Friday, April 10, 2015

Days Of Their Lives

I'm about to send off the manuscript of Into Everywhere, the follow-up to Something Coming Through, to my editor.  In the brief afterglow of creation, before the business of editing, copy-editing, and dealing with proofs lands on my head, here's a short extract:

Like all tomb raiders, Lisa and Willie had eked out a living from sales of mundane finds while dreaming of discovering the kind of jackpot that would kickstart a new industry or technology and make them so rich that they would never have to work again. They sifted through the middens of abandoned hive rat nests: the fierce little creatures dug deep and sometimes brought up artefacts. They found their way into intact chambers where eidolons might kindle from shadows and lamplight. When everything else failed, they sank shafts into the mounds of collapsed tombs. Willie disliked digging. Not just because it was hard work, although that was a consideration, but because it disturbed what he called ‘the flow’.

The City of the Dead was a sargasso of history, according to him, with strange tides and currents, backwaters and eddies. Everything flowing into everything else.

If they found no intact tombs or abandoned nests, Willie preferred to dowse rather than dig. He would wander over the parched landscape with two lengths of copper wire twisted together in a Y, delicately pinching the two ends between thumbs and forefingers and narrowly watching the quiver and dip of the antenna. Circling a spot when it began to twitch, insisting that Lisa start digging if it violently see-sawed.

Willie’s dowsing had a surprisingly good hit rate – slightly better than chance, according to Lisa’s Chi-squared tests – but he preferred spelunking, and so did Lisa. Finding their way into spaces untouched for thousands of years, where the psychic traces of the creatures that had built it yet remained. She remembered spiral tombs augered into the earth. She remembered labyrinths of broken stone. She remembered one huge, cool, bottle-shaped chamber lit by a shaft of sunlight from a high crevice. As Willie had climbed down the swaying rope ladder, orange fronds clumped in the splash of sunlight on the floor had suddenly broke up and scurried into the safety of shadows. A kind of colonial beetle-thing that grew symbiotic plants on their shells. She remembered another chamber, this one long and low, where eidolons had exploded around them like bats: after they’d sold the tesserae that generated them, she and Willie had lived high on the hog for two months.

She remembered the time the truck’s LEAF battery had run out of charge at the western edge of the City of the Dead – thirty or forty kilometres from the nearest settlement, with the eroded range of mountains that marked the edge of the Badlands shimmering at the horizon. Willie had pulled his trail bike from the load bed and roared off with the battery strapped behind him. He’d said that he’d be directly back, but a day passed, and another, and there was no sign of him and Lisa couldn’t pick up a phone signal. She discovered that she didn’t mind being stranded. She had plenty of food, enough water to last a couple of weeks. She slept in the back of the truck’s crew cab during the day and watched the starry sky at night. Dissolved into the antique silence of the desert. Looking back, she’d never been happier.

On the fourth day, a hot wind out the south blew white sand from the crests of sand dunes. The sky grew milky, the sun faded to a dull smear, and the horizon closed in. The truck’s door seals couldn’t keep out the dust and Lisa had to tie a handkerchief over her nose and mouth. Everything covered with a fine white bloom. Her eyes itching.

Willie drove out of the tail end of the storm towards sunset. He’d been caught up in a business deal, he said, but it hadn’t panned out. Lisa didn’t bother to ask. It might have been a lead on Elder Culture ruins or a poker game, a girl or a spell in jail. In the morning they mounted the recharged LEAF battery and drove to Joe’s Corner, and bought water and food and went on.

Those were the days of their lives until they finally hit their jackpot. Until the Bad Trip.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Into The Vacant

There's no there out here. Back in the day, it was far worse than it is now.  It was being confined to a series of tubes or pipes, strings of intimate little rooms, voids, with an accentuated version of the existential airplane dread playing in your head 24/7 because outside a thin metal skin there was a killing vacuum and nothing else. At first, people were selected from a tiny cadre who piloted prototypes of flying machines and tried to find the edge between control and chaos. And even then, these archetypes of coolness in the face of were trained in simulations until they grew bored with the ritual and repetition, and were kept busy during the actuality with the minutiae of housekeeping in their little tin cans, and never traveled so far that they were ever out of sight of some spectacular view of Earth or Moon. But there's no there, here. Stars, if you squint, but hey, stars are stars. We made the ships bigger, turned them into ocean liners, but they were still strings of rooms, with endless etiquette numbing the nerve and thickening the air. So we made them bigger still, made them into worlds, and had to ask - what's the point of reaching any particular destination when all you need is to hand? But even when you go skiing on some alpine range in one of the cloud chambers, there's still that little hum of existential dread. You come into the resort bar tingling with cold and endorphins, and there on the TV is a report of a blowout. Six hundred dead, recovery craft deployed to recover the bodies from the void everyone spends their life not thinking about. And it's a thousand kilometres sternwards, and is the kind of thing that only happens once in a lifetime, according to the news thing, and your world doesn't have volcanoes or hurricanes unless someone gets a permit to order them up from environmental control, but still.  You think: what are we doing out here in the dark?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Happy Chappie

Mostly reviled by mainstream reviewers, Neill Blomkamp's third feature-length film turns out to be a charming picaresque story of a robot's coming-of-age. Set, like Blomkamp's District 9, in a near-future Johannesburg, the film starts out as a RoboCop homage, with an army of police robots tackling a crime wave in a by-the-numbers meathook urban dystopia. When a couple of hapless gangsters (Yo-Landi and Ninja, played by Die Antwoord rappers Yolandi and Ninja) fall foul of their terrifying boss, they have to come up with an impossibly huge amount of cash.  Their brilliantly stupid plan is to steal one of the robots and kidnap their designer, and use them to rob a bank. In a parallel story, the designer, Dev (Deon Wilson), has been attempting to develop a true AI; stymied by his boss, he has just stolen a damaged robot to experiment on when he's kidnapped by the gangsters.

So far, so B-movie, but the film kicks up a notch after the stolen robot, Chappie, is animated by Dev's AI program, rapidly develops from childhood through strutting rap gangster adolescence to adulthood, and tries to reconcile the opposing moral frameworks of his gangster parents and his creator. Yolandi and Ninja play Chappie's surrogate parents with broad but credible strokes; Hugh Jackman is a somewhat cartoonish embittered alpha male who plots to supplant Dev's robots with his own creation; Sigourney Weaver doesn't have enough to do as their boss. The story's mix of broad comedy, pathos and noisy violence is pretty uneven, doesn't always make sense (Yo-Landi and Ninja let Dev go after he's animated Chappie, even though he knows where they live), and reverts to B-movie cliche in the final showdown, a version of the three-way stand-off in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but with much bigger guns. But Blomkamp's direction is fluidly kinetic, there are some clever twists, and Chappie is a terrific CGI creation. He may lack a recognisable face, but the voicing and motion capture work of Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley, and a script that nicely charts his intellectual and emotional development, create a wonderfully engaging and sympathetic character who is the human heart of this patchwork fable.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Magnolias Coming Through


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

This Strange, Old, Vast And Mostly Empty Planet

In Vic’s opinion, there was as yet no sign that humanity was going to change any time soon. People had come up and out, built cities, and begun to spread across the empty lands and explore the ruins, and they’d also brought all their old shit with them. A few had managed to reinvent themselves, but most hadn’t been able to escape what they already were. Accountants were accountants; estate agents were estate agents; drug dealers were drug dealers. Vic had been a raw constable in Birmingham when he’d won the emigration lottery, and here he was thirteen years later, a murder police unable to maintain any kind of long-term relationship. (‘Let’s face it,’ his ex had said when they’d met for a drink on the day their divorce papers went through, ‘neither of us are cut out for marriage.’ She had been trying to be kind, but it had still stung.) But even though he had long ago learned that reality fell far short of the ideal of justice, at least he still loved the job. On his good days, anyway. He wasn’t yet burned out. He still wanted to make things right by his dead, was still curious about people and this strange, old, vast and mostly empty planet.
From Something Coming Through

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lost River



Actor Ryan Gosling's debut as director/screenwriter is a strange little urban fable that mixes social realism with a fairytale curse. Infused with homages to Gosling's directorial influences, notably Nicolas Winding Refn and David Lynch, it's set in a post-industrial town (it makes good use of the ruin porn landscapes of Detroit) blighted by the construction of a reservoir. Bones (Iain De Caestecker), scuffling a living by stripping copper piping from abandoned buildings, runs foul of Bully (Matt Smith, with a shaven head and a muscle T-shirt), who sits in an armchair strapped to the back of an open-top Cadillac, chauffeured by his mutilated henchman and using a bullhorn to tell everyone that the town is his. Meanwhile, Bones' mother (Christina Hendricks) tries to save the family home from foreclosure and demolition by taking up a job in a nightclub run by the bank manager who refuses to extend her credit, and Bones learns about the curse and how it might be lifted from goth-girl-next-door Rat (Saoirse Ronan).

This slight story is infused with a striking dreamlike quality, enhanced by Johnny Jewel's synth soundtrack and cinematographer Benoît Debie's feverish photography. The club, where performers (including Eva Mendes and scream queen Barbara Steele) fake bloody mutilations and death for the delectation of jaded yuppies, and women can earn extra in the glowing purple basement, is straight out of Lynchland; there's some lovely imagery of burning bicycles, the hell-mouth entrance of the club, a line of streetlights receding into a lake, and lingering shots of decaying houses, graffitied factories and the overgrown ruins of a zoo; Christina Hendricks, although mired in ruinous poverty, is always immaculately dressed. And although the urban dystopia is clearly early twenty-first century, the rite-of-passage struggle between Bones and Bully, in a criminal milieu lacking both guns and drugs, is reminiscent of Frances Ford Coppola's adaptations of S.E. Hinton's Rumble Fish and The Outsiders. The story's climax, in which Bones rides to the rescue of both his mother and Rat, seems both trivial and abrupt after the brooding build-up, but Gosling's evocation of the uncanny lingers.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Lost Hothouse



Just published in the US, the anthology Old Venus, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. A collection of stories, including my 'Planet of Fear', set on the mythic steamy, swampy version of the second planet from the sun before those pesky space probes revealed the truth.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Words In Place

'Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.'
Robert Macfarlane, The Word-Hoard

'My favourite park's a car park, grass is something you smoke,
birds are something you shag.'
Pulp, I Spy

When I wrote the first two Quiet War novels, largely set in the icy moons of the outer planets, I was able to use the real names of real places. They were from maps compiled using images taken by the two Voyagers, Cassini and other robot space probes, but of course they showed only the geographical features - the craters and montes, the faculae, planitiae, regiones, flumina and so on. Robert Macfarlane has written an ode to the huge variety of words for the small-scale features and transient phenomena in our landscapes, and notes that, by naming something, it becomes more observable, more memorable. If ever people come to live on Callisto and Dione, Titan and Oberon and Charon, they will certainly develop their own fine-grained language of place, the equivalent of Macfarlane's 'terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception.'

Meanwhile, it occurs to me that we need something similar to describe features peculiar to the urban landscape. There are already some - the Oxford dictionary, for instance, has recorded the variety of regional variant names for alleys. But we need more. Words for the plastic bag caught in the branches of a tree (as opposed to the plastic bag caught on the razor-wire of a security fence), the ring of green algae that grows at the bases of street lights and traffic signs in winter, the water that lurks under a loose paving stone. The temporary freshet that wells from a broken water pipe. The weeds that crack through concrete. The weeds that grow at the seam between pavement and wall. The hump in tarmac raised by a tree root. The wind that skirls down the side of a skyscraper. The gleam of low winter sun on a glass curtain wall. Those things inhabitants of cities unsee every day, because as yet they lack the vocabulary to make them a permanent part of the urban experience.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Elsewhere

I've written a few pieces for other people's blogs based around the themes of Something Coming Through. For those who might be interested:

A piece on alien invasion films on Entertainment Focus.

A short essay on crime and science fiction over on We Love This Book.

Another short essay, this one on friendly aliens, on Games Radar.

And over at SF Signal, Alvaro Zinos Amaro asked me a few questions.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What Is Lost

'In “On the Road,” nothing stands in the way of the authentic, except the rules of formal life; when they have been overcome, the glittering night opens to anyone who desires to enter it. The naïveté of this is astounding, but so is the power.'
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Saga, Part 1 
Which is also a pretty good description of that form of science fiction sometime called 'core'. But must be overcome, to write in that form? What is given up? What is lost?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Publication Day



Published today in the UK and the US. For a little while longer, the ebook is still available at the special price of £1.99 (or $1.99), but why not consider the lovely hardback?

More details (and a couple of extracts) over on the web site.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Re-re-re-re-rewriting

In the week that my new novel, Something Coming Through, is published, I am coming to the end of the second draft of the follow-up, Into Everywhere. 'Second draft', of course, being a very loose term for what is actually a patchwork of second- and third- and fourth-hand revisions of the structure of sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Writing the first draft of a piece of prose inside a word-processing document is superficially similar to writing in longhand or on a typewriter, in the sense that words accumulate from left to right on pristine whiteness (if that's your default) like footprints in snow, but even in first draft the fluidity of word-processing allows endless tinkering. If you're not careful, it can take forever to get past that first page, or that crucial first paragraph.

I wrote my early short stories and my first published novel (and a couple of earlier novels I was in retrospect very glad to junk) on a typewriter. You xxxx'd or Tipp-Ex'd out words or even a sentence or two as you went along, but short of retyping the entire page you couldn't rearrange the text in any substantial way. You thought of a sentence, sometimes doodling with it on a scratch pad before you got it right, and then you typed it out. And then you thought of another, and typed out that. And so on to the end, when you took out your red pen and savaged the manuscript and then started over at the typewriter.

But of course the process is open to constant revision in word processing. You write a sentence and look at it and realise that you have it back to front and put it in the right order then and there. You swap sentences around. You delete and restore them. You move paragraphs or entire scenes from one place to another. And then you move them again. The 'second draft' of Into Everywhere is full of changes like that, some following revisions red-penned on the print-out of the first draft, others made in mid-flow. But the biggest revisions of all are still the kind of changes I used to make back in the days of typewriter, Tipp-Ex and scratch pad: I've cut the first draft down from 160,000 words to about 145,000 by junking around 50,000 words and writing 35,000 new ones. Because now I know what I need and what's superfluous. All I have to do now is make sure all the words are in the right order.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Squaring Up To The Alien

[Written for the Gollancz blog, reprinted here a week before the novel's publication.]

The first glimmer came in a short story, ‘Dust’, written for an anthology celebrating the classic science-fiction film Forbidden Planet. Like the film, my story was about the powers and perils of ancient alien technology, and somewhere in the background was a hint that people were able to explore other planets because of the help of a bunch of aliens who called themselves the Jackaroo.

Extraterrestrial intelligence is a serious scientific and philosophical idea, and aliens are a central trope of science fiction. But they’re also, let’s face it, a bit embarrassing. Partly because of UFOs, spirit guides from better worlds, ET’s magic finger, and all that; partly because they so obviously embody the genre’s madeupedness, especially when authors try to authenticate their aliens with a blizzard of world-building factoids, or by emphasising similarities to cats or pixies.

Something Coming Through isn’t about explaining away the alien: it’s about the difficulty of understanding it. The Jackaroo step in to give aid to humanity at a moment of global crisis. They are, they say, here to help. But they’re also wilfully enigmatic. They appear only as humanoid avatars. They deflect all questions about what they are, where they come from, why they are helping humanity, and what the endpoint of that help might be.

It’s also about that very twenty-first century anxiety: how we are being changed by technology we barely understand or control. Cities established by settlers on the Jackaroo gift worlds possess Starbucks and shopping malls, but the familiar is stretched thin across geological layers of older alien civilisations, and ruins haunted by fragments of alien memory and phantasms. ‘What does it say about us,’ one of the characters says, ‘when just about the first thing we do when we reach other worlds is look for stuff to get us high?’ There’s a question.

Something Coming Through Twitter Banner

Monday, February 02, 2015

Unboxing Something Coming Through

Author's copies of Something Coming Through, published in the UK and the US on February 19th. From a single word processing file to a stack of actual books - the miracle of multiplication in a cardboard box.

Meanwhile, by the way, you can still preorder the ebook from your favourite retailer for the special offer price of £1.99 in the UK and $1.99 in the US.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Free Matter

For anyone who might be interested, there are eight of my short stories up on the web site.  Also: Jack Womack and I interview each other, some articles and reviews, two lists, and an autobiographical fragment.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Rebooting

My first encounter with the internet was back in 1992, when the university I was working for gave all their teaching staff what was then a state-of-the-art Apple Macintosh with the Pine email client and the first a hard line to the JANET university network. About a year later, I found that one of the first commercial ISPs, Demon Internet, had a server node in Dundee, inside the local telephone area of my house. For ten pounds a month, I had a 56k dial-up connection, an email address (which I still use) and, a few years after that, a small tract of web space.

And so I began to build my first web site. It was pretty basic to begin with, and although it has evolved in fits and starts since then, it's still fairly simple. I picked up HTML pretty quickly, but fell behind the curve when frames, CSS coding and so on were introduced.  A few years ago, I pruned back a bunch of unwieldy links and tried to unify the appearance of the main pages, and then . . . well, I let it languish.

It hasn't been updated for three years. In that time I've published a new novel, a new short story collection, an omnibus edition of the Confluence trilogy, and a non-fiction book on Terry Gilliam's film Brazil. And in a few weeks I'll have a new novel out. So it's time to tidy up the web site yet again.

And here it is.

It's still very much a work in progress, and is still incredibly simple, but since all of my output is text-based it doesn't need much in the way of flash and filigree. At some point I'll introduce drop-down sub-menus and some kind of framing. And it might be a good idea to either port the entire thing over to WordPress, or bite the bullet and finally set up my own domain name, something I've never gotten around to because of a) free web hosting and b) the last time I looked, someone was still cybersquatting my name.
 
But at the moment I simply want to get the poor old thing up to date. I've just added a contact page, and a new free short story, and there are other changes on the way - especially to the section devoted to books in print. Any comments and suggestions welcome.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Machines Of Loving Grace

From Karel Čapek's play R.U.R., through Isaac Asimov's stories and novels revolving around his three laws, to William Gibson's Sprawl novels and the latest iterations of machine transcendence, science fiction has long explored existential questions about artifical intelligence. Can we construct a self-aware thinking machine that perfectly mimics human thought and affect? Would human-like machines actually be human, or would they develop their own agendas? So forth. In his film Ex Machina, writer/director Alex Garland merges this theme with the scientist-as-creator-god trope most famously embodied in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau. The resulting hybrid is a deft, tightly-plotted science-fiction thriller in which two geeks go head to head over a female android who not only appears to be self-aware, but may also be more cunning and manipulative than either of them.

It's mostly set in a modernist one-man research facility in an isolated estate in Alaska, where a young coder, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleason), arrives after winning a lottery that gives him face-time with the boss of his search-engine company, Nathan.  Played by the ever-versatile Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year) with a shaven head and hipster beard, Nathan embodies all the manic, macho, super-controlling vices of Silicon Valley's alpha-geekdom.  He gives Caleb a pass that allows him access only to certain areas of the house, and tells him that the lottery was a sham: he's actually been recruited to test Nathan's latest creation, Ava, an android that may or may not be self-aware enough to pass for human. With only the overbearing, manipulative Nathan and his silent servant/bed companion Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) for company, Caleb soon falls for the coolly sympathetic and beautiful Ava (Alicia Vikander), assumes the role of her white knight, and enters into a contest of wills over her freedom.



The film's examination of the nature of intelligence is capable rather than novel, but its story is furnished with cleverly unsettling twists and revelations, and there are some nice touches in the genesis of Ava - her silicon-sponge brain runs on data derived from Nathan's vast search engine, for instance, so that she embodies and has access to all of the desires and appetites of its users. And although she's the object of the contest between the two men, Alicia Vikander's delicately assertive portrayal of Ava steals the film. Moving with controlled and slightly inhuman grace, displaying unsettling sharp insights into human behaviour, Ava is an ethereal, poignant Miranda whose yearning for the whole wide world beyond the confines of her glass and concrete cage captures the sympathies of both naive Caleb and the audience.

Alicia Vikander's performance is aided by CGI that seamlessly marries flesh with plastic and metal, a terrific example of state-of-the art visual manipulation.  Given the ongoing difficulty of developing actual artificial intelligence, and recent advances in wearable virtual reality, perhaps the most pressing question technology presently poses is not how to spot machines passing for human, but how to distinguish illusion from the actual.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Another Advertisment For Myself


 I spent most of 2013 and a small chunk of 2014 thinking about and writing Something Coming Through; part of 2014 was also consumed by the processes that turn a manuscript into a book: editing, copy-editing and minutely inspecting proofs. And while I wrote and revised the first draft of a new book, the production and publishing process has been edging forward and suddenly, in less than a month, the thing itself will be in the shops. So it goes from the point of view of an author - slow, slow, quick, slow, and then the sudden birth.

Gollancz are offering a special price for the ebook: you can pre-order it right now from all UK sellers for £1.99. So why not take advantage of their reckless generosity?

Friday, January 09, 2015

Into The List

It's pointless, really, to argue with award shortlists. They are what they are; no amount of complaining will change them. And actually, the right of the first three films to be on the shortlist for the 2014 BAFTA Award for Best Film are hard to argue with:

BEST FILM
BIRDMAN Alejandro G. Iñárritu, John Lesher, James W. Skotchdopole
BOYHOOD Richard Linklater, Cathleen Sutherland 
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson
THE IMITATION GAME Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky, Teddy Schwarzman
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce, Anthony McCarten

Birdman, Boyhood, and The Grand Budapest Hotel are all fine, innovative films in different ways, made by directors at the top of their game, and all feature great performances. I find it hard to choose between them frankly, but The Grand Budapest Hotel just edges ahead.

But then there are the other two films on the list, both dead straight British Heritage biopics. And both biopics about scientists, which is of course A Good Thing. There aren't enough. Actually, I liked The Theory Of Everything, which framed Stephen Hawking's work with the human story of his illness and fraying marriage (it was based on a book by his first wife). You came out of it with some understanding of his work, and how he achieved it. But you can't say the same for the Turing biopic, The Imitation Game. All fictionalised stories of real lives bend the truth, but The Imitation Game bends it more than most, and while there are good performances by Keira Knightly and Benedict Cumberbatch, the latter echoes his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. The superbright outsider, bemused by mere humans, isolated by his intellect - and, in Turing's case, by his sexuality, shown here to be as crippling as Hawking's amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Both have edged out far better films, notably another biopic, Mike Leigh's Mr Turner, with its terrific central performance by Timothy Spall. Under the Skin (up there with The Grand Budapest Hotel as far as I'm concerned) and '71 would also have been good choices for Best Film, but instead are relegated to the Outstanding British Film category. And then there are The Babadook, Blue Ruin, Calvary, Locke, Maps to the Stars, Nightcrawler . . .  2014 was a pretty good year for great films. Such a shame the BAFTA list includes two disappointingly safe middle-of-the-road choices instead.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Dagenham

Something Coming Through will be published in six weeks or so, and to celebrate my publishers have arranged a giveaway of ten copies over at Goodreads.

Meanwhile, here's how it begins:

1.  Just Another Snake Cult
London, July 2nd
Four days till she was due to appear before the parliamentary select committee, Chloe Millar couldn’t take it any more. The rehearsals and group exercises, the pre-exam nerves and pointless speculation, the third degree about the New Galactic Navy . . . No to all that business. She banged out of there and minicabbed it down the A13 to check out a lead in Dagenham. Traffic glittering in hot sunlight, factories, housing estates and big box retail outlets, sewage works and power stations. A glimpse of the Reef’s dark blister and the river beyond. A welling feeling of relief with an undercurrent of guilt that she tried to ignore.

The minicab was negotiating the Ripple Road junction when her phone rang. Jen Lovell, Disruption Theory’s office manager, wanting to know where she was and what she was up to.

‘I’m chasing a lead. A good one.’

’We’ve all had to give up our Saturdays. Even you, Chloe.’

‘There’s a cult. Definitely turned, about to break out. They announced it on Facebook, a public meeting supposed to start at one o’clock. I’m late, but these things never run to schedule. I won’t have missed anything important.’

‘Preparing for the select committee: that’s what’s important.’

‘They haven’t shut us down yet,’ Chloe said. She wasn’t going to feel guilty. She was doing her actual job. ‘It’s probably just another snake cult, but I can’t be certain until I see it in action.’

Her destination was a displaced-persons camp at the eastern edge of Old Dagenham Park. A row of single-storey prefab barracks and half a dozen L-shaped stacks of repurposed shipping containers, built a decade ago for refugees from flooding caused by climate change and rising sea levels, privately rented now.

Chloe found a bench in the shade of a gnarly old chestnut tree, ate chips out of a cardboard clamshell, and watched people gathering around a makeshift stage where a scrawny old geezer in tattered jeans and T-shirt was setting up a microphone stand and a stack of speakers. Young children ran about, transformed by face paint into rabbits and tigers. A pair of policewomen watched indulgently. They were wearing new-issue stab vests, spun from tough self-healing collagen derived from a species of colonial polyp that rafted on Hydrot’s world ocean. The Met’s logo stamped in dark blue on the pearlescent material. High above, an errant balloon bobbed on an uncertain breeze, a silvery heart blinking random Morse code in the hot sunlight.

It reminded Chloe of the music festival where she’d first been kissed, seriously kissed, by a boy whose name she’d forgotten. She’d been, what, fourteen. A late-starter, according to her mates. She remembered a Hindu procession that wound through the streets of Walthamstow to the temple each year: drummers, men with painted faces in fantastic costumes, men animating giant stick-puppets of gods and dragons. She remembered one Hallowe’en, the first after First Contact, when every other kid had dressed up as a Jackaroo avatar.

The geezer bent to the microphone, dreadlocks hanging around his face as he gave it the old one two one two. And a shadow fell across Chloe and someone said, ‘Give us a chip.’
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