Monthly Archives: September 2014

Comfort food for the winter of the soul

Mad Genius Club

I’m sure there are writers who walk through life is if it was their personal bowl of bloop-berries (no it’s not a typo, it’s a reference to a comfort-food book. Anyone recognize it?) I’ve never met one of these authors, but then I don’t know many people. And for some reason (maybe because for most of us it is a very tough row to hoe.) bleakness, despair are things I’ve encountered in many a writer. Maybe it’s the flip side of the creative coin. I don’t know. I just know dealing with it is important to me, and, methinks also for many of my writer-friends. Obviously there are many other reasons for depression and despair, but writing seems to do well at providing extra (and yes, a lot of it has to do with the movement of small bits of green paper.). It also comes down to sheer tired a…

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Twisty Christmas Tales feature Joy Cowley, David Hill & Dave Freer

Just re-blogging this here, for the younger readers this Christmas

Phantom Feather Press

We have fantastic news! We received so many amazing Christmas stories that we’ve expanded our anthology.

From the outset, we had anticipated accepting 25 stories, but now 27 wonderful authors have 31 quirky stories in The Best of Twisty Christmas Tales. We’d like to thank all of our our writers—including iconic NZ authors Joy Cowley and David Hill, and best-selling Australian sci-fi author Dave Freer.

For a full list of Twisty Christmas Tales authors, see below.

Our illustrator Geoff Popham has been doodling since he was tiny. Now he’s not so tiny and he’s still at it, working as a freelance graphic designer, illustrating books when no one’s looking. He’s been working hard to create twisty illustrations for our stories. Stay tuned to see more of Geoff’s great twisty Christmas art.

In the meantime, join us on our sleigh as we whip across NZ pastures, scattering fairy dust, heading…

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And now for something completely different


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The rising tide

Most people can tell at a glance if the tide is full. The waves lip the upper tide-line, move the sea-wrack and debris around a little.

That’s about where most of us stop with recognizing the state of the tide. We can tell it’s pretty low or about half in or… maybe it is half out. Without sitting around for some time, watching it’s hard to tell. There are big waves every now and again, on an out-going tide that might convince you it was going the other way, and vice-versa. There are of course sign and oracles and sources of ancient wisdom you can consult… like a tide chart, or experience.

It has its parallels in politics, social evolution, economics, and probably TV sitcoms and dietary fads. And as a bloke that spends a lot of time in the water, it makes a lot of difference to how you react to situations out in the sea. If you’re wading around the reef in the middle of the bay and big wave comes and knocks you butt over tea-kettle, well, if the tide is coming in, start swimming for the shore. You’re in trouble. If it’s going out, scramble up on a few higher rocks on the reef. In half-an-hour it will be shallower and safer. I don’t think it’s all that different in anything – from buying a house (where if an area is starting to get run down, or about to become trendy and get redeveloped – and the two look alike to inexperienced) to what ‘trend’ to try and follow in writing. Are vampires coming or going? Of course you can find an oracle or source of ancient wisdom (I dunno, some old guy who has been around the writing scene for years might have some sound advice based on a lifetime of experience. Okay you have to put up with the fact that their attitudes and language might be a bit dated, but they sure know a lot about the tide. Valuable people… Mike Resnick or Barry Malzberg for instance… oh, wait).

You can guess of course, or follow the herd (who are mostly guessing too). Or waste an hour (metaphorically – in say, housing or books, you’re going to have observe and research for lot longer than that) trying to decide which way that tide is actually going. I mean it’s very nice when you’re in an estuary and it’s a big solid tidal bore and you can see it… but most of the time you can’t. It’s just waves, choppy water. You can decide that’s the kind of book you want to write, and the kind of house you want to live in anyway. If you’ve chosen good value, and you’ve got the ability to survive the incoming tide… it’ll go out one day. That’s the approach I try to take… but I’ve been spectacularly wrong sometimes. I thought the tide of nationalism and racism were going out in South Africa in 1994, and all we had to do was sit tight and we could make it work, and it would be a nice friendly place to live, like Zimbabwe was… Yeah. Got that wrong, didn’t I? The swim to Australia was a lot harder and we arrived with much less to sustain ourselves than if I’d been less up on my convictions and more on common sense, and left years earlier.

Living as I do, on a fairly large island, and spending a lot of time diving or getting boats in and out, you soon realize that tide isn’t the same everywhere, but it does all inter-relate. It’s two hours earlier on one side, and pushes through really fast in the sounds… but you don’t find it low in one place and high at another a few miles away. They all tie together. Just so with the social trends or housing or books.

Anyway – what brought up this obscure chatter about tide? A series of incidents – one where some young woman rudely berated a black train passenger in Australia, another where a bunch of young guys assaulted some gay kid in the States, the Russian parliament passing some laws forbidding ‘homosexual propaganda to minors’ and ‘disrespect for organized religion’, oh, and because I am a writer, this miniature drama about a couple of elderly authors sexist and exclusionary attitudes in a little in-house magazine actually read by a few hundred people. They range from the serious to the relatively trivial, but they all had one thing in common: The loud public response has been to condemn the perpetrators (sometimes fair enough)… as relics. Something that hasn’t quite been eliminated. Typical old troglodyte attitudes. And the beat-up and retribution (often at a generalized level – ‘men’, ‘white men’, ‘whites’, ‘Christians’, ‘conservatives’) has been hastily whipped up, sometimes even by parts of the groups just mentioned, as a way, sometimes, of protecting themselves or gaining brownie points, or at other times distancing their group from the action and punishment).

When the tide is going out, and a last wave or two knocks you off your feet and you scramble up onto that higher rock… You can yell insults at Ran (A Norse Goddess you should know of :-)) and spit or make pipi into the waves. It doesn’t do much harm, you can look all heroic to the other waders, the water will be gone soon and you can walk out, mocking its weakness. When the tide is coming the other way… it’s about as dumb as you can get.

Racism, sexism, anti-gay sentiments… are sometimes an expression of xenophobia. Yes, in some cases, there is more. Religion, taboos etc. But how often don’t you hear someone say ‘I can’t stand…(insert the alien group of choice here. It could be Pakistanis or conservatives.)’ And you ask them “But what about Fred that serves you coffee every morning at the Deli. That talks to you about your wife/the weather etc.” ‘Fred? Oh. But he’s different.’ Fred is different, even if he is conservative _and_ Pakistani, because they know him. Very often you will find Fred, and many like are different – they have made contacts outside their group. Look: There are genuine differences, genuine reasons not to like people… but so often it comes down to: ‘You’re not like me, and therefore I don’t like you or trust you’ – which in turn translates into fear of the unknown) fear of the threat it may pose, resentment (they’re not part of my family/tribe/clan/race/country -they’re stealing MY entitlement as part of that). It’s not likely to happen in a small village, but in a big city with millions of people – cues like face color or dress are the only clue that many folk have that someone is not like them. This multi-culti thing where we will accept strangers easily… is a stupid daydream. Caution with the unknown (curiosity perhaps, but caution) is intrinsic in all simians, probably all social animals, and believing you’ve got rid of it is like believing you’ve banished the sea, because the tide went out. I’m an emigrant, a stranger in strange land. I wish I could believe that was not the case.

And here’s the thing: when times are tough, the herd packs closer together, and tries to get rid of anything that might be outside the declared norm even more. Of course the norm moves, otherwise it would be too simple.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the only ‘cure’ for xenophobia is to convince the rest of the herd/flock/ group/tribe/ nation that the ‘outsider’ isn’t so strange. The ‘stranger’ is rather like you in all the things that matter, they just like garlic and eat snails/pizza/chicken tikka/chow mien — which, seeing as they’re so like you, you’ve now tried and find you like too! On the other hand, if you want to make things worse… you exaggerate and perpetuate the difference. You keep the people apart. You know, like in ‘apartheid’. You have special conditions for these people, because they deserve it (just like apartheid claimed). They were injured – or their grandmother was injured – and as victims they need something special. Of course, that always makes the rest feel they’re just like them. It doesn’t backfire too spectacularly while the rest of the people -except these special ones – feel there is some justification in this, and resources are plentiful. We can spare it, we’re a fair species, as actually, most social animals have to be. Which, of course brings us to the reason why incidents are often magnified, grievance nurtured, and hurt waved like a triumphal banner – because it works. Well, to a point it works, and better in some societies than others. But eventually, the society gets tired of it. We don’t actually care if your grandmother or great-grandmother was abused by our grandmother’s brother… in fact society don’t actually care if it happened yesterday, to you personally, because the cup of sympathy is a finite one. Society feel they’ve paid, even if you think you’re still suffering. And remember what I said about tough times? That’s when the resources get a little scarce, when jobs are fewer, money is tight…

Those responses aren’t relics. Actually they’re not old either. The woman screaming racist abuse wasn’t even born when it was typical. In fact she grew up when that considered really really unacceptable by the wider society. The gay shooting in the US – the same. They’re signs of a deep change. Unless I read things completely wrong (happened before, a lot) we’re in for some tough economic times. The tide started turning… in about 2003. There were hints of it before, 2003-2007 was its apogee IMO. Now the tide of xenophobia coming in as a result of the situation, and there are signs and portents that it is going to be rough on those who didn’t make sure they were seen as part of society, not outsiders. Resentment at immigration (see boat people issues in Australia) are at a level unimaginable ten years ago. In the UK parties like UKIP have moved from microscopic to 20%+ of the vote – and all the larger parties including left wing that pushed immigration and multiculturalism (a word for apartheid, really. Where you didn’t have to try to be accepted. The society just had accommodate and pander to your needs. Doesn’t work, IMO) are now taking a far harder line. It’s happening in Italy, Greece, France, the Netherlands, even Sweden… is pushing not just the right, but the far right upward. People are openly saying things (and being cheered/liked on comment boards)that would have had you labelled as a ‘racist’ and pilloried if you dared to say them ten years back. Then even even the most reasonable, mild criticism, (or miss-chosen words, even though the intention was obviously good) would have the crowds throwing eggs and rotten tomatoes. Now… not so.

And in the race field… where whites once accepted they were the only villains… Ten years ago it was still hard to criticize Mugabe. Now… well it is only the sort of people who say ‘it was better under Stalin’ who actually find it possible to call him anything but a racist himself. In America a black president has made a fair number of people say ‘Okay, payback is done now’ (just as in SA a black president was the symbol to many liberal whites that they’d done enough) Of course, it isn’t a fair playing ground, ever, anywhere, and there are still people discriminated against (on all sides of the skin-color spectrum. This is xenophobia, not some unique disease only present in Europeans) but there is donor fatigue. The cup of sympathy has been chugged at, and only drops are left, by the likes of Bob Mugabe. No one of the black community had the courage or sense to say ‘leave some for us, we need it far more than you’.

The tide is even turning against the largest majority group who have claimed victim status: women. Do I for an instant believe that the playing ground is wholly level for them? No, of course it isn’t, especially in the non-western world where women are second-class citizens, but a rising tide floats even boats that you’d rather leave beached. There are some areas – university/college entrance, particularly in some subjects and disciplines, where there has been an overshoot. Women have dominated some areas: in publishing for example, and continue to demand more, loudly. Some women have taken triple chugs at the sympathy bowl on the most trivial of reasons “He called a woman editor a LADY! he is a filthy sexist pig! I deserve sympathy! And he opened the door for me. I’m going to demand the relic never get published again. It’s exclusionary! Oh yes, I am glad to accept a place in the women-only anthology and the no-men-need-apply prize, and women-writer’s professorship.”

You don’t cure exclusion with more exclusion. You can’t reasonably demand that a small department which has 5% female students admit more women, when the overall college average is over 70% female with some departments having no males at all. You can’t reasonably say say it’s unfair that men have 70% of reviews – when women have 75% of the sales. You can’t say women shouldn’t be objectivized by skimpy skin-showing outfits in unlikely poses on the covers of sf/fantasy novels… seen by thousands, but it’s just fine seen by millions on the cover of Vogue or the catwalk at the Paris fashion show (so those are not objects? really?), or red carpet at the Oscars, or having a little wardrobe malfunction on stage. Of course no sexual objectivisation of women by women themselves (and oddly, usually to attract male attention. Attract attention to their minds, naturally) in those is there? All of those millions of viewers knew them personally, and their only thoughts were about how pure their minds looked, and that’s what they intended by those outfits. And all those book covers with headless bronze chest with the top button of jeans undone… on an order of magnitude more romance covers than sf covers… that doesn’t matter because it sells books! The real problem is a bronze bikini on a magazine read by maybe thousand people. Oh, someone must lose their job for that! We will have a witch-hunt until they’re crucified.

These things happen. And yet the men continue to sigh and make more efforts… but I notice a definite tapering. I even notice it in a lot of women. That’s surely rough on the girl-child being forced into marriage.

I think sympathy remains with orientation issues – but they have so strongly hitched their wagon to the others, that I think, A la Russia, the tide will engulf those too.

I’m a writer. I believe passionately in equality before the law, and equality of opportunity. I believe that my judgement of any individual should be based on individual’s merit, not on some ‘group’ characteristic. That’s what I write about. The color of your skin doesn’t affect your writing. It may affect the experience that shapes that writing. Or not. You can be white and male and live in abject poverty and with constant abuse, or limo-driven luxury with servants at your beck and call. It’s not a judgement call a publisher or even a reader can make by looking at the person’s skin! Likewise the guy who decides not to read a hard sf novel because it was written by a woman… trust me on this. I’m. bluntly, on the scale of people who do huntin’/shootin’/fishin/adrenalin sports, still in the top few percent of males. I’m not exactly stupid either. I don’t make a big deal of it, or even admit to it by choice. Yet I know a few women who can out-shoot me, a couple who out-run, out-climb, out-walk and out-swim me, several who out-think me, a good few who fix automobiles better than I do. They’re anything but average women, or people for that matter. But how the hell would anyone know on the basis of their genitalia? I know plenty of immigrants who bluntly work harder by far than the average native-born Australians. I also know some arrive, have kids, claim welfare, demand special conditions, and never do a day’s work that they pay tax on. How do you tell, just by the fact they’re not from here?

Simple: you can’t. And when the flood-tide comes surging in full strength, and some idiots are still clinging to the rock and peeing into the water and shouting abuse at Ran, all of those people to whom a difference in treatment, status, consideration has been applied, whether they needed it, wanted it, or supported it – and that is me and my family too – are all going to get swept along with those angry waves, regardless… unless we start to take steps smartly.

You can choose to be Amish or Moslem or Vegan or Neo-Nazi. You can’t choose to your sex, your skin color, your attractions (you can control those. But they are still there) or, for many migrants, really do anything easy about being in a country which is very foreign to you. At best you can take those steps to ameliorate your difference.

And the first of those is realize which way the tide is going. Because actions which are taken to punish ‘sexism’ or ‘racism’ or whatever, are very successful… if the tide is with you. After all, you can be the worlds best Treasurer (a la Wayne Swann) when the economic tide is going with you, and a disaster area when it isn’t – and you’re not doing anything different. Likewise I suspect many of actions of those gulping at the cup of victim-sympathy were making things seem better once, are now making things a lot worse, feeding it, not shaming it.

It’s a tough issue, because we cannot simply hide or surrender. (yes, that’s me too. Because ‘when they came for the Jews…’) There are some things worth fighting for, and, well, there is no place to hide, and a limit on where you can run. But I believe that everything has to be shaped around getting rid of the grounds for xenophobia, making society realize we’re all human and in this together. Otherwise… well, you’re asking for problems  in a rising tide, IMO. These are the steps I think worth taking, that I am trying to take myself. I don’t expect anyone will listen… but I will still say them. They probably won’t work, or at most slow things down. Many of them are things persecuted minorities who have survived have done for years, and there has to be a reason for that.

1) Do not try to have your cake and eat it. You can either be special, or be equal. You cannot be both. And if you want to be special, have your little patch of exclusive turf, then you have to push very hard for anyone, even… especially those you dislike, to have something similar. You want a women only prize/ club / bursary? Or a Lambda? or a black writers’ anthology? Then you need to push damn hard for the same for those who are excluded. And what they decide to do in them is their business. There are more of them them than there are of you, and they’ll have more money to spend and more clout. Accept it. That’s the price you have pay for having your turf – they can have theirs, or you can’t have yours. And what you do in it is your issue, don’t turn around and demand their money and resources for your private patch – because then they will turn on you, when things are tough.

Insist on the same standards before the law, and in the media. You cannot be special there, no matter how much you may feel you deserve or want it. When a woman has sex with a minor – even if the woman is an 18 year old lesbian… the penalties that could apply to a man must apply just as much. If there are no black/gay/female/migrant villains, but only heroes or sidekicks in the movies/books – pick it up and ask why before someone else does.

2) Pick your fights. There are times and situations where backing down or shutting up is not an option. That is not when the incident is trivial, accidental and merely going to make you look like the brat who cries wolf all the time. That will only end up with the trivia ‘he called me a lady-editor’ will mean no one listens when something serious happens. It will. Which leads into the third point, and the fourth.

3)Do not turn friends or even the neutral into foes. If you’re going to pick a fight don’t pick it with someone you could reason with and win over. So much of the last while has seen what amounts to brutal punishment and intimidation of… people who really weren’t enemies. Insensitive, or ill-informed or disinterested in your victimhood, perhaps. But the triumphal brutality, ‘we will destroy your career, business, and even life for something that really isn’t a hill of beans’ is just stupid. (look at racefail attacks on Wrede and the Resnick/Malzberg pitchfork wielding lynch mob, and the savage lies and slanderous attacks aimed at Correia as great examples of how to alienate people who were not your foes or persecutors, and to leave them and their friends and supporters just waiting to return the favor).

4) Read the will not the word. People of good will make innocent mistakes. Malice is actually rarer than anyone who feels persecuted imagines. Hip hip Hooray may have anti-Semitic origins but in truth very very few people know that or mean it that way. And despite your sensitivities it’s the meaning and goodwill that counts. Someone who refers to a person as colored but treats them as a fellow human being is worth ten times someone who uses the politically correct ‘PoC’ title, and treats you as if you’re mentally and morally subnormal.

5) Reach compromises – and don’t regard them as stepping stones. If there is any single thing that torpedoes any chance of being seen as part of the crowd, it’s the my-way-or-the-highway attitude of some groups. They must have it all their way, and enjoy every moment of rubbing the noses of people they perceive as their former oppressors in it, at every opportunity. Zimbabwe’s ruling class (a small minority), with South Africa’s (actually also a distinct group) are prime examples of this. But I’ve seen it among every other minority too. Gay activists openly saying that gay marriage is a first step, they must have the right to a full church marriage, feminists saying they want more of the publishing pie… and so on. They will end up either with their wish – which will be severely diminished in value, or getting far less, or nothing, later.

6)Weed out the fanatics. It leads directly to be-headings in Syria, to put it simply. And that makes everyone in your group look bad. If we had some Afrikaaner over here demanding a Volkstaad for whites only, I’d be one of the first to tell the jackass to wind his stupid neck in. Yet, these are the type of figures that inevitably are leading the pissing at Ran, the sea-Goddess. Extremists, especially the ones who derive a large part of their income from it, are just bad news, from feminists to Muslims to gay activists. They are not necessarily typical of your group. But they are how people see you.

7)Get rid of the Quislings – by quislings I mean those who don’t belong to your group, but support and identify with it. They’re even louder and more obnoxious than most of the fanatics above. The reason is obvious – For example: If you want to be black and a member of the KKK… you make sure you’re the one howling loudest to hang a few a few of those pesky blacks. The white ANC members were a good example of how this ‘proving yourself’ could make the whole organization look worse. The obvious example that comes to mind in sf are the white male ‘feminists’ who like to drive the lynchings. They’re at best interpretation well-meaning, but ever so often I have to suspect they’ve been milking the ’cause’ for their own benefit.

8) Be seen to be part of the wider community. There are a pair of gay couples on the island. I suspect that the community would protect them to the last breath – because they have made sure to contribute and participate in every function or charity going. And not just in activities that relate to their group – here it would be hard, but so many minorities elsewhere – be they South African ex-pats or gay or Muslim… do things (perhaps) for their own. And no one else.

9) Make sure your identity is with the wider community FIRST. You’re are not an Asian-American or Muslim Australian or white South African. You’re an American or an Australian or South African, proud of it, and the person who divides you out is endangering you and insulting you.


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The Character challenge

Sarah, curse, bless her now, with your fierce tears I pray, laid this upon me. And WordPress ate the first attempt. I hope it has indigestion, heartburn, and the runs.
1.) What is the name of your character?
Gollum, Gollum…. The hard questions first. Always the hard questions first. Like those tricksy exams ‘Write your name here.’ Why do they want to know? And how do you expect me to remember guff like that? My mind is too highly trained for it. Hmph. I shall write of one of my favorite characters, Bolg, P.I.

2.) Is he/she fictional or a historic person?
Both, of course. Well, historical and fictional. He is definitely male, and has been for 1800 years. None of this he/she nonsense for Bolg. He’s seen these fads come and go, and has no patience with them. He’s a Pict. He’s also a dwarf -as in having the medical/genetic condition which makes you taller than him. He does not take well to being called vertically challenged or any of these other stupid PC euphemisms. He’s quite accustomed to establishing respect, and he has a 9mm argument which prejudices find most convincing. Oh and he’s a person of color. That color happens to be blue, and tattooed onto his skin. You have problem with that? Did I mention his little argument? He has been known to help problems out of a disagreeable individual’s far ear.

3.) When and where is the story set?

As it is urban fantasy, the story is set in the small city of Urban, in flyover country. It’s a place with far too high a population of fairies, witches, werewolves, trolls and other magical creatures, at least from Bolg’s perspective. He barely tolerates one, and that one is Fintan Mac Bochra, who is either an ancient sorcerer or a theoretical physicist. Probably both, and definitely older than dirt, which the old reprobate usually has a lot of about him. As to when, somewhere in n-dimensional space it is happening right now.

4.) What should we know about him/her?

As little as possible. When you have put off dying for 1800 years, you’ve also learned that attracting attention to this fact always causes problems. And anyway, as a Private Investigator he knows that being unobtrusive is important. In the centuries that have passed since he never got around to dying, Bolg has done most things, especially the ones that keep people a long way off. Work with sewers has that advantage, and he’s done a fair amount of it, even if it does smell. He’s even done some Kinging, but like most forms of politics the stench of that was quite nauseating. Maybe you need to know he likes very strong coffee, but that did not stunt his growth.

5.) What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

Clients. Or the lack there of. Being four foot nothing and blue seems to put them off, except for the paranormal ones, which he’d rather avoid. Alas, it’s them or nothing, and the problem in the first Bolg tale is a wealthy client who wants to dance with the fairies. Now most Private Investigators would put that down to yet another loony client. Bolg does too, but that’s because he knows the fairies. He knows that no one in their right mind has anything to do with a species that everyone is most carefully polite about, for good reason. You wouldn’t want the murderous, thieving nasty little creeps to take offense, or even notice you, if you can help it.

6.) What is the personal goal of the character?

Staying alive, and getting paid. It’s a noble goal, one shared with Bolg by many nobles. He’s long since given up on character growth. He last did any growth about 1690 years ago, and it’s not likely he’ll start again.

7.) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

Bolg, P.I.: Away with the Fairies is the first one – it’s a novella. There are another two. I plan to write up some more of his case-files, and spin
them into a book. When I get around to it, in that ample spare time WordPress doesn’t eat.

8.) When can we expect the book to be published or when was it published?
Last year some time. I do a lot of books and stories. Heaven knows when the next will get there.Tell me you love it, and it might be sooner.

And I’m tagging Peter Grant – Peter is not very good at singing his own praises, so I will – He writes some very fine Mil SF and will be a big name, one of these days, and long after I am forgotten. I can recommend his latest book, War To The Knife (Laredo War Trilogy Book 1)

Peter Grant was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa. Between military service, the IT industry and humanitarian involvement, he traveled throughout sub-Saharan Africa before being ordained as a pastor. He later immigrated to the USA, where he worked as a pastor and prison chaplain until an injury forced his retirement. He is now a full-time writer, and married to a pilot from Alaska. They currently live in Tennessee.

See all of Peter’s books at his author page, or visit him at his blog, Bayou Renaissance Man, where you can also sign up for his mailing list to receive a monthly newsletter and be kept informed of upcoming books.


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