One of many prologues to the Grace Saga...

... this one giving you as much background as you're ever getting on Harriet Black.

It was a hot day, but the streets were crowded, because this was July, but this was Istanbul. To be precise, July 1935.

Simon had said, rightly, though for completely the wrong reasons, that Istanbul was the most exciting place to be in the world. Simon's reasons were of course that it was a predominantly Islamic country that had just elected 18 women as members of parliament, and that Mustafa Kemal's programme of reform and modernization would bring about dramatic changes that would show the rest of the world, almost from one day to the next, that change was good, and that social progress was real.

Harriet Black couldn't care less. She had never once used her right to vote, in any of the countries where her citizenship – real or counterfeit – entitled her so to do. Harriet Black was in Istanbul because it was the hub of the Game. Widely considered neutral territory – the point where for thousands of years East meets West, someone whose loyalty, on the rare occasions where anyone was sufficiently foolish to test it, would always and only prove to be to herself, could find herself at ease, at rest, and in absolute control of her destiny.

Picture then, if you can, the hot, dusty but not altogether dry streets of the world's oldest Capital – never mind that a little more than ten years ago this country's official capital had been moved to the much more Turkish city of Ankara; Istanbul was still the capital of the world. Under the makeup of her architecture, under the flesh of her streets and houses, were the bones of the oldest city in the world, an among those bones, the bones of men of more nations, more cultures, more difference, than any other city. No wonder she was too western for the Young Turks: she was too eastern for most Europeans; small wonder nonetheless that when the ottoman had become sickly, it was on exotic Istanbul that the world's treasure-hunters had turned their greedy eyes.

Which was how Harriet had come there the first time. It was not common knowledge, but she had arrived in 1904 on horseback, aged 13, with nothing but the clothes on her back and a mismatched pair of stolen pistols for which she had no cartridges – though this she had rectified within a couple of hours. Several more days, numerous thefts and at least one probable murder later, she was installed in the hotel known as the Grand Byzantine* – an ostentatiously wedding-cakey affair so full of bell-hops and flunkies there was hardly room for the guests.

Today, she hardly ever thought of her first visit. It was a very different city today, even though, in so many ways, exactly the same.

Harriet sauntered down the middle of the street, her wide hips swaying, shuffling the black silk of her dress from side to side, leaving an oddly organic trail in the dust. The people in the street could be neatly divided between those who knew her silhouette well – most of the people who lived on the street were her tenants, after all – and those who had never seen her before. Since while the former would nod politely to her, and then sagely to one-another, the latter simply stopped whatever they were doing to stare, slack-jawed, a the woman with the explosion of black curls, the ice-white skin behind huge sunglasses, the scarlet smile almost as wide as her face, showing wide teeth even whiter than her skin; the black silk dress, open at the front to reveal a black leather bodice both discreet and practical – her décolleté covered by a black muslin veil – and black silk trousers tucked into black riding boots that were last in fashion in about 1913, if you were a Hussar, but which, if you knew Harriet Black, you would realize had probably been made only a few months ago.

On the street, Harriet Black was known as one of the richest women in a city of millionaires. In the Game, she was known as one of the most elusive and dangerous**.

And indeed, the other major reason why Istanbul was considered neutral territory was the presence of Harriet herself.

Our story starts, then, with her sauntering along a busy street, making towards a much busier one, where a dark mauve Rolls Royce is waiting for her, the rear passenger door open.

And busy though the street was, once she was within a couple of hundred yards of the car, the crowd parted, leaving her a path a good three yards wide which though people occasionally strayed across it, noone lingered long between the white woman all in black and her destination.

As she got into the car, two young men in tropical suits detached themselves from the coffee counter they had been leaning on, and wandered languidly over to a small two-seater. One of them handed a couple of banknotes to the boy who had been sitting contentedly in the driving seat, and he hopped out and disappeared into the crowd.

"She doesn't look a day over twenty-five," one of them observed.

"Legal records indicate that the city considered her an adult – and indeed a widow – in 1910. She must be over forty – even if she lied in 1910."

"They say that last year in Chicago –"

The older man cut him off:

"You will find, Brian, that there are an awful lot of 'they says' about this woman. Nonetheless, what I said before stands, and you would do well to remember it."

"She isn't on your side. If you're in her way she'll go through you."

"Good. And don't forget it. She has both charm and beauty, but she also has a sort of honesty... the tiger may smile, but never tries to pretend that he is not a tiger."


After a short trip up a couple of major roads, the Rolls Royce stopped outside a big, regular building, rather anonymous looking in spite of the distinctively Istanbul collision of styles known as "Ottoman Baroque". Opening her own door to get out, Harriet walked over to a door above which had been stencilled simply "HOTEL". As she stepped inside, the little two-seater pulled over, a little further down the street.

"What the bloody hell is she doing here?" said the younger man, but the other didn't reply.

Inside was a small lobby, where a man in a tatty green uniform stood behind an ancient polished counter. He didn't react in any visible way to the appearance of Harriet Black.

"Black, for Quest."

The man wrote something in a ledger, and then handed her a key. At the other end of the lobby was a new-looking lift, but she ignored it, and sprang lightly up the stairs.

Simon Quest's office was a long walk – almost half a mile if you included the stairs, and looked out of six romanesque arches over the Bosphorus, a stretch of water almost as crowded as the street on which Harriet Black had begun her day.

She walked in without knocking, served herself some tea from the samovar, and walked out onto the balcony. She smiled as she sipped her tea. This balcony had been the scene of her "little epiphany" – and Simon Quest its only witness. Ten years later, he looked, well, he looked ten years older. A slight man, only a little taller than her, thin and neat, close-cropped blond hair and a manner that would have been effeminate if it were a little less restrained. A man of astonishing knowledge, about the city, about people, about her.

Dangerous, maybe. Not because of what he did. Simon Quest wasn't a doer. Not because of what he knew. Simon Quest wasn't a teller, either. Dangerous because of what people would tell him. And what he would tell them. And what they would subsequently do.

As he stepped into the room, Harriet bounced uncharacteristically across to him and treated him to a peck on the cheek that lingered only a little longer than necessary. Needless to say his reaction was limited to a microwatt smile – that was nonetheless enough to get a gigawatt back from her. She served him a glass of tea, and poured another for herself.

"You're not going to like it," he began, matter-of-factly.

"No need to break it to me gently then."

"It's about the Library."

Harriet didn't bother to say that the subject of the Library had been put to bed; that they were sure that the Library was not here in Istanbul, and indeed that the Library was a fantasy. The two people who best knew this were the two people in this room.

"Hat, you've always played the game at street level. I'm expected to work a little higher up these days."


"You know what the purpose of the Game is. War. The game is about war. When there isn't adequate grounds for open war, the game is used to attempt to establish adequate grounds. I know you don't play it quite that way. But that is what it is for. And that is what this is about."

Harriet stared out at the chaotic shipping and waited for him to go on.

"The powers think that their last chance is coming to achieve their European objectives. The Colonial Solution has failed – they have reached a stalemate – and they think that before long, another European War will be, for numerous reasons, impossible. So they will use the game, and you, and me I don't doubt, to establish adequate grounds for total European war."

She continued to stare at the glare of the sun on the waters.

"I bet you think that has nothing to do with the City, nothing to do with the Library, nothing to do with you. I bet you think that you and your city are unique. And I bet even you forget, from time to time, what I know about you."

She turned and stared at him, and began to say "You wouldn't..."

"No! Of course I wouldn't. But there is enough of that kind of thing elsewhere in the world, and enough people who will believe everything and stop at nothing that does not prove it untrue... people who will do anything to gain an advantage, no matter how small, in what is surely to come."

"Here and now," he went on, "here is what everybody thinks they know: the Library left Rome. The records at Herculaneum make that pretty clear. The Library went east. After the fall of Constantinople enough minor artefacts and rare texts left the City to convince a lot of people that there had to be more."

He went back in to fill up his glass, and finding the samovar a little cool, pulled on a pair of long cotton gloves, and carefully emptied and refilled it. He dropped a little tea and sugar in the kettle, and left it on the tray while the cistern re-heated, before coming back out empty-handed.

"Here and now," he picked up, "here is what we know, you and I: the historian Torsius deliberately invented the myth of the Library in order to perpetuate the idea that the Romans possessed the hidden knowledge of the ancients, and he deliberately sent many of the materials salvaged from Alexandria to Constantinople, knowing that Constantinople's already legendary possession of Greek Fire would encourage the Roman Legend. We know this because we have read Torsius' book. We've read it because we found the Annexe. Even so, we also both suspect that the Library, even if it isn't here, probably did exist and maybe still does."

"You've never said that before."

"Harriet, you have to go back to the Annexe and destroy it."

"You know I can't do that."

"Then others will find it. Others will read Torsius, and they will assume that if he lied about part of the story he could be lying about all of it. They will come here, and the war will be fought here and they will tear the city apart looking for it."

Simon Quest had, up to this point only ever seen two expressions on Harriet's face – a gigawatt smile or a scowl of intense concentration. Now, her face was twisted into a mask of confusion. You couldn't say if it was panic, or anger, or fear, or even anything human. He knew very well, of course, that Harriet didn't feel things the way that others do.

He watched as her face settled back into a familiar smile, but he could see the clenched fist, and he could see the waters of the Bosphorus turn suddenly choppy as a tremor crossed over from the eastern side to rattle the shutters, and stir up the dust. He walked calmly back into the room, and held the samovar gingerly by the two hot wooden handles as the tremor crossed the room, rattling the kettle and the glasses in the tray.

He looked up, and saw Harriet's curls bouncing and shaking in silhouette against the white sky like snakes coiling and uncoiling.

Simon went back outside to watch the dust settle.

"There have been some collapses in Sariyer. I have to go."

"Wait. Listen."

For a moment she had seemed pressed – hurried – to leave. Suddenly she was still, composed, listening.

"They will send their best people first. Most of them are probably already here. When you find them, deal with them in final and interesting ways. They'll keep sending more people but they won't get better. So you can keep dealing with them. It could get time consuming. And messy. If necessary, start a gang war. I see no reason to be discreet about this. To be honest with you, Hat, I'm getting a little fed up with the whole thing."

He filled up the kettle and balanced it on top of the samovar.

"And once everything is a real mess here, go and find the damn Library, and when you do, destroy it."

Harriet looked at him, smiling blankly.

"Go on, go, your city is waiting for you."


The mauve Rolls Royce sped north through the city, the little two-seater not far behind. Most of the way there was little sign of the tremor's passing, but up ahead there was a significant dust cloud, and, possibly, some smoke.

When the Rolls Royce arrived in Sariyer, it was no longer being followed by the little two-seater, a fact explained by it's later discovery wrapped around a tree in one of the many small parks along the way. Driver and passenger may or may not have survived the accident – but this was academic as both had been shot in the face with, the experienced Turkish Police concluded, a large calibre pistol. They further concluded that the murderer was long gone, and would not be discovered. As it turned out, they were quite right about the latter part.

* There is a "Hotel Byzantium" not far from where the Grand Byzantine stood, and though it is a rather more modest establishment, it looks very comfortable; I have never stayed there. The place known as the Grand Byzantine never actual had those words over the door, though I was assured by Frost himself that that is what everyone called it.
** Frost once digressed into the Art of War, and observed that one of the best times to conquer a neighbour was when the neighbour was beset by a natural disaster – flood, famine, earthquake. The equivalent in the Game was being beset by Harriet Black.   



Nice little linguistic oddity: in French, when something or someone is lagging behind, we say of it (or them) ça rames, literally, "it is rowing". It is therefore natural that when the internet turned up here, net lag would be bewailed with the cry ça rames, and later, when a computer seemed to be slowing down, ça rames and indeed ça rames à fond (a conflation with another expression, à fond la caisse meaning (for rather convoluted reasons) to "go very fast").
People seem to understand that a common premier soin for a slow computer is to add more memory, or RAM. (Can you see where this is going yet?) I had already heard anecdotally of customers asking for "plus de rames" or "rajouter une rame ou deux"; yesterday I got my first primary evidence, in the form of a post-it attached to a cheque for an advance that a customer dropped in my letterbox. The post-it reads:

Mon mari demande si on peut également rajouter quelques rames

– "My husband would like you to also add a few extra oars."

I have been looking for a product name for the fastest computer I would sell, where money is no object. I think I'll have to go with quinquereme.


Fantasy and POV

Beeda and I discovered a body by the road this morning, and it has led us to what looks like a whole story – if only the girl survives, and we can make head or tail of it. But I am getting ahead of myself. The man was in his early fifties; kindly looking, and wealthy. And unarmed. We followed his trail – it wasn't hard. He had been dealt a killing blow, and had been left to stumble away, maybe a hundred yards or so from the quiet grove, a little away from the road, where they had been ambushed. A perfect spot for a picnic – or an ambush.

There were six bodyguards. Serious looking fellows. Thier corpses were joined by two others – bandits by their dress... but by now I was already suspicious. For a well patrolled road this was a big armed guard. So the attack was either planned – tareted, or an accident. If the latter the bandits must have been extremely numerous, or they had assistance. They didn't seem to be have been numerous. We followed their trail – that wasn't hard, either. Beyond the grove was an open pasture, and beyond that, the forest proper. We followed the trail barely half a mile into the forest, until we came upon their makeshift camp. We could see five of them, but it looked like there had been more.

Beeda didn't wait to consult, but strung her bow and slipped into the undergrowth. The bandits in the camp were making quite a lot of noise. I considered trying my luck with an arrow, but in the woods, even when not very dense, these things are best left to the professionals.

As I closed in, it became clear why they were making so much noise. They were raping someone. Not all of them. One of the bandits was a woman. I drew my blade.

The action was brief. Beeda got two of them before I even raised my weapon. In seconds only the woman was standing, trying to pull a short mace free from her belt, she looked up, her mouth a perfect 'o'. Then Beeda put an arrow through her throat, by now at very close range. This was not pretty.

The girl had been stripped, beaten, struck in the face with either a flail or a morgenstern, and raped repeatedly. But she was breathing, and no bones seemed to be broken. I remember Beeda grinning at me, so I must have raised an eyebrow. We wrapped the girl as best we could in the remains of her clothes, and I slung her over my shoulder. She is heavier than I expected.

It was quite a way to our camp of the previous night, but now here we are again. As I write, Beeda is waxing her bow in front of the fire, and the girl is sleeping soundly. We talked a little on the way, and Beeda and I agree that the bandits we killed were not the ones who had killed the bodyguards. We also agreed, given the belongings we had found, that the girl had been in a wedding party, and that she had been the bride.


I'm a great fan of POV switching. There's no POV that can be used for everything - though people sometimes try with "omniscient narrator". 1st person is a good way to introduce a character, and in the above piece I am imagining that the character writes a journal - when he can. But since I know the backstories of the other two characters, I also know that neither of them talks very much. In their company, the main character (as yet unnamed) doesn't get to talk very much, and he is a bit of a talker. It makes natural sense to me then that he will talk to himself. There is a further advantage to having the character write a journal: he can't know what is going to happen next. 1st person narrators are often portrayed as telling a story that happened to them a long time ago - so they already know how it is going to turn out. This can spoil much of the discovery of the story and characters - as much for the author as for the reader.

Two things must the author have to write a good narrative:
1. The characters must be in a tricky spot most of the time. The characters' ease and comfort is inversely proportional to the author's ability to discover the story
2. The author must enjoy himself when writing. If he already knows the story in detail, writing it can become a chore.


A Convention of Unconventional Super Heroines

Hamilton watched the three of them at the top of the street. She could feel the broad shape of Major Grace just behind her, though she knew that in the bright sunlight, if she turned to look, she'd see right through him. But he was there. She knew he would be. Creon Grace wouldn't miss this.

At the top of the street they stood, in the cold wind of a November morning.

Poppy, motionless. At this distance Hamilton couldn't see Poppy's eyes, but she knew they'd be motionless too. Poppy, so tall, her straight black hair, shining like hot tar as the breeze lifted it here and there; Poppy rooted to the spot like nothing on Earth, nothing imaginable could move her.

Beside Poppy, Harriet Black might almost have looked dumpy, if it wasn't for her posture of relaxed anticipation. Harriet in her Jackie O glasses, her wide mouth fashing scarlet lips in a broad smile that revealed her perfect, if rather large teeth. One hand on a substantial hip, her white leather jacket unzipped so that her black curls could tumble over her generous cleavage.

On the other side of Poppy, Cassandra Grace, a simple shift dress and sandals topped with her sensibly cut straw colored hair. So... odd. Hamilton couldn't think of a better word. Poppy who could stop an armored car barehanded; Harriet Black who had toppled empires with a smile or a gun; beside them mild Cassandra Grace was what? A quiet, English hero? Cassandra certainly wasn't one for showdowns. Then again, Hamilton thought, if you were meeting the end of life as we know it, what better welcoming comittee than a murderous cyborg more alien hardware than human woman, a three hundred year-old soldier of fortune, and an enigmatic diplomat followed everywhere by the ghost of her great grandfather.

And Hamilton, too, of course. Hamilton had one or to tricks to pull. This thing was very far from decided.


Commentary probably isn't even necessary. Superheros are of course part of the Fantasy Genre but somehow they are mostly confined to comic books. I find this odd. In this vignette we have four of my favourite characters, all of which have short stories to themselves and occasionally run into one another. Brenda (Hamilton)* and Cassandra are both Blondes with Glasses - unconventionally beautiful, superintelligent, conventionally heroic. Poppy and Harriet Black are both Raven Haired Antiheroines - conventionally beautiful if in rather different ways, superintelligent, ruthless and uncompromising.

* I got the name "Brenda Hamilton" from the John Norman novel Time Slave. If you only ever read one book by John Norman, this should be it. And let's face it, you only need to read one book by John Norman because good solid sub/dom fantasy though it is, they are all very much the same.


New Densewords Website

Actually, new site for both my businesses:
In'tique is here www.intique.fr
Densewords is here: www.densewords.com

Feel free to mock all the copy errors mercilessly!


Songs from Castle Country

No more the galleries and the marbled halls, 
No more the turrets and the curtain walls, 
No more the gardens and the pretty maids around, 
No more to lie with you on the warm soft ground.

Far from the fields and the smiling sun, 
Where the neverending sky is done, 
No more the comfort of your loving arms around, 
No more to lie with you on the warm soft ground.

Unto the darkness where the way is blind,
Unto the rocky hard and the cold unkind,
Unto the smith that hammers men with it's dull and deadly sound, 
There to find a place to lie on the cold hard ground.

"Castle Country" is my name for a universal medieval setting. Usually the stories I write for Castle Country don't have any magic or mythology. But they do have plenty of deadly combat, jousts, tavern wenches, intrigue, chaste princesses, sieges, more tavern wenches, conspiracies, adulterous queens, ostlers, hunting lodges, falconers, sighing princes, further tavern wenches, huge horses with feet the size of soup-plates, plotting Kings and a whole gamut of priests, monks, hermits, nuns, bishops and occasionally, popes.

Castle Country is an anything goes sort of place - but while you can get away with pretty much anything, you can also have your head randomly lopped off by the next passing Black Knight. It is a nasty, brutish setting which rather intesifies all experiences. It encourages exaggerations of both positive and negative social behaviors, like honor, jealousy, pride, lust, valour, cruelty, virtue. It exacerbates the visceral.

The poem at the top of this post is as much as I can remember from a 20 verse monster that I wrote as a teenager. I wrote it on handmade paper with  a quill. I have no idea where it is now but I suspect that an ex-girlfriend may have it... 


Parallel the Now

Patiently, though not without a certain nagging urgency that he fought to suppress, Eldon searched through the archives of his suit computer. The thing had near infinite storage capacity, but it was necessarily small and slow, and the interface was only finger operated and the audio was poor. He had managed to find a few references to Keeble class vessels, but nothing like the kind of detail he needed. The thing had near infinite storage capacity, and this brought with it several serious disadvantages: when you had no AI to anticipate the information you needed you had to trawl through near infinite possibilities even when narrowed down by a finger-typed search (which Eldon had had to retype three times with his clumsy suited fingers). You also had to consider that though it had near infinite storage, it was a mere near infinite subset of the much larger near infinite quantity of information that was available throughout civilization. And with no AI to second guess what information you might need, he had to rely on associative algorithms and hope that some search he had made when in less dire circumstances (and therefore connected to a network) had in some way been related to the Keeble class.

In the background, his suit had been analysing the ambient radiation and the condition of the air in the airlock. The airlock would have been filled from a reserve tank in order to pressurise it, so it would be about 19% ox, and the rest would be a random inert (or near inert) gas - whatever happened to be available. This was sometimes problematic because if it wasn't nitrogen then the partial pressure would be wrong and he'd still suffocate (or get high, or poisoned). This at least was common knowledge - which meant it was something Eldon knew without having to look it up.

Finally, he found a brief but telling article about the Keeble.

"When  the Keeble class was being designed, computer thermal efficiency was still a distant dream. Her processors were expected to run hot and unreliable, especially when managing the Yang-Hoffstein engines. This meant maintenance, which meant crew access which meant pressurised computing compartments. Keebles were originally going to have sealed liquid switching, so that the compartments could be de-pressurized during normal operation and radiate their excess heat into the vacuum of space, however an obscure casing defect meant that the liquid switches wouldn't stand up to repeated repressurizings. So the compartments had to be pressurized at all times. In the end, this was turned to the advantage of the Keeble class, because (unlike the Munsch class that preceded it) it did not need dedicated crew climate heating, since there was no harmful inonization in spite of the vast excess heat produced. Thermally, the computers were astonishingly inefficient, however the net thermal efficiency of the vessel was the highest that had ever been seen.

"It was ironic, therefore, that as the first hundred or so Keebles rolled of production, the first bromide based cold processors were produced commercially."

(Due to complaints from my public, the main character's name has been slightly adjusted. I want him to have a bit of a scifi name, but he shouldn't sound like something out of Tolkien...)

The title of this post refers to a key feature of old school scifi, which is that it has to reference current technology, mixing the familliar with a little bit of whatever is on the cutting edge. So in here I've paralleled FWS, wikipedia, computer cooling issues, data storage capacity, and I've also thrown in something about thermally efficient processors that I read about in NS a couple of weeks ago.

I've also put in some staple stuff about space-suits and airlocks. A lot of the drama of real-life technology comes from poor design, and poor design generally appears in the least convenient places. Several of the classic SF writers of the C20 make the mistake of assuming that in the far future, all design flaws will be ironed out. But even in the far future, there will be a shortage of engineering designers, so for some things, below average designs will have to be used.


Computer Archaeology

Eldron, his head thumping as he ran out of ox, pumped furiously at the manual override to close the emergency hatch. As he felt it go limp, he let himself slip into the briefest of blackouts. Minutes later, his suit started to recharge as the slowly turning hulk presented the airlock window sunnyside. As the shielding was no longer needed, the purifiers could work, and Eldron rose unsteadily back into consciousness. He remembered catching sight of the red and black markings of the Keeble class hulk and thinking it was time to use up the last of his luck. The damn things lasted a long time, but it didn't seem all that likely that he could get it running. The computers used BLANE... if his aching memory remembered right. He could remember about BLANE. It was good stuff, they said, but it was ancient history even when he had been back at school. Time, thought Eldron, for some archaeology.

I have this idea for some old school scifi. I was thinking about the way that age is used as proof of authenticity, and the way that in science-fiction and fantasy, authenticity is the rarest of all commodities. Authors achieve authenticity when their readers know the worlds in which their stories are set as well as they do. Eventually, authenticity gives way to authority - such as in the Diskworld series - where the author hardly needs to work on the setting at all.

So how can you go about creating authenticity? In fantasy it isn't too hard to use age as a source. Tolkien is the absolute archetype of this, creating a world with thousands of years of history, language, culture and mythology which acts as a backdrop for and a source of the events in LOTR. But what if you want to set your story in the far future? George Lucas famously cheats, with the famous opening crawl of Star Wars telling us that the futuristic events we are about to see take place a long time ago. Instant authenticity, in a jar.

Way to go Mr Lucas, ya wimp.

The snippet above is a teaser for an idea I have to combine two things - one is my affection for the shaky science of old school scifi, and the other is the idea that if your future setting talks about lots of old stuff, you give it authenticity. In the example above, BLANE is a disk operating system. Eldron is the sort of astronaut you get in old school; he isn't a square jawed test pilot, he's an engineer. He is about to realize that his survival may depend on his ability to understand old tech - rather like an engineer from Toshiba who discovers that his survival depends on his understanding of steam locomotives.


The Three Body Problem

The titular problem is a mathematical conundrum from Newtonian physics that is often equally applicable to other areas of physics and it boils down to the near impossibility of telling the future positions of three moving bodies all of which exert gravitational forces on eachother (such as the Sun, Earth and Moon).

The same problem of relativity arises when writing about the relationships - and especially related motivations - of three characters. Quite aside from confusions over pronouns - resolved generally by replacing them with their proper nouns, it makes for confusing, clunky and multi-claused sentences. I'm going to try to build the simplest possible example. Alice, Bob and Chris are friends. Chris and Bob are both in love with Alice, but Bob is prepared to give up Alice to make Chris happy.

"Alice loved Bob and Chris equally, but she knew that Bob's friendship with Chris was important to him - maybe more important than his feelings for her. That increased her tenderness towards Bob when she was with Chris, but Bob's affection for his friend often made her feel even more tenderness for him."

This is already horribly knotty. (Imagine how much worse it would be if all three were men!) But its knottiness actually creates an opportunity for the patient writer - I tend to think that this kind of issue is created by the writer being in a hurry to explain the situation. The opportunity it creates is one of extending the narrative, by presenting the relationship in a narrative structure. The writer who really wants to take the bull by the horns here will devote a chapter to establishing this three way relationship. If it isn't that kind of story (and it might not be), then you should at least devote a couple of paragraphs to it, and present it as narrative, giving yourself time to explain each relationship separately. A good setting for this might be an incident where Alice and Bob are alone together, and Bob is relating some past experience of his with Chris. Alice can react to what Bob says by comparing it with something that Chris has previously said to her - and concludes that she needs to tread carefully, since it is Bob and Chris' affection for eachother that makes them both so attractive to Alice.

Furthermore, by setting up the relationship through narrative, you will engage the reader's attention much better, and get him involved in the relationship, and get him to care about what happens - something that you won't get through plain exposition.

Editing: New Draft of Deacon Shader - Title TBA

Thanatos Rising: The Memoirs of Harry Chesterton: Part I (Volume 1)I'm currently editing a new draft of the story told in "The Resurrection of Deacon Shader" by Derek Prior, also the author of Thanatos Rising. I have a lot of fun editing Derek's work as it is proper, dense stuff. Also it's a damn good workout for me creatively since although there are many superficial similarities in our English, his approach to people and especially events is very different from mine.


I can often be heard banging on about how using grammar as a set of rules to write by is an abuse both of grammar and of the writer. 

This little gem is I think as strong a vindication as any of my NSHO. The author of Delineations (once we start to look behind the hyperbole) routinely uses bizarre syntax, and invents words either by applying unconventional suffixes or by dropping syllables. Nonetheless, his meaning is amazingly clear, even separated from us by nearly 200 years, and by this almost infinitely broad vocabulary. The author is certainly verbose; there is hardly a single sentence whose meaning could not be expressed in less words, however there is something compelling in this verbosity. At first, it seems that the author wants to impress - in the style of French academics - with the breadth of his vocabulary and the intricacy of his syntax, but as we advance, we begin to discover that he is taking such liberties with language that reading it is rather like flying. There are no rules at all, and we can go wherever we want - and furthermore, unlike those French academics, he really has something to say, and information to impart.

"This latter mountain of Bein-Each is a Gaelic name, which signify in English tongue, mountain of the horses. It is likely appear and the purport of styling her on the denomination already mentioned, in consequence of some allegation that it was a remarkable for the excellencies of its pasture, or water, salutary for horses; which horses, bred there in time of old, choosed to outrun others at hardship."


Dimnas Splintax was running. He was having to compile the terrain ahead of him as he went and dispite the assistance of the implants he knew he wasn't working fast enough. He knew because the horizon was getting closer. He also knew because he could hear the Cawber getting closer behind him.

Soon it would catch him. Soon it would take him in its claws and rend his – what – his flesh? Could you call this flesh? Would it hurt?

 Running certainly hurt. And Dimnas Splintax was looking for certainty. That was why he was here, wasn't it?


From time to time, partly as an experiment, and partly to get the damn things out of my head, I write fragments like the one above. This one has the feel of an opening passage, and starting with someone running away like this is certainly a cliché. Such a strong cliché, that it is even a cliché if it is subverted or reversed.


The New Model

Language is culture and culture is language. Language is thought, too.

It seems that for a long time there has been a recognition in our shared cultures that people need ways to use language without restrictions, in exactly the same way as people need to be able to tell stories about things that have never and could never happen. And just as in fairy tales, when we break the rules of language, we almost immediately create new ones. We oblige the farm-boy to go on a journey wherein he becomes a hero, solves the riddle and finds the magic sword. Only then can he return home and defeat the dragon that we met in chapter one.

Traditionally, when in the written or spoken word we break the rules, the new rules we impose are those of poetry. Generally, these rules are quite arbitrary - metre, for example, provides rhythm, which makes lines intended for memorization easier to learn - however there are many metres to chose from and the poet can affect profoundly through his choice.

Let me make another analogy: a painter may vary his paints, his brushes, his canvas (in both size, shape and materials). He may also vary his precision; he may be vague and blurry; he may be sharp and photorealistic (a horrible word that Turner would have loved until some bastard explained its intended meaning). A painter may also apply these same variations to content - content may be clear and obvious, or merely hinted at, or completely abstract.

We excuse the poet when he does the same. Here is a poem I wrote at school. If I tell you the title it may spoil it:

Slip ponderous selfish shoe,
Slip upon paths smeared with sludge.
Did a desperate deity decree you,
Forced with fearsome threats of fudge?

In this poem I have submitted to a few chosen rules of poetry, in order to get away with refering only obliquely to the object of my observation.

There is a literary convention called "heightened language" which allows us the same sort of tradeoff - literally that we can ignore normal rules provided that we impose others. Heightened language is often used in poetry but can be used in prose as well. Journalists and demagogues use it often, and the latter will deliberately break rules, often logical rather than grammatical either to make you think or to prevent you from thinking.

Here's a sentence from a book I am working on at the moment. The book (which is not intended for publication) is full of experiments in heightened language, but I chose this example because it is rather plain.

“The dogs were again silent, and the forest, more silent still.”

In critical language (the rigorous register in which I normally write articles), I would never have used that second comma. It is there to force a pause, because I'm looking for a very specific set of responses in my reader, and I think the incongruous comma draws special attention to the words around it. In addition, the sentence contains what would be, in rigorous language, a logical nonsense: silent and "more silent". Silence, we generally say, is an absence of noise. You cannot therefore have "more silence". However, heightened language allows us to connect the words in this sentence, and take their meanings, and in particular, their associated events and connotations together. We have been told that "the dogs were again silent". The connection of dogs and silent is, we suspect, telling us something special. They are listening to something? They have heard something important? Yet we are also told that the forest is silent - even more silent that the dogs. The logical nonsense of "more silent still" is telling us much more (I hope) than had this been rendered with better logic:

"The dogs fell silent again, and the forest was also silent."

If heightened language is the application of poetic freedom to prose, then what are the additional rules that we have to apply to heightened language to ensure that it is not unnacceptable to the reader? 

This is where the New Model comes in. The New Model is what I call the rules that I apply personnally to my own writing. The primary rule of the New Model is this pompous outburst: 

1. "A correct sentence is one which lacks ambiguity and whose meaning is readily accessible to as many possible of those for whom it is intended", shall be the whole of the law.

Such a rule excuses us from correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, doesn't it? It sets communication of meaning on a pedestal, stating that any other consideration is unnecessary. But supposing we are writing poetry or heightened language where we don't intend (as in my poem above) to tell the reader exactly what we are describing, hoping that he will take pleasure in guessing - or suppose we want to get a feeling, an emotion, something as vague as uneasiness from the reader, such as in the sentence about the dogs. In both these cases there is much room for interpretation, inference, ambiguity. If communication of meaning has been placed at risk to such an extent, how do we avoid alienation of our readers? We do it by applying other, sensible rules:

2 "Punctuation should be discreet, necessary, logical and congruous."

3a "Chekhov's rule* shall be applied to all grammar, 'correct' or 'incorrect'..."

3b "... however grammar should generally conform to expectations."

I think that 3b is implied by 1.

Have we come full circle? No. So what's the big idea? Why the pompously titled "New Model".

When European Cultures started introducing "education for all" it was with a very specific purpose that had nothing to do with equality. It was with the intention of creating generations of efficient workers and obedient soldiers. It was therefore necessary in the highly stratified societies that existed to ensure that everyone continued to know his place. Standard of education was and still is a key differentiator for people who like to judge in this way. They use your knowledge of grammar to determine where you are both on the scale of education and of class/background relative to them. Such people tell their children that their grammar MUST BE CORRECT to ensure that they are not judged incorrectly. To a similar extent (and in some places, probably greater), people are told that their grammatical errors may lead to opportunities being denied to them - by showing that their education is poor. All this is, of course, true. But it should not be our motivation for knowing our language well, and for using our language skillfully. We should not be motivated by fear of what others think of us.

We should be motivated by a desire to communicate our thoughts clearly.

If this is our motivation it is almost inevitable that we will want to master the use of our language, and an understanding of its grammar is very helpful (and may be essential to a complete mastery). I suspect that thinking this way about communication makes us better at thinking.

Those people whose meaning is clearest are those whose language is simplest. But their language is simple because of their mastery of it. This is grammar as kung fu. A minimum of action for a maximum of effect.

*AKA Checkhov's gun - "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."


Never mind

I recently found myself saying that this expression was among the most powerful of sentiments. I have stopped making any distinction between the language used to express a sentiment and the sentiment itself; the two are so closely related that one begets the other. To put it bluntly:

If I feel "never mind" I say it so:

"never mind"

And if I say "never mind" I don't mind.

It is supposed that, "never" originates as an emphatic form of "not" (ref.) which makes the expressions amazingly ancient and unchanged  - "mind" as a verb being to think about, keep thinking about or "hold a thought". Expressions which endure unchanged generally do so because they come not merely to encapsulate linguistically the intended meaning, but to represent it so symbolically that there is little functional difference between the sentiment and the use of the phrase to express the sentiment. To put that one bluntly:

Saying "never mind" is the same as not minding.