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Playing catch-up

August 5, 2015 Leave a comment

It’s been a long time. I’ve had a period of several months of dealing with death and illness – not my death (as far as I know) and other people being ill – along with a busy schedule of writing educational materials and suchlike.

Along the way I’ve rekindled some of my long-time interests in narrative and narrative theory, and I just thought I’d share this with you. The ‘Proppian Fairytale Generator’, which used to be on the Brown University website, is still alive and well at the Wayback Machine and it still works. For those of you who don’t know it, Vladimir Propp was an early-1900s exponent of narrative analysis, identifying 7 main character types and 31 specific types of narrative elements in his analysis of fairytales. The characters incuded the hero, the villain, the prize (e.g. the princess the hero intended to marry – sexist but remember we’re dealing with fairytales here that have often been around in one form or another for centuries), and the ‘dispacher’ who sends the hero off on their quest. The narrative elements include someone leaving home (‘absentation’) or being told not to do a certain thing or visit a certain place (‘interdiction’), and the plot is developed by the person doing the interdicted thing (‘violation of interdiction’), or by a ‘villain’ setting out to find and capture something or someone for their own purposes (‘reconnaissance’) and gaining what they want (‘delivery’ – which may be carried out as the result of ‘trickery’). As a result of the delivery or trickery, the hero may need to violate an interdiction to stop the villain, and so on.

I digress. I was playing with the fairytale generator, which automatically creates a story based on a ticklist of characters and narrative elements, and got the following. I just thought it was interesting and had some nice touches I might re-use at some point when I get back into writing fiction properly again – ‘properly’ meaning being when I have the time to do more than add a sentence a day to one of my ongoing story projects.

Here’s the story:

I forget sometimes what people tell me to do or not do. What they tell me slips away into the backwaters of my memory where it drowns in all other memories forgotten.

I gave him my satchel and shoes as he asked me, then I shed my clothes as he advised me to do. “Wear this,” he said, and he shed his own skin. It fell off in a pile on the soil floor looking like a tablecloth used in my home. When I clothed myself in his skin I no longer smelled like my home or the valley. Instead I became like the men on the mountain. I smelled distinctly foreign. I thanked the man and watched as he dressed himself in my own clothes. He said he would wear them until new skin grew on his back.

The silver fish leapt from the water from his gurgling mouth came a bubble that solidified and dropped into my lap. Just as quickly as he had emerged, the fish plopped back into the water, leaving me to puzzle over this mysterious orb.

Burned marks of fire and hot metal left my body colored red with pain.

People began to move away from the other person, who now shook his head and his hands. He kneeled to the floor and placed his head there in mercy.

The soil on my skin turned into sprinkles of gold dust. The people proclaimed me some kind of god.

Categories: fiction Tags: , , ,

Elvis the phisher, part II – the horror story

February 24, 2012 Leave a comment

You may have seen a previous post of mine about a phishing attempt that, unusually, took the form of a phone call. It gave me an idea for a story, and here it is, finished off at 1700 words or so. The phisher really did call himself Elvis Winston, though I imagine that was an assumed name for phishing purposes – a nom de scam, if you like…

***

Elvis Winston is a phisher of men. Or women. He doesn’t mind. What’s important is that someone answers the phone, and what’s even better is that they do what he says.

He stares at the computer screen, which shows the progress of calls made by a random dialler programme. This is the same technology used by cold-calling companies – though they probably have bells and whistles on the software that filter out numbers logged to the Telephone Preference Service and suchlike, and this one doesn’t because there’s no point. The system is automated. If someone picks up, he’s connected to them. And the background colour of the screen flickers rapidly, red-blue-red-blue, to tell him this is happening now.

‘Good morning,’ he says smoothly, ‘I’m calling from Windows Technical Department. We have a report here from your internet service provider that your computer has been causing repeated problems. Your software is infected with a dangerous virus and this could damage your hardware. Can you go online now please and follow my instructions: we can diagnose the problem and clean up your operating system.’

This is of course a series of straight-up lies. The part about being from Windows Technical Department is somewhat true, because what Elvis wants the person on the other end of the phone to do does relate to their computer’s Windows operating system and it is technical. But he’s relying on that person making the imaginative leap, the assumption, that he’s working in a division of Microsoft and that isn’t true. He has no idea which ISP the person is using. He has no idea whether their software is infected. And the instructions he’s going to give them will enable him to ‘clean up’, in a sense. In the sense that he’ll be able to access their personal data, which gets used to run a bunch of scams and, if possible, clean out their bank and savings accounts.

Elvis encounters suspicion. He gets insults followed by the phone being slammed down. He gets threats of being reported to the police or the Telephone Preference Service. It’s all part of a day’s work.

Even so, it’s surprising how many people respond to an authoritative voice, and an urgent threat. It’s surprising, in fact, how many respond with concern and want to co-operate even if they don’t have a computer.

What galls him is that all the time he’s working, he’s not even on minimum wage. The work is strictly commission-only, based on the number of people he can persuade to download the information-gathering trojan they use. The office is set up in the back of some engineering fabrication company that’s skating on the brink of bankruptcy. His notional ‘employer’ is some kind of underworld figure, aided and abetted by a young geek whose first language is not English. It’s better than his previous job – selling pills and wraps of dope on a street corner. But he’s heard about a guy who has an internet shop for second-hand DVDs and old copies of pulp magazines. He needs someone to package the stuff and take it to the post office. Elvis wouldn’t be phoning people all the time, wouldn’t have the aggravation, and he could still sell the odd wrap to the clubbing crowd at weekends.

All this is going through his head as he does his pitch, on autopilot. He keeps going until he gets some kind of response from the person on the line. What he doesn’t expect is:

‘Thank God you’ve called. I don’t know how you got through, I thought they’d cut the phone lines. You’ve got to send us food, and water and medical supplies. And guns. We need to defend ourselves.’

What the fuck? Just stick to the script!

‘So if you can open up the control centre on your version of Windows…’

‘No, listen, I’m serious. You’ll have to avoid suspicion somehow, maybe just load the stuff onto a supermarket truck and offload it at their store.’

‘If you have the control centre open, just click on–’

‘Listen to me! You know the workfare scheme, where people on benefits get forced to work six months for free, just staying on the benefits, with a job interview at the end for a non-existent job because they’ll choose some other poor bastard to work for free? You know most of those jobs are shelf-stacking in supermarkets? They just extended the scheme.’

‘If you have the control–’

Just pay attention, dammit! They’ve set up choke points, and a curfew, and anyone who can’t prove they’re in a job is being arrested and taken away. No one knows where. Maybe it’s a concentration camp somewhere. And they’re using guns, shooting people who resist. We’ve got to stop them.’

Elvis has it figured now. He’s talking to a nutter. The people who cause problems, he divides mentally into twats, freaks and nutters. The twats are the ones who threaten to call the police, or whatever. The freaks are the ones who lecture him about how they hate Microsoft, don’t even use Windows, have a Mac or run on Ubuntu or Linux or some other off-brand operating system. And the nutters… It’s not so much a case of what they’re on as what the men in white coats should be injecting them with.

Also he knows about workfare, this thing the government announced a few months back that’s hit the press because people are indeed, as the nutter is saying, being expected to work for supermarkets, stacking shelves, just to qualify for continued welfare benefits. Since Elvis is working completely off the books – this whole ‘Windows Technical Department’ thing being a scam in every sense of the word – he’s on Jobseeker’s Allowance at the same time, and he knows eventually they’ll get round to making him do it as well. Which is why packing second-hand DVDs and pulp mags would be useful, because it’s a proper job.

The guy’s raving about different kinds of guns, how it would be best if he could get a mix of general-purpose handguns and sniper rifles, things that pack a punch because the troops have body armour, and they’ll need RPGs to take out the vehicles.

There’s no mute button on the headset, no way to stop the drivel other than just hang up. Elvis keeps saying ‘Do you have Windows on your screen?’ as thought it’s a mantra, or a programme loop that doesn’t have an exit point.

‘There’s nothing about this on the BBC,’ the guy is saying now. ‘You have to get the word out, let people know about it. Get a message to Al Jazeera.’

Elvis knows a couple of people called Al but doesn’t think either of them would he able to help. One’s an alcoholic and the other’s doing time for an arson he swears he didn’t commit, despite being a professional torcher for bankrupt businessmen.

There are noises coming from the other end of the line now, some kind of garbled argument going on away from the receiver. Then something that sounds like a car backfiring.

‘Hello? Hello? Are you still there? Do you have Windows open on your screen at the moment? Hello?’

The line stays open, but Elvis doesn’t hear anything he can make sense of. Some kind of bubbling, frothing sound. Some scrapes, like furniture being moved around on a wooden floor. Then nothing.

He hangs up.

The random dialler registers this, gives him fifteen seconds and connects him to another line.

‘Good morning,’ he says smoothly, ‘I’m calling from Windows Technical Department. We have a report here…’

He doesn’t get out of there until eight in the evening, walks home in the dark. It’s been raining and the road is slick with reflections off the streetlamps. There’s not as much traffic as usual. He’s almost home, at the junction of South and Admiral, when he has one of those ‘what the fuck?’ moments. Lorries parked across the street, making a roadblock, but no lights on them. There’s a white car, blue and orange flashes on it, parked up. And quite a few people there.

He hugs the sides of the buildings, moves closer. Sees a knot of people around a young guy on the ground, struggling. Someone in uniform on top of him, a knee jammed into the guy’s kidneys, and a flash of silver like he’s trying to cuff his hands.

There’s a crowd gathered around looking ugly.

Oh well. It’s the kind of area where the police come looking for people. The kid might have been picked up on an outstanding warrant, tried to rob someone, just got too verbal with the cops.

That doesn’t explain these other characters, in army uniforms.

The crowd’s common enough, too, in this area. No one round here has any sympathy for the cops.

Then the crowd surges forward and there are scuffles, a melee, the cop who’s got his knee in the guy’s kidney is sent sprawling on the street. The guy he was trying to cuff is suddenly up and running. And there’s a freeze-frame moment of disbelief as half a dozen shots crack out. They don’t sound like the movies or the video games: just ripping sounds like a firecracker being let off, which is a common enough occurrence on these streets.

There’s people running, and people not running who are on the ground. The kid who’d been arrested, he’s one of the ones not running.

The army guys are moving forward, disciplined, weapons ready. One of them reaches the kid and feels for a pulse.

Elvis tries to be invisible. Wishes he’d just walked away when he could.

‘You’ll do,’ the soldier says.

Thirty seconds later he’s on the ground, tasting blood where his lip kissed the tarmac. They’re rifling his pockets.

‘Find anything? Employment ID?’

He doesn’t see who’s asking the question. But they won’t find any ID, will they, because he doesn’t carry any.

‘Just put him down as “undocumented”.’

One of them throws Elvis’s wallet into the bushes on the other side of the road.

‘He’s fucking undocumented now, mate.’

Elvis swears at the nutter he’s spoken to, under his breath. As if the nutter had made it happen just by talking about it. As if it was all the nutter’s fault. And he swears at his job, which made him talk to the nutter in the first place.

But he knows nutters don’t create the world. Politicians do. And they’re worse, because they not only believe what they say, they make everyone else act out their vision of insanity.

Sweating the small stuff

March 4, 2011 4 comments

Sometimes it’s the small stuff that causes the most problems.

I’m doing 1000-1500 words/day on a big project and other stuff as well. What I’m hung up on, though, is an invitation to write a piece of flash fiction, 300-500 words. It’s taking me longer to get that together than I’d normally take to write a short story – in fact I’ve written one short story and part of another on the fly, 3000-plus words, in addition to other stuff, since I started to think about the flash piece.

Why am I having this difficulty? Well, part of it is that I’m writing on a theme suggested by someone else. Sometimes I can do it, sometimes not. This particular theme is a politically hot one at the moment which seems to be pushing my imagination in a direction I think isn’t all that helpful. And part of it is that I’m starting from a point at which I have half a dozen ideas, but incomplete ones – words, phrases, ideas or images that have come to me from various sources (TV, conversations, things I came across while looking up references, dreams). Often when that happens, such things suddenly link together because my unconscious works on them and integrates them. On this occasion, not.

So I’ve been falling back on Plan B, which is the one Douglas Adams once described as ‘looking at a blank screen until your eyes bleed’.

I have one trait that is sometimes a disadvantage, but in this case may be helpful – what my parents, when I was a kid, described as a ‘grasshopper mind’. I’m usually writing three or four things at once, often skipping between them as an idea in one context suddenly seems more applicable in another. So for the moment I’ll just let the ideas sit and sweat. If I keep pushing on the other projects something useful will spark off in the back of my brain, I suspect.

It may come too late for the thing I’ve been invited to submit for, which would be a shame – but what the hell, once it’s done, it’s done, and I can use it elsewhere.

On being and doing: becoming an author (and a story)

February 6, 2011 4 comments

Over the last few days I’ve managed to get embroiled in some discussions about whether someone can describe themselves as an ‘author’ if they haven’t in fact published anything, or possibly even written anything.

The question is probably only really of interest to those who are aspiring authors who haven’t yet written much or published anything (though ‘publish’ in this internet age is itself a slippery concept, with self-publication, vanity publishers, blogs and other ways to get writing in front of potential readers).

There are parallels, though – the aspiring musician who hasn’t quite ‘made it’ in terms of regular gigs or a recording contract, the artist who has yet to do anything with their work other than leave it under the bed or in the attic, even the carpenter who hasn’t yet made anything out of wood.

And if there are parallels, there are also – what should we call them? Divergents? Perpendiculars? There are plenty of labels that have more moral force and are applied to someone’s entire social identity on the basis of an act that took maybe a minute or two – murderer, for example. There probably are people out there who might be described as ‘aspiring murderers’ or ‘murderers in waiting’ (I’ve known one or two people who might fit that description) but I don’t think it’s a term in common use. Certainly not as common as ‘aspiring author’, anyway. Which is probably a good thing.

(On a side note: I seem to remember Jake Arnott’s novel He Kills Coppers having a character who might be described as a ‘serial murderer in training’. In any event it’s a good book, well worth the read. There’s also plenty of sociological work on labels and how they’re used but it’s not entirely relevant to this discussion…)

Beyond that, it’s a niche philosophical question about the slipperiness of labels, the relation between doing and being, between intent and achievement. Very often, the advice offered to ‘aspiring’ authors is that they should ‘act as if’ – and in acting out the intent, the accomplishment gradually slips into reality.

What follows is a short piece of fiction. Probably.

***

John Undescribe (1952-2011) – the best writer you never read?

John Undescribe, one of the most talked-about yet mysterious authors of his generation, was found dead in his apartment last week. The cause of death is described as ‘accidental’ but no details have yet been released.

His writing career began at university. Though not a member of any student societies he participated in several ‘performance art’ projects, reading poetry and stories at events that often included a mix of dance, music, light projection, fire-breathing and large remote-controlled robots. None of this work was ever published. It is possible it was improvised.

Those who recall them say that they were emotionally moving, though frequently only semi-audible due to the nature of the performances. ‘They had a dreamlike quality,’ said one of his contemporaries who delined to be named. ‘They were like random phrases from some great, lost book of forbidden knowledge.’

Through most of his life, Undescribe lived in a cluttered, rented apartment within easy reach of The Foolscap, a bar favoured by many writers and poets. Regulars there remember him as a lively conversationalist with a sharp insight into contemporary social issues, whose off-the-cuff remarks could easily become the first lines of novels. Judging by the number of works in which he received dedications or other mentions, many of his comments have, in fact, become the first lines of novels by others. He has been described as ‘inspirational’ and ‘the greatest unknown writer of our time.’

He was retiscent about the details of his own writing, though was often prepared to discuss the underlying arguments, philosophical positions, or plot devices. Of his first novel he is reputed to have said ‘Publishers will hate it: it reads like a mystery writer’s second novel.’ He said he wouldn’t send it to a publisher until another novel by him had been released first.

That novel were a long time coming. In 1994, Undescribe was heard to remark in the bar that he’d written ‘three quarters of a million words, about a hundred thousand of which would be a novel – it’s just a case of which hundred thousand.’

At that time, however, poststructuralism had come into prominence. ‘The book’s finished,’ he announced one evening in the Foolscap bar. ‘But in the current climate, there’s no longer any point in getting it published. It addresses concerns no longer relevant to our understanding of what writing is.’

Instead he began work on another novel, also hewn from his massive manuscript. ‘The secret is in my name,’ he said. ‘Language has a complex relationship to reality because it constitutes what we see as reality. And it’s a recursive relationship, because our idea of language itself and what it can do is also constituted in that reality. We don’t have myths any more, we have fictions that are plastic and disposable. I no longer want to describe the world – even a world in which ships dream furiously of green translations. I want to undescribe it.’ (The reference to ‘ships dreaming furiously’ is probably a partial nod to George Steiner’s After Babel).

Other projects followed, including a cycle of short stories, allegedly translated into a mystical language of Undescribe’s own devising so that he could back-translate it into a finished product. In his last few years Undescribe appeared to move away from writing to focus on the impact of the spoken word. He would sometimes recite lengthy sections said to come from his works to acquaintences in the bar, to reactions varying from incomprehension to ecstacy.

Most notably, on one occasion he was credited with literally hypnotizing the entire bar, causing those present to believe for several days that they were in fact characters in one of Undescribe’s novels. None of those present knew the plots of the novel involved, though there was subsequent speculation that the novel would in fact be based on how the individuals concerned acted. Undescribe commented on occasion that truth was often stranger than fiction, because our imaginations are often limited by what we see as real: remove those limits and we can re-make the truth in strange ways.

Undescribe had no partner or children. If he left a will it is entirely likely to be contested on the basis that it is a work of fiction and not a legal document. A search of his apartment revealed many books, some rare and valuable, but no personal paper and no manuscripts of any description. It is unclear whether these ever existed, except perhaps in Undescribe’s own imagination. He is, on the basis of his contemporaries’ comments, perhaps the best writer whose works you will never be able to read.

Needs of the Dead

November 8, 2010 2 comments

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction 34 front cover

A new short story – well, not new exactly since I wrote it a while back – is now out in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction 34. Zombie stuff. I’ll have to read the rest of the issue now to find out what other authors have been up to!

Flash fiction – ‘Scream’ visible from space

June 3, 2010 Leave a comment

Inspired by Google Sightseeing… for those outside the UK, ‘COBRA’ is Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, the name based on the usual location of crisis response meetings.

‘Scream’ visible from space

A satellite survey of electromagnetic emissions has revealed a strange image of the UK. Some commentators have likened it to the face in Edvard Munch’s famous painting ‘The Scream’. Others have suggested it looks like the face of a ‘Grey’, the type of alien being associated with the alleged crash landing of a flying saucer at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947.

Conspiracy theories have already emerged in the internet. Some claim the image is a clandestine invitation to aliens to make contact. Others suggest the image means aliens have been in control of the UK for some time.

Dr Jon Vagg, head of SPACE, the School for Psychosexual And Cultural Evaluation, says: ‘People will always project their unconscious desires onto random images, much like the well-known inkblot tests used in psychology. In this case people are using the image to express their profound dissatisfaction with the extent of economic, social and sexual repression in current society.’

‘The image may prompt some groups in society to set up new types of social relationships and perhaps even to plan revolutionary or terrorist activity,’ he added.

By late last night the image had been removed from the satellite survey website though it had already been downloaded by millions of users.

Reliable sources say the government called a COBRA crisis response meeting early this morning, attended by several ministers, senior officials and unnamed external advisers. The agenda and discussion were confidential.

The plant that eats sheep (or: the virtues of patience)

May 31, 2010 Leave a comment

About two years ago I half-wrote a SF story that concerned a retired space marine type character who returned to his home planet with a bunch of seeds, and the intention to spend his life gardening. Of course other stuff happened to him… However I reached a point at which I got stuck, other stuff was more urgent, and it’s been sitting patiently in my ‘works in progress’ file all this time.

I was watching TV coverage of the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show this week, and one of the things that got my attention was a display that included Puya chilensis, a large bromeliad (thus relative to the pineapple) native to the Andes.

Sheep-eating? Not quite, not exactly. But I’ll quote from Lindie Naughton’s blogspot: ‘There is a sinister aspect to the Puya: the margins of the leaves are edged with fiendish, hooked thorns. These are bad news for the weeding gardener, but far worse news for the sheep of the Andes. Woolly fleeces become easily entangled and a grazing sheep can find itself pinned helplessly to the fringes of the huge clumps of Puya like a piece of wind-blown fluff. Marooned, the sheep will perish from starvation. On the positive side, the unfortunate creature does provide a handy slow-release fertilizer for the Puya.’

So two years on, I’ve randomly come across something that (a) actually exists and (b) admittedly with some extension and adaptation, allows me to get on with the story – when I’ve finished the half-dozen currently stacked up in the queue, that is.

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