2018 in Review

2018 was a big year, but I don’t want to talk about politics, the news or anything else that sends Twitter into a black pill spiral.

On a personal front, my page views tripled over last year. That’s bit motivation to post more as people are obviously interested (or outraged) by what I have to say. The three biggest posts were:

1 – Jacobite is the Jacobin of the Right

Unsurprisingly a piece of slander is the most viewed article for the year.

2 – We Are All Communist Countries

I’m happy with this. I completely stand by my convictions as put out in the essay, and it managed to rile up a whole slew of different people.

3 – Pulling Threads

It is only appropriate that an essay dealing with the controversial Robin Hanson (who has really outdone himself in 2018) got so many hits.

I wasn’t just on my personal blog. One particular Medium article went off all thanks to Clementine Ford. You can count it as a good year if you get the arch-feminist of Australia to respond to you. Spoiler alert: I checked and no one went out and bought the book. Thanks for the views, Clem! I’m thinking of reviewing her books next year – guaranteed hits!

It’s also a time to review what happened in Australian publishing. What are people reading? I can tell you a few trends.

First, the bro self-help market is still strong, with Jordan Peterson and Mark Manson making a kill this year. I saw many bookstores with both books stacked up alongside each other. The most interesting thing is that publishers completely underestimated this trend. Penguin, the publisher of 12 Rules For Life, didn’t even have a decent print run up until almost three weeks after publication. Almost everyone in publishing dismisses Jordan, despite the sales and obvious hunger for his writing and words, because almost everyone in publishing is a card-carrying communist, or at least a sympathizer. This is not to say that self-help books for women aren’t selling, they are, but there is obvious institutional support for these. I’ve already seen two manuscripts for 2019 releases that make me sick due to the vapid nature. Woke Capital in action.

Second, once solid authors are crumbling. Jamie Oliver isn’t doing what he used to, usurped by the charismatic Ottolenghi. Shane Warne was a waste of a million dollar advance. Fiction mainstays seem to stay strong, but the most surprising thing of the year was the sheer amount of books by debuts. People want whatever is new. That is where we are at with books; people only want to read about what is hot and trending. Thankfully there seems to be a lot of space for multiple books in this space. In the meantime I’m just waiting for the new Houellebeq and McCarthy.

For the new year I plan to write some more longform blog posts synthesizing multiple books, start a podcast interviewing dissident fiction writers and post more review to Goodreads. Here’s to a good year.

Unable to See the Majority For the Minority

As I keep noting on this blog, publishing is gripped by diversity mania. There is an obsession with inclusion and stories from outside the realm of White Man territory. The Man Booker Prize is not safe from this either, and indeed the world’s biggest literary prize is a locus point of SJW energy. And as usual it is The Guardian that leads the way with its ‘unique’ criticisms of authors, publishers and prizes.

But why is diversity such a big deal? Aside from the obvious acceleration towards ‘equality’ across the entirety of popular culture, the reason is people. The real question should be why it has taken so long for the voices within publishing to get so loud. Publishing is 70% female across the Western world, though men do make up a sizeable chunk of senior management. In the last few years young women with gender studies degrees have probably managed to get a foot in the door, and are starting to shift the focus at a faster pace. They bring with them the usual baggage of intersectionality and the need to have perfectly balanced gender ratios. I have plenty of my own horror stories from listening to these young female ‘professionals’. But despite ‘improvements’ it is, of course, never enough.

Literary prizes are the perfect grounds to attack white privilege. Not enough BAME authors are getting recognition. The situation is so bad that The Guardian recently posted an article titled How Many Man Bookers Must Writers of Colour Win Before They’re Accepted? (which kept in theme with last years article called Man Booker Prize Longlist is a Disappointment for Diversity). But I want to focus on the former piece and why exactly this is all madness.

The author, a creative writing professor, makes a number of spurious claims. The main gist of the piece though is that despite the last two winners of the Man Booker being black, readers still don’t recognise books written by minorities as literature. Of course, the reality is that there are much bigger issues at stake than her hyperbolic theory. She uses this study, a study that states that, ‘90% of people who have read a novel in the last 6 months consider that novel to be literature.’ Let’s keep in mind that about 75% of the general population has read ONE book in the last YEAR, and that men read far less than women. Here are some of the authors these people consider ‘literature’:

  • Jeffrey Archer
  • Danielle Steel
  • Lee Child
  • Thomas Hardy
  • Agatha Christie
  • Catherine Cookson
  • James Patterson
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Dan Brown
  • J R R Tolkien
  • Enid Blyton
  • The Brontë sisters
  • George Orwell
  • Stephen King
  • Jane Austen
  • Roald Dahl
  • J K Rowling
  • Charles Dickens
  • William Shakespeare

I’ve marked in bold those that are actually literature. William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens probably count, but at the time of their writing they were ‘popular’ literature. However, if you are looking at these results and complaining about the lack of brown people, you have an agenda. The true problem is that people read shit books by shit authors. They read the same authors over and over. The real problem is that if we consider J K Rowling, Dan Brown and Lee fucking Child as literature, then we as a civilisation are lost. (Oh yeah, and one twat called Reza Aslan a writer of literature.) If you look at the full list of authors, there are clearly some real writers there, and also some minorities. These names were probably given by REAL readers, ones who appreciate and understand what literature is. So the author of The Guardian piece is cherry picking the data and coming to absurd, and frankly frightening conclusions.

Is it really a surprise though? You are polling the general public, of course the results are going to skew towards popular literature. Look at the stats for the full list of authors:

  • 31% are female
  • 7% are Black, Asian or Mixed Race in ethnicity
  • 44% are non-British (mostly American)
  • 51% are living writers.

The fact is that most people are going to consider old, dead authors (who, shock of shocks, will be mostly white) as literature. Americans feature heavily because American culture is so ingrained across the world. 7% minority is pretty good given the statistics for readers (from the same study):

raceandreading

If you have fewer readers of literature, then you’re going to have fewer writers. The fact of the matter is that the majority of readers in Britain (and indeed in the Western world) are white, female and educated. Shockingly, this is also the largest demographic for social justice warriors, which I’m sure is not a coincidence.

The author of the piece has issues she wants to make relevant, so fuck the actual problem. She makes some infuriating claims, such as:

Without doubt, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens and many more men of letters have done Britain proud. But times have moved on.

Given she is a professor of creative writing, I find her beliefs disturbing. Literature is not a moving object, one that floats with the tide. It is quite fixed, in that what most people consider literature is writing that has stood the test of time (hence Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens). That’s what makes it capital L literature. And while the writer can make claims about the stupidity of readers and their inability to consider minorities as writers of literature, she herself is too dumb to read into the numbers, saying:

A misconception prevails that books penned by non-white writers have limited relevance to the population at large.

If the audience is mostly white, female and educated, then unsurprisingly books written by POC authors about POC themes are probably not going to appeal to all of them.

She then cites a 2013 study about literature and empathy, which of course is a line that geeky SJWs love to throw out at every opportunity. ‘Reading makes you a better person!’ the headlines scream whenever a new study linking literature to altruism/empathy/long life/better memory/clear skin comes out. Not only are the studies dubious (like most studies you find written about in the MSM) but the notion that you can magically read a book and become a Good Person is absurd, and is not a line that should be pushed by anyone, least of all a creative writing lecturer. That said, I’ve never met a group more self-righteous and sure of themselves than those undertaking or teaching a creative writing degree. Books do not make you more humble, it seems.

Then she tries to link this idea with real life events. Mentioning both hate crimes and Brexit, she actually has the audacity to pose the question that perhaps if more people had read literature by minorities the Grenfell Tower tragedy would never have happened. Fake news gets a mention, saying:

But judging from the lack of nuanced real-life stories in circulation about marginalised groups, cultural deprivation is a pretty apt description for the condition members of mainstream society find themselves in. Consider, for instance the report of the Christian girl fostered by a Muslim family spun into a far-right fantasy; a story fuelled by paranoia and an evident lack of awareness about the lives of others.

Correct me if I am wrong, but that is a true story that actually happened? Or is she referring only to the dumb Photoshop job by the paper that originally reported on it? Whatever. She decries race elitism while displaying her own elitism and disdain. The only conclusion I can draw is that the writer wants to eliminate white written culture and force minority writing on the majority. Perhaps she’s just mad she can’t get her novel published.

 

You Must Be By The Book

When it comes to pop culture fame, the fans are fickle. Especially in the modern age where SJW-ism can lead to turns of fate that would be unrealistic in any novel. Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham and more have all been thrown under the bus the moment they speak out of turn. The revolution eats its children, because if it didn’t how would it progress?

Let’s take a recent example: Veronica Roth. This young author shot to fame with her Divergent series and the accompanying movies. This is the type of meteoric rise we saw for other series like Twilight and The Hunger Games. And who is the main audience of YA? Young females, 15-30, and therefore almost definitely woke as fuck.

Back to Roth. Her latest book, Carve the Mark, recently came out, and sales are definitely not on the level of Divergent. Compare to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (a goddamn theatre script) which brought fans back in droves to make it one of the bestsellers, worldwide, of the year. Now as to why Carve the Mark has certainly performed below expectations (Divergent was one of those phenomena books, selling hundreds of thousands across the globe) is difficult to pinpoint: previous sales were based on the movie, not releasing the book for Christmas, any number of seasonal reasons. But if you look through the Goodreads page, we discover another narrative.

The fans are not impressed with Ms Roth. Here is a smattering of comments.

But now instead of telling you why this book is racist, as there are better voices, I will direct you to Justina Ireland who has spoken out about this book –
http://justinaireland.com/dammit-this…

What I want to address is the ableism. Recently Veronica Roth did an interview with NPR where they discussed how the current gifts in CtM were inspired by chronic pain. The interviewer says that chronic pain can be a gift, to which Roth agrees and goes on to say that part of the book is Cyra figuring out why her and others are worthy of pain.

This to me was so upsetting. I have lived with chronic pain now for 7 years. It is something that has taken over my life and caused a lot of harm. Some days it is so bad I can barely sit up, let alone get out of bed. And to see someone equate it with a gift or say people are worthy of it makes me feel sick. Whether or not Roth has chronic pain herself, I am not one to say she is lying, that does not take away the harm. It is not a magical shield to be pulled out when you’ve hurt people.

*I want to note that this book has problematic issues within it that I didn’t pick up on while first reading it. Learn more about these issues here:http://justinaireland.com/dammit-this…

I’m sorry that I didn’t recognize these issues. I’m listening and learning and will strive to do better in the future.

I don’t feel comfortable supporting this book anymore despite initially enjoying the story. I’m leaving my rating blank & adding this disclaimer after all of the controversy so people can be informed to make their own decision:

My original understanding was that both cultures viewed each other as “savages” and that the Shotet were far more powerful and advanced, but it’s extremely possible that I misunderstood the worldbuilding — you can see in my original review that I was suuuuuper confused. (The worldbuilding was unclear to begin with and then the ARCs had a giant “uncorrected proof” printed diagonally across each page that made it very challenging for me to read/focus on). So I won’t be going back to read this and think it’s sufficient to throw the warning out there that the way race and chronic pain are handled here have upset a lot of people. And I do apologize if my support of this book made you feel disregarded in any way.

Personally, this was the first word of harmful representation of POC that I had heard & as it was brought to light after I had posted my reviews, I was not aware of these issues when I originally read the book. If you would like to read my apology on not recognizing/addressing these issues in my own reviews, you can find that here: https://twitter.com/emmmabooks/status…

There are SO MANY MORE sources on information regarding the problematic content of Carve The Mark that are so easy to find, but I wanted to provide you with a few that helped spark this important discussion. Do with this information what you will, but I am just asking that you take the voices of those who may have been harmed by the racism & ableism expressed in this novel into consideration before making you decisions about reading/purchasing this book. It’s crucial that we listen to the marginalized voices in our community if we hope to make a change, and I hope that you all take the time to educate yourselves on an issue that has massive effects on the publishing world and our beloved book community.

I am removing my rating from this book because of the harmful nature of the book. At first I felt compelled to keep it intact because I was paid to review it, but at this time, I don’t feel comfortable rating the book highly when it has hurt and offended so many of my followers and readers in general. I’m sorry to anyone who saw my previous rating and was shocked or disappointed in me for giving it support.

1/18/17 Update
It was brought to my attention that this previous update may have been construed that I was paid to rate the book highly. This is untrue. The way that I rated the book originally (4 stars) was not because I was paid. I would have rated the book 1 star even if I was being paid (or, ideally, I would have canceled or backed out of the sponsorship completely), but at the time that I was reading it, I didn’t recognize any of the problematic aspects and therefore somewhat enjoyed it enough to give it a 3.5-4 star rating. I debated removing my rating after all of the criticisms of CtM broke out, but I was paid to post a review, not necessarily a positive one, and I had thought that removing my rating would be discontinuous with the video I had made for CtM, which was also paid. Long story short, if I were to delete any of the reviews or posts about CtM that I made, I would be breaking a contract, and I had lumped the rating I gave the book into that group of un-deleteable content, lest there be consequences. Now, however, I feel it’s best to remove the rating because my original review is still available for reading and viewing and I don’t want to give false promotion to a book that makes me uncomfortable and that has hurt so many people.
I definitely didn’t rate it highly because I was being paid, and I didn’t remove the rating sooner because I was weary that I would be breaking a contract. Now, however, being transparent with my audience takes more of a priority and I will keep the book unrated unless the publisher raises concerns about it.

**A NOTE- It was brought to my attention via twitter (link:https://twitter.com/justinaireland/st…) that this book plays into some potentially harmful tropes regarding race and portrayals of antagonism. I deeply regret that I did not pick up on this when I first read the book, but I wanted to edit my review in order to alert my viewers that POC in this book may be portrayed in a toxic light. Please proceed with wariness if you intend to read this, and bear in mind the consequences that Roth’s writing may have on marginalized people. Additionally bear in mind that supporting an author who writes about problematic themes potentially takes away money and readership from authors who write #ownvoices books, so you may considering reading one of these instead if you have now become skeptical about this book:
Muslim authors: https://twitter.com/AvidReaderBlog/st…
Diverse/#ownvoices reads: https://twitter.com/novelparadise/sta…
Diverse recommendations: https://twitter.com/chasingfaes/statu…
LGBTQIA+ books: https://twitter.com/Bookishwithtea/st…
Diverse books: https://twitter.com/thebookvoyagers/s…

I could go on. But these people really do labour whatever point they are trying to make. Honestly, the amount of times these reviews say something like, ‘I didn’t notice it at first, but then I totally saw it when some Marginalised Sufferer pointed it out, so I am so like sorry,’ makes me sick. Maybe if you didn’t see it, it a) wasn’t there, or b) doesn’t matter. The hand wringing that goes into appeasing uppity minorities really is overdone.

For a breakdown of the issues at stake, see here:

The bottom line is that books like Carve the Mark and TheContinent both utilize AND reinforce cultural white supremacy. It’s only because of cultural white supremacy that readers are able to code these cultures as evil. And because readers code brown-skinned people as evil in a literary context the cognitive paths for them to code brown-skinned people as evil in a real are reinforced.

There’s more to be said about the way the plot elements reinforce the initial worldbuilding truths in both books (Cyra of Carve the Mark is the perfect example of a talented tenth Negro or an educated savage, the person who manages to rise above their genetics and culture) but I think there’s already enough here for readers and writers to chew on. We should all be critical readers and writers who consider the implications of our worldbuilding more fully, by reading more broadly and understanding the impact of the story frames we use.

Key here is the inability to face up to reality. I could perhaps criticise the writers for being lazy in transposing real world facts to a fantasy world (but then, why couldn’t it be the case) but this clawing for facts about White Supremacy are unjustified. White Supremacy does not code anything. If an author lazily uses facts to build their world, so be it, but to read racism into it denies reality. People and groups of people are seen in relation to others. Stereotypes exist for a reason. Getting on your high horse won’t change a thing.

But all this could have been avoided if only the publishers had hired keen readers to pick up on all examples of racism, sexism and ableism!

“Sensitivity reader” is a person who, for a small fee, will provide feedback about the book based on self-ascribed areas of expertise like “dealing with terminal illness,” “racial dynamics in Muslim communities” or “transgender issues”, according to The Chicago Tribune.

 

That Chicago Tribune article sums it up:

Sensitivity readers have emerged in a climate – fueled in part by social media – in which writers are under increased scrutiny for their portrayals of people from marginalized groups, especially when the author is not a part of that group.

This potential for offense has some writers scared. Young-adult author Susan Dennard recently hired a fan to review her portrayal of a transgender character in her “Truthwitch” series.

More great quotes:

“Books for me are supposed to be vehicles for pleasure, they’re supposed to be escapist and fun,” she says. They’re not supposed to be a place where readers “encounter harmful versions” and stereotypes of people like them.

Still, some sensitivity readers feel they are in part contributing to the problem. Clayton said she’s unsettled by the idea that she’s being paid for her expertise, but also is helping white authors write black characters for books from which they reap profit and praise.

Cue the ‘rehhhhhhing’.

As we’ve seen though, diversity and equality is getting its mendacious claws into everything. Just the other day I was told of a UK publisher who had to undergo diversity training, and were told not to use ‘African covers’ for their books written by African authors. Referring to one particular example, the book did not sell well without the African cover. Those bloody racist consumers!

Entertainment, specifically the book industry, is besieged on all sides by the forces of diversity, equality and Otherness. As the English speaking world becomes increasingly less white (and the biggest book market in the world is the English language market) we will see greater and more powerful forces arrayed against literature. Do not publish White Men. Do not even think of reading White Men, you heathen. Only publish books with minorities that are written by minorities. Only publish books about white culture written by POCs! Publishers, a tiny industry as it is, is having to hire more than just White Women. This is spreading out the power. Just when Amazon is atomising the industry, Others want to atomise it further. Publishing is dead, cannibalised by Amazon with the remains picked at by opportunistic and selfish SJWs. It may not be visible, but just give it a few years.

reality
Reality isn’t comfortable, darling.
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Current Year!
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Marginalising version of ‘Current Year’
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Because of Blasian babies? Da fuck?

Tracking the Decline #2: Diversity in Literature

The previous Current Year wasn’t a great one for literature. First of all, let’s take stock that America publishes basically one new book per person. That’s one totally new book for every living person in the U.S. of A. That doesn’t include books published elsewhere (though of course issues of translation come in). That definitely does not include the endless dirge of self published titles that continue to be churned out. So, all in all, there are more books than ever and of course that means it’s harder to make it than ever. Average Is Over.

But what’s going on in publishing? First, the goldmine that was self-pubbing seems to be in decline, for a variety of reasons with the quantity being a main one, and Amazon being dodgy buggers being another. If you look at that report indie authors are actually suffering, and Amazon seems to be making the most gains. The glut is over, as was inevitable.

So we have a huge diversity of books, right? Well, no we don’t, apparently. The problem is that there are just too many books by White Males. UK publishers are getting ‘slammed‘ for a lack of diversity. Publishing risks becoming irrelevant if they don’t start publishing more books by and for POC and LGBTQWIFX. One publisher (Kamila Shamssie I believe) suggested having a whole year where not a single white male was published. It’s all too much. Of course, the only reason the English language market would become irrelevant in this sense is because of the Western immigration plan. Quelle surprise. Pandering to minorities is an absurd idea in this industry. Take Australia. Still a largely white population, POC books just don’t sell in great quantities. Shit stories don’t sell, and people don’t care about your identity politics. If you’re in business you want to sell to the largest demographic. Publishing profit margins are already pretty shithouse, and trust me, publishers take bigger risks than they should. I guess in the UK that the market is increasingly not white English speakers, but that’s a whole something else that plenty of others have talked about.

We don’t even want a diversity of books, especially when it comes to raw numbers. For one, you tend to get self-published authors pumping out generic stories and becoming marketing whores. There’s no diversity there except for the amount, because formulas work. This is not an environment that is conducive for literature or original thought. Sure, those types of books still get made, but they do tend to get drowned out. Very few of the best are both lucrative and thought-provoking. This is a worldwide problem where literature is largely ignored. People don’t read. They are on their phones, they are watching Netflix or they are getting hideously drunk.

It seems to me that publishing thinks that diversifying will somehow be a magic bullet. That if they publish and promote books by POCs and cover topics that are bound up in social justice and identity politics they will finally make great sales. The entire industry is complicit.

Kirkus Prize 2016: the book that won the fiction category is a bloated postmodern mess that links horse racing with race (genetics and class). The non-fiction winner deals with trans issues. Need I say more?

Man Booker Prize 2016: The Sellout definitely did not deserve to win, and indeed the only reason I can think that it did win is that a) it’s humorous and satirical, so ‘something different’, b) it’s postmodern, the aesthetic of decline and c) it’s about racial inequality in America. It is not a book for the ages, nor even a particularly pertinent one for the moment. The shortlist as a whole wasn’t outstanding, but for The Sellout to win shows that the judges do not care a white for quality.

National Book Awards 2016: Again, plenty of good books to choose from, but of course the book that deals with an alternative history of slavery in America won.

So three major prizes where the books won because of politics. You can’t say that there isn’t an agenda. Even in science fiction the politics is real. The Hugo winner is by a black woman, and by all accounts it’s a good book, but science fiction has clearly been appropriated by SJWs and liberals, something the stalwarts tried and failed to fight. The Arthur C Clarke award was also political. Children of Time is a good book, but didn’t deserve to win (Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson wasn’t even nominated for the shortlist, which kind of says it all) and indeed it probably won because of the political ‘niceness’ of the ending.

This doesn’t feel like diversity to me; this feels like collusion.

So writers, publishers and almost everyone in the industry are entirely for diversity of numbers when we really don’t need more books, and diversity of race/gender/*insert minority here* so long as it pushes the liberal agenda. But when it comes to publishing a book by Milo Yiannopoulos something that is merely a different opinion, it must be shut down. Authors don’t want to be published by a company that supports freedom of speech. Personally I think that is a helluva brave publishing decision given the political climate. It’s a bit of a gamble, and I don’t think it will pay off immensely, but I also don’t think it will bomb. This is another example of the group think in the mainly liberal industry (and at the same time 1984 is again a bestseller).

The awards, the discussions of diversity, the outrage over Milo: these are all examples of the industry floating ever Leftward. Education is where minds are won, and books are part of that.

 

Every Planet We Reach is Dead #3

‘So let’s be clear: you have no memory of what happened?’

Rigel stands across from the rescued man – now known as Walcot thanks to the onboard data files – who sits on a stripped down bed. The medbay glows with cleanliness. Walcot’s eyes focus on the floor, his hands mashing together. He doesn’t answer. Rigel’s teeth grind.

It’s been hours since they rescued this extra body from the hulk, which is still attached precariously. The engineers are going back and forth, checking the systems and data. It’s all proceeding as it should.

‘Let me explain this to you, again. We – and I mean humanity – lost contact with you, the Indomitable, not long after your first arrival in the system. It’s been… a long time. This is meant to be a one way trip, though…’ He stops himself, his mouth still moving but the words cut off. Realigning, he continues, ‘I would appreciate if you told me what you can remember.’

Walcot looks up, straight into Rigel’s eyes.

‘Nothing. Absolutely nothing, except who I am, and even that’s vague… barest memories of before I even signed up. I…’ He chokes. Emotions or getting used to speaking again, one or the other.

Rigel grunts. He was a kid when this corpse went quiet. The last outpost. Snuffed out after such a long wait, literally centuries and generations went by waiting for them to reach the Vega system. Joan’s in the Bulb getting all data on every other rescue mission, which all should, theoretically, be arriving in their designated systems about the same time.

The door slides open with a hiss. Lin walks in, her eyes tracing charts as the patient’s results roll past her retinas.

‘He appears healthy, though over-exposed to the cryosleep, obviously. No long term effects. But the memory loss… It can happen, quite often. Especially in the case of trauma.’

Rigel nods, fingers squeezing his lips.

‘Trauma… Bring up his ship records.’

Lin’s eyes twitch.

‘Ari Walcot. Brought along to… document the settlement of the Vega system. You’re a journalist?’

Walcot smiles. ‘If you say so.’

‘Great, so now not only do I have an extra corpse on my hands, but he’s useless too.’ Rigel throws his hands up in the air, kicks a bed.

A voice in his ear.

Captain. You’re needed in the Bulb. Now.

What is it Joan?’ Lin snaps a look at Rigel. Joan’s talking directly to him.

I think I know what happened here.

***

Vega, the star, bulges at its equator. Parallel to the equator the light is a duller blue-white than at the poles. Junko’s ‘eyes’ are all focused on this point. An object has appeared in Vega’s orbit.

Joan stares down the barrel of an optic station. She flips between spectra, observing the object in each. It appears to her as a small black smudge. A freckle against the mighty sun.

‘It’s a ship?’

‘It’s something technological. It’s far too small for a planet, and the orbit is wrong anyway.’ Joan pulls away from the optics and looks straight at Rigel.

‘So you’re saying, potentially, that the Indomitable ran into… aliens, maybe, and we’ve come 25 light years to meet the same fate?’

‘Maybe. Maybe not. I can’t get any energy readings from it. It appears dormant.’

‘Probes, now. Keep quiet, no radio, reduce our radiation, and don’t tell any -’

Captain. I assume you’ve spotted the anomaly.

The Major. Her voice crackles through the all-purpose frequency, the robotic shifts of her mechanised voice box magnified through the vox.

‘Major. Indeed we have. We’re coming up with a plan of action now. It appears quiet for now.’

‘I’m already putting together a drone team for reconnaissance. I suggest you work through the data banks of the Indomitable more efficiently.’

With a click the Major was gone. Rigel’s jaw clenched.

‘At least we’ve got a clue as to why she’s here. Pilot, I want you to keep working on data from the Indomitable and to keep scanning the system for clues. Get those probes out quickly. I’m going back to talk to our guest.’

***

One, two, three. Probes shoot from Junko, pacifist torpedoes hunting for knowledge. They cross the gap between sentient ship and anomaly quickly, dodging debris yet keeping formation. They begin to relay imagery back to Junko, who feeds it on to the crew.

As they already know, it is massive. A large sphere, a small moon even. Its skin is layered with crevices and mountains. Spires shoot up, ugly spikes into space. Valleys and bunkers. The drones split up.

They shoot across the horizons, scanners slowly bringing the anomaly into a 3D rendition in Junko’s database. In the background Vega burns, flames lapping at edges of the system, the haziness of which diffuses the light to a romantic glow. But there is no light from the anomaly. It orbits in silence.

***

Rigel stares at the stump where Walcot’s left leg should be.

‘Your injury. No recollection of what happened?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Did your team board the anomaly?’

‘I don’t know, sir.’

‘Right. What I think we are going to have to do is jolt your memory. Lin, you can hook him up to memory retrieval right?’

Lin nods, eyes averted.

‘It induces a dream state, and then we look for memories,’ Lin says to Walcot. ‘We can read the feedback your brain provides. In the lucid state we can sort out dreams from reality.’

‘I… I don’t think I particularly want to dream.’

‘You don’t really have a choice, I’m afraid.’ Rigel stares down the man with that comment, daring him to challenge. Walcot just looks at his leg.

His mouth moves, barely a whisper.

‘What did you say?’ says Rigel.

‘I said, “What happened to the rest of them?”’

A pause.

‘All of them.’

‘We’re getting feedback from the other missions. It appears there are no survivors, and so the secondary teams are all in the process of picking up where the first teams left off. As for your team specifically, we have no idea. From what we are gathering in each of the other systems, the bodies are mostly accounted for, suicides in the majority. The only exception is Vega. No bodies. One soul back from the dead. And one alien structure. We’ve already relayed this back to Earth. Can you imagine, this is the first sign of alien intelligence we’ve yet to discover? You’ve slept for centuries and managed to keep it quiet.’

Walcot twitches, a full-body jerk. Rigel takes a step back, Lin goes to help the man. He manages to right himself, hands gripping the bed hard. Visible sweat rivulets sweep across his skin.

‘It can’t be good if we never told you about it.’

‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’

Every Planet We Reach is Dead #2

The airlock of Junko is bright, fluorescent light painting everyone in unnatural shades. Joan watches as Lin Pei steps onto her suit printer before the others and freeze stiff. The woman’s lungs are still pumping back to life, her joints ache, the cold slowly seeping out. And now she’s getting wrapped up again.

The printer coil surrounds her, starting from her boots. Warm synthetic material covers her from bottom to top. She doesn’t flinch. It’s like body paint, a vitality giving inner layer for their spacesuits. She is finished first and steps back to receive the exosuit. Junko is soft in her touch, clamping, slotting and clipping the suit around Lin’s limbs and torso. It’s over in thirty seconds. Lin reaches into the collar and retrieves the earpiece.

‘And you’re live, Lin.’

Joan’s voice reach Lin, then the others as they each suit up, reading all the vitals the nanotech of the inner layer is feeding her, checking them off like a good pilot. Cams, audio, heartbeats – they’re all available to her instantaneously, thrown up by Junk.

We ready to do this?

Rigel turns to prep the boarding team: Lina and the twins, Hotham and Jay.

Alright crew, we have arrived. It’s been a long time coming, but we’ve gone over our training procedures. We’re entering an atmosphere-less hulk so we take it easy until we can boot her.

Joan’s mind wanders. She flicks cameras to the Major, who has retreated to her station. Joan brings the screen closer. More machine than person, the Major is connected to her personal hub at the other end of the ship, lost in her own objectives. Behind her the massive 3D printer is constructing something. Joan has already tried to dig into the Major’s past and reasons for being here, but it’s virtual block after digital deadzone. She’s untouchable.

The next camera goes to Unaipon, the scholar, also busy doing whatever it is he does. He seems to flit from one stations to the next, never happy with whatever he is working on for longer than a few minutes. Or he’s working on each simultaneously.
It feels like yesterday since she saw these people last. Of course in reality it has been about 250 years. Joan grips her holds, white knuckles. The abyss of the time period baulks her at the best of times. A voice yells in her ear.

Joan.

She switches back to the airlock.

‘Yes captain?’

I need you awake, pilot, I know you’re good but you’re not do-it-in-your-sleep good.

Someone laughs.

‘Even if I were out cold, I’d still do a better job than you, sir.’

She sees him look directly at the cam and give a smile.

Right, are we ready to do this? Hotham, Jay, take point. I’ll follow and Lin, you’re last. Joan, hit it when you’re ready.

The boarding party gets into formation, sleek suits ready for their first run, bulky equipment in strength-enhanced arms. Joan hits the release.

***

Lin watches her compatriots disappear into the yawning dark ahead of her, the separation of life and death. She steps in behind them automatically, not wanting to but it’s why she’s here. To go where almost no one has been before. Or at least to discover why those that did go before went quiet.

Her headlamps come on automatically as she crosses into the lifeless hulk. The light captures her crewmates before she turns to look around. The space seems like the evil twin of Junko, a leviathan with the life crushed out of it. They all cross into what had been the living area.

The whole ship is similar, but smaller. The tech is older, less sophisticated. They can only dock because all ships have been made retroactive. Quite the foresight, Lin thinks. Then she thinks what inventions and foresights have been made in the intervening years. She veers slightly, head going light. She shakes it off quickly, forcing a release of hormones to focus. Rigel’s voice suddenly comes over the comms, crisp.

Looks like everything is mostly intact. Joan, are you receiving vid? Good. Anything loose will have gone to suck, but I don’t think the control panels are damaged. Hotham, can you get her started?

Lin takes it all on board and keeps wandering through the ship. It’s like being under water, like being in training all those years ago. Seawood-esque wires wave at her as she moves slowly through, her grav boots operating in time with her movements.

OK Jay, close down the hatch. Joan, we’ve done a sweep and there doesn’t appear to be any hull breaches. We’re closing the doors and going to boot her.

Lin snaps out of her dreaming. Looks around. She’s in the cryo-chamber.

***

In a pit of snakes, squirming and wriggling, Walcot drags himself up. The snakes fall away, their bodies leaving his in relief. Not tied back by gravity, he shoots towards the sky. A horrific face appears, all teeth and pale skin, and Walcot feels a sudden terror in his stomach he hasn’t felt in a very long time. The thing opens its mouth and…

Gas jets into his face. He tries to scream but a tube is shoved down his throat. He gags, hands floundering to get a grip on the tube. He pulls it out, vomiting up whatever liquid lingered is his esophagus. The gas is still jetting into his face. He tries to push past it but is met by glass. Something wells up inside him.

Walcot screams. He screams and it feels like he is forcing his insides out his mouth. He feels his mind leave him, leaving only a screaming husk. But only for a moment.

The glass disappears as if magically dispersed. Something lets his feet go. Walcot falls face first, still screaming. But he doesn’t hit anything. Instead he just floats out. He stops, shocked. Then he tries to breath again.

A rancid and metallic taste assaults him, but no air.

ohfucktheresnoatmosphereFUCK

He squeezes his eyes shut, convulses, and wishes he was back in the pit of snakes.

***

Lin stares at the man writhing in front of her. He’s suspended in midair, his body wriggling in a ball. Her fingers twitch at her side. She almost takes a step back. Instead she rushes at the man as fast as her grav boots allow, oxygenator in hand. She screams into her vox.

GET IN HERE, TO ME!

Lin’s body takes over from her mind, like she’s left herself. Reaching for the man, she tries to pull his limbs apart so she can wrestle the oxygenator on to his face. The power might be back on but the air is going to take a little while, if there even is air left. Lights flicker like a nightmare. Forcing her suited arm between the man’s limbs, Lin finally manages to get the rebreather over his mouth. She switches her vox to external, hoping there’s enough reclaimed atmosphere by now to carry her voice.

‘BREATHE.’

Part 3

Every Planet We Reach is Dead #1

Somewhere, distant. Two specks close-in like mating bugs, one a luminescent dominatrix, the other a silent receiver. Their rings are immobile, frozen before the life-giving connection. The receiver is clearly older, its batteries long dormant. A single ring surrounds the engine, a giant, bulbous antiquity. The incoming arrival is long and slender, two rings at either end, one contracted and waiting. New and old will unite.

In the distance spins Vega, sputtering and spurting its gases, waves of radiation washing the vicinity in random bursts. So it has been for millennia. It has not seen life for a long time, but then, what does it care? There is no old or new, just forever and perhaps an end. At its core it rumbles.

***

Suspended in the Bulb, Joan Lewis sweats despite the cold. She doesn’t notice. A dozen displays surround her, move into her vision when needed. A stream of information bounces within her retina, half visual and half fed into her mind. The ship’s computer, Junko, works diligently to keep her completely up-to-date. Drugs surge through Joan’s veins, heightening her reaction times and thought processes, overclocking her body. Her hands rush around like erratic moons, and her facial expressions do the rest. Her feet are locked in on the pilot’s platform as the embodiment of Junko rotates and twists to suit her needs. Joan is suspended in symbiosis with the ship.

Behind her is the captain, observing, but also stepping in to bring up information when needed. His eyes dart back to Joan and a smirk breaks out as he watches her, watches her dance. Her work is better than his ever was. His body suit is warm, but he has his face free to feel the cold of the Bulb. Past the screens and the frenetic Joan is space. Endless space. Just creeping into the peripheral is Vega burning its blue-white brightness. The eagle has landed, Rigel thinks.

Rigel notices Joan focus, stiffen up, and her movements become longer and attuned. The time has come. He’s watched her do this a hundred times in the sims, but it’s always impressive, more so now that it’s for real. He can make out the other ship now, the Indomitable, as they come perpendicular to it. Slotting it between the two rings of Junko. Junko has come knocking to discover what conquered the unconquerable.

‘How does the airlock look?’ Rigel says to Joan. She doesn’t look up, instead shooting off a data byte in his direction. He brings up the info.

The Indomitable is intact, no holes or damage. Except for the airlock. Signs of expulsion are evident, pipes drifting lazily out of the opening like an anemone. There are scars where heavy objects would have struck as they were jettisoned. An error or on purpose? Rigel can’t see anything that tells him one way or the other. If the hulk had been ripped open it’s going to make boarding difficult.

‘I can still make it, the lock gates aren’t incompatible with ours. I’m going in.’

Rigel throws down the scans.

Joan’s movements speed up, red lights flashing as she goes too far one way, then the other. On the hull spurts of gas pop at random, guiding them invisibly. Then a moment of silence, the warning lights cease.

‘Could be a bump,’ says Joan right before she makes contact.

In the gravity-less Bulb it isn’t an issue as the ship shudders around them. In another instant the ship is rigid again, with an additional appendage. In an instant they are one vessel, the Indomitable now a cancerous growth to be healed.

‘Easy,’ says Joan, ‘now comes the really fun part.’

She disengages from the various wires and inputs, pushes off towards Rigel. She glides towards him, her eyes locked on his and intent on only one thing. Rigel catches her as she comes close, and she latches on to him.

‘We’ve got an hour before the rest of the crew wake up,’ Joan says, a mischievous smile springing to her face. ‘And I’m all worked up.’

Rigel grins. She grabs his hand and pushes off back down towards the tunnel and the bunks. He loves it when she takes control.

***

Slowly but surely the crew awakens. Joan watches them in the corner of her eye, a distraction while she comes down off the cocktail of amphetamines and sex. Their bodies shake as they are reanimated, blood pumping back through empty veins and stirring organs. The worst part is the full-body pins-and-needles sensation, thinks Joan. Thankfully it only takes a few hours before the body is back to full capacity.

She stretches up, bones cracking for the first time in decades. Rigel lies in bed, his eyes glazed over as he flicks through pre-boarding checks.

‘Come, play a game with me,’ she says. He comes back to reality. ‘We’ve got a little time.’

She sits down at the table, bringing a game of chess up. The pieces materialise and she chooses white. Rigel saunters over, his skin suit crawling over him. The ship is still cold from the aeons.

‘I’ll probably be rusty, even if you give my AI a handicap,’ he says, coughing and easing himself into the seat.

‘It’s not about winning, dear,’ Joan says, even though a competitive glint is etched into her eyes. They begin, rapidly at first before slowing into a rhythm.

‘Ah, you’ve got a response to everything I throw out, says Rigel. ‘Never mind being two steps ahead, you’re at least five. For such a mirrored game it becomes asymmetrical so quickly.’

‘No different to anything else in nature or humanity. There’s an equal and opposite reaction for everything, you only have to be ready for it.’

Rigel grunts in amusement.

‘I just need to think outside the box then, beat you back with randomness.’

‘I’m plenty used to randomness, too.’

The AIs they were using would throw out multiple moves per turn, a thousand calculations a second. Junko watches from a distance, mostly disapproving of all moves chosen by both parties.

‘Have you ever played vanilla chess?’

Joan looks up. ‘No, I haven’t actually. No point.’

‘I have. It’s remarkable the patterns a computer chooses over a human. For one thing, humans like repetition, familiarity. But it’s all a simulation, no? It’s the same principle as docking this ship, just a tad more complicated in the types of calculations that Junko has to come up with. That right Junk?’

The lights dim in response.

‘Such a quiet thing. Sometimes I wonder what Junk thinks about in the downtime.’

‘What downtime? Me, I wonder if the AI can distinguish between a game and real life, or if both have equal weighting.’

‘Either way, they offer us the best possible result. We just have the courage to take it. Check.’

‘Such the inspiration, Rigel. But we’re all pieces in the larger game. Us in particular. Moved to the farthest reaches of known space on the back of some vague hope.’

‘Sometimes I don’t mind being manipulated. We’ve got the chance to change the future of humanity after all.’ He gives out a grim chuckle.

‘You know as well as I know the only reason we’re here is that it’s better than home. And that it gives the only people worth a shit a slight chance of a good time.’

‘Hey, I think you’re worth a shit. That’s why I brought you with me.’

‘Don’t kid yourself, I came because you’re useless without me.’

He laughs at that.

‘By the way, checkmate.’ Joan leans back, satisfied.

‘Well fuck me, that came from nowhere.’

‘Don’t mind if I do.’

‘Do what?’

‘Fuck you.’

Part Two