Readers Like You

CANDIDATE AE67FE-001101: Male. 31.9 cycles. Region: ‘North America’ { 37.7749° N, 122.4194° W }. Tracked disciplines: folk audio, digital play, musician { strings, digital }. Status: monitoring.

CANDIDATE JD93UY-101000: Female. 11.2 cycles. Region: ‘East Asia’ { 37.8735° N, 112.5627° E }. Tracked disciplines: play, social observation. Status: monitoring; administering neural accelerators.

CANDIDATE BA89IV-011100: Male. 78 cycles. Region: ‘Australasia’ { 35.2809° S, 149.1300° E }. Tracked disciplines: none. Status: close monitoring, neural degeneration.

CANDIDATE UI59DE-111011: Male. 36.0 cycles. Region: ‘South Europe’ { 40.8518° N, 14.2681° E }. Tracked disciplines: social exploitation, trade interactions, domination. Monitoring: sociopathy. Addendum: active study { ‘Proximate Relationships and Social Hierarchies in Terran Economic Systems’ }.

CANDIDATE II49AH-011010: Transitional. 19.1 cycles. Region: ‘North America’ { 47.6062° N, 122.3321° W }. Tracked disciplines: electronics. Status: monitoring.

CANDIDATE UJ02XV-110011: Male. 26.4 cycles. Region: ‘Africa’’ { 26.2041° S, 28.0473° E }. Tracked disciplines: communication, information composition/dissemination. Status: monitoring. Addendum: active studies { ‘Hepatic Disease Rates in Cultural Producers’ ; ‘Non-Binary Theory and Obsessive-Compulsive Tendencies: Terrans’ }.

CANDIDATE Y6D8J1–110111: Female. 21.1 cycles. Region: ‘North Europe’ { 51.5073° N, 0.1273° W }. Tracked disciplines: none. Status: monitoring. Addendum: manual monitoring { station #6399 }.

{ BRK: INITIATE READER PROTOCOL Y/N ? }

Clara sinks her face into her hands and sighs deeply, shudderingly. Her fingernails press into her forehead and for a moment she focuses on the pain. But it is transient; she cannot ignore this.

What a fucking ridiculous day, she thinks. And now this.

She drops her hands and opens her eyes and looks at her car. It’s parked where she left it. It’s still a battered navy blue Vauxhall Corsa. It even still has the Bagpuss plushie stuck to the rear windshield. The only thing is that it is now upside down.

She approaches and pushes the car with her foot. Nothing. And now that she’s closer, she can see that it’s not just upside down: the roof has fused with the tarmac beneath.
She tries her keys in the door, just in case. It unlocks, so she locks it again.

There are people around her, walking to their own cars or just passing by. No one looks twice at her or her inverted car.

“Is this some kind of joke?” she asks, voice raised. A few people glance her way but there’s barely a question in their gaze. It’s as if a neatly parked upside down three-door hatchback is a perfectly ordinary sight.

“Fuck it,” she says, to herself as much as anyone else, and starts walking, leaving the car behind.

Her entire day has been off-kilter. Frittered with unexpected, off-putting and often outright odd events, it has been a chore to live through.

She fishes a packet of B&H from her handbag and lights up. She blasts thick, dry smoke out of flared nostrils and glares without direction.

It began when she stumbled from bed to bathroom this morning and tried to brush her teeth, only to find a viscous fluid pouring from both taps. Tasting it was perhaps not the best idea, in retrospect, but she had been half asleep and besides, it turned out to be caramel.

Later, on leaving her building she’d been greeted in Italian by the postman, who was in the process of folding letters into a variety of origami birds. They were lined up on the wall outside, each turned 45 degrees from the last. She had pulled a face at him, and sworn to herself that she’d never drink on a weeknight again.

The bus driver had initially seemed normal, until he turned fully to face her as she paid and she saw his two cheap glass eyes. She had hesitated, about to turn and disembark, until she glanced about and saw the bored faces of other passengers. She stayed aboard, convincing herself that he perhaps had some rare glaucoma, and was not blind at all.

Her subsequent journey was uneventful, although every time she looked out of the window she had a fleeting impression of something vanishing out of sight — into alleyways and sidestreets, into shops and other buildings, even underneath cars and trucks.

At work her phone had rung once only, exactly on the hour, all day. She found a cake with her name on it in the breakroom, the carpet coated in glitter and confetti, and a banner celebrating twenty years of service hanging overhead. No one else entered the room all day. She had joined the company just seven months ago.

Shortly after lunch — during which everything she tried to eat threatened to summon long-lost childhood memories — her manager, Ivan, had begun questioning her on her current project. She initially responded with some relief, clinging to this rational behaviour exhibited by another human being, until the questions began to drift further and further off-topic, and she noticed that he was playing a child’s game with her: each of his questions began with a homonym corresponding to the final syllable in her previous answer.

“Are you f- …are you kidding me?” she’d spluttered. Ivan widened his eyes in response, face otherwise expressionless, until his eyebrows vanished beneath his fringe. As far as she could tell they were not coming back.

“This isn’t appropriate behaviour,” he had intoned, deadpan. “And you can expect it to be raised in your next review.” Then he’d walked away, back to his office, without breaking eye contact. Five minutes later an email dropped into her inbox; he had emailed his manager, CC’ing her, and recommended her for a promotion.

It had been a relief to escape at the end of the day. Exhausted, physically and emotionally, she’d clasped her car keys like a protective talisman and sought to seal herself safely inside her vehicular cocoon. And there it had been, upended like an abused turtle.

So now she is walking home, chain-smoking cigarettes. She ignores all the people around her, even where they try to attract her attention, through sheer force of will. Once or twice she is forced to slip around people using the dance of the crowded pavement, but even during this she does not make eye contact. She just wants to get home.

She’s so intent on ignoring the world around her that she almost misses the truck that is heading straight for her.

It doesn’t sound its horn, so the sudden squealing of brakes is the only thing that alerts her — that and the intrusion of its bulk in her peripheral vision. Her heart rate leaps and she starts, turning her head toward the threat. It’s too late of course, for the juggernaut is mere seconds away and her reactions are too slow. The flat face of this diesel-driven monstrosity may be the last thing she sees.

Except that it is not. In the final moment she braces herself for collision and oblivion, but the truck passes straight through her. It’s a strange feeling, like being dusted with fine flour in a wind tunnel, as all that metal and plastic and oil washes around her. As it passes she turns and sees it harmlessly travel on, straight into a Morrisons Local store.

After that, Clara is hardly surprised when no one around her reacts at all. Ghost lorries, pah! Londoners have seen everything. Paranormal vehicular events barely register the bat of an eyelid.

She is, at least, almost home now — so she hurries on. The rest of her trip is uneventful, although as she walks up to her front door there is a soft crunching underfoot. There are so many origami birds placed on the steps and path that crushing them is unavoidable.

Once safely inside Clara continues operating on autopilot. Kettle on. Teabags from cupboard. Mug from the tree. Wait. Pour. Brew. Clasp the mug. Blow the steam. The ritual is soothing, and the part of her deep inside that wants to start screaming and never stop is grateful that it is just a cup of tea she holds — not a mug of pureed kelp or broken promises or who knows what.

Soon enough she has begun to calm, and Clara turns to the second step of her recovery from a tough day. In her bedroom, beside her bed, is a cabinet. Inside the cabinet’s drawer is a diary — a teenager’s diary, locked with a simple metal clasp.

Clara has always diarized her life. It helps her to process feelings and ideas, and looking back over it provides fuel for reflection. A day like today certainly deserves immortalising. Perhaps she can look back on it in a year and think “today was my first step on the road towards being committed.”

She picks up her pen and sets its tip to the page. Dear Diary, she begins, and does not stop.

Slivers of iridescent chitin wave like the fronds of deep-sea anemones. Long, hooked talons beat an idle tattoo on plastometal surfaces. Double sets of compound eyes regard their surroundings; no expression could be read in them, even were the onlooker of a shared species.

This is an autonomous being of a long-established starfaring species that we shall, for convenience, refer to as Second Technician Picasso. It is not, as far as we can tell, an artist, but the blues and greens that can be seen in light reflected from its carapace recall the artist’s Blue Period, and it is as good a name as any.

S.T. Picasso is situated before an array of screens, each imperfect in its dimensions as though cast by hand. The screens display a variety of human beings in a variety of locations. Among them is Clara, frantically committing words to page in her diary.

Other screens write swirling patterns in dense hieroglyphs, conveying information in a language we cannot possibly hope to understand. The inscrutable Picasso takes it all in, barely needing to move its bulbous head-thorax in order to do so. Those eyes absorb everything.

Oddly, we can hear little. Periodically there are muffled clangs or thumps, and sometimes rhythmic little pulses or shudders can be heard, as though much were going on around Picasso’s pod of screens, but distantly. Then there are the small noises Picasso itself is making, apparently restless despite its equally apparent focus on the task at hand. But from the screens, nothing: only the footage of humans going about their little lives, and the endless hieroglyph patterns.

Then those patterns shift and alter, the change apparent even to narrators and readers who cannot comprehend what is signified. Something new is suggested. And so it is: the complex patterns end, and become simple and looping. The screens displaying humans begin to blink off, one by one.

Picasso reaches out with one long talon and scrapes its tip softly against the screen on which Clara has frozen, pen in hand, diary pinned beneath it. Then its balloon-shaped head pivots, looking at what might be glass, through which a woman can be seen. She is lying on a flat surface, hooked up into a riotous tangle of tubes.

Picasso hesitates for a moment, then fiddles with some knobs and sockets and other tangibles around its bank of screens. A nearby machine hisses into life, and tiny lasers begin to dance within its delicate superstructure. An object is being assembled. It looks like Clara’s diary.

After a further moment of hesitation, Picasso prods a few more objects around it. The tubes hooked up to Clara begin to retract, detaching themselves from her and coiling up below. Once the last has removed itself Clara’s back arches and her eyes shoot open. Then she coughs and retches and cries out.

Meanwhile, Picasso has reached into a container and pulled out a tiny object. We recognise it as an iPhone 5C. The alien struggles to but succeeds in holding it. It pulls a tendril from below the bank of screens before it; although fibrous and alien, there is an Apple-patented Lightning connector at the end of it, which it plugs into the phone. It prods a button below the window through which we can see Clara, and begins to carefully type on the iPhone’s screen.

Clara tries to throw up but her stomach is empty. She feels the acid presence of bile and fights to control her nausea.

Her eyes are blurred and her head feels groggy. She cannot make out her surroundings, but she feels a cool surface below her, against her skin. The air is a comfortable temperature, although it smells faintly like a fishmonger’s. She cannot hear anything distinctive.

A frisson of fear is running through her, and as her senses acclimatise to her surroundings this sense deepens. She does not recognise where she is, except perhaps from the sets of horror and science fiction films. The room’s walls and ceiling don’t look like any material she knows, and there are no uniform edges. Everything looks a little organic. There is, however, a flattish pane of what looks like black glass set into one pseudo-wall. She shivers as she looks at it.

All of a sudden a woman’s voice is audible, emanating from all around her. “Hello,” it says. The voice is faintly robotic. “Please be scarred.”

Clara draws her knees up against her chest and wraps her arms around them. “W-what?”, she stutters.

There is a long, pregnant pause before she hears the voice again. “Sorry. Wrong. Please don’t be scared.”

Clara’s brow furrows in concentration. Then: “Is that… is that Siri? Like on the phone?”

Once again, there is a long wait before there is any response comes. “Yes. No. Not relevant. I must make a request.”

“Who are you?” Clara asks, followed breathlessly by: “And where am I? And why are you talking to me through a- a- a fucking iPhone? Just what the hell is going on?”

After a while the responses come. “Not relevant. Information ship seventeen. This is the most effective and efficient method. I must make a request.”

Clara closes her eyes and takes deep breaths. The last thing she remembers before waking up here, she was… in her flat, at home, drinking tea and writing in her diary. Writing in her diary about the weird-as-fuck day she’d been having. She opens her eyes and looks around the room again. Compared to spectral trucks, this isn’t actually that strange, she tells herself — unconvincingly.

“Let’s exchange questions and answers,” she tells the disembodied voice. “I’ve got questions, and you’ve got a request.”

Another pause, and then: “Acceptable.”

Clara tries to concentrate, tries to ignore her fear, and thinks back over the words exchanged so far. “What is information ship seventeen?”

“Interstellar vessel tasked with research and specimen collection.”

“On… Earth?” she asks, haltingly.

“Yes. Earth. My request: complete your diary.”

This throws Clara off balance. She chews it over for a second. “You want me to… finish writing my diary?”

“Yes.”

“What I was writing before… I woke up here?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Another long pause hangs in the whiffy, extraterrestrial air.

“Our research requires written artefacts. In the language of the specimens.”

“Then why not, um — why not collect books? From libraries?”

“Knowledge repositories have been exhumed. Exhausted. Folk sources required for fully understating. Sorry. Understanding specimens.”

“Folk sources?” asks Clara. “So you collect diaries? Why not just watch people while — hey! Wait a goddamn minute. New question: how did I get up here?”

“You always have been. ‘Up here’.”

“Bullshit,” Clara says. Her fear is subsiding, turning to anger at her mysterious interrogator. “I was down there earlier… I don’t know, today. Whenever. I was there.”

There’s another pause whilst her statement is digested, which Clara interrupts. “Were you… were you doing weird stuff to me? Like my car? All the people who were just wrong?”

“Wait. Too much. No. You were not there. You have always been here. Yes. We enacted experiments. You recognise them.”

“Experiments?” Clara repeats. Her face flushes. “Why the hell were you doing experiments? And what do you mean I’ve always been up here?”

She’s talking rapidly now, her voice raised. Her heart has not stopped racing; in fact it is accelerating its tempo, and she feels it thumping against her thighs.

“So that you would write about them. You are not… ‘Clara’. You are candidate Y. 6. D. 8. J. 1. Dash. 1, 1, 0, 1, 1, 1. Please finish writing your diary.”

Clara’s nausea is growing once more. The room is beginning to feel stuffy and its oppressiveness looms around her, as does the blank screen behind which, she assumes, is her interrogator.

“Why do you read our diaries?” she asks again. In a smaller voice, she adds: “I am Clara.”

“Your actions do not make sense. But your language we can understand. We read everything. We catalogue you. We understand you. You are not Clara. We made you to be read. Please finish your diary.”

Clara’s head is throbbing. Red and black now intrude at the periphery of her vision. “Why are you doing this to me?” she whispers.

“The study has been completed. We have what we need. But I want to finish reading your diary. You are an interesting candidate. Please finish writing your diary.”

Clara is now struggling to breathe, and her vision is fading fast. “Candidate… for… what?”

“Another chance. Please finish writing your diary. I want to read it. It might make a difference.”

Now almost blind, heart pounding in her chest, pressure building between her ears, Clara gasps out a few final words before unconsciousness takes her.

“Nobody… needs… readers… like… you.”

Clara is awake just long enough to hear the response: “Everyone gets readers like us.” And then she is gone.

{ DISPLAY EXPEDITION PRECIS Y/N? }

WARNING: Full report to be available to stakeholders following full analysis of expedition findings. Conclusions should not be derived from raw data.

DATUM: All Candidates discharged following conclusion of studies as per Reg 739.2.45.

DATUM: Extinction-level event recorded. Events played out within projected parameters.

DATUM: Re-seeding status: no candidates selected. Specimens archived indefinitely.

{ ENDS }

Originally written in 2016 for the Idle Fiction Jam and posted on Medium.

Vector on African and Afrodiasporic SF

The most recent issue of Vector, the British Science Fiction Association’s critical journal, landed on my doormat last month. Its arrival was a pleasure, as it’s the first mailout to come to my new Finnish address (the rest, I believe, languish as-yet-unread in my sister’s house in Surrey).

Best of all, it’s a themed issue, something I gather Vector is doing more of these days. The last issue was on economics and science fiction, which I look forward to reading. This issue covers African and Afrodiasporic SF, and it’s one of the most interesting issues of Vector in recent memory. So much so that I wanted to share a quick overview of its contents, and encourage my many readers to consider joining the BSFA. It’s an almost entirely volunteer-based organisation, after all.

This issue’s guest editor is Michelle Louise Clarke, who contributes a lengthy editorial that is, as they say, worth the price of admission alone. She’s a scholar of African SF at London’s SOAS and unless you’re already an avid fan of African SF there’s probably a lot here that you’ll want to follow up on. I’m particularly intrigued to learn of the 1992 “surreal classic of African SF”, Kojo Laing’s Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars.

The editorial also provides a helpful precis of several terms: Afrofuturism, that is “an aesthetic exploring the intersections of African-diasporic cultures with science, technology, and speculative fiction”, and African Futurism, which steps away from Afrofuturism’s Afro-American focus to centre instead on the continent of Africa and its many established and emerging artistic and literary traditions. This significant distinction resurfaces in pieces from several other contributors.

Elsewhere in the issue, Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor makes numerous appearances. I’d been meaning to check out her novel Lagoon but it had slipped off my radar; now, thanks to an essay that dives deep into its themes, I regard it as a must-read. In another essay two of Okorafor’s stories, written fourteen years apart, are explored and contrasted in an approach that compares them to the Afrofuturist and Arican Futurist traditions respectively.

Several creators are interviewed: Dilman Dila, a filmmaker, visual artist and writer in many mediums who regards himself foremost as “a storyteller”; Wole Talabi, an engineer, writer and editor; and Mounir Ayache, a French visual poet and artist from the North African diaspora whose interviewer was invited to visit his studio. Each is fascinating. So too is an essay contributed by Masimba Musodza, who writes of the ChiShona language, which as he describes is looked down upon even by those who speak it, a state of affairs he seeks to challenge, and in which he has published the first science fiction novel.

There is more, but I’ll have to leave you there. I have some films to track down, some books to order, and even an Afrofuturist hip-hop album to listen to.

A Guide to Criticism

Pieterlub shifts uncomfortably in the cold air of his cell, drawing his robes closer. His breath mists, lit flickering by the few candles that dot the shelves and bureau.

“Don’t delay!” squawks the pale yellow bird perched on Pieterlub’s left shoulder. “Nightmares sense fear!”

“Hush, Huginn,” he replies. He fishes a seed from the recesses of his robe and passes it up to the parrot. He passes another to the green parrot on his right shoulder, which ululates softly in his ear.

Pieterlub’s fingers tighten around the journal he clasps to his chest. The focus of his gaze remains, has always been, the watercolour before him. It has been painted onto a simple two by three foot canvas. It makes good use of colour and light; the techniques used are fashionable but executed with confidence.

“This is a most dangerous work,” says the green parrot. It nips at Pieterlub’s earlobe, but keeps an inscrutable eye on the watercolour.

“I’m inclined to agree, Muginn,” says Pieterlub. “But there remains a problem of interpretation.”

“Not for some!” squawks Huginn. Pieterlub ignores it.

“The Abbot has entrusted us with this particular work, and I will not permit us to commit a lazy or incomplete understanding to parchment.”

Huginn hops off his shoulder, flutters down to the bureau, disturbing papers and scrolls. A candle flickers and is extinguished in the flurry, and Muginn clacks its beak in irritation.

“Be sedentary, stupid bird!”

Huginn ignores its featherfellow and uses a foot to push papers about as it searches. Pieterlub finally tears his attention away from the painting and toward his suddenly industrious parrot.

“What are you looking for?” he asks.

“Inspiration” comes the reply. Muginn squawks dismissively. Pieterlub looks back at the painting.

“I say,” he says. A few moments pass. Papers rustle and, somewhere outside Pieterlub’s cell, he hears the sound of a sibling kritikmönch going about his or her duties.

“Is it just me, or has the… focal point shifted here?”

Huginn stops scrabbling about and pivots its head to stare back at the painting. Muginn stretches out its wings and caws in distress.

“This is an extremely sophisticated work,” says Pieterlub, slowly. “I think we need to look at the source.”

He stoops, cursing as his knee joints click and protest, and slides a wooden box out from beneath the bureau. From the box he produces a smaller box, ornate where the larger is utilitarian, as well as an artist’s palette, a set of brushes, and a sheaf of loose canvas scraps. He places each of them on the bureau. Huginn obligingly hops onto a shelf above the desk and watches. Muginn glides down from Pieterlub’s shoulder and hops toward the painting, turning its head this way and that as it scrutinises the artist’s creation.

Pieterlub begins with the canvas scraps. Each of them bears at least one pencil sketch: a great auk with wings spread, a gap-toothed deep sea monstrosity, a feminine silhouette, a pear with a bite taken out, the awning over a market trader’s stall, a moon shrouded in cloud. He studies each for a few moments then carefully sets them aside.

“These early forays are suggestive,” he tells the parrots, “but may mislead. The creative mind can be labyrinthine.”

Next he picks up the artist’s palette and brushes, which he begins by sniffing. The brushes smell of the spirits use to cleanse them and he quickly loses interest. The palette is another story. He dabs a finger into various swatches of colour, which retain a tackiness, and puts that finger to his nose and lips.

“Hmm. I’m not the finest geschmackritik, I will happily admit, but even so — these flavours are striking. A lot of power has been concentrated here. The artist’s process of refinement and reduction is most impressive.”

Huginn clacks its beak a few times, watching intently as Pieterlub works. Finally, he turns his attention to the small box.

“And of course,” says Pieterlub. “We come at last to the most important piece of the pre-puzzle, the artist’s-”

He is interrupted by a violent commotion and a series of squawks. He whirls back toward the painting and drops the box in shock.

The canvas has warped, its surface no longer flat with the illusion of depth but deep with the illusion of flatness. Something has reached out and coiled itself around one of Muginn’s wings, and is attempting to withdraw itself back into the canvas.

“Fool bird!” cries Pieterlub. “Never approach the works so closely!”

He takes a step toward the easel but halts as talons dig into his shoulder.

“No!” hisses Huginn, close in his ear. “Too late!”

Pieterlub takes another step forward regardless, but Huginn is right. The tendrils are relentlessly drawing Muginn in, the parrot’s talons unable to find purchase on the polished stone slabs of the cell floor. Worse, the canvas has begun to distend itself in new ways, and the gaping face of a great flatfish, eyes darting this way and that, is bulging into view.

Muginn screeches one long, last desperate cry before its head is submerged beneath the canvas’ surface. Pieterlub mouths a silent apology to the unfortunate bird before he sweeps up as many papers as he can from the bureau and flees the cell. He pushes its heavy wooden door closed behind him, retrieves a key from his robes and turns it in the lock. It is only as he hears the heavy mechanism click into place that he breathes a sigh of relief.

“Poor foolish Muginn,” he says. Huginn bobs its head, staring at the keyhole.

“We’d better tell the Abbot that this work is not for the archives,” he tells the bird, feeding it another seed. “And we’ll need the Grand Inquisitor to… have his people do what they do.”

“And the interpretation?” asks the parrot.

“That will remain with us and us alone, my friend. We will not commit to parchment. It will perish with us.”

This was written in 2016 for a writing exercise drawn from the Wonderbook. You can read the exercise and see the illustration that inspired the story.

Apologies to German speakers for my probably-terrible compound words, and thanks to my friend Dylan for the silly compound name “Pieterlub”, which popped into my head whilst thinking up this short tale.

Story notes, Interzone #280

The Backstitched Heart of Katherine Wright, Alison Wilgus. A quite wonderful story, written with warmth and confidence, about the sister of the famous Wright brothers and her time-skipping efforts to save them from death. Most of the story adheres to the recorded history of the Wright siblings, although in its final section it goes further in an attempt to save Wilbur from his early death by typhoid fever, and Katherine and Orville’s long estrangement in the years that followed.

The Fukinaga Special Chip Job, Tim Chawaga. A sort of Invisible Cities, driven not by a storyteller in an imperial court but by a craphound hunting down the incredibly valuable last extant bags of the snack which choked a city. The invention is a lot of fun and the characters colourful, although no one is likeable enough to root for and the conclusion lacks a satisfying crunch.

This Buddhafield is not your Buddhafield, William Squirrel. A maid takes on a full-time job with room and board at an unknown trillionnaire’s space mansion, cleaning and maintaining it. She works there for years, sending money home and never seeing a soul. The world moves on without her. A story of tragedy, for the pointless waste of a human life, but also of contentment, for the maid was at peace with her life throughout. I struggle to imagine how many real people who would see themselves consumed in this way without any complaint or expression of regret – though we know little of where the maid came from.

For the Wicked, Only Weeds Will Grow, G. V. Anderson. An alien nursing home where the elderly of many disparate species come to die with dignity and peace, aided by the gaseous alien caretakers elsewhere abused for their ability to dispense what are basically opiates. Into this comes a cantankerous old human, alienated and bitter, who must be cared for by a gasbag who struggles internally with his own kind’s prospects for survival and reproduction. They both find peace, in their own ways, and it is for the reader to decide who might be considered wicked.

Seven Stops Along the Graffiti Road, David Cleden. Divided into several sections, this story is structurally a little forced – each section is not truly distinct and they flow into one another – but it’s driven by an intriguing concept, and characters possess psychological depth even if their origins and purpose is a mystery, even to themselves. In a way, this is a story about coping with loss, and how such coping mechanisms can protect us.

Terminalia, Sean McMullen. A Victorian period piece with the main conceit being that immortality has been made possible by the creation of mechanical bodies. This innovation has been appropriated by the aristocracy, a state of affairs not everyone wishes to see continue. A doctor who has made groundbreaking progress in resuscitation and electro-cardiac shock is pulled into these plots around the frontiers of death. A fun story and entertainingly written, it doesn’t dwell overly much on the Victorian setting. The call to arms at its conclusion feels melodramatic in contrast to the preceding rhetorical restraint.

A Person-Shaped Thing is a Person

Your hands ache and torn cuticles bleed. Callouses are beginning to develop on your fingers, but you still envy the English workers, who work with gloves. Your back also aches, and you wonder how many hours you have spent under the hot sun.

For a moment you pause and surreptitiously look around you, stretching out your spine. To your left and right are long lines of workers, backs stooped, reaching down to grasp cabbages and haul them from the earth. You see white workers, perhaps English, perhaps European. It is hard for you to tell, because you do not share any common language.

You turn your head further, glancing behind you, trying to spot the gangmaster. He is stood fifty yards back, mobile phone to his ear as usual, looking toward the other end of the line. His woman isn’t around - probably off having her hair done again in the town. You wonder if you’ll have the time to wash your hair in the river tonight, or if you’ll just be too tired to do more than eat and sleep after today’s shift.

The gangmaster’s head begins to turn, and the Yi man next to you hisses in warning. He had also taken a moment to rest on his haunches and watch the gangmaster. You both set back to work, grasping the fat round cabbage heads and working them loose from the ground’s embrace.

Your parents used to tell you that the Yi were no good. They were a plague on Guangxi province, your father said, taking good work from Han like you. That lack of work was the reason your aging parents paid to send you overseas, to work and send money home for your family. The Yi were not liked, and you and your parents pretended not to notice as they were harassed on the street, by citizens and police.

But here in England you and this Yi find yourselves in the same situation. The gangmaster is Han, like you, but that hasn’t made him any kinder. If anything, the way his eyes linger on you alarms you, and you try hard to avoid being alone with him.

You murmur to the Yi, “thank you, brother.” He nods and grunts, and drops another cabbage into his basket. Minutes pass. “Later, little sister,” he eventually replies, his voice low and accent thick. And then he glances sideways to meet your eyes, and the hint of a wry smile ghosts his face. “Welcome to England,” he says.

‘Delivery, man?’ comes a cheerful voice. You glance up from your clipboard, smile and wave the vegetable delivery man in. Always exuding cheer, Tom; a towering Jamaican man whose imposing stature is nothing before the irresistible waves of his personality. Even you warmed to him eventually, a man mocked by his very children for his severity and humourlessness.

You tick items off your checklists mechanically: cleaning, stock take, resupply, facing, wastage, opening. The week’s profit/loss looks acceptable; not great for a summer week with thousands more people pounding pavement past your door, but not bad either.

The bell rings as Tom walks back in with more pallets of fresh goods, bright cabbages bouncing, singing softly to himself, skin glistening from heat and exertion. Then it rings again, as a local walks in and up to the counter. “Forty Rothman,” she says, looking not at you but at her purse as she fiddles with the clasp. You slide the tobacco cabinet open, grab the requested cigarettes, and place them on the counter. “Eight sixty-two,” you say. The old lady counts out her change, picks up the cigarettes, leaves.

Time was you were comfortable with such brusque exchanges. A lot of the British are very reserved people, uncomfortable around strangers and unwilling to engage in any form of conversation with them. Coming as you did from a quite different world, one with a childhood rooted in the terror and dashed hope of Intifada, that mutual self-silencing suited you just fine.

But now… now not so much. As Tom strolls past once again, drumming a tattoo against his stomach, you glance out through the window by the counter. Even through the posters, advertisements and pre-paid phone cards plastering the interior of the glass, you can see traces of the spraypaint you spent the dawn hours of the day scrubbing off. “Paki go hom”, it said. Your family is not Pakistani, and is more literate than this vandal, but you doubt either fact matters to such ignorant children.

You drum your fingers on the counter and rub at your mustache as you stare without seeing through the glass. The bell rings again as a young couple wander in, heading towards the back to peruse the wine and beer. Your thoughts turn to your own children. You don’t want them to grow up like you did, friends and family brutalised with bullets and teargas and checkpoints, hopes smashed by weakness and duplicitous institutions. England, your own parents had hoped when they emigrated, would be better. And it was, to a point, although now faceless strangers are using your shopfront as a message board to confuse your identity and express discontent at your presence. Is this how it begins?

The young couple come up to the counter, placing three chilled bottles of wine before you. Tom leans in through the front door. “That’s your lot, Sam,” he says, mangling your name in the way he good-naturedly knows you hate.

“Thanks Tom,” is your flat reply. “See you Thursday.” Tom grins and leaves, presumably hoping that Thursday will be the day he finally gets a retort out of you.

The young man pays for the wine, and you hand him his change. He flicks it over his palm, tallying up the sum, before dropping the whole lot in the worn Gaza Appeal collection tin by the till. He makes eye contact and smiles and thanks you. You shrug in reply as they turn to leave.

You turn back to staring out the window, where a few people have started to loosely gather around a couple of young people with a camera and a microphone. How hard is it to smile, you ask yourself.

You’re nervous in front of the camera, refusing to direct your eyes straight towards its bulbous lens, any more than you can maintain eye contact with the woman holding a microphone towards your mouth. The cameraman is dark-skinned, and you don’t know where he’s from, but his hue makes you more nervous than you already are. But you need to say your piece.

You open your mouth and it all comes spilling out. They’ve come over here and they’ve taken our benefits. They’ve come over here and they’ve taken our jobs. They’ve come over here and used up our healthcare. They’ve come over here and taken our houses. The British will soon have nothing left.

Your heart is racing as you speak, shifting your weight perpetually from one foot to the other. In the back of your mind you hope your family will be proud of you for speaking up and defending them. They’ve all been abandoned by a government that refuses to fix the problem that is so clear to you.

There are no jobs in this town. Your father hasn’t worked in two years. Your mum does a few hours a week in a call centre. It’s what they call a zero hours contract, where companies ring you up on the day if they need you. They usually don’t. Your grandad calls it a crying shame.

“They won’t do anything about all the immigration,” you’re saying. “And it’s not racist to say it. All these people, they aren’t British, they’re not from over here, they’re immigrants and they’re taking what belongs to the British.”

And that’s it. You’re done. The presenter pulls the mic back, opens her mouth to speak, to reply, probably to tell you you’re wrong. TV people are part of the problem, they don’t understand what it’s like to have nothing, so you’re already shaking your head, hands up, walking away. You’re done here.

You can hear distant chanting outside, and the sound of that humanity, distant as it is, makes you smile. It’s a reminder that there is kindness and hope outside these walls and bars.

You run your fingers absent-mindedly over your belly, feeling the warmth and life that lies within, the child who must be. You hope that she will come into this world elsewhere than here, this ugly place with an ugly name.

You think back to your own childhood, raised in a large house with generations of women bustling about, arguing with and assisting one another in the business of living. If your child is born here, at Yarl’s Wood, she too will be surrounded by women, but there will be none of the warmth and love of a family home.

“Asylum seeker”. This is the officious term by which the English categorise you and the other women here. It does not translate well into Dari, or your native Pashto, but you understand the meaning well enough. It is the venom beneath the words, evident on the faces of too many of the officials and guards with whom you must deal, that is less clear.
It is a terrible thing, it seems, to pursue a better life. But then that attitude has been evident wherever you have been: from the fighters who kill themselves over control of your home, the border guards with their rifles and questions and bribes, the smugglers who took you into Europe. One of the women you have befriended, Hasti, a girl from Kabul, tells you of the posters that have appeared around the city, sternly instructing Afghanis not to come to Europe. “The German government paid for those posters,” she said, her eyes fierce and voice sharp. “Truly they must hate us.”

Hasti and several other women embarked on a hunger strike a week before. It is for them that people have gathered outside the imposing razorwire-topped fences around this place, chanting and holding up posters and calling for justice and dignity and other things you cannot yet translate.

You think back on something else Hasti told you, her voice urgent and insistent. “This place… it is Barzakh, purgatory, a place between places. We have escaped hell only to be denied entrance into heaven!”

You close your eyes and lay your head against the cool wall of your dormitory. The faint smells of grass and concrete meld with the muffled chanting as your mind drifts away. Your imagination dances through a succession of dream images, a question at the heart of each such painting: can heaven really be found outside these gates?

It has been a long shift. Eleven hours on your feet, assisting patients, processing paperwork, taking blood and ECGs, screening patients and, of course, advising patients to let the cigarettes go. That everyday reminder of how self-destructive people can be.

You’re sitting quietly on the number 29 bus as you reflect on another day, processing what happened partly because you must, to learn and improve, and partly because this little ritual helps keep you awake so that you do not miss your stop.

This ritual is more difficult today.

For some months you have been experiencing a growing sense of… unbelonging. It began with odd little glances, patients avoiding eye contact, even some colleagues growing slightly colder. Such things were easily ignored in the frantic daily life of an NHS nurse, but you found them disquieting nonetheless.

Three and a half weeks ago, though, the pieces clicked into place. A middle-aged woman interrupted you, as you discussed her options for the surgery she required, to ask: “Where are you from?”

Taken aback, you replied “Sofia,” and a moment later, seeing the lack of recognition in your patient’s face, you added “Bulgaria.” And she looked away, and tutted.

You felt embarrassed, of course, but also confused. It was only as time wore on, and you began to notice the headlines on the newspapers in the waiting room, that you realised what was happening. The British were turning against people from the European Union, particularly Easterners, even those who worked to help save their lives. It is ridiculous to you, but here you are.

Today saw the worst event so far. You called out a name in the waiting room, and a man looked up but did not stand. Instead he looked at you and refused to come. He would wait for another nurse, he said. His appointment was with you, you replied, taken aback. But he said he did not care, that he would not be seen by ‘people like you’. You felt humiliated, and retreated, your face burning. No one else said anything.

Now you feel trapped and afraid. You have dedicated your career, your life, to helping those in need. Your parents taught you that you should help those who are the most vulnerable, that such dedication is where nobility of spirit lies. But now you feel vulnerable, and alone, and you do not know who will help you. Instead you sit quietly on a bus, thinking over how a day’s hard work can turn sour, and avoiding the sideways glances of fellow passengers.

It’s a hot summer’s day, but here in your home there’s a stuffiness to the air, the rank moistness of ingrained damp. A cursory glance around the living room would reveal the telltale grey-black circlets of mould infesting the upper walls and ceiling, and that’s one reason why your gaze rarely strays above head height. The other is your physical frailty, a byproduct of those debilitating nerve and bone disorders that long ago robbed you of the ability to walk. Frankly, you tell your infrequent visitors, it hurts to look up.

Today should have been a contact day, a day when someone from social services came by to check up on you, to provide a few kind if inadequate measures to make your life a little easier. A phone call earlier in the day took that away. The young woman on the other end of the phone sounded apologetic and sincere in a wearily practised sort of way, as she explained that they were simply over-stretched, that they didn’t have the resources this week, that a bout of sickness absence had disrupted everything. You clucked and synmpathised along as was expected until you exchanged goodbyes.

Social services have been inadequate for some years now, worsening since the Tories and their turncoat coalition partners, Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, began harping on about austerity and Labour overspend and the need for everyone to knuckle down and get through the recession together. You and the friends you’re occasionally in touch with call bullshit on all that.

You reach with one faintly trembling hand over to the curtains and pull them gently aside. The sun’s warmth instantly licks at your timeworn skin, and for a moment you close your eyes and remember better days. Time was, in your youth, you and your parents would’ve been out on the streets against Tory cuts to Britain’s social safety net. “We didn’t fight and die in Europe and stick Labour in power after the war so the aristo-fucks could increase their profit margins once the blood washed away,” your dad might’ve said. He hated the old British upper class, not least because he’d served under a few of them himself in wartime.

Of course, getting out on the streets poses quite a few problems to a severely disabled man living in a social housing flat in a run-down estate, and that’s just the baseline. If the lift is broken, as has been known to happen every few months, you really are trapped indoors. And indoors, ironically, is what they want to take from you. You can barely stand, let alone walk twenty feet, and whilst your mind is sharp your joints and muscles aren’t. But you’re not disabled enough, according to the corporate sharks to whom disability assessment has been farmed out. Which means your disability benefit is to be reduced, which means your other benefit payments might be recategorised, and which collectively means you may no longer be able to afford your ‘affordable’ rent.

You peer down out of the window, toward the streets, along which crawl the shiny beetle shapes of cars, gleaming in the sunlight, and the brightly coloured spots imitating Brownian motion alongside them, people weaving this way and that as they go about their business. You envy them, but only because their social contracts have been bound in such a way as to not exclude them. How cruel it is to be forgotten.

Originally written in 2016 for the Idle Fiction Jam and posted on Medium.

Story notes: Interzone #279

I’ve resolved to try and read a short story every day, and I’m starting with a backlog of recent issues of Interzone magazine. Here are a few thoughts on the stories in issue #279. 

Soldiers Things, Tim Lees. A portrayal of the trauma of combat and of a consequent loss of identity. A soldier returns home where he is welcomed as a hero. Yet he is also one of the few who seem to have survived, and has been released into a community that does not understand him, and which, bitterly, he himself no longer understands. What is the protagonist’s identity? What was his past? He contradicts himself, and these contradictions drive this story.

Doomed Youth, Fiona Moore. I really liked this one. It essentially takes the concept of Them! (the 50s giant ant movie) but normalises it as something that people in the US have simply been living with for years. Racial tension pervades the story, and its denouement marries the conceit and theme perfectly. I could also believe that this story actually began with the pun.

The Path to War, Louise Hughes. A story about how the stories we want are not necessarily what storytellers will tell us. Are they then stories that we need? Or is to suggest that an overstatement of the importance of storytellers and stories – in stark contrast to a thrown knife? Is the role of the storyteller in the gathering, not the telling?

Heart of an Awl, Eliza Ruslander. An odd story about a widow, her deceased husband, and the artificial intelligence of their car which has been transferred into his body. We follow their efforts to live together and attempts to understand one another. I wouldn’t say this is about the American love affair with the car, but one can’t help thinking of it. This story is more about grieving, and processing the loss of something or someone integral to one’s life. Coping mechanisms can sometimes seem strange to outsiders, whereas those experiencing them may consider them a perfectly rational step.

Zero Day, Sheldon J. Pacotti. A story set during the outset of full-scale cyber warfare between great powers. The protagonist is a minor cyber warrior with the US military on leave when the war begins. He stubbornly continues attempting to get drunk and get laid, making use of his training and tech in pursuit of this, even as things fall apart about him. I like how this story revolves around what actually matters most to its protagonist, those base human desires persisting even in the face of new methods of conflict and threat.

Birnam Platoon, Natalia Theodoridou. A story told through fragmented narration interspersed with snippets of courtroom exchanges, concerning the plant-based super soldiers that were supposed to win a war and bring peace. At first they are a resounding success, but more and more the Birnam soldiers question how they are bringing about that peace. A bitter tale of the cyclical violence and cruelty of war, and humanity’s capacity for both.

What are the Lib Dems good for?

I originally wrote this in mid-August, and although politics has come at us fast over the following couple of months, I feel like this is still relevant. 

It’s funny how politics can burn you. It’s not that long ago that I remember thinking of the Liberal Democrats as a potential force for progress and positive change in the UK. Call me naive, because when it came to electoral and party politics, I certainly was.

Before 2010 the Lib Dems had long pushed for voting reform and abolition of First Past the Post. I welcomed it. Such reform, I believed, would undermine what I saw as a contemptible convergence between Blairite Labour and Cameronian Toryism, each squabbling over the swing voter demographic of whatever middle England was imagined to be, proposing similar policies and twitching the curtain of the Overton window as they scapegoated the nebulous figure of ‘the immigrant’. Anything but more Blairism, I thought, but never the Tories.

The Lib Dems also took a stand over tuition fees for university students, saying they should be abolished. Tuition fees had only grown since my time at university, where I was lucky enough to pay only £1,000 a year. I had a stark memory of a favourite seminar tutor, an American academic studying for his PhD, telling me he was almost £100,000 in debt already. Who would want to reproduce such a repugnant state of affairs? A firm stance against fees, the main cause of such debts, seemed noble, admirable, and simply right.

I also had memories of Charles Kennedy being the one major party leader back in 2003 who had vocally opposed the invasion of Iraq. Come 2010 Kennedy was no longer the party leader, of course, but if a party’s leader had taken such a prominent anti-war stance in the face of support across the British media and political landscape, surely the party itself must be characterised by being anti-war?

You might be forgiven for thinking this, if you didn’t look closely.

Like many who might have felt politically engaged but had little knowledge of actually-existing electoral politics, I imagined that the Liberal Democrats represented an alternative to New Labour and Cameron’s rebranded Tories. When Clegg outperformed the other party leaders in televised debate (thanks to the cunning tactic of remembering a few peoples’ names for up to two minutes), I even allowed myself to imagine a Lib Dem surge that would put New Labour out of power but prevent the Tories seizing the reins!

We know how the 2010 election played out. The Liberal Democrats acted as kingmakers and went into coalition with the Tories. Sometimes it was claimed they would blunt the worst excesses of Tory nastiness, and it’s true that the Tories after the coalition went deeper and further – but this built on top of the extensive, immiserating, and cruel austerity cuts they had already implemented. The widespread contempt for the Lib Dem coalition period is perhaps best represented by a well-known tweet in which a Lib Dem special advisor retrospectively celebrates the months of effort pushing for a plastic bag charge in return for tightening benefit sanctions.

Notably the party’s total reversal over tuition fees – a shift from abolition of fees to tripling them – enraged students and led to mass protests toward the end of 2010. Although the protests failed to produce any change in tuition fee policy, I believe these experiences – for a whole generation of students and young people – of betrayal for political expedience, of mass organisation and action, of heavy-handed policing and condemnatory media narratives, were significant factors in the undermining of centrist political narratives and of the future Corbynist surge.

Certainly it didn’t do popular support for the Liberal Democrats any favours. Although they spent five years sharing power with the Tories, come the next election they plummeted from 57 seats in Parliament to eight.

Update: in an odd mixture of surprising candor and – probably – desire to move on from the party’s record during the coalition era, Tim Farron tweeted this out in mid-October this year:

In the subsequent period in the wilderness, Clegg passed leadership to Tim Farron, who is perhaps best remembered as something of a joke: a deeply awkward man who failed to refute accusations of latent homophobia. My notes here simply read “discuss the tenure of gay frog milk man“. The Lib Dems regained only a few seats in 2017’s snap election, with Farron’s gambit of positioning them as “the Remain party” falling short against Labour and Tory strategies. What more need really be said?

Now we have Jo Swinson. A leader stepping forward at a time when Brexit dominates the British political landscape more than ever before, she appeared to have doubled down on Farron’s strategy. The Liberal Democrats were the ultra-Remain party. Under her leadership nothing else mattered more than stopping Brexit.

A scant few weeks later, her party rejected efforts from Labour to establish a second referendum with Remain on the ballot. So… was this proposal somehow not good enough? Will only the fantasy of cancelling Brexit suffice? Is this simply because they hate the idea of Prime Minister Corbyn so much? Is Swinson, whisper it, accepting the inevitability of Brexit? Rather than attempting to moderate the damage of the politically inevitable and move on (which seems clearly, to me, to have always been what lay behind Labour policy on the matter), is she positioning the party to benefit from being martyr figures when a no-deal Brexit proves ruinous?

One can only speculate. But the moment made me recall, back in 2015, watching the situation in Greece unfold. Syriza had just capitulated to the EU troika despite the ‘Oxi’ referendum result. I asked myself and my friends on Facebook: if they can’t do this, what are Syriza even for?

Now I ask the same of the Liberal Democrats. Having burned their progressive credentials in the cold fires of austerity government, by demonstrating themselves to be so free of principal that they will drop core policies, and by actively working against the only realistic counter-Brexit strategies still on the table, I have to ask their members and supporters: what do you imagine they are for?

Some thoughts around Borderlands 3

Borderlands 3: Has It Really Been Five Years? is here. And while I’ve not been waiting on tenterhooks I do like the shoot-n-loot series.

Or at least I did as soon as I worked out that playing it with friends is best: the first game, played solo, I found kinda boring. I ran the sequel with friends and instantly got why the concept works so well. Occasionally I had to ask said friends to shut up so I could listen to the dialogue, which was often funny (I can’t say whether it was actually well-written, because of the structure of a Borderlands game and missing three quarters of said structure due to chatting with friends, but it was often funny). I even played half of the Pre-Sequel, which I liked, but I ended up playing a bunch of it solo again and… surprise, still kinda boring. All told, I’ve both enjoyed these games and disliked them. I suppose this makes me an ambivalent fan.

Now it really has been more than five years since Pre-Sequel. Series enthusiasts have only had a series of episodic adventure games from the disgraced and deceased Telltale Games to tide them over. So after all this time, what has Borderlands 3 brought to the table?

Murder. Huge, disgusting, violent excess. And loot. Of course.

Borderlands developer Gearbox Software have some history. They were founded all the way back in 1999, and the titles they’ve put out since can look like a who’s-who of first person shooter franchises. Their first few releases were mostly well-received expansion packs to Valve’s mega-hit Half-Life. They worked on ports of the very first Halo and, uh, James Bond Nightfire. Their first original IP was the Brothers in Arms series, of which the first instalment, Road to Hill 30, was one of those well-regarded games many friends insisted I play but I never quite got around to.

Then, in 2009, came Borderlands. It promised infinite guns, larger than life characters and colourful gunplay in a post-apocalyptic landscape, for up to four friends online. It proved popular, selling over two million copies by the end of the year, and earned top scores across the majority of the gaming press.

Gearbox’s specialisation in the first-person shooter genre shouldn’t come as a great surprise to anyone passingly familiar with its most well-known figure: co-founder, President and CEO Randy Pitchford. Along with the other four founders Pitchford had worked at 3D Realms, a developer with a lengthy history. They are best known under the name Apogee for ASCII adventure title Kingdom of Kroz, and the MS-DOS platformer Crystal Caves.

Okay, okay, 3D Realms are of course best known for the only FPS games of the nineties that rivalled what iD Software accomplished with Doom: most notably Duke Nukem 3D but also the similarly crass and over the top Shadow Warrior.

All told, this is some serious pedigree. Gearbox, and Pitchford as its prominent leader, have decades of experience building FPS games.

It may have been some surprise when the shine came off Gearbox with the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines. Developed in a relationship with publisher Sega, who held the videogames rights to the Aliens franchise, it was another eagerly anticipated FPS. And on arrival it was a trainwreck. Accusations as to why this was the case abound. And this was the first time I became aware that people hated Randy Pitchford.

I was surprised to discover that some of the most noticeable changes in Borderlands 3 are quality-of-life improvements. Even the small stuff feels important. For example, automatic collection of ammo and cash no longer requires a button-hold. In the previous games I grew to hate the necessity of holding down a button to collect ammo from chests, something I did hundreds and hundreds of times in previous games. Now I just hoover it all up after popping a chest. Shloop! With one stroke, a major source of friction is removed.

I’m also pleased with how the game’s structure has changed in comparison to its predecessors. Past Borderlands games were mostly set on a single planet – series mainstay Pandora – and featured long, sprawling, interconnected levels, mostly composed of long canyons or ridges and joined to two or three other areas at far-flung points. Vehicles were essential to actually traverse these spaces efficiently, particularly when you’d out-levelled the creatures in an area so far that the shoot-n-loot experience began to feel rote. And what I found in practice was that I began to depend exclusively on the game’s quick-travel stations.

A regularly commented upon side-effect of using quick travel is that it undermines any sense of geography or place in a videogame world. This is far worse in games offering almost total freedom in its use – Borderlands at least restricts travel to between pre-defined points – but it certainly had the effect of destroying any sense of its levels as contiguous. I couldn’t tell you how a single area in the first three Borderlands games connects together. Even in those individual sprawling levels, if I wasn’t following an objective marker I often got lost, and constantly had to check my map.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter much. It’s not important to the core experience of Borderlands, after all. But what I really like in Borderlands 3 is how much more condensed its areas are. So far I’ve visited four planets, and each has featured three or four areas that connect at one or two points. The structure for the game’s main and secondary quests has seen me loop around and retread this ground just enough times that I know the environment well.

Learning the environment is fun in a shooter game that encourages players to remain mobile and fluid. So now I know that, for example, Lectra City on the Atlas homeworld has a lot of rooftops that are fun to fight across, and that area connects to the centre of Meridian in an area where there are usually several tough enemies to fight if I want to do that, and from there I can easily grab a vehicle and traverse the streets to a variety of other areas, and move through to the outskirts of Merdian area via several different paths, one of which takes me past a friendly base where I sell loot and restock.

It’s also nice just to get a change of scenery. I’ve seen a lot of Pandora before, and it’s cool to see new places. Meet interesting new people, and shoot them. You know?

The hatred of gamers can be as turbulent and passionate as it is funny and hopelessly misguided. It’s at its funniest when the hypocrisy just hangs right on out, as with the Modern Warfare 2 boycott Steam group who, on the day of release, were almost all visibly playing the game they’d sworn to boycott.

Sometimes these hatreds can also be dark, disturbing and violent. I’m not here to write about GamerGate, or the routinely bigoted and childish id of far too much “gamer culture”, but I will acknowledge the existence of both. Because often the targets of the seething rage of gamers is bewilderingly obtuse in its focus.

Some people truly hated Gearbox and apparently Randy Pitchford in particular for the Aliens: Colonial Marines farrago. They also hated them for the turgid and unnecessary Duke Nukem Forever, a game delayed and restarted so many times it had become a running joke. Upon release it wasn’t a joke any more. It wasn’t just another bad videogame in a world replete with bad videogames. It was a new reason to hate.

The focus of these strange, destructive passions can be so vexing partly because of why these vessels into which to pour hatred are chosen. Because a videogame was bad? Because a product no one is obliged to engage with was not what it might have been imagined to be? The childish entitlement of such worldviews feels almost alien to me.

There are other questions into which rage or frustration at the state of the games industry might be poured. How about the working practices at many development studios? How about the direct connections between major developers or publishers and the US military or arms manufacturers? How about the fundamental nature of the commercial relationships between corporate entities which actually drive the decisions that so infuriate and distress self-identified gamers? Might one challenge the contradictions inherent in major publisher-funded games that take years to develop being knife-edge dependent on a corporation’s need to deliver stable quarterly returns to shareholders? How entire studios can vanish into the void because, elsewhere in a multinational portfolio, something underperformed against predictions?

And, specifically pertinent to Gearbox Software: how about the only recently resolved drama of the lawsuits in which Randy Pitchford, and unavoidably, by extension, the company he heads were embroiled?

Late last year, Gearbox’s General Counsel of almost a decade departed the company, subject to a lawsuit concerning financial mismanagement and alleged fraud. A few months after that, said General Counsel issued a countersuit, alleging among other charges that Pitchford took a “secret” $12 million dollar bonus and in 2014 was found to have child pornography on a USB drive.

Said lawsuits were resolved at the beginning of the month, with the out of court settlement meaning the realities behind these accusations will never be made public. Already they have certainly helped to establish a sordid reputation around Pitchford and the leadership of Gearbox Software. It didn’t help that Pitchford went on a podcast to explain the 2014 incident, which in his representation was more innocent than “child pornography” might suggest but absolutely still sleazy. A different kind of sleaze to enormous executive bonuses, of course. But in the comments on these stories you will often still find people talking about Aliens: Colonial Marines, or some other past Gearbox project.

The core of the Borderlands experience is still here, and delivered upon. Combat is as fast-paced as it ever was, with the larger environments just barely broken up into node-like areas where clusters of enemies will spawn. These combat nodes are full of props and scenery that can provide cover or explosive assistance respectively, with the latter typically tying into a familiar elemental damage system that’s as comfortable as an old sweater.

It’s honestly hard to say whether combat feels or plays much differently without going back to those earlier games. Everything seems to move at a much brisker pace, and play out in generally tighter areas with less traversal of empty space, than what I remember of the Pre-Sequel, which I most recently played. But that was set on a moon with no atmosphere, and clustered its outdoor combat arenas around spaced-out oxygen shields which inherently produced more of a scrum. I guess it’s hard to say, and in any case feel is deeply subjective. But it does feel like Borderlands 3 has taken steps to cut out some bullshit and friction and bring more of the core loop to the moment-to-moment experience of the game. It’s not like a Borderlands game gives you much to reflect on in the dead time between areas, right?

Well. Perhaps it does, in a metatextual way. But let’s stick with the game for the moment.

My chosen character class, the Gunner, fights in constant movement. The perks I’ve filled out on her skill tree reward flinging large numbers of bullets towards enemies, setting them ablaze with incendiary damage. This means I spend a lot of time with SMGs or hair-trigger pistols or “assault rifles” which spin up to a blistering pace of fire, switching between these different types of weapon to produce varied engagements that, at their most challenging, demand everything I have.

This series has always offered a range of different character classes to choose from, but they’ve not been presented with as much panache as in this outing. The Gunner’s special ability deploys a mechsuit which I’ve kitted out with a minigun and flamethrower, exaggerating the strengths of my character build. I simply cannot resist a mech. At the time of character creation I was similarly tempted by Fl4k, a robot “beastmaster” who can summon aggressive critters; somewhat similar to Pre-Sequel’s Wilhelm, these summons nonetheless promised a different playstyle. Even the least appealing classes attracted me: Zane with his ability to clone himself, and Amara with some familiar Siren abilities that at least look cooler this time around.

And, of course, the guns. There are so, so many guns.

I’ve already encountered a whole bunch of characteristics in my randomly-rolled guns that I don’t remember from any previous Borderlands game. I’ve found guns that fire tracking darts, after which bullets home in on that target, much like the smart pistol in Titanfall. The throw-away-to-reload guns are back, of course, but now some of them turn into mobile turrets that will chase and attack enemies until the full clip is exhausted. I love this. Then there guns with underslung tasers that fire electrifying darts and zap everything in the vicinity – great for choke points. There are guns with infinite clips that don’t need reloading, but can overheat and need squirting with a water pistol to cool them down.

These cartoon guns have never felt so much fun.

It is not only the oft ill-conceived opprobrium of parts of their fanbase or internecine, intramural lawsuits which have dogged Gearbox in recent years.

In mid-2019 David Eddings, a former Vice President at Gearbox, levelled several accusations at his former employers. Eddings had also worked as a voice actor on the series, playing the role of the iconic and extremely grating Claptrap robots. The accusations are preceded by an explanation for why he is not reprising his former role in Borderlands 3. Previously he was not paid for the role; this time he requested paying to perform it, and “all of a sudden they couldn’t afford me”.

What worsened matters, at least in the public eye, was how Pitchford chose to handle this. He engaged on twitter, stated the former senior employee was “bitter and disgruntled” about his termination, and claimed Eddings was offered good rates for the role. Eddings responded by accusing Pitchford of assaulting him in a hotel lobby at an industry event several years earlier.

As in the lawsuits, these are disputes that to a substantial degree are bound up in money, and about which a regular observer can never expect to know the truth of any claims. And yet they contribute to a pattern that indelibly leaves the casual observer with an impression, with a sense that something is not right. If this is what we see when things boil over, and remains lurking, predatory, beneath the surface?

Another voice actor on the Borderlands series is Chris Hardwick, who did return for the third installment. In June 2016 Hardwick was accused of sexual and emotional abuse by a former girlfriend during the #MeToo allegations. He was suspended by his employers, American cable channel AMC, but restored after an internal review. This decision was controversial, resulting in a number of female staffers and a co-executive producer resigning in protest.

If #MeToo taught us anything, it is how abuse pervades so many institutions, and is executed by so many men. That eruption of allegations, it must be remembered, remains only the tip of the iceberg. It is an indicator of deep and recurrent patterns of abuse and cultures of toxicity.

I’m enjoying playing Borderlands 3. It is a good game, iterating and improving on what came before, and delivering what it offers with confidence and style. It is the product of an entire team of game developers, of many different disciplines. So many people contributed their experience, skill and passion to create something fun. I know what it is like to work inside such a culture. It is engaging, and energising, and endlessly inspiring.

So what is my point here? That I should not be enjoying playing Borderlands 3? Because the executive culture and business practices of the organisation which produced it shows signs of toxicity, of abuse? Because its CEO, frankly, looks and sounds like an ass both in public persona and how he handles business?

That cannot be right. It does not stand on either an intellectual or an emotional level. But there is a relationship between this source of pleasure and this source of consternation. We saw the tip of an iceberg threatening Gearbox as a working culture; perhaps that iceberg itself is a sign of something still more massive, lurking largely unquestioned within the body of presuppositions that underpins so much of the writing, analysis and reaction within this multibillion dollar industry designed to entertain us for profit.

Is this a circle demanding to be squared? Is Pitchford’s behaviour really any different to that of ten thousand other well-remunerated executives doing exactly what is expected of them: maximising returns, minimising costs, consciously or unconsciously fighting a class position? And have we not already established that it is as childish a position to reject entirely the products of dysfunctional capitalist institutions as it is to reflexively defend them against all critiques that originate outside capital?

This isn’t a question of whether or not to buy this game, or whether or not to support the developers or the project with your wallet. Such individual consumer “boycotts” are meaningless on the mass level, irrespective of how much personal meaning the decisions made might hold. But nor is this a call for action: none of the ugliness around Gearbox which has slithered into view, and invited this essay, clearly demands an effort toward mass organisation.

The point, if you concur that there is one, is that in this business that makes our entertainment there are questions to be asked, and truths to pursue, and changes to be prepared to fight for, even if there is no clarity to the path or destination in sight.

This is what I think about when I play Borderlands 3.

The Martian & Artemis (kinda)

Andy Weir, author of The Martian, hardly needs signal-boosting. His breakthrough novel was not an immediate hit in 2011, but a self-published novel that sells 35,000 copies when it arrives on Kindle, then is picked up by a major publisher, and then is made into one of 2015’s biggest science fiction films is undoubtedly a huge success story.

The novel also offers up a good story. For such a popular novel there’s a surprising amount of engineering, science and mathematics present, albeit most of it asking little of the reader save to accept that astronaut/botanist/engineer Mark Watney has solved a problem. It’s interesting that this might also be one of the most commercially successful novels with hard SF characteristics in many years. Not being an avid tracker of genre book sales I’ve no idea if I’m correct in thinking that, but if it is true then the reason why is likely the book’s other main strength: its protagonist’s good humour and wit. He’s a sort of lovable goofball type, except competent and intelligent rather than indolent and fundamentally dickish.

The book also works well because, for the most part, its structure is a chain of loops: Watney identifies a problem that threatens his survival, he works out how to solve the problem, he attempts the solution, he corrects for what went wrong, he enjoys brief triumph before the next problem rears its head. As the lone astronaut on all of Mars, with limited resources and tools available to him, there are spadefuls of rugged individualism and pioneer spirit heaped into this, though happily he seeks to escape rather than dominate. One man and his brain against the world. It’s an effective source of conflict and its grounding in convincing technical language plausibly makes the SFnal elements more accessible.

This is all tempered by Watney’s personality. Because the bulk of the novel is presented as his own diary entries, and for the first third he doesn’t really believe he will survive, it often feels like he’s writing for himself. He’s sometimes genuinely funny and has a keen eye for the absurdity inherent in, say, planning three years of survival rations based on potatoes grown in his own shit.

I read Weir’s Artemis – a 2017 novel – a few years ago and it shares some characteristics. Wise-cracking, smart-alec first-person point of view, an environment hostile to human life, lots of near-future tech that’s as ‘real’ as possible, and a plot with plenty of twists and challenges requiring engineering solutions. I was less enthused by its vision of a moon colony: essentially a microcosm of dog-eat-dog capitalism, with the protagonist  a sort of roving gig economy worker handling odd jobs to supplement her main income via smuggling. It was fun, but all the same I found the uncritical reproduction of Earthbound Western economies and class divisions, and its tech messianic macguffin, tiresome.

The Martian works better because it’s outside all of that. One man, one planet, one goal: survive. Although the book does not devote much time to philosophical themes, at the end of the book Watney muses on humanity’s innate drive to help one another. It’s noble and resonates with the book’s themes. At the end of Artemis, protagonist Jazz works out how to engage in insider training to make bank from the story’s events. It resonates with the book’s themes, and we celebrate our protagonist’s achievement of her goal – independence – but the goal is selfish and the method ignoble. How much better to escape the Red Planet and be united with friends, with all humanity cheering you on.

Vignette #10

I trust my techs. I trust my team. I trust our processes. I trust our traditions.

I trust in divinity, and in the grace of the ineffable angels. I trust in that which watches over me. I trust that which nourishes me.

I trust my armour. I trust my helm, my visor, my gauntlets. I trust my systems. I trust my cables. I trust my rigging.

These are the three pillars of trust for a helldiver. In each we must hold firm. Where trust fails, a pillar crumbles. When a pillar crumbles, a helldiver does not return.

Many helldivers fail and fall. I no longer count the comrades I have lost. The faces of so many are lost to me. I am old. Old enough to remember when they still called us Void Hunters. Old enough to remember the face of Maximillian Harkonen, the first Void Hunter and the founder of our order. Old enough… to remember when Maximillian himself did not return home.

So now I am the oldest of our order. A symbol. A relic. A leader, unwillingly so. My trust must hold firm. My trust must never waver.

Now I feel a faint impact on the back of my inches-thick armour. My lead tech has kicked me, letting me know my team’s work is done. They have checked, and prayed, and checked again. I am ready.

I turn to them to lock eyes with each man and woman, and we gaze deep into one another. This team is the best team. This team is my team. We all know what we are charged with. Not one of them breaks eye contact until I move onto the next until, at last, I have shared this moment with all present.

I activate my visor and it polarises. I still see well enough, but now I am protected from ultraviolet rays, from the brightest lights, and the most unimaginable deformities of reason and being. My eyes rove over the runes carved into the visor. Each is complete, its lines unbroken. Another layer of protection from what is outside.

I stand atop my platform, and ritualistically tug each cable in turn. Each pulls firm, as I know it will. This is only tradition. An acknowledgement of the efforts my techs have already gone to. The cables are good. My rigging is attached. My systems report back positive. It is time.

Below the platform, a field snaps into being before the station’s hull irises open. The void lies farther below, and the field keeps our breathables in. There is always a wall, as there must be.

I raise an armoured hand in salute. The other grips my safety cable. The locks release, and the platform drops. My team vanishes upwards, out of sight. The dive begins.