Tag Archives: Science Fiction

The Player

I first saw the player one morning in May. Since everything started to happen back in 2020 – and let’s be honest, it’s still happening – I decided to build a morning walk along the beach into my daily routine. Now I know what you’re thinking – “If I lived that close to the beach, I wouldn’t need a global pandemic to get me out there enjoying it!” Guilty as charged. Sure, I’d taken a stroll or two along the beach in the past – mostly as a way to evangelise my town to any friends and family who came to visit, but I’d never really taken the time to appreciate it for what it was. These days, I do appreciate it, in lots of different ways, and I’m not too proud to admit that I’d been missing out.

Anyway, back to the player. Spring had not so much as sprung, as reluctantly rose from a crouch with aching limbs – but nonetheless, here was some real sun that I could feel on my face. It glistened on the waves as they gently lapped the sand and I was surprised that there was nobody else around. Usually there’s a dog walker or two, and I’d joined them as one of the morning regulars since starting my routine. Sorry, I’m going off on a tangent again. I guess I didn’t think I’d have that much to say but then again, it’s been a long time since I’ve spoken to anybody.

So, there he was on the beach. At first glance, I couldn’t make him out. it looked like some bizarre piece of ship wreckage sticking out of the sand, but as one of the few very small clouds in the sky passed over the sun, I got a clearer view. He was sat at a grand piano. At least, I think it was a grand. It certainly wasn’t one of those ones your grandmother used to have, or that you see in old Western movies. Unsurprisingly, I was instantly reminded of that film where a woman plays a piano on the beach. At first, I thought this was someone paying homage to that, or parodying it for some student film or sketch maybe? Transfixed, I continued to move closer, until I could make out the player. He had dark hair, and was wearing a suit – somehow this made everything seem even stranger, even though if he was sat there in surf shorts and flip flops, it would still have been strange.

Then there was the music. When I was working, back when everything was normal, I used to love to write while listening to music. I like all sorts of stuff, but instrumental music seemed to work best – soundtracks and classical mostly. So, I had a basic working knowledge of piano concertos, the classic stuff as well as the contemporary. And yes, the soundtrack for that film that this whole scene reminded me of sometimes featured. This was different though. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Sometimes, just for a fleeting moment, it sounded like some of Hayden’s chamber stuff, then I thought I could detect a bit of Rachmaninov, then what could have been one of the player’s own compositions – strangely discordant, with crazy time signatures, then off into some random honky-tonk. It was the weirdest thing, but even stranger was the fluidity with which he moved between every style, making it sound like one crazy continuous piece, that you all at once knew, but didn’t know at all.

That probably doesn’t make any sense to you, but it’s difficult to describe. I don’t really know why, but it started to make a little more sense to me when I got a little closer to the player. His suit wasn’t any kind of dinner suit, business suit or tuxedo that I had seen before. It seemed to shift before my eyes, like I couldn’t quite focus on it. For a couple of seconds, it looked like it was made of some kind of weird fabric that shimmered, reflecting the sun and casting radiant mini-rays all around. Then a moment later, it turned into a sport jacket and slacks, then into something so impenetrably black that I could make no creases or folds out at all.

By now I was about 10 feet away, taking all this in with growing incredulity.

“Hey!” I ventured. “Sounds great! Thanks for brightening up my morning!”

The instant it was out of my mouth, I wished I could have said something more profound than this jaunty herald. I suddenly got the sense that this was a pivotal moment of crucial significance, and what I said would matter.

I needn’t have worried. The player continued to play, oblivious to my presence. I stepped a little closer, and ventured round the piano, getting a frontal view as well as from both sides. The shifting suit continued to shift, and the man’s impassive face just maintained the same expression. When I was stood directly in front of him, he didn’t even register, but just appeared to look right through me. It’s so weird to say this now, but it was like his face was doing the same thing as his suit. One minute he looked like a handsome movie actor in a pivotal cinematic scene, the next he was a gaunt wretch of a thing, with eyes that…I can’t describe it…they just seemed to make him look like someone who’d seen things that nobody else had ever seen. Then at the next glance, he looked like everyone’s favourite jovial party host, rousing the guests with one of his good-natured renditions.

As I was pondering over the whole otherworldliness of the situation, a thought stuck me. What if somebody else comes along? What will they do? What will I do? Where I lived wasn’t a bad place to be, but there were still some deviant kids who liked to cause trouble – probably just out of boredom. What would happen if they showed up? Then, coming the other way, I could see a woman in the distance, striding along as a Golden Retriever bounded on ahead in search of the length of driftwood she’d just thrown in front of her. As she got closer, I recognised her as one of the morning walk regulars and took comfort in the fact that she at least wouldn’t do anything disruptive.

The dog had returned to her side now and as they drew closer, I got ready to make conversation, with an ‘I know, right?’ expression on my face. The fact that the dog didn’t do anything instantly made me curious. It walked right past the player – just for a fleeting moment turning its head quizzically in his direction, then plodded up to me. I absentmindedly scratched behind the dog’s ears as I watched its owner close the distance between us.

“Don’t mind him, he’s just saying hello!”

She did not acknowledge the player at all as she walked straight past him. Before I could stop myself I said:

“Can you not see him? The man at the piano?”

She looked at me quizzically, saying she didn’t know what I meant. I made some hurried correction, saying that I’d seen someone on the promenade playing the piano yesterday and did she see him? That seemed to make more sense to her and of course, she said that she hadn’t. Relieved that I hadn’t created a scene but more confused than ever, I made to look as if I was gazing whimsically out to sea, so she wouldn’t think I was being weird just standing there. She carried walking with her dog behind me and a carried on watching the player. There! A bit of Mozart was it? Then some sort of weird, free-form jazz thing, I don’t know, I can’t really describe what it was.

That was when the idea struck me. We have all this technology at our fingertips and take it for granted to the extent that we forget we even have it. I took my phone out of my pocket and held it up. I wish I hadn’t. When I looked at the player through my camera, it was as if we had both been transported to…I don’t know where, some strange dimension, it was like…well, it sounds like such a  corny thing but it’s the best way I can describe it…It looked like the player was in Hell. I can’t unsee what I saw. He was surrounded by searing flames but the piano was completely untouched and his face remained impassive, at least until the flesh on it bubbled and melted, sliding off his skull before my eyes. Shouting out in horror, I pulled my camera away from my eyes and looked at him again. Everything was just the same as before, with him playing impassively away – with his face still very much intact. Despite what I’d just witnessed,  I couldn’t help myself, and held my phone up once more, ready to drop it from my field of vision if the same thing happened again. This time there was no fire. Now, the player was sat in a stunningly beautiful glade, with shafts of golden sunlight streaming down through the trees and countless flowers blooming all around. Ah, I thought. So this is the Heaven version – of course, how silly of me.

I couldn’t make sense of anything and was a moment away from just turning on my heels and running – just to put some distance between myself and something I couldn’t possibly understand. But there was one more thing to try. I switched my phone camera to video setting and held it up again. This time, the player was sat in a barren dust bowl of a place, the air thick with some sort of strange cloud. It shifted momentarily and I could just make out the skeleton of some enormous building, something that looked ultra-modern, but that had also been in a state of ruin for hundreds of years. Whether this change of scenery was a result of me switching to video, or just a coincidence, I don’t know. What I did know is that I’d had enough. Backing away from the player until he was a good 30 feet away, I turned round and ran all the way home, clutching my phone.

All of a sudden, it felt like I was in possession of the most amazing thing in the world but also the most terrifying thing in the world. I went into my bedroom and gave myself a moment, then looked at my picture gallery. I don’t know if it was disappointment or relief I felt when the last two pictures I’d taken now showed as corrupt files. I almost didn’t bother trying to play the video, but I did.

I know this didn’t happen at the time – I was only filming for a few seconds – but I swear, when I played the video back this time, it was different. The player stopped playing. He looked up directly into the camera. At me. My heart almost leapt out of my chest as he spoke:

“What you do next will decide the future.”

And, for the couple of seconds that it took him to say this, his surroundings were brought into vivid detail. He was sat in some kind of haunting, apocalyptic landscape, the burnt-out remains of skyscrapers behind him, as a number of shambling figures lurched about in the distance. I attempted to play the video again, but just like the photos, it was now showing up as corrupted. I wish I could tell you that the first thing I did was run back out to the beach, but I didn’t. I lay for the rest of the day on top of my bed, in a state of high anxiety and turmoil, until sheer nervous exhaustion lured me into a deeply uneasy sleep, full of dreams, fire and screams. When I awoke, still feeling absolutely exhausted, I hurriedly put on my shoes and headed out to the beach once more. The player was gone.

I don’t know why I’m writing this now, weeks after. Nobody will believe me and I’m the only person who saw it, but I guess I just feel the need to document it all somehow. What did he mean? Who was he? Believe me, I’ve tried to make sense of it, but the whole thing is too much for my mind to comprehend. I must admit, I’d been losing focus in my life before the player arrived. At least now I have something to think about, and something to work for. After all, nobody needs to know where I got the idea from, do they?

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What is a book?

No wait, hear me out. Still there? Good.

If you’re reading this you’re probably looking for a little more than a literal answer, so here goes.

These days, books can take many forms. As well as a good old-fashioned charity shop find or a crisp new release hastily picked up from the airport newsagent before your flight, there is of course everyone’s favourite space-saver, the Kindle. Or indeed, the Kindle app if (like me) you’re slumming it just a little.

Delve into the world of online publication and you’ll have so much choice, you won’t know where to start. I’m guilty of perhaps not reading as much as I’d like to, but having dipped my toe into Amazonian waters, I discovered a few things pretty quickly.

Firstly, self-publishing makes it easier than ever before to get what’s inside your head out there for the public to enjoy. And if they don’t, well that’s their problem. At least you did it. This doesn’t have to be the 1000+ word fantasy epic you’ve been slaving away at for half your life though. These days, books take many forms. Your story may be great but you just find yourself wanting to get it over a little more quickly – that’s fine. In the world of self-publishing nobody looks down their nose at a novella.

It doesn’t even have to have a narrative either. From stream-of-consciousness ramblings and specialist cookbooks, to collected essays and structured how-to guides, pretty much anything can be a book these days.

So, get that idea out of your head and onto your screen and before long, it’ll be on everybody else’s screen as well.

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The Fall (a short story)

Now…
Danny felt like shit, for two reasons. The first was the recurring dream he’d had last night, which had allowed him about 3 hours’ sleep. The second was the prospect of facing his boss, Westward, who was quite simply a textbook sonofabitch. Danny tried to ignore his craving for sleep, thoughts dwelling on his boss a while longer, then surveyed the scene before him. The subway always played host to the same array of commuter stereotypes. There was the kid with the headphones, decked out in designer leisure wear, blissfully unaware of the torment his music was causing the ancient lady sat in the seat next to him. Then there was the overweight middle-aged executive, all flabby jowls, plump hands and acrid cologne.

Looking out of the window, Danny saw an unusual splash of colour, surprised that he’d never noticed it before. As the subway train slowed a little, he found he could read the graffiti artist’s seemingly endless message, daubed on the brickwork along the side of the track: ‘WORK-SUB-TV-SLEEP-SUB-WORK-SUB-TV-SLEEP-SUB-WORK-SUB-TV-SLEEP-SUB….HOW MUCH MORE CAN YOU TAKE???’ Danny realised he was looking at his life. The point hit home, which only made him feel worse.

The train lurched to a standstill, creaking and groaning from the strains of its daily duties. As Danny slowly rose, he imagined that if it could feel, it would feel like he did right now – same stop, same routine, same New York. As he ascended into the gloomy morning, leaving the hustle-bustle of the subway to join the daily rat race, Danny could already see Westward Electronics’ office building looming menacingly overhead. A testament to modern architecture’s persistence to be the biggest, its lofty point seemed to lacerate the clouds, releasing the relentless drizzle of Fall.

As he walked towards the building, Danny noticed a group of people gathered beneath it. They were standing in a rough circle, each making their own contribution to a cacophony of raised voices, shouts and gasps. A police officer who happened to be nearby had noticed the commotion and was trying to cut his way through the throng, who remained unaware of his efforts and were eagerly searching for something that would break the monotony of their morning routine.

As Danny got closer, he could make out some of what was being said:

“Come on folks, let me through!”
“Oh my God!”
Looks like a leaper, man.”
Holy shit, what a mess.”
“Jeeesus”
“Goddamn sidewalk pizza!”
“It definitely looks like a suicide…”

Almost everyone had something to say. Danny cursed himself for being just like the rest of them, an eager witness to death. He muscled in beside a young woman – “Hey, watch it mister!” – and eventually found himself at the front of the group, struggling to keep his place and to avoid stepping in the slowly spreading pool of blood. There was lots of the stuff and the boy’s – was it a boy? – the boy’s clothes looked…Jesus Christ, his face!

Then…
It was the summer of 1981. For two carefree kids of 15, it was a summer that seemed to last forever. Danny had been overjoyed when his parents had allowed him to stay in Denver with Richie’s aunt and uncle. Both families knew each other well and as a result, Danny and Richie Arnold were best friends. The holiday was going great and five days in, Richie’s uncle had suggested a trip out to the Rockies. The boys had been thrilled. The trip was planned for the weekend and the idea was that they’d camp out – “rough it” –as Richie’s uncle had explained to the boys earlier.

Danny was born in Topeka, Kansas, and had never seen so much of his country’s natural wonders in one go. He eagerly drank in his surroundings, enjoying the sights and sounds as he looked around in awe. His parents tried to get out with him whenever they could, but the Rockies were something else. On the Saturday, after a long hike, they’d all sat down to rest, a good distance from a ravine which gave way to a stunning view. Danny had gazed intently at the opposite rock face, the distant horizon, and the mountains. He could even see a section of the Arkansas river, glistening in the distance.

It had all happened so fast. When Richie’s uncle’s back was turned, Danny had suggested they go to the edge of the ravine, to look straight down. The drop was huge. Richie, who had always been the more careless of the two boys, started fooling around, balancing on one foot close to the edge. Danny shouted a warning to his friend to be careful, to which he replied:

“What’s the matter Danny, chicken or somethin’?”

Richie didn’t listen of course. How was he to know that what he thought was firm earth beneath him was loose rocks? Danny could see his friend’s expression for an instant – a strange mixture of terror and confusion – then he was gone. He rushed to the edge, shouting Richie’s name, and just had time to see a flash of his friend’s red and black shirt, then nothing.

Danny returned home in sorrow. He didn’t stop crying for a week and every night he would dream. Only it wasn’t a dream. He was awake in his room. His model spaceship hung from the ceiling, his wardrobe was a tall, dark shadow, while his desk lurked squat in the corner. Then, Richie would appear. His red and black shirt was stained with gore, his left arm a shattered ruin, bone jutting from a rent in his sleeve. His face was the worst of all. His left eye was completely missing, an ugly bare socket gazing out vacantly, endlessly, while his skull was crushed madly inward on one side, like a collapsed eggshell. Richie would always hold his hand out in the same beckoning way and Danny would scream as loudly as he had ever screamed in his life. Yet, above the sound of his own terrified voice, he would hear Richie’s, through shattered teeth and burst lips:

“What’s the matter Danny, chicken or somethin’?”

It would always end there and Danny would wake up, still screaming, as his mother rushed in to comfort him. Mom wasn’t there last night though. Last night, Danny had experienced his childhood recurring dream for the first time in 15 years.

Now…
He suddenly felt faint. The people seemed to be looming over him and all he could do was stare at the shattered 15-year-old face of Richie Arnold. As he began to sway, an office worker grabbed Danny’s arm to support him, saying:

“What a waste…I dunno, he just fell out of the sky.”

Then, someone else, the headphones kid from the subway train, added:

“Fell out of the 80s too…just look at those threads.”

Now, Danny felt sick and light-headed, the nausea rising from the pit of his stomach as unconsciousness beckoned. Before he passed out though, he swore he could hear Richie’s voice:

“What’s the matter Danny, chicken or somethin’?”

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A Summer of Verne

Jules Verne

I may have been familiar with some of his most popular work thanks to the old film adaptions I watched my childhood, but until this summer, I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never read anything by Jules Verne.

There, I said it. Feels better to get it out in the open. I ‘m still only two books better off, but what an amazing pair of books they are. It’s admittedly a massively overused phrase but 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and its Sequel The Mysterious Island really have stood the test of time as pieces of literature. A good story is a good story and will always trump a work which falls over itself to shoe-horn as many fancy words in as it can. That’s not to say Verne didn’t show literary flair but his emphasis was always on keeping the reader gripped and taking them on a fantastical journey.

All the while I was reading, I was reminding myself that they were translations too, and what skill Verne must’ve had to ensure the many works he wrote in his native French could be enjoyed by everyone. They’re a fascinating time capsule as well, from a time when it wasn’t easy to visit other countries, experience other cultures, or an everyday occurrence to meet someone with a different colour of skin.

In 20,000 Leagues…, Verne not only introduced one of popular culture’s most enduring figures in the enigmatic Captain Nemo, but one of its greatest feats of engineering, his mighty vessel the Nautilus. We take the idea of the submarine for granted now, but in this book, Verne pretty much invented it. The ideas and concepts he introduced in the book surrounding the Nautilus must’ve been nothing short of revolutionary at the time and it’s quite an experience to read about it now, knowing that at the time of publication, no-one had ever heard of such a thing before.

The Mysterious Island has also received the film adaption treatment – twice – but it was of course the original which caught my attention as a child. In it, Verne carefully weaves a stand-alone tale into the continuation of Nemo’s story seamlessly and extremely satisfyingly. In some ways it’s an even more gripping read, and it’s fascinating to behold the ingenuity of its protagonists as they adapt to life on their new-found accidental home.

If you’re a literary stranger to Jules Verne, I’d highly recommend these two great helpings of escapism.

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October 8, 2018 · 8:41 am

Literary musings

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I touch on specific authors in other blog posts, but this particular post is just a bit more of a free-form ramble about things I’ve read. I add to it periodically, with the most recent books I’ve finished at the top of the post.

 

I’m sure the author would appreciate my candour in admitting that the first reason I downloaded How to Punch Kids in Bathrooms is that it was free. It is in fact a stretch to call it a book, something which Marszalkowski readily admits close to the end of its 32 pages. Offering frank and insightful recollections of his childhood feelings and experiences, it’s an interesting read but is really more of an extended advertisement for his next book. That said it’s free and is a great taster for an author I now find myself wanting to read more of.

Is it really that long since my last holiday read? Well, time as they say flies, and it also plays a massive part in the book I spent my time poolside reading last year. Michael Moorcock’s quirky and unmistakable shadow looms large over the science fiction world, so I’m even more ashamed to admit that I never got around to reading him until last summer. I found Dancers at the End of Time in the superb Bookends in Carlisle, Cumbria (Attention bookworms, if you haven’t been, please do, you’ll be there all day) and picked it up solely because it was three books in one. No ‘you must read this one first’ sage advice for me. Thrift won out. Regardless, it’s a fantastically imaginative read. Based in a far-off future society where mankind has grown bored and complacent, it’s brimming with dark humour, cautionary warnings and plenty of time travel.

Having now polished off Andrew Hall’s complete Tabitha trilogy, I can honestly recommend this to anyone who loves science fiction, fantasy, or just a damned good story. Anyone who has not had the pleasure of immersing themselves in Hall’s strange and colourful world(s), well, I actually envy you, in that you’ll be able to read the whole thing in one go, one book after the other.

For sheer escapism and more than a little political history, Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (American date format you understand) takes some beating. Say what you want about Stevie, he tells a cracking yarn and this ambitious what-if about a man’s mission to foil the Kennedy assassination plot is every bit the spectacle you’d hope it to be. I had my doubts on how King would tackle such a historical legend but crazy as it sounds, this story isn’t really about Handsome Jack, more so the book’s protagonist, his issues with time travel and very significantly, the people he meets on his travels.

Everyone’s favourite punk rock nihilist, sometime Hollywood actor and successful spoken word performer to boot, Henry Rollins is someone I’ve been wanting to read for a while. Broken Summers is a fascinating and very accurate look at life on the road, consisting of Hank’s tour diaries from various times in his life, while Black Coffee Blues is a stream of consciousness collection of short (in some cases, positively minute) stories, dream recollections and tour diaries to boot. I found Summers far more satisfying, possible because of what I was doing while reading it, and Black Coffee… a little too fragmented, but certainly extremely thought provoking. Hell, I love a narrative and Black Coffee isn’t really about that – more of a ‘dip-in’ job. Gearing up for Black Coffee Blues 2.

Ah, the much-touted Ready Player One from Ernest Cline. As a child of the 80s and a Science Fiction geek to boot, I absolutely loved this! I read it quite a long time before the film came out, and was beseeching everyone to read it first, so they could appreciate where it was coming from originally. Suffice it say, the film version, though successful in its own right, was a completely different animal.

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