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  1. [Copied and pasted from my external blog. Please do take a look. I'm trying to update regularly, every few days or so]



    As Far as the Eye Could See

    By Matthew S. Dent​

    Jimmy and Maria emerged from the warmth of the train carriage and were almost immediately subsumed in a flurry of ivory flakes.

    ‘Jesus!’ Maria exclaimed. She wrapped her coat tighter around her as a gust of icy wind hit her blowing her plume of brilliant red hair out behind her. She quickly tucked it away in her hood. ‘It’s really picked up.’

    Jimmy only grunted. What had been a charming shower of snow when they’d gotten on the train was now a full blown snowstorm. And getting worse.

    ‘How far is it to your parents’ house?’ Maria asked.

    ‘Fifteen minutes walk,’ he answered, and buried his chin deeper into his coat. The cold wind bit into his exposed face.

    ‘Come on.’ He looped his arm through hers as the train pulled away behind them. Its lights were quickly lost in the maelstrom of swirling flakes. ‘The sooner we get out of this, the better.’

    Maria pulled her ticket out, squinting to check it was the right one, but putting it away when she saw no barriers.

    Leading her through the snow, Jimmy put his shoulder to the wind and pressed onwards. He wore a thick coat, over layers strategically arranged to keep out the cold. They didn’t seem at all effective. The wind found out every flaw in his thermal armour, and stopped it up with snow. He was shivering after only a few paces.

    Maria fared no better. Her clothing was designed for aesthetics rather than winter comfort- no more than you could expect from a fashion and design student. Her coat was thin, her shoes unsuited to wading through snow, and her gloves were not waterproof. Only her hood was an advantage.

    She hunched shivering in her boyfriend’s shadow as he pushed through the burgeoning blizzard.

    ‘The road’s too dangerous!’ Jimmy shouted, leading her from the barely visible road. ‘People take the road too fast anyway. In this visibility, we’ll get ourselves killed. It’s quicker to cut across the churchyard!’

    The churchyard? Maria couldn’t see a church, but then she couldn’t see much of anything anymore. In the sea of white, Jimmy’s dark silhouette was her anchor and guide; she clung to him.

    Jimmy was worrying about the rest of the journey. His family home was still a fair walk away, and he hadn’t told Maria that the walk was fifteen minutes in fair weather. God only knew how long it would take in this mess.

    Movement to his left distracted him. Something had darted past him, something not white, not the snow, but dark and very much solid. Maria crashed into his back, and cried out.

    ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked. The tremor had worked its way into her voice, and he took his soon-to-be-fiancé into his arms, planting a kiss on her forehead.

    ‘Nothing,’ he said, shaking off his unease. It was just the snow playing tricks on him. What else could it have been? ‘Come on. We need to get home, before you freeze.’

    ‘I’m going to look a state,’ Maria complained. She drew her white-gloved hand across her cheek, leaving a dirty stain of make-up on the finger. ‘What are your parents going to think of me.’

    Despite himself, Jimmy laughed. ‘They’ll think you’re cold, wet and hungry. They’ll make you sit by the fire, give you a towel, and make you some supper. They’ll love you, hun.’

    They pushed on, Jimmy leaning into the wind, and Maria clutching close to him. She thought of the promised fire, and of what supper she might be given. The seasonal flavours of mince pies and mulled wine crept into her mouth. She gripped Jimmy’s arm tightly.

    Jimmy had lowered his head, and thought only of getting through the storm. His thoughts had turned towards the pub in the village, unsure any longer whether they could make it up the hill. He kept his eyes fixed dead ahead, searching for fences, gateposts, anything solid. He ignored phantom spectres darting at the corners of his vision.

    ‘Hey!’ Maria exclaimed, and Jimmy felt her pull on his arm as she stopped.

    He had to squint through the storm to see her. She was only three feet from him at the most. The storm was getting worse.

    ‘Something pulled my hood back!’ He stepped closer, and saw that her hood, was indeed down.

    ‘The wind?’

    ‘No! Something pulled it down. I felt it.’

    ‘Maria, there’s nothing out here!’ Jimmy insisted. The cold was biting deep into him, sapping his strength.

    ‘How do you know? I can’t see **** in this snow. I’m not making this up! Look!’

    She turned around, and presented her hood to him. He reached out and touched it, and noted that it seemed torn, almost shredded, before it was snatched out of his hand. And suddenly Maria wasn’t there anymore.

    ‘What the ****? Maria?’ He lurched forward, searching for her. He kicked at the snow, thinking she might have tripped and fallen, but there was no one there. The cold bit ever deeper into him, and panic rose through his stomach.

    ‘Maria!’ he shouted. ‘Maria! Where are you?’ He staggered into the snow, too late realising that he had lost all sense of direction. He had no idea which way led back to the station, and which way on to the village. Everything was just more snow.

    The storm rose around him. The merciless white maelstrom of nature brought to bear on him. The snow blinded and confused him, all the while assaulting him with wet, burning cold. And nowhere could he find Maria.

    He staggered on, hands reaching, searching for the feel of Maria’s more-money-than-sense coat, for the relieved embrace of his lost lover. But the snow was up to his thighs now. His jeans were soaked- why the hell had he worn jeans, of all things?- and his legs cried out in protest and agony.

    He saw the door only a step before he walked into it. A big, wooden thing, which he took a moment to identify as the church. He beat on it with gloved fists. Someone might be inside. Someone who could help him find Maria.

    A gust of wind, and perhaps something more solid, hit his side, and knocked him from his feet. He landed in the snow, and gasped from sudden cold and pain of it. Snow flooded into his mouth. He thrashed around, trying to tell up from down, but there no longer seemed any distinction between him and the snow.

    As the cold ate into the last warm molecules of him, and darkness closed in over him, his last thoughts were of the flame-haired beauty, lost in the snow.

    Maria…

    ###​

    ‘Good morning, Mr Kilburn.’

    Jimmy was warm. His eyes opened slowly, reluctantly. Had the painful, all-encompassing cold been nothing but a dream?and he wondered whether the lingering memories of painful cold had just been a dream.

    When he saw the aged face in front of him, he knew it hadn’t been.

    ‘Where am I?’ He sat up with a groan.

    The old man chuckled. Jimmy saw he was wearing a white dog collar and knew the answer before he said it. ‘St. Mary’s. I found you on the doorstep, freezing to death. You seem well enough for a good night’s sleep, though.’

    ‘Where’s Maria?’ Jimmy asked, suddenly remembering her disappearance.

    The old vicar frowned. ‘There wasn’t anyone else with you.’

    ‘She’s still out there then!’ Jimmy’s leapt out of the makeshift bed he was lying in, flinching slightly as his bare feet hit the cold floor. There was still some residual dampness in his clothes, but he didn’t care. He dashed towards the door.

    ‘Wait!’ the vicar shouted after him. ‘You can’t go out there dressed like that!’

    Jimmy ignored him. Forcing the door open he threw himself into the outside world. The storm had blown itself out overnight, and everything was bright and clear now- but viciously cold. And there was a blanket of snow covering everything, almost two feet deep.

    The snow attacked Jimmy’s legs and bare feet, burning and freezing simultaneously, but he didn’t care. He had to find Maria. The vicar shouted at him from the doorway, but Jimmy could barely even hear him.

    There was nothing. No footprints, no bulges, no sign of her. Tears flowed down his cheeks with growing desperation, and his shivering was uncontrollable. He waded like the snow, no longer able to feel his feet, until they gave way beneath him and sent him sprawling facedown.

    He surfaced, churning up the fresh snow as he tried to find something with which to lever himself up. And then he stopped.

    In the tilled snow before him, something had been unearthed. A lone, white glove, a black smudge sullying one flat finger. And next to it, a soggy rail ticket, its orange edges wilting, even as it declared itself an “OFF-PEAK SINGLE; LONDON TO WARGRAVE”. And one corner of it was coloured with a dark red residue, on perfect snow stretching as far as the eye could see.
  2. [Copied and pasted from my external blog. Please do take a look. I'm trying to update regularly, every few days or so]

    The amount of writing I’ve been able to do lately has been distressingly negligible. I think it shows from the fact that it’s been over a week since I’ve updated this blog.

    It all comes down to distraction really. This time of year is always busy academically, but in the final year of a law degree it reaches the point of truly mental, I’ve discovered. I don’t make things easy on myself, I know. I have a tendency to procrastinate, and to bite of much more than I can swallow.

    The last few weeks I’ve had to knuckle down though. I’ve had 7,000 words worth of work to submit, as well as a presentation to do. To date I’ve done 3,500 words, and no presentation. Added to that, I’m hard at work researching and writing my dissertation (on the contemporary relevance of the Law of Treason, in case anyone’s interested), ever more deeply involved in Labour, and the Labour society at uni, and of course trying to keep up my writing. All under the shadow of “What am I going to do come June when I graduate?”


    Perhaps if I was snowed in, I'd have more time to devote to writing...
    I am still writing though, even if it is more slowly. I’ve recently finished the first drafts of a longish sci-fi short about dimensional rifts and military recruitment, and a short story about unicorns. No, I’m not joking. I’ve also been listening to a lot of fiction podcasts. There are so many great ones out there, but in particular I have to recommend Cast Macabre. It’s a relative newcomer, but has some very good little horror stories, and is lovingly produced by Barry Northern to a top quality standard. You should really take a look.

    So there’s a snapshot of my life at present. Plenty of distractions, little in the way of tangible productivity. I’ll be fighting with uni work until term finishes for Christmas (and then probably over Christmas too), but I have a few itching projects just waiting for a time window. Windows I intend to make over the Christmas.

    Of course, it could massively snow (again), and I could end up housebound in Brighton, with nothing but time to write. And thinking on it I’m not sure that would be a bad thing.
  3. [Copied and pasted from my external blog. Please do take a look. I'm trying to update regularly, every few days or so]

    So, earlier this week BSG spin-off series Caprica was cancelled. I’m not going to spend this blog entry moaning specifically about that, for two reasons. Firstly, I’m quite behind on the series, only a few episodes in, and thus haven’t decided whether it will meet it’s potential (but rest assured, the potential is there). Secondly, there are plenty of other people across the interwebs doing just that.

    No, my complaint here is a more general trend indicated in the cancellation; that of good sci-fi television being cut short without being given a real chance. Or worse, being positively brilliant. Firefly is the obvious example, but far from the only instance.

    I remember when I was growing up, the TV schedules were full of science-fiction. It wasn’t all good, but it was certainly there. The Star Trek Franchise was working its way through The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager (not to mention several films- some of them even good). The X-Files was giving us conspiracy theories and aliens being investigated by an FBI duo with a taste for sunflower seeds and interesting pronunciation of the English language. Babylon 5 was doing something, though quite what I’m not entirely sure, as I’ve never actually watched an episode. Stargate SG-1 was taking us to distant worlds through a bowl of jelly, with MacGyver as a tour guide.

    And there were myriads of smaller, lesser-known sci-fi shows floating around. Five seasons of Andromeda, with Kevin Sorbo whizzing about as Hercules in space, for Christ’s sake. And five seasons of pseudo-philosophical nonsense with Earth Final Conflict (both, incidentally, mining the last vestiges of the late Gene Roddenberry’s imagination). If even these more obscure things managed to prosper, hopefully it will give you a hint of how strong the genre used to do.

    Nowadays, they seem to struggle. Aside from the utter bollocks of Firefly’s cancellation (midway through one of the best first seasons I’ve ever seen from a TV series, of any genre), there are a host of similar cancellations littering the path. The demise of the mutated Stargate SG-1 and misguided spin-off Stargate Atlantis probably won’t be much mourned, but back in the 2003 outstanding Australian offering Farscape was given the chop too. Since then Dollhouse (Joss Whedon’s other sci-fi project) has been given its marching orders, lesser-known but still praise-worthy Denying Gravity was denied a second season, as was Flashforward (not a patch on the book, but still better than Lost by a wide margin). And that’s to say nothing of the countless great ideas which have undoubtedly been turned down.

    What I think this amounts to, in my opinion, is a shift in the perception of sci-fi. It just doesn’t seem to be cool any more. The only science-fiction series that I can think of to have run its full course rather than being prematurely cancelled is Caprica‘s parent show, Ronald D. Moore’s sterling remake of Battlestar Galactica.

    When you factor in the Sci-Fi channel’s bizzare and much-documented name change to SyFy, I think we have to accept that TV studios are not keen on the genre any more. The flagship genre representatives at the moment are X-Files lookalike Fringe (which is fantastic, and if they go anywhere near it with an axe I’m going to have to resort to violence), bold reinvention of the original franchise Stargate Universe, and the BBC’s reinvention of the Doctor Who franchise (which may be facing difficulties of a different sort, before too long). Of course, you have the V remake, but I think the less said about that diluted cat piss the better.

    Is there a deeper root to this downturn? Are people not dreaming of the future any more? Do we not look up at the stars and dream of what could be out there? If you look at real world events, such as Obama’s attitude towards NASA, you might think so. I don’t know the answer to that one, but my favourite television genre seems to be under siege at the moment.

    Hollywood has never gotten sci-fi. They’ve made token efforts, and sometimes done fairly well, but the extended possibilities of a TV series, of a long story arc, has always seemed the natural home of video science-fiction to me. If it’s going to be allowed to vanish from our screens, I fear not only for the genre, but for humanity’s approach to the future. Science-fiction is, to me at least, imagination incarnate. It is the ultimate “what if?”. And I think we really do need that.

    Maybe you disagree, but all I’m really saying here is give sci-fi a chance.
  4. [Copied and pasted from my external blog. Please do take a look. I'm trying to update regularly, every few days or so]

    (Corvus, 294pp, £12.99)

    "The Holy Machine" by Chris Beckett
    I bought this book for a few reasons, which should probably be made clear before I begin dissecting it. First amongst them, was the review of this UK release in Interzone #229, which gave a pretty glowing summary of it. Second, and related, was the quotation on the front, from the Interzone review of the US release, which gave an even-more-glowing summary. Third was the beautifully made cover (I actually looked this up, and it’s by designer Andy Vella, whose work is worth a look). And finally, when I read the first few paragraphs, in Waterstones Southend, I instantly recognised that this was a competent writer.

    And a competent writer, Beckett certainly is. The bio on the back flap proclaims this as his first novel, which is a hopeful state of affairs when you start off this good. Yeah, I enjoyed it a lot.

    It was a very well written story, with believable characters, a blisteringly exciting pace, and a wonderfully vibrant and intriguing world. Set in a future where the entire world (apparently) has turned religious fundamentalist (precisely which religion seems not to matter, as long as you’re verging on the psychotic with it), apart from one solitary city in the Balkans, which has become the refuge of atheism and science (for the first part of the book, at least, seemingly the same thing). Of course, in predictable fashion, it seems to be moving towards an atheist fundamentalist theocracy.

    But the story itself focuses on socially maladjusted main character George, and his relationship with sex-bot Lucy, who at the same time is becoming self-aware. The whole thing culminates in a madcap flight through the theo-pathic outlands, as the two try to outrun the various different parties who want to destroy them.

    The main advantage this story has is its pace. It keeps moving forward with such unrelenting action and excitement, that it becomes a difficult book to put down, even if there are rather important things you should be doing instead. And the pace also helps the plot, which if you give it any thought at all is rather predictable. But it scoops the reader up, and immerses them to such an extent that they don’t have time to see it coming (and don’t really care if they do). This really is storytelling at its very best.

    There are, however, things that I can criticise. And I’m going to. The first, and most obvious, is the central idea. That people would react against science, becoming ultra-religious and anti-scientific, seems ridiculously far-fetched. It doesn’t really help that Beckett doesn’t give a particularly strong reason for said theocratic revolution, it just sort of…happens. The whole story resting on this tenuous conceit is a bit risky, and with a lesser writer would probably collapse in on itself. As it is, if you can bring yourself to look past that, the story will carry you along, and the message that Beckett is trying to get across (namely, the dangers of restricting belief, in either direction), will make up for the stretch.

    But my biggest criticism, is that it’s just too short. The pace that I’ve mentioned before worked really well for telling the story, but there was so much that I felt I, as a reader, was missing. Beckett creates an endlessly fascinating world here, and it seems a real shame that he marches his readers through it at breakneck speed, with nary a chance for a look around. There were things mentioned in passing, happening elsewhere, that I would have liked to hear more about. And given that it was narrated in a past-tense first-person perspective, which a couple of times diverged to look at other sub-plots, I don’t really see why it couldn’t have done so more.

    But really, it’s a fairly petty complaint, that only speaks to the calibre of this book. It gets you so into it, that when it’s done you find yourself as the metaphorical Oliver Twist, meekly asking (or maybe clamouring) for more. I highly recommend this book, as an example of good storytelling, and good science fiction. It has a message, as well as a story, to tell, and whilst many will not agree with that message, it will make you thing. And what more do you want from a book?
  5. [Copied and pasted from my external blog. Please do take a look. I'm trying to update regularly, every few days or so]

    This is a follow-up to my previous post on the subject, "The Art of Flashing". It’s not going to be a long piece, but I wanted to write it for several reasons.

    1) The awesome title occurred to me only several days after the original flash fiction entry.
    2) I do really like flash fiction.
    3) I was contacted by Alan Presley, who asked me to pimp the Micro Award. Which I’m more than happy to do

    The Micro Award is for outstanding flash fiction, published in the previous year. It probably doesn’t sound frightfully interesting, but really literary awards are important for recognition of outstanding fiction, and are a massive deal in the industry. They showcase the very best of what’s going on, a snapshot of the top. And they often cause controversy and debate (for example, the Booker prize recently ignored genre fiction again, and rolled out the same bollocks in explanation of that. But that’s a different debate).

    But more than that, this award is an essential ingredient if flash is to be considered a genuine mode of literary art. I already made my feelings on flash fiction clear in my previous entry, and I have a lot of respect and admiration for the authors who can form a complete, engaging and satisfying story in only 500 words.

    The award has just been taken over by Alan Presley (previously having been run by Robert Laughlin), and is gathering momentum. And best of all, it’s open to all genres, recognising all equally. Which, if you’ve read my previous posts, you know is something I’m more than a little passionate about. If you’re interested in flash fiction, or in the award, you should definitely take a look at the Micro Award website.

    Also, while I’m plugging away, I’ll give the Escape Pod flash contest (yes, you have to register on their forum to see and vote on the stories, but at least it’s free) another nod. There are a lot of entries, so it’s gonna be going on for a while (and I’ll be flogging it on here until it’s a bloody mess of twitching organs). I have two stories in it, one of which is through to the quarter finals, and one of which is still in the first round. It’s still blind, and I’m still not going to say which are mine, but you should really read through all of them. There are brilliant examples of both flash fiction, and sci-fi in general, on there.