At long last Chronscast goes live today, with episodes 0 and 1 released!
Episode 0 serves as an hors d’oeuvre to the main podcast, telling listeners what we’re about and introducing Chris and myself. We also talk about our rationale for starting Chronscast, and how it links back to SFF Chronicles, and what listeners can expect.
For episode 1, Chris and I were joined on by Stephen Palmer, author of several genre novels including Memory Seed, Tommy Catkins, The Girl With Two Souls, and many more. His latest novel, Monique Orphan, was published in November 2021 by Infinite Press. And he stopped by here in December to promote it.
Stephen spoke with us about Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. We discussed the novel’s call to action on the part of the protagonist, its rich and complex themes, whether it really succeeds in laying down its atheist credentials, and how Pullman drew the narrative out of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.
Stephen talks about his own long career, including his latest novel Monique Orphan, the importance for writers of having something to say, and the equal but infuriating importance of luck to a career in writing.
We also stop by at The Judge’s Corner to learn about copyright, hear the winning entry from December’s 75-word writing challenge by Cat’s Cradle, and listen to some odd voicemails received by the Chronscast inbox.
If you’re into it, please make sure you like, share and subscribe – and where possible please leave a review with your podcast provider as this will help massively with promotion and visibility.
To listen to Chronscast, check your podcast provider, or use the links below. We are hosted by Anchor by Spotify, but we are also listed at the places below.
I hope the holidays gave everybody the chance to rest, reflect and recharge, ready for 2022.
Over the Christmas period I was invited by the splendidly mad AnRoinnUltra to contribute to a bit of festive science-fiction whimsy he’s called Twelve Robots of Christmas. The premise is simple: over the twelve days of Christmas, twelve writers would compose a very short piece of fiction to do with… you’ve guessed it – robots.
Dame Vera Lynn’s version of the unabashedly patriotic 1939 song There’ll Always Be An England would no doubt have helped bolster the spirits of the British Tommys during the unending days of slogging their way through the western front during World War II. The song is like White Christmas in that respect; just as the singer of that great American song is dreaming of a white Christmas precisely because he’s stuck in some Godforsaken part of the world where the chances of a white Christmas are precisely nil, the soldier listening to There’ll Always Be An England would have been aware that, for all its patriotism, it was undercut by the very real sense that, if the pendulum had swung a different way at crucial junctures during the War, there might very well not be an England at all. At least, not in the sense they knew.
One of the themes that emerged from the Chronscast interview with Stephen Palmer which will be released in January was the extent to which luck influences the career path of a writer.
Stephen is the author of sixteen novels, so he should have some idea of how things work. Looking at his publication history, he’s chopped and changed publishers quite a bit, releasing books with different people with not much of a discernible pattern. And, to my mock-frustration, Stephen insisted that the overriding factor is getting most of these books published was luck. I pushed back on this. There must be more to it than that, I said.
So we talked around this for a while, but the thought about luck remained. In the last week I’d decided to send a reminding nudge to the final agent to whom I’d sent a query for back in February. I fully expected a pass, and instead I got a prompt reply, asking for a full manuscript. The agent in question said they’d had a baby over the summer, had parental leave, as well as having to deal with staff shortages at the agency. It struck me that we are beholden to luck, even if we do happen to have written a great book. Agents and publishers are beholden to mad, external events just as much as the rest of us, and who knows what the prevailing winds will be like on the day your submission gets to the top of the slush pile? An agent may have priorities at home, or be on leave for whatever reason, or overworked – all things that can affect mood and responsiveness. Of course we’d like to be able to perfectly compartmentalise our professional and personal lives, but we’re all human and it’s not so easy.
That’s not to be disparaging towards agents; if anything, it’s riding to their defence. To the amateur writer, nose pressed longingly against the window of the publishing industry, it’s easy to think that the inside of the building is filled with success and champagne and awards and critical acclaim, but it’s rarely like that, and is subject to the random flux and circumstance of the rest of the world.
Ok, so what to do about the thorny issue of luck? It seems tremendously unfair to reduce something that necessitates such profound degrees of effort, creativity, isolation, and vocation, to something as wilfully tricksy as luck, and yet I think we’d be acting disingenuously if we didn’t acknowledge it. I discussed this with one of my buddies, The Big Peat, in PMs recently, and we seemed to hit upon the idea that if you can’t negate the influence of luck, you can try and help it along a little.
To try and reduce the effects of luck you need to give yourself a bigger target to hit. In short, you need to write more stuff, and open yourself up to more avenues of opportunity. More stories + more avenues of opportunity = more chances of success. But this isn’t just a rehashed, wordy version of “throw enough mud, some of it will stick.” There is still art and craft involved; you could write more manuscripts than Barbara Cartland, but it’ll mean zip if they’re all hopeless. But having a cadre of several manuscripts under your belt does give you options, to perhaps try different approaches with different stories.
As for opening oneself to other avenues of opportunity, that means engaging with the world. Stephen mentioned that he’d arranged publishing deals in Facebook, by being a member of groups and thus in the right place at the right time. Engaging with writing groups, circles, communities. Then there are also self-publishing routes, including publishing to a blog, in the way I’ve done for a couple of my novellas. The more routes you have of spotting the opportunity, the more likely one will be able to present itself.
Finally, there are the opportunities you can carve out for yourself. Hugh Howie started out by publishing to his blog, as did Andy Weir. Perhaps there are initiatives that you can start, and from which you can build a platform. I would say that lots of people have that within themselves, if they can find the right sort of thing on which to focus. That’s the driving motivation behind starting Chronscast. The only caveat I’d add here is that it helps to try and build something bigger than yourself. There’s a world out there trying to promote itself, and most self-promotion is lost in the noise. What can you really offer people that’s of value? Make a name for yourself, and maybe the writing will stick in ways that you didn’t expect.
All of this gives Luck a bigger area on which to land. Perseverance can overcome the vagaries of luck. Of course, if you do work hard enough for an opportunity to present itself, you then have to be able to take it, or even discern if it’s the right one for you – but that’s another story.
Yes, I know I keep banging on about it, but Chronscast Episode 1 will be released in early January. In-keeping with the general sentiment of the post above, there’s a monthly opportunity for Chrons members to have their own writing featured on each episode. The winners of the SFF Chronicles Writing Challenges will have the opportunity to record themselves reading their winning entries; any Chrons member can enter, and becoming is a member is free.
To celebrate and promote the launch of his new novel Monique OrphanStephen Palmer is currently doing a blog tour, and has kindly dropped by here on his travels around the blogosphere. Stephen recently recorded an episode of Chronscast, and amongst other things we got onto the topic of narcissism. An ancient personality trait – or pathological condition, one might say – informed and explained by myth, it’s a phenomenon rich with meaning and which warrants continual exploration.
I’m on record as being a fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I especially like his notion of writing what he called, “adult novels with young characters.” The themes of Pullman’s masterpiece are of course broad, profound and universal: this, I like. So when I came to consider writing a second steampunk trilogy after my Factory Girl trio, I wondered what the main philosophical theme should be. In the end, for Conjuror Girl, I chose selfishness, or, as I’ve referred to it in my non-fiction writing, narcissism.
Narcissism has different meanings in different circumstances. In psychiatry it has a particular, specialised meaning. The great humanist author and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm by contrast used the term to describe how people filter the real world through their own perceptions: their desires, their prejudices, their beliefs, their language. This leads them into using faulty or inaccurate perceptive notions. Fromm used narcissism to mean: the narcissistic orientation is that in which a person experiences as real only that which exists within themself, while phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous. In my own thinking I’ve used the term in a still broader sense, applying it to the human condition.
This, then, is my theme, couched in terms of selfishness, but with reference to Narcissus. But we are all born narcissistic. Because we are conscious individuals, we do not use instinct as do animals. Instead, over years and decades, we accumulate a mental model of the world, with which we interact every second of our lives. This model however is least accurate when young, and has the property of narcissism because that self-centred characteristic is required in order to build a mental model, and because infants especially do not realise at first that the world outside their minds is independent. Their theory of mind – that other people may have different ideas and beliefs to their own – comes later in childhood.
The extraordinary fact then – the tragedy, indeed – is that we human beings cannot help but be narcissistic in our young lives, and usually into our adult lives. It’s a fact of life. But we do have the opportunity of overcoming it in order to have a fruitful, equitable and just relationship with the world and the people in it. This process however is very difficult. We are all prone to deceiving ourselves in order to keep our beliefs and desires. This then, in essence, is the kind of perceptive, social and cultural selfishness I’m talking about – our propensity to believe our own beliefs regardless of the real world, and then to act upon those beliefs. In my view, if you dig deep enough, narcissism is at the bottom of all aspects of inhumanity, because it negates reality – the world out there really is independent of us! – and because narcissists lack empathy, which is the foundation of consciousness.
You only have to look at America up to their most recent election to see the true danger of a narcissist. It is generally accepted that Donald Trump has a particularly intense narcissistic personality disorder, or, as I put it when I wrote about him, he is intensely narcissistic. As president, he could not accept that the world was independent of him. He acted as though his associates and colleagues were aspects of himself, given purpose by presidential order – avatars of himself. He spoke as though stating something meant his words were automatically true. I do not believe he has a concept of lying, because such a concept implies the liar understands that others can believe or disbelieve. Trump could not grasp that others might disbelieve his words. He believed them, therefore everybody else did.
This intensity of narcissism in a leader is extremely dangerous. Alas, the particulars of narcissism – wanting to reach out to make the world more like the narcissist’s imaginary version of it – mean that all narcissistic individuals hunger for power, for control, for domination. Hence Napoleon, Thatcher, Stalin, Hitler, (false equivalence, perhaps? – Dan) and countless other people perched at the top of male hierarchies. It’s not a pretty picture. In The Conjuror Girl trilogy I wanted to explore this theme through the eyes of Monique, a young girl with a talent. This talent – Reification, which allows Reifiers to make real the contents of their minds – is of course a metaphor for narcissism. In Monique’s case however, she has the option of overcoming her narcissism, but only with the help of her true friends.
So there is hope. Connection, empathy, seeing yourself through the eyes of others – these are all methods of overcoming narcissism. And does Monique success in this task? You’ll have to read the books to find out.
Stephen is stopping by several blog outposts during his tour. You can read more of his blog posts at the following places and times. Monique Orphan is out now.
November was very busy! The SFF Chronicles podcast, Chronscast, continues to get ready for our January launch, and we recorded another episode at the back end of November. This second episode was with the lovely Jo Zebedee, author of the Abendau Trilogy and Inish Carraig. We discussed Klara And The Sun, which I wrote about not so long ago.
One of the great things about being a fiction writer – or any sort of artist, I suppose – is that we have the ability (one might almost say the obligation) to present the world not in terms of scientific logic but in terms of intention, orientation, motivation, and choice. But we still have to present the world as setting. Science Fiction in particular seems to be always wrestling with itself about how scientifically it should present itself to the world; should it slant towards extreme Hard-SF a la Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, which wears its astrophysics on its sleeve; or the hard-engineering of Andy Weir’s The Martian; or should it go softly softly with the science, and emphasise the drama of relationships enabled by new technologies and futuristic settings, such as Stephen Cox’s Our Child Of the Stars, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go? (One might almost be tempted to add a third category where the technological advances are shown in some detail but their effects upon various types of human relationships are also presented with complexity, such as in… hmm, let me think…)
This week, I’m publishing a double-header of the final two chapters as I bring this novella to a close.
Last time, Antonios was confronted with the true nature of the terror sleeping in the deep, awoken by the folly and nihilism of others. Now, in the endgame, Antonios tries to make good his escape from this subterranean . But even if he does, what sort of world will he return to, when his faith in reason and logic has been so brutally shattered by the deep places of the Earth?
I pounded along the corridor, muttering half-hearted reassurances to myself that what I had seen was a fabrication, a nonsense, but when a hellish roar came from behind me I panicked anew. I came across Albert, standing in the corridor, blindly staggering along, using his hands for guidance along the rocky wall. I called to him, but either it came out as a garbled mess or he could not hear me above the din and his own mutterings, for he paid no attention to me. When I caught up with him, I saw he had clawed the bandages from his eyes, leaving only two red blotches of horror in the middle of his face.
“Antonios!” he cried between babbles of pain. “What is happening?”
“We must leave. Medas is dead; she was the one who caused all of this to happen.”
He stopped moving forward for a second, and a sick semblance of a smile drifted across his twitching lips, almost as though he had experienced a moment of perfect clarity. He looked up, at what I could not fathom, for even if he had still possessed his sight, there was nothing to regard but darkness and dust. Then he pointed a finger at me, and said, “The city is sick through your fault.”
“Shut up, Albert!” I cried, dragging him along. “The Giants are trying to kill us! We have to leave, now!”
The ground shook and rumbled beneath us, and a huge eldritch scream, a volcanic eruption given life and rage, throbbed through the walls. The Giants were trying to break free and bring their battle to the surface once more! That was it; my mind had caved and all reason from me fled. I was convinced of the Ekpyrosis; if they reached the surface, it would be the fate of the world to burn! And yet, what could men, a single man such as I, do about such things? The Stoic in me rose defiantly for a fleeting moment, urging me to accept this lot with all the humility and grace I could muster, but another bowel-shredding roar cascaded along the corridor, and shook me to my water. The animal in me wanted to flee. I grabbed Albert and dragged him back towards the Great Door. The stumpy corridor led to another set of splintering steps that wound round and down in the darkness. We stumbled and stuttered, almost breaking our necks as we took them as quickly as I dared, and we tumbled out of a broken door into another part of the sinkhole below Athens. It was evening, and far above us a few stars glittered impassively, watching the judgment and doom of our time on Earth, which would be but the flicker of an eyelash in their long and violent lives.
“Where are we, Antonios?” cried Albert, at turns both howling with pain and distress, and then cackling maniacally at the revelations turning within his mind. “We who wore the helm of Hades, who were so blind, but now see!”
Here there was no path, and I had to clamber over mounds of rubble to get a better vantage point. The electric lights had mostly been extinguished, leaving only a few dusky spots of illumination in a dank and preternatural fog of shattered ruination. I eagerly followed this light which, mercifully, led to the makeshift road cleared by the dig team. With Albert flagging, we hauled our sorry selves along that thoroughfare, hoping upon hope that the helicopters still remained.
To my eternal wonder, as we cleared the final bend, there was the helipad, and one of the three helicopters remained! Kat stood by the final helicopter, with the pilot Sofia already in the vehicle, and the blades whirring.
Kat cried something to me, but she was perhaps a hundred metres away, and inaudible below the whirring of the blades. She gesticulated furiously for us to get over there and get away. Despite my burning lungs and spinning head, I uttered some unintelligible words of encouragement to Albert, and began to cross the huge clearing.
When the thunder came I immediately shielded my face, thinking that the rain might penetrate the gloom and cover us all, but the precipitation in the air was not liquid. I stopped myself in my tracks as the vast mounds of ancient Athenian debris and rubble burst forth from the Great Doors as they ruptured like a dam, spilling forth what it had kept at bay for so many millennia.
The terrible figure of Eurymedon, King of the Giants, emerged from the debris, brandishing a sword of gleaming, liquid fire, and screeched at the Heavens with a ripping sound that brought tears to my eyes and made me wish for my mother’s breast. His muscles rippling, Eurymedon charged through the rubble, sending wrecked powerlines, cars, bits of old shops and walls and buildings and streetlights and glass into the air as though they were toys, showering us with lacerating pieces of glass and rock and paint and metal. I covered my face instinctively but something knocked me from my feet. Next to me Albert was struck on the side by a gruesomely twisted beam of metal which cartwheeled him over and left him in a lifeless bundle a few metres from me. The King of the Giants cried something in a wicked tongue not meant for the ears of men as he reached down to pick up the helicopter. The rotary blades screamed agonisingly as they were bombarded by debris, but whirred on stubbornly, and when Eurymedon reached to pick up the strange metal beast, the blades viciously cut the Giant’s fingers, sending fiery blood spraying into the air and across the scene. Eurymedon roared and cursed something else I could not understand, before driving his flaming sword into the heart of the helicopter, whereupon it groaned and spluttered into death.
Kat and Sofia scrambled away from the ruined helicopter in my direction, but from another direction slithered another hideous Giant with huge, powerful serpentine tails for legs, and with eyes and a beard coloured a diabolical, volcanic red. It slammed a coiled, scaled leg down upon Sofia, leaving Kat to reach me by herself.
When she reached me I tried to stand, but my legs yawned in pain, and I could barely stand, let alone flee.
“What do we do?” cried Kat, taking me by the hand.
I shook my head, at a loss.
One by one they came into the clearing: Ephialtes, Lion, Mimas, Asterius, and more, and more Giants than I could name, spilling into the sinkhole. One of them set its hands about the wall of the sinkhole, driving its fingers into the subterranean crust and trying to get some purchase on it. It managed to shovel a sandaled foot into the sides of the ruin, and tried to propel itself upwards, but its vast weight only succeeded in crushing the rubble and bringing the wall down in a huge cloud of mess and dirt.
The Giant toppled back onto its back and was smothered in the dust and muck, and it let out a strangled, winded huff. One of the other Giants cried at it, a raw look of disgust on its face. Polybotes himself shoved the others aside and plunged his sword deep into the chest of the stricken Giant. I then felt for a mere moment what it was like to know the Fates, for I could see the destiny of Polybotes before that great Giant himself, and I knew at once that the Giants were destined to fail in their quest, because it was in their nature to destroy themselves. I bowed my head in fatal understanding.
It was Asterius who took up the mantle of attempting to scale the sinkhole, plunging fingers like tree trunks into the rubble and attempting to grasp it, but his terrifying size and weight only succeeded in tearing a hole from the walls of the sinkhole. Asterius fell back onto his rump with a crash, a look of hateful astonishment upon his face. And then he looked up at the hole he had made. Slowly at first, little more than a trickle, came the sides of the sinkhole, collapsing at that point where the dead Giant had tried to ascend, and then in a great landslip and slide, one hundred meters of towering rubble crashed into Polybotes and buried him. The wave of rubble slammed into the legs of he whom I suspected to be Picolous, who in vain tried to hold back that tide and was swallowed by the flowing mess. Finally Asterius, still dazed and sitting on his rump, was showered with boulders, while a huge chunk of rock and road fell upon his head, splitting it open and spilling out a mess of black blood and snakes inside.
I turned onto my front, tried to crawl away, and found myself in the shadow of a mangled car. Kat had deserted me, or perhaps had been swallowed up. I was alone. I cried out in frustration, and fear, and sorrow, just before I heard the walls crashing around me, creating a vile slope. Clenching my jaw and breathing hard, I forced myself to my feet and dragged myself to the ascent, trying to stick to the shadows. Lion appeared to my right, his coiled hair bristling like a mane and his teeth glistening like fangs. He too was attempting to climb the hill to the surface, but must have stood upon a weakened part of the rubble, for it collapsed beneath him, and he fell, stricken, his disgusting serpentine legs waving uselessly in the air.
Onward I climbed, but the top of this slope only took me a few dozen metres farther up, to a tiny ledge of gnarled steel jutting out of the earth. I could find no further footholds. Spent, despairing and maddened, I fell upon the tiny ledge, rolled onto my back and watched the stars swirl around above me. Somewhere near me, beside me, behind me, there was the awful cry of Giants as they were trying to make their way to the surface, and a sickening rend tore through the sky, as if the very Earth were being ripped in two. When I looked back down, the entire hole – the road, the Great Doors, the excavation – had gone, collapsing a second time.
I tried to cry out one final time for help – to whom I could say not – but I was shrouded in an abyss of lifeless shadow where my own voice became silence, and I was knocked into a foul and dreamless sleep.
A thudding, relentless vibration that thumped my ears and rattled my brain woke me with a violent start, but – perhaps mercifully, for what I would have said would no doubt have been jumbled ravings – before I could speak, the pain coursing through my body made itself apparent, and all I could manage was a groan. In any case, I couldn’t raise my arms; I assumed initially through weakness, but the straining at my wrist made me realise I’d been strapped down.
I blinked, trying to figure out where I was. The sky moved past in impressionistic blotches, each nimbus rearranging itself into the face or form of another ancient creature taunting me with the inevitability of its uprising, the rank squalor of its hideousness, the vulgar futility of its impending heavenly duels and the helplessness of us mortal spectators.
A man sitting next to me, wearing a full-head helmet that shielded his face, spoke to me. “You’re incredibly lucky, sir. When that hole collapsed a second time, we thought that was it. How the hell did you make it onto that little ledge?”
I shook my head weakly.
“You’re going to be just fine,” the man said. “Looks like you’ll escape with just cuts and bruises.”
I sank again into a fitful state of unconsciousness.
I later learned I had, contra omnes dissident, been found and airlifted from the scene of the further landslip in that hellish rabbit hole, by a Greek Government-sponsored rescue team. The ones who spoke to me – a handful of doctors, and a great many people in suits who seemed to communicate to one another in nods and notes – said they had descended to rescue whoever they could find, but their obvious lack of interest in me told me otherwise. When I mentioned the name Apoystraphus, the suits looked at one another, said something I could not understand, and informed me I must be mistaken, for there was no person related to the mission of that name, and no such place as Phalcou.
Money can even buy you a non-existent identity, it seems.
In between bouts of wasted consciousness, in which I tactlessly related the larger-than-life details of my ordeal to what I ought to charitably describe as sceptical minds, I slept, only to wake to further details of my physical injuries, though there was no mention of what had happened to my mind. I confess, in my weaker moments, I did doubt myself, en aporia, just as a good Sceptic should! It was in the telling that my weakness struck hardest, when the ridiculousness of my tale was brought into the light of the surface world, and related to people who had not been pursued, crushed, or maimed by Giants.
And it was then, painted in the shame of the disbelief (or, worse, the wilful ignorance) of others, that I realised the hubris of man. The lack of will to understand. The certainty that we know it all.
After countless days of relating my tale, it was on the day that I shook my head in silence and confessed (untruthfully!) that I no longer believed my own tale, that I was discharged.
Discharged into a world I no longer recognised.
The Athens of my youth was replaced by a city with a hole, a perfect mint, and to my astonishment people had actually started to adjust to this new phenomenon. The second landslip was evidenced by the fact that Locos Likavitou had been swallowed by the Earth, and the sinkhole now had increased its ambition, gobbling up the roads all the way to Locos Strefi.
A day or so after leaving the hospital I visited that place. Nobody seemed to wonder whether or not a third “landslip” might arise; it had become just one of those things. Nothing to be done. Just part and parcel of everyday life.
And when I realised that I could not accept this, I thought of Medas, and I wept uncontrollably. I returned to the University and found myself poring obsessively over her research. At time I would catch myself – the Stoicism in me was not so shattered that I had abandoned all semblances of self-awareness – but experience was a master Lion-tamer.
When my academic career seemed to flounder in the face of my apparently increasingly outlandish fields of study – and oh! how I longed to inform my critics of the poetic irony of their denunciation of my apparent resorting to wallowing in the so-called imagined fury of emotion, in opposition to my career as student of Zeno – I visited the site of my adventure, flirting with the edges of the sinkhole, jostling among the end-of-the-world preachers (who had taken up permanent residence there, it seemed, in ironic opposition to their message of choice) to peer into the gloom, half-expecting Lion to clamber from the ruins and haul us all into the abyss, or for Pallas to leap from the darkness, sword raised, and to swipe a dozen of us puny humans aside as he made his way to the heavens to foolishly grapple with Athena and her cohorts.
“Fools!” I cried at those preachers, more than once, to their great amusement. “There is no end of the world! There will be no reckoning! This is Athens. This is no place of Final Judgment. This is a place of rebirth. Athens may be crushed by our hands, but it will be reborn, in fire and in blood! Weep for the ones who cannot be saved, and pray not to your false Gods of Abraham, but to the mighty Twelve, who will cast aside the fixtures of depravity, and mould us anew in a perfect Golden Age!”
It was after many weeks of relaying this message to an audience of dwindling interest that one of the Christian eschatologists approached me and asked me if he could buy me a coffee. It was a sympathy coffee, obviously; unlike me, the Muslims and Christians were able to maintain their apocalyptic traction with a continual conveyor belt of touristic audiences – who in turn mocked, pitied, photographed, and ultimately tossed coins at them – with the advantage of their religions being globally understood.
“It looks like you’re having a hard time selling your version of the End Of All Things,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder. It was strange, but when he was not publicly preaching his version of John’s Apocalypse he seemed, well, normal. “You want to know why I think you’re not pulling in the punters? Because you need showmanship!”
I looked him dolefully and envied his seeming knowledge that it was all just an act. I said, “It’s all true, I tell you. I saw it all.”
“Hey, dude,” he said, with sympathetic eyes. “I’ve seen it all, too. And you know how it all turns out? Everything turns out ok. Because Jesus loves you, baby.”
And at that moment, I prayed for forgiveness from Medas, for I saw that she was right. And I prayed to the Twelve.
I neglected to partake in the coffee that the man was willing to buy me, and instead walked to the edge of the sinkhole. During the weeks that had elapsed, the security around the perimeter had waned along with the general mood of despair, and it was easy to reach an unguarded section of precipice from which one could stare into the doom.
And stare I did, and I felt the inevitable tug of that hell beneath, tempting me to jump in, and succumb to the horrific catastrophe I’d seen (or foreseen).
I leant in, flirting with the edge of disaster, teetering to the point where, for just a moment, I no longer knew whether a breath of wind might topple me over into that vast pit, or push me back onto my backside, safe.
Thanks for reading The Gigantomachy Of Antonios Costas!I had great fun writing it, and pulling together so many different ideas into one adventure story. The whole story is now stickied to the top menu under Novellas.
I may publish a new novella in this serialised format to the site in 2022, along with a few more short stories.
Writers are strange creatures; we tend to get rather anxious about almost every aspect of the creative process. The first draft, writer’s block, the editing process, our characters, narratives, plot mechanics, writing query letters, writing synopses, submitting queries, and generally anything else that goes along with the whole business. That’s even before you actually get anywhere, and have to vet contracts, sign contracts, manage rights… or you could go down the self-publishing route, where the list of things to get anxious gets even longer: distribution, artwork, typesetting, paper (paper!), design, marketing, promotional activity… sheesh! It’s enough to make you think, why bother?
It’s a more pertinent question than it seems on its flippant surface. Why do we bother? It’s difficult and the chances of any significant degree of success are infinitesimally small; writing – or engaging in any type of creative art – for the sake of generating a degree of success, is the very epitome of a high-risk, high-reward gambit. A very small handful writers (we know who they are, no need to mention them here) exist at the very top of the pyramid; a larger handful more are doing very-well-thank-you-very-much a few rungs below them, and everybody else is stuck at zero degrees of success, or so close to zero that it near enough makes no difference.
I include myself in this third category, of course. I wrote a novel a few years ago which went nowhere. My second novel was published by a small press (and hurrah for that! We take our small victories where we can find them). But I’ve written two subsequent novels that have gone nowhere. I’ve started writing a fifth. Why persist?
Not everybody is predisposed towards the artistic creative process; artists tend to be more liberal (not necessarily in the political sense, though there is correlation there) with respect to the flow of information, and are more open to new forms and types of information. But regardless of our inclination towards the creative process, it’s quite clear that we are creatures of narrative, and the drive to formulate things in terms of narrative is intensely strong within us; it can make sense of the universe much more holistically than science and engineering as it maps the world (or the universe) as a place for action, rather than merely an area of space identifiable by certain immutable parameters or chacteristics, no matter how complex they are. In my recent thoughts on Northern Lights I spent a few words cogitating on the permutations of the Chosen One motif, and concluded that the Chosen Ones always represent a character being presented with a choice between expediency and responsibility; the Dark Side or the Force; Death-Eater or good wizard; benevolent King or feckless tyrant; or, more simply, “to be or not to be”. Each of us has that choice to make, all the time, but we are moved by the great characters who are in turn moved and compelled to act, and especially to act in the right way, and especially after they have been tempted by some form of expedient alternative.
Narrative thus is a way to explain these psychological tendencies and reach down into the ancient roots of ourselves. We know what we must do. Writing these narratives, then, is surely a more immediate, and intimate means of trying to grapple with these choices. To take it further, writing must be the very act itself of finding the correct path. There is a certain illogical satisfaction that comes from writing, even if we never quite attain it; there is no such thing as perfection – there is only, “good enough” or, “that’ll do.” Strange to think that we pursue something which can’t be perfectly realised – or only does in certain rare instances.
Well, how about this? In The Gay Science Nietzsche proposed that the recession of religion in western civilisation would result in existential concerns (and he was right) as mankind struggled to fill the vacuum left by a Creator God, and which we’re only just starting to be able to reconcile by rethinking ideas of God that align with modern scientific principles. His way of phrasing it was that the veil of illusion that Christianity had provided had been ripped to shreds by scientific rationale, and we were left exposed to the harsh realities of the universe (an idea which a certain Mr Lovecraft certainly picked up and ran with) But Nietzsche said an interesting thing in addition to this in Thus Spake Zarathustra; that “one must have chaos in oneself to birth a dancing star.” Or, in other words, creativity is borne of anxiety. We can’t have the creative process without the existential chaos of life, and the knowledge of our own death. And which we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t awoken into consciousness.
Writers are odd creatures, but then so are humans generally. Our wakening into consciousness means that we possess the grinding certainty of our own finitude, which runs violently counter to our own equally grinding instinct for self-preservation and lust for, in the words of Roy Batty, “More Life.” This fundamental conflict is known as Terror Management Theory. The conflict is amplified by our knowledge that it is not resolvable.
We can’t beat the biological certainty of death, but we can override its existential terror by distracting ourselves from it, and we can achieve that state of distraction exactly by considering – and acting out – the narratives that fulfil the idealistic nature of how to fill the time we have. By writing, we simultaneously acknowledge our finitude by creating worlds in which action is all – no character or world is permissible in fiction without a certain amount of agency: even in fiction such as Kafka’s absurd nightmares there is at least the aspiration towards agency, despite its being quashed by external forces. And by representing agency we present ourselves with the recipe for destroying death anxiety; a map of the world that allows us to navigate it in a way that brings the best possible chance of nobility, and honour, and truth. So if you’re struggling with writer’s block, just get that pen moving in any way you can – you might just save your life.
I’ll leave the last word to George Eliot, who says it rather more beautifully in Daniel Deronda.
‘…even if his ideas had been as true and precious as those of Columbus or Newton, many would have counted this yearning, taking it as the sublime part for a man to say, “If not I, then another,” and to hold cheap the meaning of his own life. But the fuller nature desires to be an agent, to create, and not merely to look on: strong love hungers to bless, and not merely to behold blessing. And while there is warmth enough in the sun to feed an energetic life, there will still be men to feel, “I am lord of this moment’s change, and will charge it with my soul.‘
This week Chris and I managed to record our first podcast episode, and it went really well. It featured the author Stephen Palmer as our guest, and we talked about a great many things. We are still garnering further content for the episode before it can be mixed down, with a release date scheduled for January. It’s very satisfying to have gotten this off the ground, and the discussion with Stephen was extremely interesting.
Also, this Friday I’ll be posting the final two chapters of The Gigantomachy of Antonios Costas, bringing that merry little story to a close. I may well publish a further novella in serial format in the new year, or something else. I hope folks have enjoyed it.
After coming to the terrible realisation that the dire events that have played out in the archaeological dig are mirroring the ancient fate of the Giants, who were doomed by their own hubris, Antonios ploughs on through the darkness for answers, and meets somebody he does not expect, in terrifying circumstances.
I inched along the crawl space, past where I had been before, past where the huge wall with the tabernacle had been, where the crawl space widened and heightened, so it was tall enough for me to walk erect comfortably. All the while my mind raced, and I thought of what Albert had said. Men and women were being murdered or maimed in the manner of the ancient Giants: Albert, Maria, even Alexis – whose death I recalled with the worst disgust, for I wondered if he had been sent to goad me into murdering him, and thus fulfilling some Hellish, preordained pattern of events. I pushed the thought from my mind, deciding that any loss of self-determination in such a terrible situation would be akin to doom itself. I had to believe that Medas still lived, and that this Apoystraphus fellow could be stopped.
Along the corridor I noticed small eyeholes cut into the stone, to allow hidden trespassers (or perhaps the custodians of that now-desecrated site) to spy upon those crossing the great hall. It was then I realised that the statues of the Fates could have been perhaps pushed, or their foundations tampered with, somehow, to make them fall at just the right moment to crush a trespasser below.
The corridor stopped abruptly, and apparently absolutely, with no door or other exit visible. All I could see was just another wall. Even so, I was wise to the fate that had befallen Albert (and ridiculously believing that, in my quasi-status as a symbolic Heracles, I would be immune to such malevolence), and felt carefully for trips, traps and clicks. My fingers found a sort of handle set into a small recess at knee height. Seeing no other holes from which some deadly weapon might have shot, I decided to pull the handle. It creaked towards me with a click that echoed loudly. It moved more smoothly than a three-thousand-year-old lever had any right to. In fact, it moved as though it had already been moved quite recently.
The slab of stone creaked back to reveal a vast, cavernous hall bathed in a gory, orange light. The doorway opened onto a kind of stone balcony hewn from the wall itself, and led to a stairway clinging to the stone and leading down the ground. As the firelight of the hall slammed into me, I instinctively flicked off my lighter and blinked into focus, crouching down to make myself small so as not to give myself away. The hall was as tall as the great corridor had been, and half as tall again. A hall for giants. And truly a hall for The Giants. Around the perimeter of the hall there were enormous stone reliefs of figures from the Gigantomachia: those Gigantes borne of Uranus’s blood, who became locked in mortal combat with the Olympians and raged against the dying of their kind. Each one displayed their mortal wounds, their muscles taut with agony: Ephialtes with the arrows of Apollo protruding from his eyes; Lion lying upon the floor being pounded to death by Heracles; Enceladus and Polybotes crushed by huge pieces of Nisyros; Agrius and his companion Thaos clubbed to death by the Fates; Pallas flayed and his skin being forged into the aegis of Athena; Mimas and Porphyrion slain by Zeus’s thunderbolt; and Hippolytus slain by Hermes, Eurytus killed by Dionysus, and Hopladamus run through once again by Apollo, scourge of the Giants.
Fifty feet high and more stood these great sculptures against the wall, a timeless reminder of the Giants, distinguished by their monstrous excess and the hubris of their supposed success, and their futile uprising against the universal laws of nature, the eternal Gods of Olympus.
A single pyre was set at the centre of the hall, small against this huge backdrop, yet throwing off enough flame to bring the old statues almost to life, dancing in the shadows anew. By the pyre was a wide, octagonal font which seemed to be filled to the brim with liquid. Around this scene there was movement; human movement. I squinted, and slowly crept down the steps, my intrigue piqued beyond control. In a moment I saw two figures silhouetted against the fire, one carrying a strangely elongated flaming torch in his hand that seemed a cross between torch-head and quarterstaff, for it stood perhaps seven feet from the ground. It was only when I saw him walk away that I could see a third figure set upon the pyre itself. The figure’s head was slumped forwards, consumed by the smoke and flame. My heart hammered wildly and a cry of anguish almost escaped my throat as my mind played with the idea that this might be Medas. I clenched my fists into balls and prayed hard that it would not be that cruel an end for my dear friend.
I half thought to leave then, but in the flickering hope that Medas might yet be alive I cursed myself for my pathetic, milquetoast indulgences, and crept further down the stair. I would not relent until I was sure I could not save Medas from whatever plight fate – or perhaps the Fates – had in store.
The bearer of the quarterstaff torch suddenly stood in the light. He was a shirtless man; from this distance it was difficult to determine his age, but he looked tall, and powerful. A name flashed through my head: Apoystraphus? As I considered the possibility, the second figure approached him and placed a hand upon his chest. When the second figure moved into the light, I almost cried out.
She stroked his chest, and he stroked her cheek. How had he seduced her into this macabre dance, this carnival of murder? A maddening ire crashed through my chest, splitting my lungs and clenching my teeth as I thought of the corruption he’d brought unto her. And what now? As he slipped off the top of her shirt to reveal her bare shoulder I knew what diabolical fleshly corruption he had in mind for her. I made up my mind to surprise the two, attack him, and beat a hasty retreat with Medas in tow. Such was the rage and mad hope that had rekindled itself in my heart at the sight of her that I would have made another Lion of him, and pounded his brains into dust, had my movement not been arrested by the sight of Medas pulling from somewhere on her person a small scythe that twinkled in the firelight, and as the man pulled down his trousers and brought forth his member, erect and ready to act, she grabbed hold of it tightly with her free hand, cried out, “for the salvation of the Earth,” brought down the scythe and jerked it up with a flash. The man screamed and sank to his knees, clutching her clothes in futility before lying on the floor, crying unintelligibly.
Horrified, I watched as Medas took the stricken man’s bleeding genitals and tossed them into the octagonal font, where they bubbled suspiciously. And I couldn’t help then but let out a cry, and call out to her, “Medas! Medas! What are you doing?”
She spun around and saw me, stricken with shock and surprise, wearing the sheepish look of a child being caught red-handed – and her hands did indeed drip with the scarlet sign of her crime. “Antonios…” she said. “You’re alive…”
I wasn’t sure whether it was a question or a statement of the obvious. I reached her and took her firmly by the shoulders. Red ribbons were spattered up her arms and all across her dress. Her eyes were strangely vacant, as if robbed of their keenness, but after a second she looked at me anew, and shrugged me off.
“Who is that?” I cried, shouting at her quite viciously. “Is that the one called Apoystraphus tou Phalcou?”
“Yes, it is he.” She looked around her, and smiled, which disturbed me. “This is our divination.”
“My dear…” I started, but she cut me off with a cry of exasperation. The man a few yards from our feet groaned again, his flesh a sickly pale colour, in contrast with the vivid crimson streaks stretching beneath him.
“My dear, my dear, my dear,” she said. “Do you know how much I hate it when you call me that? But it was I who was the Stoical one, who bore that indignation with a stiff lip and a hardened heart, for I knew those days were soon to be at an end.”
Instinctively, I almost called her ‘my dear’ once more, not knowing what the right response might be, but caught my tongue in time, and asked a different question. “What are you doing here? That man; he was about to…”
“…To what? Rape me? As Uranus was about to rape Gaia, when her children struck forth from within her with a sickle of adamant, and castrated that vile abuser?”
I blinked. The sickle. The man on the floor bleeding. The Giants, those foul creatures who had fought the Gods, had been borne of the droplets of blood spilled when Gaia had had her father and rapist, Uranus, castrated by a sickle of adamant wielded by the Titan Cronus. I swallowed a lump in my throat as I put the pieces together. The hall seemed awfully hot. My shirt stuck to my chest and neck, and I struggled to breathe. “Who do you think you are? Gaia? Then is this man your… your father? You planned this? You planned this? Everything?”
She laughed, a humourless, joyless laugh. As she did, I noticed the blood of the stricken man run into rivulets hewn into the floor of the hall. The blood travelled to the hall’s perimeter, and to the feet of the huge statues of the Giants, where it collected in little pools by their pedestals. At the sight of it my blood ran cold, and I was then afraid of my wayward student. “What is this place?” I asked.
“The resting place of the Giants,” she said. “And believe me, they are only resting. Alcman called them ‘hubristic.’ Bacchylides, in his own poetry, called them arrogant, unsympathetic and, once again, filled with hubris. Against the power of the Gods, the Giants’ hubris was their undoing.” She cast her eyes skyward, implicitly towards the masturbatory crowds convulsing on the rim of disaster back in the Athens daylight above us: with that withering glance she condemned the bloodsucking media, the narcissistic celebrities, the venal politicians, and the eschatological preachers. She threw her eyes, dripping with contempt, back on me. “Remind you of anyone?”
The blood collected now before the reliefs of the ancient Gigantes, caught in their shadow dances, in the moment of their greatest triumph and eternal failure. I racked my brains. Why would this man plot his own death with Medas in this place? “Ovid said the Giants were symbolic of the ages of civilisation descending into spiritual and moral chaos,” I said. “Cicero called the Giants arrogant for fighting against nature, against the Gods. But you above all…” I shuddered as the realisation hit me. “Your research. Your work into the Giants, and your politics. It’s all intertwined. You more than anyone know that the most obvious symbolic meaning for the Giants is Man himself. You think it is through our own arrogance, our own hubris, our own belief in our invulnerability, that leads us to destroy ourselves. And which in turn will cause nature – that unknowable, untameable force of judgment – to destroy us. My God, Medas. What are you trying to do?”
I already knew the answer. Medas’s eyes, hardened by murder and conspiracy and robbed of their wit and humour by the madness and corruption of this foul and insane man, melted just for a second. “Oh, Antonios. I was very fond of you, once. But take a look at the world. It is sick. It has been ailed by mankind’s wickedness and willingness to fight against nature, rather than succumb to it.” Her face turned to a sneer. “You always thought my Hellenism was an affectation, a trend.” She shook her head in disgust. “The Gods will put pay to such arrogance once more. The Giants will rise from the blood of the creators of this wicked world, and they will be angry enough to fight the Gods. And they will lose, once more. And the site of their battle will be a glorious ekpyrosis, from which the world can be reborn anew!”
“You are trying to bring the Giants to life? Just so that they can be killed all over again? Medas, for God’s sake, they are statues, sculptures, bits of rock!” I shook my head, partly in disbelief, and partly in sorrow that this quite brilliant child had been seduced by the temptations of foil hats and the web of the supernatural. “You have been tricked, my dear. That dead fellow, your father, was mad. He was as mad as those religious lunatics preaching the end of the world above our very heads. Come with me. I can take you away, and perhaps help you. The supernatural is a crutch to those who fear the cold beauty of logic.” I extended a hand. “But we know better, we who strive in the name of the Philosopher and all those who came in his wake, that the betterment of man is through the pursuit of knowledge. Here the only knowledge is of death and madness. Come, while you still have some of your true nature left.”
She held a hand up as I approached and wielded the sickle above her head as a warning, though the heavy breathing in her chest and the wavering in her arm told me I must have been close to reaching her. It was, then, to my dismay, that the intimacy of that moment, when I may have rescued my dear Medas, was brutally torn away by a monstrous crunching noise behind me. It was so loud I flinched, covering my head. When I turned to see the source of the noise my bowels turned to water and my spine to ice. Where there had stood the great statue of Mimas was now a flowing pile of rubble, as a huge, scarlet man, forty feet tall, bare-chested, muscles coiling and rippling in the shadow of the pyre’s light, stepped from the rubble almost in slow-motion, his great limbs and face as terrible as a battleship riding a wave, his beard as thick and maddening as a forest at night, covered in a grey layer of ancient dust. I tried to rub my eyes, and call to Medas, but found I could do neither, and my feet refused to move. The Giant held a shield displaying a wicked horned insect in one hand, and in the other hand wielded a huge spear, and I knew him to be Mimas, he who had been struck dead by Zeus. He stood to his full height and looked around, craning his neck before letting forth a huge roar, sounding as though mountains had rent themselves asunder. I found I had crept to the edge of the font quite unbeknownst to myself, and squatted in its shadow, trying to make sense of this madness. I realised I had started to pick at my clothes in my mania, and scratch my shaking fingers.
When the statue next to Mimas, that of Eurytus, also shed its stone carapace and revealed another gargantuan monster within, stepping forth with skin of gold and eyes of white and a sword of purest silver that shone in the fire and displayed images of the birth and death of the world on its shimmering blade, I concluded I had finally lost my mind. That did not prevent Hopladamus, and Ephialtes, and Lion all rising from their antediluvian graves to torment the world once again.
All this while Medas had crept forwards from the centre of the room, as I had tried to hide, so she became intent of showing herself, first disrobing herself so she walked naked towards the creature Mimas, and holding her arms wide, as might a mother in greeting her child. Mimas leant down by her, his joints and his weaponry creaking like a ship’s sails, and regarded her with blank curiosity, the lines in his face a sign of age but devoid of any wisdom or humanity. This was an otherworldly thing, a horror not from the imaginations of men but spewed from some cosmic nightmare where logic and truth had been viciously scrubbed from existence. Mimas held out a hand big enough for her to stand on, and she delicately, lovingly, stroked one of his fingers. “You will ride the world, Êndoxi Gigantes mou, and it will burn.” she said, proudly. “Kai metá apó ólous tous laoús tou kósmou.”
“Medas!” I called, trying to break her from this trance. “We must escape! They will crush you!”
She turned and looked at me sadly. “There is no escape from the end of the world.” And then she offered me a smile, and looked forlornly beautiful, and my heart burst. “But just think! Soon it will be reborn, and perhaps we will meet again.” With that, Mimas scooped her up, crushed her like a dried autumn’s leaf, and tossed her lifeless body upon the pyre, to my utter terror. The pyre itself was knocked to the ground by the force of the blow from Medas’s body, spilling fire onto the ground. A numbness took hold of me, but when my senses regained some hold over me, I screamed at the loss of my dear friend.
It was Lion himself, the one whom had been represented by Alexis in this dire scheme, who spotted me, or perhaps heard my screams, and stooped down to grab me with great, muscular hands, fixating upon me with burning eyes and a roar that half-deafened me. He had huge snakes’ tails for legs, which writhed and coiled around the floor revoltingly, slipping and sliding and propelling him with an uncanny smoothness. What could I do? I ran. The flames from the pyre spread across the room as the oils trickled this way and that, mixing with the spilt lifeblood that had brought the Giants to life in the Hall’s many rivulets. I avoided Lion’s fist as it smashed down upon the pyre, spraying sparks and fire and yet more oils into every corner of the room. Fire gathered at the ruined pedestals above which the monsters had for so many millennia stood. My heart pounded and lungs ached with the heat and horror and unfairness and wickedness and absurdity of it all, yet I ran in a blind panic back to the staircase from whence I’d come. There was a deep, rumbling hack hacking noise in the air, and I turned for the merest moment to see Asterius, that wicked monster with the impenetrable skin who was flayed by Athena and whose death was richly celebrated, laughing out loud in a sound that almost stilled my heart. But my legs kept pumping and got me to the steps. I bounded up, three, four steps at a time, slipping, using hands and fingers. At the far end of the hall I saw Clytion and Pallas standing shoulder to shoulder, pressing their brawny backs into the walls, as if trying to bring it down. Their muscles surged with the strain though on their faces was writ no effort. They were trying to make good their escape from this place, even as the fire now licked at their feet, and crept along their limbs. A shattering crunch sounded not metres from me as the sword of Ephialtes careened into the wall just below me as he tried to swat me from existence, but I evaded the blow by inches. Chunks of rock spilled from the wall, the steps crumbled beneath me and fell into the spitting, wicked flames now roaring below. I yelled at myself to rally, and I miraculously made it to the top of the steps and dove into the corridor, just as the flail of Thaos slammed into the wall, breaking it into a thousand pieces, and I ran.