isn't that how fiction works?  Isn't that what I'm meant to do?  I'm having a bit of a 'small; far away' moment: are we saying that novels aren't made up?  I've checked the back of my wardrobe, and that's clearly made up.  What about the works of Philip K Dick - that was all real?  The Moomins are real, though - I've always known that...

(Seriously, though - much obliged)

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Up like a rocket, down like a stick

Remember my red email day?  Well, didn't take long for the Scientologists to decide that my story was good, but not good enough for the Writers of the Future Competition.  Bit of a black edge to that email.

JK Galbraith came up with the idea of the bezzel, the amount by which the world is in profit whilst an embezzler has your money but the embezzled doesn't know.  It's one of my favourite cod-scientific theories.  Subversive comedy genius.

I think I can add the idea of a bezzel hangover; the despondency resulting from having the possibility of a win snatched away.  Had I simply found out I'd been placed, I'd have been happy.  However, to have received a call telling me I was in the last eight, talked about what it may mean, what they do for the winners, only for it to come to naught...  You inevitably focus on what coulda been.

Maybe this is the anti-bezzel, the perceived negative that balances out the false positive of the bezzel itself, meaning the world is really left in balance after all.  Socio-eonomic karma.

On a more positive note, you may recall the gauntlet I threw down to anybody reading these postings to write a science fiction story on the Bard.  Well, I accepted my own challenge and here's the result, published by Daily Science Fiction.  My second success with them; nice to have repeat business.

Back to the keyboard, I guess.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Overheard at Griffith Observatory

At regular intervals at Griffith Observatory, in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, curators fire up the Tesla coil, that spark-emitting metal orb in a huge cage that featured in La La Land.  For a better film reference, think a cackling James Whale-era Frankenstein, Igor having just thrown the switch.

I was lucky enough to witness the 3.50pm showing a few days ago.  At the sight of hundreds of thousands of volts arcing a voice next to me said to his companion, "Is that real?"

I appreciate that this was more knee-jerk expression of awe than literal question, but it immediately got me thinking.  If he wasn't expressing some concern about his own ability to tell reality from fantasy, what could he mean?

You see, whilst there are many things that a Tesla coil can allude to - lightening in a bottle, the battles of the Norse gods, the formation of the stars themselves - there isn't really anything else that can suggest a Tesla coil itself.  It's its own special effect.  You can't fake it.  It's not like putting antelope horns on a hare to get a taxidermy jackalope.  Or getting an actor to play dead or play a zombie.  The easiest way to suggest a Tesla coil is, um, a Tesla coil.

Is it real?  The stranger answer would be 'no'.

So, if there's one thing more impressive than a Tesla coil going hell-for-leather, it's something that can imitate a Tesla coil going hell-for-leather.