ZORK Owner’s Manual

The latest terribleminds flashfiction challenge was a throwback to those old-school ‘interactive fiction’ video games. You know the ones: ‘PICK UP KEY’ … the key is too far away. ‘WALK TOWARDS KEY’… you fall into a hole.

Anyhow, the challenge was to grab a randomised inventory list and turn them into a story. The items in my inventory were:  a gold coin, a platinum bar, a key, a tool chest, Emergency Oxygen Gear, a shim, a ZORK owner’s manual.

The result is a somewhat meta story that doesn’t really stray too far from the source material and will probably only make sense if you’re familiar with the grand-daddy of interactive fiction games: Zork. Apologies to infocomm.

ZORK Owner’s Manual

“What the fuck is a zork?” Sanjay Chopra crossed his arms and leaned back on the metal chair. It creaked under his weight, and a shower of rust fell from it. At some point he would have to get a new chair. And a new desk. His was made from a couple of filing cabinets with a sheet of metal — pockmarked with rust — balanced on top. A metal shim had been wedged under one leg to keep it from listing.

“Insufficient data,” the robot said. The most expensive piece of equipment he owned, this robot, and the most frustrating. It could dig like a motherfucker though, and so far had not broken any of the 20th century debris that it had helped bring to the surface.

Sanjay looked again at the ragged remains of a cover from what had once been a hardback book. The title, spelled out in that long dead language ‘English’, read simply: ZORK Owner’s Manual.

“It could have been a car. They were big on cars back then.”

“I have a record of every known car model ever produced,” the robot said. “It was not a car.”

“So you know everything, but you don’t know what a zork is. Maybe you translated it wrong.”

“It’s a four letter word,” the robot flashed its lights angrily. “You are the archeologist, I am merely a repository for every piece of information we’ve already discovered about life before the Stupendous War. They owned cars by the millions. Cars have not been difficult to learn about. As you well know, Chopra-saab.”

“You are a passive-aggressive little bundle of wires and circuits,” Sanjay heaved himself up from the desk and reached for his protective suit and oxygen mask. More expensive equipment, but without them he would die. Strapped to his belt was a sharp knife. He’d not needed to use it yet, but there were too many stories of mutated monsters out there — ants the size of people, dogs that ran on two legs — for him to ever leave his tent without it. “Let’s head out to the site and see if we can find anything that might shed some light on this little mystery.”

He had constructed his camp near the site, not enjoying long walks. The second he stepped outside the tent — a reinforced steel structure with massive air filters and radiation shielding — the winds started buffeting at him. Screeching, directionless, they pulled him one way and then another. He could see only a few feet in front of him, thanks to the swirling dust and the heavy smoke layer that turned the sky a dingy orange-black. Frost glittered and sparkled underfoot as he walked towards the dig.

The robot followed behind him, its densely packed squat body unaffected by the winds.

They had first dug into the frozen soil a week ago, after the robot had reported traces of metal below. Since then they had cleared the remains of what had once been houses. Only bits of wall remained, tracing out the shape of rooms. A bit of broken off pipe and a smashed cistern had told Sanjay where the bathroom had been. Some melted, misshapen lumps of plastic might have once been kitchen appliances. The metal the robot had detected had been radiators, also melted and twisted. Sanjay had carefully hauled the metal out of the dig and packed it away in the tent. The Collective paid for scrap metal, it was the material from which their civilisation had been built.

There were few possessions left, most of the houses had been raided by the surviving populations: anything that could burn had been burned, anything that could be eaten had been eaten.

Scattered around the perimeter of the house, Sanjay had discovered three empty tin cans. A quick analysis from the robot, and it had told him they had contained: a soft fruit known as peaches, flavoured pre-cooked beans in a sweet tomato sauce, and a kind of pudding made from rice, milk and sugar.

He had eaten his reconstituted cockroach and algae meal pack that night speculating all the time what those ancient foods might have tasted like.

Now, however, he was on a mission. He was determined to find out what a zork was. The Collective would pay good money for new information. If a zork turned out to be important, he might even make enough money to refit his entire office. He allowed himself to dream of it: a desk with a special place for his pens.

“Robot,” Sanjay said as he surveyed the site. “I’ve got a good feeling about this ‘zork’ thing. We don’t leave until we know what it was.”

“You’re the boss,” the robot said.

Two hours of digging and dusting, and Sanjay leaned back on his heels and noticed the tiny, thread-like shape on the horizon. He stared at it, a sick feeling in his belly. Already it swelled in size as it came closer; a twister.

“Fuck.” Sanjay grabbed his tool chest and yelled at the robot to follow him. He raced towards the camp and started to dismantle the tent and throw it onto his conveyor. A quick look back over his shoulder, however, and he abandoned everything except the robot, hustling it aboard the vehicle. The twister had already reached three times the size, the winds picking up around him.

“Come on, come on.” Sanjay jammed the ignition key in and set the conveyor to its top speed. They rumbled away from the site on fat treads. Sanjay clutched the steering wheel tightly to stop his hands from shaking. The wind tore at them, trying to tip them, but the conveyor had been built like a tank; all thick metal and sloping surfaces.

Even a conveyor couldn’t stand up to a twister though. Glancing behind him, Sanjay could see the forks of lightening flickering within the great spiralling body of the twister. The earth screamed beneath it, yawing and shifting, torn upwards and flung aside as the twister fed.

Bits of his tent were flung past him, rolling along the ground. The conveyors Emergency Oxygen Kit ripped clear of its straps and went flying backwards, into the gaping maw of wind behind him.

“Shit, shit shit shit shit shit shitshitshit” Sanjay yammered as he leaned on the accelerator. The soil shifted and rumbled beneath them, the conveyor almost tipping over.

“Move at a forty-five degree angle,” the robot buzzed. “To the west. The twister’s course should take it beside us on the east. With luck we may survive.”

Sanjay jerked the steering wheel to the left and the conveyor’s treads screeched to obey. The wind sucked at them greedily. Sanjay gritted his teeth and willed the conveyor to stay attached to the ground. Something slammed into the dashboard next to his gloved hand. Glancing down, Sanjay saw a gold coin half buried in the metal. The conveyor moaned as its treads started to lift off the ground.

“I will not die here!” Sanjay shouted. The conveyor bumped back to the ground. Sanjay glanced to his side, saw that the twister had drawn level with them but was angling off in the other direction. He was so focused on tracking it, that he never even saw the building emerging from the soil until the conveyor slammed into it. Sanjay catapulted over the handlebars and slammed against a brick wall. He slid down it, thankful for the protective helmet and suit he wore and collapsed in a heap at the foot of the wall. There, he waited for the storm to die down.

An hour later, the sky was a flat, hazy orange and the dust had dropped. The land had been reconfigured by the twister, Sanjay had no idea which direction he’d travelled from. The tread marks of the conveyor had all been blown smooth, and the conveyor itself smashed beyond the limits of his portable tool kit. His tent, survival gear and salvage was gone: buried somewhere in the wasteland around him.

“We are a seventeen day walk from the nearest Collective outpost,” the robot announced. It shook itself, dust showering from its sides. “My battery will not last that long.”

“I won’t last that long.” Sanjay sucked on the nozzle at the side of his helmet that led to his water canister. He looked over the conveyor, pulling the gold coin free from the dashboard and examining it. At one point there had been a portrait of a person in profile, but it had worn away so that Sanjay could not tell who it was meant to be. He stuffed the coin into a pocket and turned to the building.

It was one of those rare buildings that had survived the war relatively unscathed. Only the top story was visible, the rest buried in sand. A blown out window stood at elbow height. At one point it had been painted white, flecks of paint peeled away from the brick.

“Might as well take shelter in here for the night,” Sanjay said. “Work out what to do in the morning.”

He stepped into the building through the window, the robot following him. Sanjay flicked on his helmet torch. It flickered over white walls and came to rest on a sword and a lantern, both gleaming as if new. Sanjay blinked at them, stunned by such an anachronistic detail.

He tracked the light across the floor and up onto the wall. Plastic letters had been stuck to the peeling paintwork. Sanjay blinked as he read them. “Zork? Does that say Zork?”

“Affirmative,” the robot said.

“What the fuck is this place?” Sanjay moved towards the door and stepped out into a hallway. A couple of bags had been dropped halfway along, and Sanjay kicked one of them open. A pile of plastic blocks fell out, each one stamped with the words ‘platinum bar’.

“This is some weird shit.”

The robot, a few steps behind him, did not reply.

Sanjay opened the other sack and discovered a lunchbox, the food long since rotted away, and a withered root of some kind.

The hallway led to a flight of metal stairs. Sanjay descended them, drawn to the lower levels of the building as if by instinct. He’d always been a digger, had always believed the greatest treasures were the ones you had to extract from the soil.

Cockroaches scuttled over the walls, away from the light of his torch. Sanjay kept descending the stairs until they expelled him into a stone basement. There were no windows down here, and the floor had only a thin layer of dust.

Sanjay shone his light around. No furniture, but in the very centre of the room there was a round trapdoor.

“It might be another group of survivors.” Sanjay rushed towards it, examined the seal. Groups turned up every now and then. Often just a small interbred family, with hollow bones and white skin and no idea of how many generations had passed. Sometimes, however, they found another group, with equipment, skills and a different culture. Sanjay couldn’t even imagine how much he’d get paid if he found a group like that.

“There is writing on the wall,” the robot said. “It reads: the wise traveller bewares the Grue.”

“Zork? Grue? I’m starting to think we’re about to discover something pretty major.” Sanjay hooked his fingers under he trapdoor and prised it open. His helmet torch penetrated only a few feet into the inky darkness below, enough to see the rusty ladder that led downwards.

Sanjay looked up at the robot. “Coming?”

“I don’t like this.” The robot whirred. “I hope you’re right and there is another group of survivors down there.”

“What other explanation could there be?” Sanjay grinned at the robot.

The two of them descended into the darkness.

Other stories inspired by randomised inventories

Great Acting by antipelican. A funny story about a drunk actor on a path to learning some life lessons (maybe).

Never Swindle a Swindler by D.J. Davis. Swashbuckling thievery pretty much always amuses me. There’s a great sense of a bigger world as well.

 

Blind Abbot

Another Flash Fiction written for a terribleminds prompt. In this case the prompt was a list of cocktail names, and I randomly drew Blind Abbot. I’m not sure how well this works as a story, but I like the Blind Abbot character.

Trigger warning: implied child abuse.

Gary caught his foot in one of the tree roots bulging up through the cracked and twisted flagstones. He staggered forward, clutching at a branch to stop himself plunging face first. A cloud shifted, and moonlight illuminated the old, decrepit stone mansion. Turrets twisted up into the sky and bats flittered from the shadows beneath stone eaves.

Think of Alice.

An imposing door loomed out of the shadows: dark, weathered wood punctuated with the muted gleam of iron. Gary wiped the sweat from his forehead with one hand and used the other to grab the snarling gargoyle knocker and hammer out his arrival. The knocks reverberated through the old wood and dust showered down. Gary wiped his forehead again. Nobody had been here for a long time.

Seconds ticked by, turning to minutes. Gary shifted from foot to foot, staring at the rage-filled face of the gargoyle. A chisel had been taken to it, leaving a stony scar where the gargoyle’s eyes should be. Another minute ticked by. Gary lifted the knocker again just as the door wrenched open with a screech of rusted hinges.

A robot, made entirely of mahogany, every joint a carefully constructed wooden ball socket, stood before him. Gary looked into the blankly polished sheen where a face should have been and forced the words out, his throat still raw from the outburst he had indulged in last night. “I’m here to see the Blind Abbot.”

The robot glided into the hallway. Gary followed, taking in a confusion of jumbled objects piled up against the walls: a huge copper disk, tarnished green; coiled rugs, bright with golden threads. He picked his way through a collection of marble statues, each with a missing limb or two.  A slender women wept over her missing hands. A man leaned sideways, gazing in slumped horror at the jagged stone where a foot should have been. Gary pulled his gaze away and found himself staring at an oil painting of a young girl, her hand held out as though to clutch at the hand of an adult. No hand claimed hers, and Gary blinked away tears.

The robot continued to glide along the hallway. Gary dashed the tears away with his knuckles and jogged to catch up. They ended up in a library, shelves filled with leathery tomes; wreathed in shadow and dust. Embers smouldered in the fireplace, the dull red glow the only light. A massive wing-back chair faced the fire. Gary took a step toward it.

“Come no closer.” The voice rich and clear, each syllable oiling into place.

“Blind Abbot?”

“So they call me.”

“They say you can find things. Things that are lost.”

“My price is high.”

“I would give anything in my power.”

Silence from the chair.

“It’s my daughter, Alice.” Gary felt the shiver of grief in the back of his throat and paused to take a ragged breath. “She’s been gone three weeks. The police… they just aren’t getting anywhere. I have to know where she is. If she’s been taken, or-“ He couldn’t finish the sentence.

“Or killed. You must understand I can only find. I cannot intervene or change what has happened.”

“I understand. But I have to know.”

“Do you have something of hers?”

Gary fumbled in his pocket and brought out the silver daisy-chain bracelet Alice had liked to wear.

“Give it to the robot.”

Gary held the bracelet out and the robot took it in polished wooden fingers. Gary felt his heart clench as the robot carried it to the chair and the bit of silver — all that remained of his daughter — disappeared behind the imposing leathery surface.

The chain clinked as the Abbot held it. Gary closed his eyes and wondered what creature sat in the chair, what claws-or-tentacles-or-decaying-flesh played with the bracelet. His mother had told him the fairy-tale; the ancient story of a creature nobody had ever seen, a creature blind to the darkness and ruin it lived in and yet capable of seeing everything in the world.

The tale always changed in the telling, but the central motif remained the same. Somebody lost something precious and went to the Abbot to ask him to find it. The Abbot warned them the price would be high and located the missing object. Several days later they had to give payment. Almost always the Abbot took something the person wished to give up even less than the object that had been lost in the first place. Family heirlooms were found, but the family taken. Runaway pets returned home, but the home torn away.

Gary could not imagine anything in the world he would prefer to his daughter, returned safe.

“She lives,” the Abbot said.

Gary sagged with relief. Tears sprang to his eyes. “Thank God! But where?”

“With her mother.”

“Her mother?”


She lay curled up on the bed, sound asleep despite everything, her hand interlocked with Gary’s. Gary sat by her, stroking her blond hair. They had found her drinking water from the dog bowl. Her mother had taken a knife to one of the police officers.

A clunk at the window.

I’ll never let her take you again, Gary promised her. I’ll keep you safe, no matter what.

Clunk. Harder this time.

Gary gently unwrapped Alice’s fingers from his own and stood up.

Clunk. No doubting the knock’s urgency now. The next one would smash the window. Gary hurried over to the window and pulled the curtain back.

The blank, polished wooden head of the Blind Abbot’s robot stared back at him.

Gary pulled the window open. The robot held out an envelope in those slender mahogany fingers. Sweat collected in the hollow of his back.

He opened the envelope with shaking fingers. The letter inside simply said PAYMENT DUE in red capitals.

“What do I have to do?” Gary asked the robot. It tipped its head to one side, raised its hand and made a beckoning motion.

“I can’t leave her alone.”

The robot beckoned again.

“Alright. Give me… give me fifteen minutes.”

Gary pulled the curtain back across and checked Alice still slept. Closing the door softly behind him, he went into the hallway and called his neighbour, Penelope. A good sort, and the only one who knew he’d been to visit the Blind Abbot.

“Pen? I’m sorry for calling so late, but I need your help. Will you come and watch Alice for me?”

Penelope turned up five minutes later, wrapped in a dressing gown and wearing an enormous pair of fuzzy pink slippers. Gary let her in, glad the robot stayed out of sight. He didn’t want to scare her.

She gave his arm a sympathetic squeeze as she came in the house. Gary pulled on his coat and stepped outside. The night air carried a bitter chill.

The robot glided smoothly around the corner of the house. Gary followed it, jogging to keep up. Dark houses lined deserted streets. Gary already knew where their destination, so it did not surprise him when they left the town behind and struck out into the dark countryside towards the Abbot’s crumbling stone mansion. Up the shadowy path, through the hallway cluttered with broken artworks, and into the library. Once again Gary’s gaze flicked to the ancient books, but the dust stood so thickly along the spines he could not read the titles.

“Your payment is due,” the Blind Abbot said.

“I know.” Gary wiped the sweat from his forehead. “What will you take?”


Gary fumbled the key in the lock, and felt relief sweep through him when he stepped across the threshold. Home at last. Shrugging off his jacket he went into the kitchen and grabbed a can of coke out of the fridge. He popped the tab and took a swallow when he heard someone walking across the hallway.

“What the hell?” Gary grabbed the first thing to hand, a rolling pin — a rolling pin? Since when had he owned a rolling pin? — and stole forward to apprehend the intruder.

“Gary?”

Penny, his neighbour, blinked at him in confusion. She wore a dressing gown and slippers. Had he invited her to spend the night? Gary felt the start of a headache form behind his eyes.

“Penny? What are you doing here?”

“You asked me here to watch Alice, remember?”

“Alice? Who’s Alice?”

The Hand of Doom: A Lovecraftian flashfiction

This is a flashfiction that I wrote back in March, and never ended up posting. It was in response to the Terribleminds SUPER-ULTRA-MEGA GAME OF ASPECTS challenge.

  • Subgenre: Lovecraftian
  • Setting: An Opium Den
  • Conflict: Political Maneuvering!
  • Aspect: A severed hand
  • Theme: Chaos always trumps order

The Hand of Doom

“You’ve brought the thing?”

Abraham Marlow threw the brown-paper wrapped package onto the low table next to the hookah. He sank down onto the tasselled, faded cushion and looked around warily. Marlow didn’t belong here. Lithe, blond, tan; he rippled with good health and clean living. The opium smoke, hanging in thick blue clouds around every table, made him flare his nostrils and choke back a cough.

I sucked on the end of my pipe, tasting the bitter-sweet drug. Smiled. I, unlike Marlow, did belong here. Sallow, greasy, small and pot-bellied. This was my territory, not his and I revelled in his discomfort.

Reaching forward, I peeled back a corner of paper from the package. Three fingers, white with death, the nails embedded with crusty blood. A gold signet ring that proclaimed the owner’s identity. I took the prints quickly and checked that they matched.

“You got the money?” Marlow wanted out of this place. He’d done his job – a grim, unpleasant job – and now he wanted to get back to his ordered life. He had a beautiful wife and two small children. If he was discovered here, the scandal could ruin him.

“How did you do it?”

Guilt in his brown eyes. Poor boy. He’d never square this act away with the image he had of himself. Successful, healthy businessmen with families did not commit murder. They did not bring severed hands to dingy opium dens. But he had. Would it eat away at him, this foul deed, until, mad with shame, he ended his life? Or would he push the deed away, to some dark corner of the mind where it would fester and stink, the rotting memory poisoning every aspect of his life?

“When he was swimming, like you said. In the sea. I swam out to him and stabbed him. He drowned quick enough.”

I slid the briefcase across the table. One hundred thousand dollars this Governor’s life had cost me. A bargain.

Marlow opened the case and looked at the notes blankly. He shut it again quickly. His gambling mistakes would be wiped clean with this little fortune. One hundred thousand dollars to settle his ledger and return to his ordered life. I blew a smoke ring. Marlow was haloed in a soft light and left trails of movement behind him that faded softly into the blue air.

“Can you at least tell me why?” Marlow stood up, clutching the briefcase.

“Oh… for fun.” I smiled, enjoying his disquiet. “Take care now.”

I watched him leave. He had killed the Governor, and he went now back to normality. Out of the smoke, to settle his debts and pretend none of this had ever happened.

I picked up the severed hand and stood up. My legs shook a little under me. Opium was a hard drug to take in moderation. It blurred the lines between this world and the next. I saw death, sometimes, standing next to me. His skull wreathed in smoke, drifting through those empty eye sockets like snakes.

I stumbled upstairs to my private room. The air here mercifully cool and clean. I opened a window and tried to let my head clear. The hand was the last ingredient, the hand of an honest man. The Governor had been an honest man. Perhaps the last honest man left in politics.

I went to the table where the book lay. Bound in pale leather, the text writhing unnaturally across it. There were, perhaps, a handful of men in the world that could translate that spidery text. The alphabet, after all, is a system of order – a method by which we take loose, unformed concepts and bind them into named entities. Such binding is the antithesis of the ideas this book contained. So a writing system had to be invented, one that did not bind concepts but let them flow, so that the text became a mirror, a conversation between reader and book that left both of them changed.

I dropped the hand next to the other items. Powdered horn from the last black rhino that had lived. A vial containing H1N1. A fragment of dinosaur bone that I had stolen from a museum. My hands shaking, I began the ritual, words bubbling up from the cavernous place in my soul where He lived.

He lives in all of us, even in Marlow, who runs ten miles three times a week and sticks to a careful ratio of macronutrients in every meal. He took Marlow to Vegas, not often but often enough. And so He makes Himself known.

Marlow is home now, hugging his wife. Sitting down to a lovely dinner. His girls beam at him. He feels relieved, his debts are settled. He resolves never to gamble again. A resolve that may last a day, a week, a decade, but a resolve that will be broken as surely as death.

Not that it matters. Be delivering the hand to me he has settled the fates of every human being on earth. My mouth shapes the guttural words, they twist in my mouth, burning my tongue.

A wind with no origin springs up in my room. It rattles the windows, flings papers to the ground, and slams open the leather-bound book on my desk, rifling through the pages greedily. I see the scattered letters, writhing, changing shape, blurring before my eyes. I hear a sound, like nothing I have ever heard before, the kind of sound that might be produced by giant crickets sawing their legs in a frenetic non-rhythm. There is something hideous in it, a bone-crunching violent undertone that makes me squirm. My chant wavers, losing its sonorous resonance, breaking down into shrill stutterings. I can taste blood. The wind has stopped rifling through the pages of the book, it lays open now. The ink is stretching and reforming before me. Everything else is falling into shadow.

I look at what is written and terror engulfs me. I have made a terrible mistake. The words are stark and fixed, showing me exactly how badly I have misunderstood. The noise surrounds me, fills my ears, I am lost in the roaring, crunching chaos of noise.

 

The fire that swept through Forty-Second Street on the 27 April, killing twenty three people, was started in an opium den. Investigators say that the speed and strength of the blaze is still unexplained, but that the fire began on the second floor of the drug haven at around 10.20pm when a man known only as Curwen set light to some unidentified objects in his private room. Curwen himself survived the fire, and has been remanded to a mental institution.

Doctor Lucy Miles, who is treating Curwen, was unavailable for comment.

Article from the Sunday Times, 1 March 1987

 

The death of the late Governor Patham has been ruled an accident, following a three week investigation. Authorities recovered his body, and it was apparent that he had drowned at sea after being pulled out by a strong current. An election has been called for the 10 May. Abraham Marlow, successful businessman and father of two, announced he would be standing as a candidate. “This great city has helped me thrive, and it is my desire to see it thrive in turn.”

Article from the New Herald 10 March 1987

 

 

Photo credits: pangalactic gargleblaster and the heart of goldastique and cellardoor_

100 novels: Arabian Nights/1001 Nights

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

1001 Nights

This is the first book on the 100 novels reading list that I won’t be finishing. I’ll be honest, I had trouble from the start. Firstly, like most collections of fairy-tales, there’s about a million different editions, some framed for children, some for adults, many with different titles. In the end I settled for a version called Arabian Nights, that had been translated by Richard Burton. I sat down expecting to get Scheherazade telling tales about Aladdin, Sinbad and so on. Instead, I got a collection of what are obviously the ‘lesser known’ stories – filled with wives committing adultery with tailors and so forth.

I’ll be honest: I have a hard time with myth, fairy tales and legends. I like my characters well-rounded, their motivations consistent. In fairy-tales, evil is painted in stark lines, whilst good is not so much good as ‘the person who wins’. There are some fairy-tales I love, and myths are a great place to go for inspiration but as actual stories they lack something.

Eventually I reached a story in which women of various appearances sang songs about how awesome they were, and slagged off the other women by singing about how terrible they were. Fed up, I decided to take a break. I put the kindle down and picked up Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. From there I read Red Dragon, Black Sunday and then Philip K. Dick’s Simulacra. At that point, I realised that I was never going to finish Arabian Nights.

With that in mind, I bought the next book from the 100 novels list.

Life is too short to read something you hate

I still remember the first book I gave up on. It was a turgid fantasy novel, and I literally couldn’t face reading any more. I decided to stop, and with that decision I felt suddenly free. Until that point I had forced myself to finish anything I started. But now I know there are too many stories in the world – over 100 million of them just in book form – to waste time on the ones you hate.

However.

That is not an excuse to never read anything difficult or challenging. I could easily read nothing but 60’s science fiction for the rest of my life – but at this point I know most of the questions that 60’s sci-fi deals with backwards and forwards. I’ve read the originals, the rip-offs and the parodies. There is nothing new there.

For me, reading should introduce me to new ideas, it should help challenge my prejudices. It’s not ‘just for fun’ although some books can be!

(Photo by Arlo Magic Man)

The Lord of the Rings

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. The Lord of the Rings is number 100. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

The Lord of the Rings


I first read The Lord of the Rings in my mid-teens and I will be honest: I hated it. It was long, boring, and over-written. The characters were cut-outs, and worse, the story was drearily predictable. High/Mythic Fantasy has never been a genre I’ve enjoyed (with a few notable exceptions), and LotR is pretty much the height of what I hate about that genre.

As a result: when I saw that LotR was the first book I needed to read to start the challenge I was tempted to say: I’ve already read that, write a rant about how much I hated it, and move on. However, I am now no longer in my mid-teens, and ten years is a long time. So I gritted my teeth, borrowed my Dad’s dog-eared doorstop version of the book, and dived back into Middle Earth.

The first thing I thought: 1954? That was a long time ago. It’s good to remember the context of a book, to try and take it on its own terms. So yes; the book is over-written, but so were many books back then. The language is mythic, over-wrought, descriptive to a fault, and the last book The Return of the King is almost biblical in tone. We see the characters distantly, through the way Tolkein describes them. With the exception of Sam we get very little insight into what the characters are actually thinking, and take on faith that when Gimli announces his love for Galadriel he is telling the truth, or that Faramir can win over Eowyn in about ten sentences. There is a sense of fate at work, that the characters are just spinning along a pre-set path and none can really step out of line.

And that, of course, is where Tolkein and I have a falling out. Because Tolkein writes of a world in which the good are good and the evil are evil. A world where corruption comes from outside influences: evil is an entity, a physical, tangible force in the world, represented by race (orcs and goblins), physical manifestation (the Ring Wraiths have become monsters, as has Gollum) and inanimate objects (the Ring). Where Kings are Kings because their character has been set long ago, carried down a blood-line that auto-magically means they are heroic, noble and worthy.

This is much of the reason I hate High Fantasy – it crudely aligns itself with old superstitions that have allowed aristocrats to dominate and persecute other people for hundreds of years. The same ‘blood will tell’ argument has been used to uphold racist and classist viewpoints. It has been used to keep cruel, in-bred lunatics in power in many different countries. It has even been used to persecute women; because when the most important thing to worry about is the legitimacy of your heir, women become chattels and female adultery a terrible crime (whilst male adultery is less penalised).

On my second read-through, I still found myself bumping up against this problem. However, the book does have one saving grace: Sam.

Sam is the only character we get inside the head of. He is a servant, yet his heroism swiftly outstrips most of the rest of the team. He manages to wear the ring without becoming corrupted, he fights and badly damages Shelob and by the end of the novel he is more or less carrying Frodo. If this were a modern novel, Sam would be the hero, no questions asked.

Lego Shelob attacking Sam and Frodo

Alas, one of the positive character traits that Tolkien imparts to Sam is that of ‘knowing his place’. Sam views Frodo as a God-like figure. His declarations of love are all too often couched in the tones of a servant addressing a master. He repeatedly says that he is stupid and humble, and that Frodo is Masterful and wonderful.

After the quest, Sam goes back to gardening and a marriage, whilst most of the Fellowship acquire new titles and new positions of status. Even Merry and Pippin acquire a certain presence in the Shire, arrayed as they are in princely armour and carrying swords. Tolkien does not write this in a way that ‘hurts’ Sam, we have no sense that Sam desires anything more than a nice dinner, a loving wife, a Master to serve, and a healthy garden. But that, of course, is part of the problem. The ‘noble’ characters are all allowed to level up, to gain wisdom and standing and greater responsibility. Sam is just a servant, he can never want or amount to more than that, and his heroism and love is no more than what any good servant would give to a master.

Samwise Gamgee

The everyone-in-his-place attitude grates consistently throughout the novel, and is the main reason I will never ‘enjoy’ this book. To me, everyone has the ability and right to move forward in life, to gain wisdom and responsibility. In fact, it’s a key part of a person’s happiness and satisfaction. Life-long learning, coupled with professional recognition? Why should that be limited to certain jobs? If everyone felt inspired and motivated to improve we would have made many more advancements, and work would be a lot less soul-destroying that it can be.

The problem with ‘world-building’

Of course, from a technical perspective, LotR has one major plus point. The world-building is incredible. The amount of work Tolkein put into every detail of Middle-Earth is probably unequalled since. He invented languages, penned epic histories, worked out all the legends of such a world. The characters are frequently just mouthpieces for one fact or another, and entire pages are given over to songs written in unreadable languages.

I, for one, don’t give a crap about any of that.

Look: if you are writing a Fantasy novel, world-building helps. No doubt about it. Attention to detail helps the reader immerse themselves in the story and really believe in the story you are telling. But details should be sparingly added; like spices to a nice meal. A touch of legend here, a couple of made-up words here – to impart flavour and give the meat of your story a bit of zing. But if your dinner contains more pepper than beef? There is, I’m afraid, a problem.

lord-of-the-rings-river-landscape

Of course, Tolkien’s world has gone on to inspire countless new stories. Most of them, I will say, are probably better than LotR. Like many readers, I skipped vast chunks of unnecessary detail. The inclusion of Tom Bombadil left me confused and irritated. What is his purpose? Why is he there? He’s obviously important – Gandalf states at the end he intends to spend some time chatting with him – yet his purpose in the story is to provide no more than a brief deus-ex-machina styled rescue, give the hobbits some food, and then send them on their way. He is immune to the ring, and yet is unable to carry it to the Mountain of Doom because… he needs to get home to his wife.

There are many interludes like this. The fact that all the Elves and Ring Bearers are going across the Sea? A mystery never explained or given any focus. What’s the point? Who cares? The story is about the epic quest and the battle against evil, not about the Elves and their confused decision to abandon Middle Earth and allow the ‘Age of Men’ to start.

Now, many people will disagree with me. LotR has thousands of dedicated fans. It is the second best-selling novel of all time. The good in the story obviously outweighs the bad for most people. But for me? I find it rambling, disjointed and I disagree with the fundamental principles that underpin Tolkien’s world view. It was never going to work for me.

Buy a copy of Smokey Days: The Rising Wind

Magic was the way forward. Oro could not balance forever on this knife-edge of survival. Tabbi knew disaster approached. The suicides, the slow ceding of control to the Ludd corporation, and that nameless dread that lurked in everyone if you dug deep enough. The Gheists were the key. Would save them from themselves. Would save Denise.

V is for… Vikings

The letter VThis post is part of the A-Z Blogging Challenge.

Did you see the movie Thor?

I did, completely by accident. I am a bit of a comic book fan, but never really liked the Spider Man movies and as a result got put off the Marvel Movie franchise. But I was around a friends house one day and he suggested we watch it and I was like “Meh, whatevs.”

Two hours later I was a committed fangirl to the nth degree (I have a bit of a problem with getting OHMYGOD-OBSESSED with certain things).

Anyway, I adored Thor, bought it for myself and quickly dived into the rest of the Marvel movies (loved them all, but Thor and The Avengers are definitely the best.)

The whole experience spring-boarded me into a light flirtation with Vikings in general. The mythology is more interesting than most (alright, I admit it, I find 90% of mythology absolutely tedious; including judeo-Christian) and a short while later I had my own rune kit. (Did I mention the bit where I have a problem with getting obsessed?)

I have this rather unlikely fantasy of putting together a signature steampunk-viking outfit, but to make it work I am first trying to get my strength and fitness levels up. The reason I’m responding to those valkyrie images is, of course, because of the strength on display.

C is for… Conan the Barbarian

The Letter C
This post is part of the A-Z Blogging Challenge.

I read a wide range of fiction, and I try to be respectful and open-minded about different genres written from different historical viewpoints. I don’t always succeed. I can’t stand Vanity Fair, for example, yet it’s one of those canon books that are on must-read lists.

So it was in this spirit that I approached the Conan the Barbarian stories.

Today’s post is inspired by the letter C… and a Cimmerian Hero

Conan the Barbarian is a character that has managed to permeate popular culture. Some of the stuff in which he is featured is pretty banal, some of it is funny, some of it is transcendent. He’s popular for many of the reasons big, tough-guy characters are popular (like wish-fulfilment, escapism, and exploration of what power and strength are really about.) I’m not a big sword & sorcery fan, but when my Dad passed me over a collection of Robert E. Howard’s original stories I plunged in.

I enjoyed the stories for the most part – they are well-written, if a little overwrought at times. The plot rolls along at a fair clip, and of course you don’t really expect more from pulp fiction. I vastly preferred them to Lovecraft, who I truthfully find unreadable, though I do appreciate the legacy of Lovecraftian style fiction he left behind.

Of course there are issues, and similar issues are why I find the Sword & Sorcery genre to be so forgettable. For a start the stories are near identical, and there’s only so many trembling naked women tied to altars I can take. And that, of course, is the other issue. Whilst a quick scan around the blogosphere has shown many people willing to jump to Robert E. Howard’s defence, the truth is the stories are sexist and racist. Not in a hugely troubling way, and certainly no more so than many stories from the pulp genres, from that time period, and even stories today. But still: there are an uncomfortable number of wretchedly ineffectual women, whose main contribution to the stories seems to be losing their clothes, fainting or getting a bit lusty over our wish-fulfilment hero. Equally, like many fantasy books, blackness is cast as evil and whiteness is coveted. The beautiful women are mainly described as ‘ivory’, whilst there are a distressing number of ‘blacks’; faceless characters of little importance.

None of this is unique to Conan. Many of the ‘Boys Adventure’ anthologies I read growing up had a British-Empire-savage-cannibals vibe to them. At the time I found them a rollicking adventure and thought nothing of the subtext. These days I tend to wince when I stumble across a thoughtless reference to ‘natives’.

Other people have written on this subject more eloquently than me:

What do you think?

Djullanar: Red Scourge of the ocean

Another terribleminds flash fiction challenge. 1000 words. A choice of five settings. I picked: On the battlefield during a war between two races of mythological creature.

Lan thrust the trident into the serpents tail and sending up a froth of blood and bubbles. The serpent screamed, sending out a spray of venom that darkened the water to a poisonous purple. Lan, already darting upwards, felt the acid sting as droplets splashed across her tail. Continue reading Djullanar: Red Scourge of the ocean