Thursday, September 22, 2016

UNDEAD UK Locations: Conwy Castle

Imagine, if you will, that you are on the run from zombies. The world has gone to hell, you are with a group of survivors and you need to find a place to hole up. Somewhere defensible, somewhere safe from the clawing hands and the bared, blood covered teeth of the undead hordes. Then you come across a castle.

But not just any castle. Conwy Castle, with its intact walls and towers, and an accompanying town that has its own defensive walls - again, still intact - and one of the few places in Europe that hasn't lost them to the ravages of time.

Nestled in the Welsh hills, on the banks of the River Conwy, the castle and its walled town sits ready to welcome any and all survivors who can get there. Mentioned briefly in Max Brooks' blockbuster novel, World War Z, it's one of the key locations for my novel, Remember Me Dead. It should be an ideal location for a strong group, with military assistance, to begin the fightback against the undead. I mean, what could possibly go wrong with such a fantastic location like that?

I don't want to drop too many spoilers for anyone who hasn't read the book yet, but I will give you a little tour, and some of its history, because it's too awesome not to.

The History Bit

Conwy Castle was built between 1283 and 1289 by King Edward I as part of his campaign to subdue the rebellious Welsh princes. The King was himself besieged by the Welsh at the castle, but the garrison was easily re-supplied by river, the sea being only half a mile away, and the Welsh failed to take the castle. In later centuries the castle was neglected, as was often the case with these fortresses, with repairs and maintenance falling behind the structure's actual needs. In 1401, the castle was taken in a surprise attack by the Welsh, who tricked the night watchmen to let them in. There probably wasn't much of a garrison there, if at all. The invaders were themselves besieged and held out for three months before surrendering. By the 19th Century, the castle was an empty shell, with one of the towers having partially collapsed, and it was considered a romantic place by poets and painters.

The Post-Apocalyptic Bit

There are many reasons for this castle being an ideal place to fortify during a zombie apocalypse, but I did have to take liberties with reality. The castle, for instance, doesn't have a wooden gate, because it probably rotted away over the centuries and was never replaced. But in my story, it does, because it was easier to trying to explain an alternative. I mentioned two bridges across the river, whereas it actually has three: the road bridge, the rail bridge, and a pedestrian suspension bridge that was built by Thomas Telford, with fake towers to match the castle architecture.

The rail line does, however, run right by the castle walls, as detailed in the story.

The interior of the castle is more or less as described, and yes, most of the towers are hollow, their wooden floors now gone.

And the railway line does enter the town through a Victorian-era arch:

You can explore the whole site from the air in google maps (hopefully embedded below), and I'll throw in some more photos I took at the site. I've visited this site three times with my children, and walked all the walls. If I squint hard enough, I can just about picture the light falling at the end of day, and the sigh of the breeze being replaced by the groans of the undead as they make another nightly attempt to break down the gate.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Cultural Appropriation

In the light of the Lionel Shriver controversy, I was reading a post on a writer's forum with increasing disbelief, as a white writer basically begged for advice on how to write black people into her story, because she didn't want to be seen as culturally appropriating black culture. Other writers defended the concept of cultural appropriation, where the dominant white culture is criticised for its audacity to do 'black' things like rapping or wearing corn-rows, and Lionel Shriver has already been criticised for saying there's nothing wrong with a white author creating a story from a black character's perspective. Student Unions in the UK have already hit the headlines for banning sombreros or Native American headdresses at parties, because it's 'offensive', and a blatant example of cultural appropriation, so this kind of thing is all the rage at the moment.

I can't stand this kind of sectarian finger wagging, and the post on the writer's forum made me increasingly angry, so I wrote a rebuttal. Considering the outrage at Lionel Shriver's speech, it probably won't be received well, for you have to watch what you say in society today, but that's just the way it is.

And I don't give a fuck anyway. So here's what I wrote:

Wow. So the experience of a black or brown person is sacrosanct and at risk of being defiled or dishonoured if written about by a white person? Oh dear, I included a Hispanic lesbian in one of my books (¡Dios mio!) before I realised the importance of this whole cultural appropriation thing. Oh my God, I even wrote a whole book where AN ENTIRE SPACE COLONY was Latin American. As a privileged British writer (because I've never suffered from the power structures of the dominant WASP empire in the same way as Mexicans or Venezuelans have) I'll surely burn in hell for that (and it will be a Protestant hell). 
And I was planning to have a black African protagonist in my next book. Such folly! Such breath-taking arrogance! Wow, I should be careful, and tread warily. I should check my privilege. I should understand that I'm not looking at this character as one human to another (what was I thinking!?), but as a member of a colonial elite looking down on a member of a race who have been historically wronged. And I should write in a way so as to atone for, and correct, that wrong. Am I right? 
I need to consult with black African people (black Americans clearly wouldn't understand), and gain some as beta readers. Apparently I even need to find an editor of the same race in order to be doing the right thing. Is there a committee I can apply to for this? 
Clearly the dividing lines between the races are so rigid, and so precious, that I simply should not bother. The boundaries that separate the races of the world should not be transgressed. Perhaps, from now on, I should excise all people of colour from my books, because I can't afford a black, brown, or even slightly off-white editor. Because what business is it of mine to try to portray these people? How arrogant it would be of me to even think that I could depict what these people say or do in a fictional story, because clearly they are not the same as me, and they think differently to me. And act and do things differently to me too. Because they are different. 
And I should stop eating kale immediately. 
But why stop there? The protagonist in my last novel was gay. And in my current work in progress, he's still gay! Have I not learned? How can I possibly know, as a straight person of Celtic descent, what a gay man of Saxon descent feels like? How dare I appropriate that experience for the sordid deed of writing a commercial novel? 
Fortunately, I have not written a female protagonist yet. After listening for years to people saying that male writers need to write more strong female characters into their stories, I was on the verge of doing so. What a mistake that would have been. I would have been guilty of Gender Appropriation (this will be a thing soon, I predict). I guess I learned my lesson just in time. No women in my novels then, except as minor neutral characters, so as not to offend anyone or abuse my male privilege. 
And I think committees need to be set up - one for women, one for LGBT+ people. And one for people of colour (though by the time one is set up, that name will be considered derogatory too, so a new one will be needed). And we writers can send them our works, for a fee (reparation, you understand), to have them vet our fiction so that it's appropriate for right-thinking consumption. 
Maybe a supreme Culture Committee can be set up that can vet or veto any work that fails to meet strict standards (for what is culture without standards). And they can put me in a holding pattern if there's a deficiency in gay, black or women writers that month, so as to ensure crystal clear equality. 
But then, if I wanted to have my every thought or creation monitored and controlled, I'd have stayed at school. So, at the risk of offending (or oppressing) half of the world, I shall continue to write what the hell I like, because it pleases me to. And it's not difficult, because I'm writing about people. And I'm a person too. And as a  fiction writer, I transgress boundaries all the time, because they don't exist for me. And as a brown faced Spanish kid fleeing English racists on his street, I never understood what was so important about creating those boundaries, unless it was just another excuse to hate. 
The whole concept of Cultural Appropriation is racist (or racialist, as it used to be more correctly known). The forced division of humanity by skin colour is racist. The championing and celebration of these divisions is sectarian. Sectarianism (on the rise these days) never united anyone, because sectarianism is designed for conflict, and the people who engage in it are only interested in conflict. 
And I never liked kale anyway.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Bargain Books for September

This weekend you get the chance to choose from over a hundred books and authors, thanks to a massive promo by author Patty Jansen. In cooperation with many other authors, she's offering readers the chance to buy science fiction, fantasy and horror books on the cheap, for two days only. So if you fancy a new read, check it out. With so many books to offer, you're bound to find something you'll like.

Grab a bargain here, at Patty's Promos

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Remember Me Dead

The maggots were what he remembered the most. That was easily the most profound recollection Staff Sergeant Breht had of that day, so long ago. The maggots crawling over dead skin. Writhing, chewing, eating. Except the skin they were consuming didn’t belong to a body that was dead, but to a body that refused to die.

Thus begins the first book in my new zombie series, and it's out now! Set in the UK, it's a tale of survival, obsession and, what else? Zombies. Follow Staff Sergeant Breht on a journey no man should have to make.

A wilderness of zombies. A mission gone wrong. A bullet in the chest. These are the things Staff Sergeant Breht remembers, along with the bitter taste of betrayal. Left for dead by the man he trusted with his life, Breht embarks on an odyssey through what’s left of the UK: a land of frightened survivors, deserted castles and bleak streets that echo with the moans of the undead.
But he’s not looking for shelter. He’s looking for revenge.

 For the next two weeks, it will be available for just 99c on Amazon and Amazon UK, with forthcoming releases on Apple iTunes, Barnes and Noble's Nook, and Kobo.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Science Fiction May Day Bundle

Do you want five science fiction books for just $5? Of course you do. Do you want 10 books for just $9? Well, it's a no-brainer. Bundle Rabbit are giving away bundles of books at cheap prices, and Callisto: Dead Colony is one of them. Check them all out at Bundle Rabbit for your chance to expand your book shelves on the cheap! Sale begins on the 1st May and ends 14th May.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Dystopia beckons

Nobody's supposed to like dystopia. The very idea of wrack and ruin is meant to have negative connotations. Chaos and destruction are things we should be avoiding. It's not meant to be beautiful. Yet the imagery and the art of it draws many, myself included.

Dystopia is like a Great White Shark. No one wants to get in the water with one, but from a safe distance, they look awesome.

Maybe it's because we live in a safe society, with rules and limits. Maybe, from our safe zone, destruction and chaos holds a grim fascination. Maybe we are drawn to opposites, the way we are drawn to read horror, for instance. Or war.

People read, watch or play fantasies. So it's strange that dystopia should be one of them. Maybe nihilism runs deep through the human psyche.

In the 19th Century, it was very fashionable for wealthy English lords and ladies to travel to Venice. Britain was then at the height of its power, with an empire that spanned the world, while Venice was the home of a former power that had fallen on hard times, and had been in decline for centuries. There's a brilliant piece in Susanna Clarke's book Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, where the opinions of the privileged visitors are satirised:
They thought the fa├žades of the houses very magnificent - they could not praise them highly enough. But the sad decay, which buildings, bridges and church all displayed, seemed to charm them even more. They were Englishmen and, to them, the decline of other nations was the most natural thing in the world... they would not have been at all surprized to learn that the Venetians themselves had been entirely ignorant of the merits of their own city - until Englishmen had come to tell them it was delightful.
The century before, people had been fascinated by the ruins of the Roman Empire. In the century after, people became fascinated by the ruins of the Egyptian Empire. It seems natural now to consider their remnants as tourist attractions, but not that long ago, the local people simply saw historical ruins as junk.

In Britain, peasant farmers and landowners alike pillaged and destroyed the remains of Roman bathhouses and villas. Hill forts were ploughed over and medieval castles were dismantled for stone. In Shrewsbury, Thomas Telford, the renowned civil engineer of the Industrial Revolution, drove a road straight through a wing of Shrewsbury Abbey without really worrying about its structure. Vast swathes of history were lost in this way before preservation orders came into being to protect them.

The Industrial Revolution's own history turned to trash in the area we now know as Ironbridge Gorge. For decades the area was just known for its slag heaps and overgrown ruins, and it was considered an eyesore and a dump. Then they built the new town of Telford (ironies abound) nearby and set about clearing away the growth and turning the ruins into another tourist attraction.

Maybe it's nostalgia rather than nihilism that elicits our fascination with ruins. Modernists certainly thought so, and they had no time for looking backwards when they preferred to look forwards. Science Fiction used to be modernist, with its depictions of fantastic future societies, new ways of living and even new ways of being. People say Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was probably the first true science fiction novel, but the Positivist trend of science fiction at the height of its glory in the sixties and seventies actually reaches further back than Mary Shelley - right back indeed to the 16th Century novel Utopia, by Thomas More. Utopia is the opposite of dystopia, and science fiction ran with this, driven by the Enlightenment belief in Man´s ability to improve itself.

Which is also ironic, since Utopia, like the writings of the philosopher Rousseau that followed two centuries later, is actually a throwback to some Arcadian past that never happened. But I digress.

Mary Shelley's novel runs counter to the humanist, positivist beliefs that underpinned much of science fiction, and drops a dystopian stone into the utopian well, listening to its echoes. Her novel explored the folly of Man tinkering with technology, and life itself. In Christian myth, it was God who created life. Shelley wanted to show what happened when Man usurped God.

Mary Shelley was the opposite of a Humanist. She was a Romantic, which was a loose title for a group of poets and philosophers who were sceptical of the Humanist power of reason, or of Man's power over nature or destiny. Humanism gave us Hitler and Stalin. Romanticism gave us hippies and Environmentalism. Western society has always been a curious mixture of these two opposing strands.

If it was Humanism that gave us science fiction's galactic empires and experimental space societies, then it was Romanticism that gave us the Post-Apocalypse. And Zombies.

It was Mary Shelley's husband, Percy Shelley, who wrote Ozymandias, which tells us of a fictional traveller who discovered the remnants of a stone statue alone in the desert:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Ruins are thus a powerful way of reminding us of our own mortality, and of the fragility of civilisation. And if that's a Romantic thought, then maybe I'm a Romantic. I'm fascinated by the fall and decline of societies, including the one I'm living in. I'm drawn to ruins and the stories they can no longer tell.

Outside Dover, a series of underground forts lie in decay. Built during the Napoleonic Wars by French prisoners-of-war, they were abandoned and left to rot. I had the chance to explore some of the tunnels, and to me they were as magisterial and mysterious as cathedrals.

If they had been properly lit, repaired and turned into a museum, I wouldn't have been as awed as I was the day I felt my way along the spooky, echoing tunnels. I've always been drawn to the illicit exploration of truly abandoned places, untouched by civilised attempts to preserve or gentrify them. I once read an article about a man living near the Normandy beaches in France, who collected the rusted carcasses of tanks, some dragged up from the sea, and displayed them at his home near the beach. I would have loved to explore their deteriorated, and still deteriorating, remains. By contrast, I once visited a tank museum where many remnants from the war had been cleaned up, repainted and displayed for visitors to see. It was a boring experience (and I love tanks), as the vehicles on display seemed artificial and ripped from their actual context. They were like models. So for me, it's not just historical nostalgia. The raw unsanitised feel of history, the sense of something once real that was now lost, is almost a spiritual experience for me. This is how I've felt when I've walked through the wooded remains of hill forts, feeling the presence of the Celts who once dwelt there. This is what I felt when I explored old airfields, imagining the Spitfires on the runway, and the maintenance crews in the ruined workshops, having a cigarette as they waited for the planes to return. It was what I felt walking through the deeply worn paths of a medieval quarry, in the footsteps of the masons on their way to work.

Imagination plays a large part in this fascination, I suppose, and I prefer to imagine the history myself, rather than have someone do it in a museum with plaques and dummies. Maybe that's why I'm a writer, rather than a curator of antiquities.

Dystopia has carved out a large swathe for itself in fiction today, with post-apocalypse wastelands and nuclear or biological catastrophe delighting millions. One of my favourite games of all time is the Fallout series, set after a nuclear war, where you explore the devastated wastelands, encountering mutated creatures and ghouls, and embarking on quests among the surviving settlers. If I didn't have a life, I'd probably spend way too much time in those wastelands, checking out spooky places and picking over the remnants of modern society. As it is, it's addictive enough, and the game's designers understand well the attraction of exploring decay, so I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. In real life, there's a whole bunch of people who call themselves Urban Explorers, addicted to the exploration of abandoned buildings, ships and tunnels.

What makes decay beautiful? I don't know. Maybe it's the setting: the solitude of being alone in a place that you know was once busy. Maybe it's a fascination with seeing the effect of time itself, which reminds us that everything is in constant flux and that nothing, not even us, is forever.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Oh Benedict, where art thou?

1.1 million migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, most of them young men, entered Germany last year. Those who said taking on so many was not a good idea were called heartless or racist. Twelve days ago, hundreds of women in Cologne were harassed, sexually assaulted and robbed by gangs of those same migrants.

Benedict Cumberbatch, renowned actor and amateur activist, had much to say about the former fact, but has so far been silent on the latter fact. As have many of his ideological travellers.

Where art thou, Benedict? Why the long face?

Is it ominous realisation that you see before you?