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Who’s responsible? We are.

February 5, 2016


Weeping Girl JA

One of Laura Ford’s Weeping Girls at Jupiter Artland

I’m very pleased that my piece Borderline was shortlisted for the Jupiter Artland Inspired to Write Competition. You can read about the competition and download a copy of all winning and shortlisted pieces on the Jupiter Artland site.

Borderline was inspired by Laura Ford’s Weeping Girls and Andy Goldsworthy’s Stone House. Being a creature who loves dolls, mannequins, robots and anything lurking in the uncanny valley, I immediately fell in love with Laura Ford’s Weeping Girls. What Jupiter Artland does so well is situate the art in the landscape in such a way that it feels strange but not out of place – the art and the landscape feed into each other. As you walk down the path a weeping girl comes into sight just beyond the swaying leaves of the trees and there’s a real sense of unease and mystery.

When I heard about Inspired to Write I knew I would write about the weeping girls and I imagined them emerging from the ground. You come upon Andy Goldsworthy’s Stone House just before the weeping girls and it made sense to me that the girls would emerge from this equally mysterious and creepy place before venturing down the path and hiding amongst the trees.

Borderline was inspired by the stunning art at Jupiter Artland but sadly it was also inspired by our appalling treatment of refugees. It’s with a keen sense of history that I write this, shortly after Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January. As a nation we tend to put on rose-tinted glasses when we look back on WWII, conveniently forgetting our deplorable treatment of Jewish and other refugees.

“People feel that the country should maintain asylum for genuine asylum seekers, but they’re always in the past, never today.”

– Tony Kushner, professor of history, University of Southampton

When I wrote Borderline, I was disgusted by the attitude of ‘our’ government and national press. My purpose in writing the last line – “You are nothing” – was to put the reader in the place of the refugee who is so vilified by our government, by our press, by the ignorant people who say “We have to help our own first” (whatever ‘our own’ means). As I was writing it I thought of the line in The Holy Bible’s Of Walking Abortion – “Who’s responsible? You fucking are.” While some might say The Holy Bible collapses under the weight of nihilism and misanthropy I’ve always found it a strangely invigorating album and I hope that Borderline will have a similar effect – I want to make you uncomfortable, but inspired to act. It’s a dark take on the current global situation, but I hope that darkness will be transmuted into empathy.

While I was disgusted by the attitude of ‘our’ government and national press I was also heartened by the reaction of my friends, acquaintances and various organisations (who either continued the amazing work they’d been doing for years, or were born out of a need to do something about the current situation). I also appreciated seeing many people combatting ignorant and racist attitudes. We are responsible and we must hold our government to account. We are responsible and we mustn’t turn our back on those in need.

The problem is taking that weight of responsibility and not being crushed by it. Whilst acknowledging the darkness that’s in us, whilst doing what we can to help, we need to remember our joy – our “desperate joy”, as a friend perfectly described the post-Holy Bible song Everything Must Go. And sometimes everything must go for us to survive. If you care so much it hurts, you have to transform that hurt into art, into action. If you care so much it hurts, the world needs you – create, love, live, donate, act. Do what you can, but only what you can. Don’t let life crush you. We are responsible and we will act. We are responsible and we will hold our leaders to account.

If you’re able to donate, these are some charities doing good work with refugees:

Doctors of the World

Islamic Relief Syria Appeal

Re-Act Refugee Action Scotland fundraise and collect vital donations to transport to the refugee camps throughout crisis areas of Europe. There’s a drop-off point for donations if you live in Edinburgh, a crowdfunding site for donations, and an option to donate via paypal.

My novel Goblin is about the WWII pet massacre in London, but it’s sadly relevant today. I always think about how war affects animals too. It doesn’t mean I care any less for humans, but people can get really indignant and caught up in a human/animal hierarchy debate. Animals don’t suddenly become expendable when there’s a crisis – we’re responsible for them, as we’re responsible for the human refugees. This is a piece about the current situation and the people doing what they can to help animals in need.

I’m not sure if they’re doing any work in Syria, but World Animal Protection are worth supporting (there’s a donate button at the top right – you just need to select a country).

“I regard animals and humans in the same light. All of them suffer pain, and all of them deserve compassion.”

– Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, who looks after 150 street cats in Syria.


Queen of Angels by Greg Bear – a review

January 26, 2016


cover of Queen of Angels by Greg Bear 1991

Queen of Angels by Greg Bear 1991

“Why did the self-aware individual look in the mirror in the first place?
To define its limits.

Why did the self-aware individual look in the mirror?
To understand its existence in relation to others.

Why did the self-aware individual look in the mirror?
To confirm that it was not nothing.

When I started Queen of Angels I didn’t realise how complex it would be – Bear throws everything at this book: psychological development, health and breakdown; socio-political norms, constraints and conflicts; justice and free will; religion and myth; the search for alien life on a newly discovered planet; the development of self-aware AI; nanotech; national conflict; race, racism, identity and appropriation… I could go on.

The Basics

Queen of Angels is set primarily in a near-future version of LA, which could be described as a utopia – the majority of the population are ‘therapied’, resulting in a society where psychological problems are rare and crime is greatly reduced. However, one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia – there are vast inequalities between those who are therapied and those who choose not to be. There are further distinctions between ‘the naturals’ (who are psychologically ‘well’ without therapy) and those who are ‘untherapied’ (who accept an array of emotions and potential psychological distress as a part of human life).

The novel begins with detective Mary Choy investigating the murder of eight people by the poet Emmanuel Goldsmith. Because murder is extremely rare, the shock of this reverberates throughout LA. The form of justice in this future society unsurprisingly involves therapy, which criminals are forced to undergo before being released back into society as well-adjusted citizens. Not everyone considers this to be justice, and a vigilante group called Selectors (who have an element of fairytale monstrousness about them) are trying to get to Goldsmith before detective Choy. Selectors use a ‘hellcrown’ on their perpetrator-victims, a horrendous mental torture that the Selectors believe serve as a more fitting form of punishment and justice than the officially sanctioned method.

With this set-up, I immediately assumed Choy was the protagonist and this was going to be a sci-fi detective novel but her story is only one part of four separate but interlinking narratives.

Narrative One

The first part of the novel follows Choy as she hunts for Goldsmith, the search eventually leading her to Hispaniola due to Goldsmith’s friendship with the current dictator, Colonel Sir John Yardley. Choy is caught up in the cold war between the US and Hispaniola (with shades of the ongoing animosity between the US and Cuba), and Bear effectively demonstrates Choy’s culture shock as she adjusts to Hispaniola’s bureaucracy and rules. Choy’s journey is interesting, although it lags in parts due to too much description (this is a pet hate of mine – I have a tendency to favour tighter, streamlined narratives; other readers may revel in the level of detail). Although Bear borders on losing the story to political abstraction, he fortunately held my interest through Choy’s interaction with Hispaniola citizens, in particular her strained relationship with her guide Soulavier. There is also a very affecting scene where the political and the personal crash into each other through Choy’s horror and disgust at the state-sanctioned use of hellcrowns in prisons. Bear is clearly positioning Choy as a ‘civilised’ representative of the US, but that doesn’t mean readers will be passively accepting this, especially if they are aware of US imperialism. Moreover, Choy’s horror at the Hispaniola’s use of the hellcrown raises the question of whether the US is really so civilised in comparison when their prisoners are forcibly brainwashed into being ‘good’ citizens, and the vigilante terror of the Selectors seems to be at least tolerated if not condoned.

Narrative Two

The second part of Queen of Angels follows Martin Burke. We learn that Burke was once a pioneer in his field, but his work was caught up in a political scandal and his research facility was shut down. Burke and his colleagues (including an old flame, Carol) had pioneered a means to enter another person’s mind to investigate their psychological health. They enter what they call their patient’s ‘Country’, which can be explored by trained therapists as if it were a kind of virtual reality. Burke is pulled out from under the shadow of disgrace by a man who can ensure Burke’s return to his career if in turn Burke will embark on a risky venture.
There is nothing particularly ground-breaking about this section, as it’s basically about the psychological effects of a virtual reality experience gone wrong and I was pretty certain where it was heading. But it was still gripping and it was one of the sections I most looked forward to, particularly when it developed into an effectively creepy and claustrophobic horror story. I like that it leaves you with more questions than answers and the outcome isn’t neatly tied up (although, I’ve since found out there’s a sequel to Queen of AngelsSlant – which may explore this part of the story further).

Narrative Three

The third part of the novel follows AI creator Roger Atkins and his ‘children’ AXIS and Jill. AXIS is sent to a newly discovered planet to search for alien life, and Jill monitors the progress of AXIS. There are fascinating on-going discussions between Atkins, AXIS and Jill, as well as compelling monologues from AXIS and Jill as they work through problems, question whether they have achieved self-awareness, and explore what ‘consciousness’ means for humans. Recurring throughout their conversations is the repeated question/joke that plays off of Lacan’s mirror stage theory in child development – “Why did the self-aware individual look in the mirror?”
This was the strongest and most interesting part of the novel for me. Some readers might not see the immediate connection to the other sections in plot terms (other than Carol’s experience of exploring Jill’s ‘Country’) but the themes of psychology, psychological health, what it means to be human, what consciousness is, and the psychological and sociological pros and cons of advanced technology are all there, offering yet another narrative angle to examine them. Interestingly, this is the part of the novel I found most emotionally affecting, which itself raises questions about humans, empathy, identity and difference.

Narrative Snore Four

The weakest part of the novel was the section that follows Richard Fettle, a writer friend/acolyte of Goldsmith. He’s self-pitying and dull as he embarks on a insular quest to understand why his friend committed murder. Whenever I reached the Fettle parts I’d groan and try to get through them as quickly as possible. Focussing on a small group of artists and writers who knew Goldsmith, this section touched on the socio-political consequences of the murders for people who are untherapied. This would have been a fascinating direction to take, so I felt short-changed by the indulgent dullness of the Fettle storyline. I could accuse Bear of laziness if that didn’t feel so utterly perverse given how complex this novel is. Perhaps it was prejudice rather than laziness and Bear simply wanted to portray society’s outsiders in an unflattering light.
Although I was tempted, I didn’t rebel and skip these sections, but if I read Queen of Angels again (I’m sure I will) I’d skip Fettle. I’d approach the whole novel differently, and it’s a real strength of the book that it can be read in more than one way – I’d like to read each section in full, as if they were self-contained novellas. Part of the reason I’d like to do this is that there is so much going on in the novel that at times I felt overwhelmed and there are some things I may have missed or not considered fully.

Musings on Race, Identity and Appropriation

Throughout Queen of Angels there’s the theme of race and racism. Mary Choy has undergone a biotransformation and part of this is a change in skin colour to black. When questioned on this, Choy states that it isn’t through any feeling of solidarity – it’s a purely aesthetic choice. This raises the question of what happens to race, racism and identity politics when humans can choose their skin colour – will this reinforce inequalities? Or will it do away with racism? Will skin colour come to mean very little and what would this do to people’s notion of history and identity? The emotive subject of identity is particularly relevant today with the Black Lives Matter campaign in the US, and the issue of appropriation after a recent internet furore over someone posing as black. While the issue of race permeates Queen of Angels – from comments about people being black inside/white outside and vice versa (whether they are a ‘transform’ or not), to the race and identity link to Goldsmith’s early experience of trauma, as well as the passages on the history of slave labour and the relationship between the US and Hispaniola – I don’t feel Bear fleshed this out enough and I’m not entirely sure what point he was trying to make. This is an issue that definitely could have been explored more in-depth, while Fettle’s section could have been dropped altogether.

The Active Reader

I’ve read some pieces on Queen of Angels highlighting Bear’s conservative politics and his bid to show the US as a beacon of civilisation and order, as well as positioning ‘evil’ as an individual psychological sickness rather than acknowledging society’s flaws and the impact of inequalities on people’s lives. This may have been Bear’s intention, but I didn’t read it this way (Barthe’s death of the author, anyone?) – I found myself disturbed by a society of majority therapied and a protagonist (Choy) with such stringent moral certainties (coupled with her underlying respect for the Selectors) and her easy appropriation of black skin. I was also disturbed by the idea of the US being in anyway superior to other nations such as Hispaniola. Thankfully, readers will not engage with Queen of Angels uncritically, whatever the (figuratively dead) author’s intentions.

I highly recommend Queen of Angels – despite its flaws and conservative worldview, it’s a well-written page-turner and has so many fascinating layers and themes that your untherapied ‘Country’ will have plenty to chew over. Moreover, you’re guaranteed to have freakish dreams about Selectors and you heart will be lost to an AI. Psychological turmoil, nightmares and machine-love – what more can you want from a book?

* * *

Sci-Fi vs Lit Fic

Before I finish up, I’d like to bring up the bug-bear of Science Fiction versus Literary Fiction. As I was reading this, I was thinking about how the quality of the writing is as good as – if not better – than many acclaimed literary novels. The grand themes and the intelligence of the execution is also as good as many literary novels, but I know there are people who will take one look at the cover and say “No, sci-fi isn’t for me.” It is for you – sci-fi has a lot to say about what it means to be human, and given the ubiquitous presence of tech in our daily lives it offers us various narratives through which to navigate the psychological, sociological and ethical issues that are raised as technology advances faster and faster.

What makes a novel literary and another sci-fi? If you read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, you’re reading sci-fi.  As a reader, do genre distinctions matter to you? Or is it simply a construction by publishers and marketers? As a writer, how do you feel about genre distinctions? Is it helpful? Or is it a straightjacket?

Given its complexity (which, I admit, was overwhelming at times) Queen of Angels probably isn’t the best place to start if you’re a sci-fi newbie, but if you need any pointers, let me know and we can go on a sci-fi journey together.


I Will Rot Without You by Danger Slater – a review

January 21, 2016
I Will Rot cover

I Will Rot Without You – beautiful cover artwork by Katie McCann & design by Matthew Revert.

I Will Rot Without You, the latest piece of Bizarro fiction by Danger Slater, follows hapless lovelorn narrator Ernie who is beset by an army of cockroaches who seem to have it in for him. The reanimated corpse of one particular roach he names ‘Cross’ bullies him into eating a piece of the strange mould that is growing in Ernie’s bathroom. The mould makes him sick and his skin turns a strange green before body parts start to fall off. As Ernie deals with this disintegration there are various odd encounters with his antagonistic landlord, a neighbour who keeps the long-dead corpse of his wife in his apartment, and another neighbour – Dee – who has boyfriend trouble.

Slater throws a whole host of body horror scenarios at the reader so that the pages are dripping with body fluids, mould and torn muscle, rattling with shattered bone, and scuttling with determined psychopathic cockroaches. One of my favourite lines is “she slurps up my tongue pus like it were melted milkshake,” which is followed by a ridiculous and amusingly gruesome sex scene which would have worked better if the word ‘pump’ had been excised instead of (or as well as) a particular appendage.

As much as I was enjoying this bizarre and gruesome read, there were a few typos and missed words that pulled me out of the narrative. The use of ‘go’ and ‘goes’ instead of ‘say/s’ also distracted me – it could have been demonstrating character, but it was used so erratically that it jarred. The constant use of similes were starting to drive me a bit mad too (I now twitch when I read/hear the word ‘like’) – that is, until the author/protagonist comes to the rescue just in time and takes the piss out of his simile love: “…and those are her lips that sit like red velvet cake, and her freckles like constellations scattered across her cheeks, and her ears like…um…ear-shaped…ears?…” which made me chuckle and forgive such simile vomiting (I even started to wonder if it was a symptom of mould digestion – body and language horror?).

While I Will Rot is funny and absurd, there are serious underlying themes around body anxieties, relationships, obsession, and whether you can ‘own’ another person. I Will Rot is one big metaphor about how relationships can become mutually destructive, and how it can be difficult to move on – in this case it literally eats away at Ernie, and Dee’s boyfriend is so obsessive and controlling that he tries to own her by sewing parts of his body onto her. However, as Ernie’s ex, Gretchen, says: “you can’t force yourself into another person.”

I Will Rot Without You is a fun, over-the-top, body horror delight with some laugh out loud moments and I look forward to reading more perverse morsels from Danger Slater’s twisted mind.

I Will Rot Without You is released on 8th February 2016.

A Review of Ali Miller’s ‘What If The City Fails To Work’

December 9, 2015


Ali Miller’s stunning piece of psychogeography, ‘What If The City Fails To Work’, electrified me, inspired me, and reminded me of the joy of writing and reading, which I’m sad to say doesn’t happen often with anthologies. Miller’s writing made me stand to attention with those long sentences, comma after comma, followed by the short and sharp: “It’s fiction, I tell myself. It is, and yet.” I was swept up by the orchestration of words, the delicious rhythm – now this is writing.

Miller’s piece is timely as Edinburgh faces numerous inappropriate building developments and the use of our streets as event space, pushing the residents out of sight. Who is this city for? Is it a living, breathing city? Is it a museum of tartan for tourists?

It’s what we trade in, this lie of nationhood, of unity, of a better past, but it brings in the tourists, and develops the city economically. That’s the buzz word now, economic development, how the worth of proposed schemes is judged, it’s a market driven economy, just as well we have something to sell. The city works, puts its past to work… The city cracks. The city works for some, but not for all, where does the tipping point sit, who calibrates the scales? …The city does not work for me. For me, this city does not work.

Miller reminds us of our place in the city in a time of increasing alienation – capitalism erases us; Miller reinstates us. “We need to know as a city, which is little more than a collection of its citizens – how to nourish ourselves again… I did not know how to feed myself. I stopped knowing because the complexity was too much to handle. And now the city does not know how to feed itself.” To carry with us this idea of the city and its people as a Möbius strip feeding one into the other – this is the personal, this is the political. But is it enough? “What price comfort? What price modernity? And who pays when? …I never have to touch food again to live, I realise… We’re all fucking worth it, until we know the price of everything, but the cost of nothing… I want I want I want, more more more.

Millar castigates herself for being the watcher and recorder, but words are powerful, storytelling is powerful, and we all do it – our lives are a narrative we tell ourselves and others. Our government and corporations tell us what our narratives should be; it’s not the role of watcher and recorder that is passive, but our acceptance of these imposed narratives. We need our writers – not as untouchable demigods, but as workers who can remind us there are alternatives to the dominant narratives of ‘capitalism’ and ‘economic development’. While Miller is tempted down the path of cynicism, she turns away; as she acknowledges it’s a cliché to end such a piece on hope, what other route is there? Miller not only leaves us with hope, she raises a challenge – “It’s daring to imagine a city that works, that can feed itself and its visitors, that trades not only on an imagined past, but a vibrant present” – and as citizens and storytellers we must all take heed.




October 27, 2015
Ever and anatomical figure

“Our society spends a lot of time and money covering up and glossing over the fact that we are made of meat, blood and bone.”

Greetings, creatures! Since I last stopped by, the marvellous Queen’s Head have published Wire, my sci-fi body horror short story. Wire was shortlisted for the Aeon Award and originally published in New Writing Scotland 32. I’m very pleased it’s now available to read online, but if you’d like a hard copy you can place your order over at Queen’s Head by Halloween and the ace sci-fi issue will be yours!

I’m also very pleased I had the opportunity to take part in my first author Q&A. When Ryan at QH first mentioned a Q&A I assumed it would be your usual generic questions and they’d all be the same for each author, but I was tickled colon-pink when he sent through specific and very perceptive questions that I could really sink my teeth into. I talk about my inspirations, gore, pigeons, and reveal what my ideal tech enhancement would be*  – what’s yours? Let me know below!

(*I recently found out that a proto-Inex exists! I knew I could count on the Japanese)

The Company Report

August 11, 2015


I’ve submitted my short story The Company Report (which I read at Story Shop during the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2012) to the Inkitt ‘laughable’ competition. It has lashings of dark humour, satirising office life and the beauty industry.

I would appreciate your vote if you enjoy it. You can vote for The Company Report by clicking on the heart at the bottom of the page on my story, which will help get my story into the top 10% so it can reach the eyes of the judges. Feel free to write a review too – I’d love to hear your opinion. Many thanks, creatures!

spinach latte laxative therapy cocktail?

spinach latte laxative therapy cocktail?

The Bath Short Story Award – Longlist 2015

July 22, 2015

Greetings, creatures! I’m very pleased to tell you that my story Touch was longlisted for the Bath Short Story Award. I’m very pleased to have made it that far. Many congratulations to fellow longlistees, the shortlistees, and winner Safia Moore.


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