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Write What You Know

One of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice is ‘write what you know’.

When I’m out talking to people, it usually crops up, often followed by, “I’ve worked all my life in a shop/factory/field/whatever – nobody’s going to be interested in what I know.”

That’s really sad.

Because the advice isn’t about ‘out there’ – the things you’ve done, how you’ve spent your days. It’s about ‘in there’, in your head.

How you see the world through the filter of your experiences. More importantly, what you’ve learned about human beings. About love, hate, jealousy, greed…

Your view is by definition unique. And everything you’ve learned by observing through the prism of your life – about the nature of people and the way the world works – has the capacity to illuminate someone else’s life.

Look inside. Write what you know. Everything else is just research.

Strange Lights In The Sky

After The New Yorker published its fascinating in-depth article about why the Pentagon has started taking UFOs seriously, I thought I’d share a personal story.

When I was 17 I was dating a farmer’s daughter. The farmhouse was out in the middle of nowhere on some high land where you could see for miles. One night her father rushed in from finishing milking the cows. He was extremely excited, and he was the most down to earth person you could imagine. He summoned us both outside where he pointed across the dark countryside to the lights of a power station.

Three globes of light were circling the cooling tower. They performed some strange manoeuvres, then, as we watched, they shot off at great speed into the night in different directions.

No idea what I’d seen. I would rule out plasma balls or any by-product of electricity generation. They moved with seeming intelligence and when they went in different directions it was in a manner that ruled out some natural force.

That night has stayed with me ever since. That unconscious sense that this is something unusual. But, as an aside…

The power station was called Drakelow. It’s now been decommissioned, but it had been built on an ancient site where archaeologists have discovered votive offerings to the gods. A sacred site. That makes me wonder if this phenomena has been witnessed across the centuries.

In old English Drakelow means Dragon Mound. In folklore all over the UK any place given the dragon name is linked with lights in the sky. If you want to find out more, read Paul Devereux’s excellent book, Earthlights. He’s a scientist and he looked into historical reports about these kinds of lights which seemed to move with a mind of their own…

The Aliens Are Coming!

Anyone who is friends with me on Facebook will know I’ve been having some fun with all the recent news releases about UFOs, the Pentagon confirmation of an incident yesterday and the forthcoming release of whatever is in US government files before June 1.

But here’s an interesting thing: does rising public interest in UFOs always happen during a US Democratic Presidency? Check this out:

1947 – first modern wave, Kenneth Arnold’s ‘flying saucer’, Roswell – Harry S Truman

1961 – second wave, Betty and Barney Hill abduction – JFK

1966 – Michigan ‘swamp gas’ incident – Lyndon B Johnson

1990s – alien autopsy, X Files explosion – Clinton

Today – accelerating sightings/interest – Biden

These are the main moments on the timeline when an interest in alien contact broke into the public consciousness. Interest declined during Republican presidencies.

I think there might be a sociological reason, something along the lines of: under a Democratic President there’s more idealism and people are looking ‘out there’ and under a Republican President there’s more focus on material things so people are looking inside.

For discussion.

The Future Is Coming Fast

Nothing really changes unless there’s a crisis. If something kinda sorta works, we muddle on because the effort, time, cash and reputations on the line to bring about change look like too high a price to pay for decision-makers.

But when terrible things happen we get Great Leaps Forward that spin us into brighter futures.

Without four years of Trump standing up for white supremacy and shifting resources into the pockets of billionaires, would we have got Biden’s transformative Presidency tackling the climate emergency, deep-rooted racial injustice, healthcare and an unbalanced economy? All issues that people said couldn’t be changed fast. All things that are now being tackled.

Crises are terrible, but crises disrupt stagnant or sclerotic systems.

The pandemic has been devastating with millions of lives lost. Yet out of it we’re seeing medical advances that are propelling us into a new and better world.

The mRNA technology which was used in a Covid-19 vaccine to massive success will change the face of medicine. It can be used to turn our own bodies into super-powerful drug-producing factories. Trials have already shown breakthroughs in treating advanced cancers, MS and malaria, and vaccines are now being developed for these and other illnesses.

mRNA’s promise ranges from the expensive-yet-experimental to the glorious-yet-speculative. But the past year was a reminder that scientific progress may happen suddenly, after long periods of gestation. “This has been a coming-out party for mRNA, for sure,” says John Mascola, the director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “In the world of science, RNA technology could be the biggest story of the year. We didn’t know if it worked. And now we do.”

It’s worth reading the entire well-researched article from The Atlantic linked above. Out of the bad, good things will come.

Eurasian Monsters

Art by Daniele Serra

Something you might want to check out for a little holiday reading. Eurasian Monsters is the seventh and final volume in the multiple award-nominated The Fox Spirit Books of Monsters anthology series.

Edited by Margret Helgadottir, the series has a pleasing diversity on many levels. Authors and artists from around the world have been invited to write stories based on their own folklore and culture.

Genres range through horror, fantasy, science fiction, post-apocalyptic, YA and crime.

Margret says, “The idea of the series is to feature creatures and monsters from around the world that have not received much spotlight in the western culture. Through the stories the reader also gets to know the countries and cultures covered, contemporary life and struggles that usually are unknown to us in the west.

“You’ll find stories with an underlying critique of aspects of society, be it poverty, illegal working or the life of immigrants, border conflicts, the relationship between east and west, or the tension between a traditional life and a modern society.

“All the seven books contain stories by new and established authors with a strong connection to the region or the continent we cover. The series contain stories by authors such as Cory Doctorow, Darcie Little Badger, Liliana Colanzi, Teresa P. Mira de Echeverria, Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Ken Liu, Xia Jia, Aliette de Bodard, Usman T. Malik, K.A. Teryna, and Maria Galina.”

Eurasian Monsters, which is published in paperback on December 20, has seventeen short stories by authors from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria, including several authors never published in English before.

Here’s the TOC:

K.A. Teryna: Morpheus
Marta Magdalena Lasik: Daemons of their time
Yevhen Lyr: Sleepless in Enerhodar
Karina Shainyan: Bagatazh
Vlad Arenev: Rapunzel
Haralambi Markov: Nine Tongues Tell Of
Maria Galina: The Visit
Alex Shvartsman: A Thousand Cuts
Daryna Stremetska: The Whitest Linen
Shawn Basey: Lysa Hora
Karolina Fedyk: Our Lady of Carrion Crows
Bogi Takács: Veruska and the Lúdvérc
Eldar Sattarov: Mountain Maid
Kat Hutchson: The Housekeeper
Natalia Osoianu: The Serpent
Alexander Bachilo: This is Moscow, Old Man!
Ekaterina Sedia: Sleeping Beauty of Elista

Best TV Drama 2020

In the Year of Staying In, we were all fortunate we were no longer trapped in the era of network TV. With the plethora of offerings from the streaming giants – a number growing year on year – no one could complain they couldn’t find something to their taste.

And there would have been lots more if Covid-19 hadn’t shut down so many productions, including all Apple TV+ returning dramas and Disney+ landmark Marvel series.

I try to keep up with at least a couple of episodes of every new drama. That’s getting increasingly hard to do. But here are my top ten lockdown loves of 2020.

10. Perry Mason

HBO offered up a gloomy take on the attorney of Erie Stanley Gardner’s crime novels, a far cry from the brightly-lit sixties TV series with Raymond Burr in the title role. It’s a strong dose of noir set as America claws its way out of the Great Depression, built on excellent period detail and with a tough realistic edge. Matthew Rhys makes a good hound dog Mason and there’s strong support from Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow and Shea Whigham.

9. The Marvellous Mrs Maisel

The third season maintains both its class and remarkable period detail while touching on issues with contemporary resonance. Mrs Maisel remains the unlikely outsider in a highly constrained society – a woman! in stand-up comedy! – but this time encounters people even more outside the norm. Winning characters and gentle humour are given full force by excellent performances from Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein and Tony Shalhoub among others. Worth all the Golden Globes and Emmys.

8. The Plot Against America

A chilling and timely adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel which looks at how easily fascism could arise in America, and out of the democratic system. Told through the eyes of a working class Jewish family in New Jersey as the nation deals with the rapid rise of populist politician Charles Lindbergh, its easy to see why, after the events of the last four years in the US, David Simon and Ed Burns decided to tell this now. Terrifying not only in how the story unfolds, but also in what it says about human nature and the nature of America.

7. The Good Fight

One of the few shows that is overtly about Trump and his influence on America. The Good Fight doesn’t shy away from the divisiveness and the underlying sense of threat in the country for people who don’t agree with the former President, and calls out Trump defiantly – he’s the background villain of the piece. But it delivers its commentary with wry wit and character-based drama. There’s also a winning quirkiness to its storytelling with flashes of animation, asides and hallucinations.

6. Ozark

One of the unfolding strengths of this series is the ability to increase the stakes for the central characters not only from season to season, but from episode to episode. Every single choice the Byrde family makes as they attempt to stay alive and free leads to a worse situation. In lesser hands that could come across as breathless, but here it’s measured and the twists are always surprising. Julia Garner is the standout star, but Laura Linney is doing career-best work as the resourceful matriarch.

5. Billions

A truncated season because of the pandemic, this subsequently lacks the killer punch of previous finales (the final episodes will be shown in 2021, running straight into season 6). The manoeuvring and manipulation of Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades and Damien Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod grows more intense in the Shakespearean telling. Sociopaths rule the world. We all feared it. Now we see it’s true.

4. The Crown

As well made and enjoyable as this series has been, it’s never made my list before. But season 4 has been a tour-de-force. That’s partly because it’s reached the eighties, the era of high drama for the Royals with the spiralling tragedy of the Charles and Diana romance. And partly because of Gillian Anderson’s coruscating performance as Margaret Thatcher, perfectly capturing her divisive nature – driven and ambitious for Britain, but a megalomaniac, paranoiac and uncaring about a large swathe of the population which Thatcher deemed, in her own words, not “one of us”.

3. DEVS

Novelist and filmmaker Alex Garland’s science fiction murder mystery is packed with ideas and deep themes that will leave you pondering long after its over. As with his movie Ex Machina, it’s ostensibly about technological advancement, here quantum computing and the wonders that offers, but it tackles free will and determinism. At it’s heart, though, it’s a human story about loss and the search for meaning in everyone’s life.

2. Better Call Saul

One of the best-written and acted returning series on TV. There’s nothing flashy about it. No shocking twists or bursts of ultraviolence. Instead it’s crept up quietly in the background with great storytelling and dialogue and pitch-perfect performances from Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn. It’s very different to Breaking Bad, the series that spawned it, yet it has now, in its own way, transcended Walter White’s odyssey. A measured character study of a flawed man and the way he changes the world around him.

  1. The Queen’s Gambit

Not just the best series of the year, but the best for very many years. It came out of nowhere during the pandemic months and travelled the world through word of mouth – a drama, about chess? Are you sure? Of course, it’s not really about chess. In a way, it’s very old school storytelling. The script and direction by Scott Frank is unflashy yet brilliant, hitting all the notes of character, emotion and theme without drawing attention to itself. The world it creates is new and refreshing, a rarity these days, and you don’t need to know anything about chess to appreciate it. And it’s anchored by a luminous performance by Anna Taylor-Joy with an equally great supporting cast. Awards will shower down on it, and rightly so.

New Project With Wilbur Smith

Wilbur Smith, the best-selling adventure writer, read my novel Pendragon a while back. Afterwards, he got in touch to see if I wanted to collaborate on a new project with him.

As it has now been announced in The Bookseller, I’m allowed to say it’s a historical fantasy adventure thriller set in Ancient Egypt, published worldwide in September.

Here’s the blurb:

In the heart of Egypt,
Under the watchful eye of the Gods,
A new power is rising . . .

In the city of Lahun, Hui lives an enchanted life. The favoured son of a doting father, and ruler-in-waiting of the great city, his fate is set. But behind the beautiful façades a sinister evil is plotting. Craving power and embittered by jealousy, Hui’s stepmother, the great sorceress Ipsetnofret, and Hui’s own brother Qen, orchestrate the downfall of Hui’s father, condemning Hui and seizing power in the city.

Cast out and alone, Hui finds himself a captive of a skilled and powerful army of outlaws, the Hyksos. Determined to seek vengeance for the death of his father and rescue his sister, Ipwet, Hui swears his allegiance to these enemies of Egypt. Through them he learns the art of war, learning how to fight and becoming an envied charioteer.

But soon Hui finds himself in an even greater battle – one for the very heart of Egypt itself. As the pieces fall into place and the Gods themselves join the fray, Hui finds himself fighting alongside the Egyptian General Tanus and renowned Mage, Taita. Now Hui must choose his path – will he be a hero in the old world, or a master in a new kingdom?

Is The New Dark Age Over?

Since 2016, it seems like we’ve been on a long march away from the light. Away from science, from truth, from international brotherhood, from equality and fairness and many of the liberal values we took for granted for much of the twentieth century.

The result of the US election provides some hope that a return to progress is within grasp. That maybe the last four years wasn’t a relentless process of de-evolution, but just a blip, maybe a last gasp of the old world.

The news of Pfizer’s Covid vaccine, with its potential ninety per cent efficacy added to that sense of the lamps coming back on.

In the UK, we still have the Brexit mess to navigate, and there’s a sickening current of blood and soil nationalism in many countries.

But right now things are looking better than they have done in a long while and I’m going to make sure I celebrate it as we move into the festive season.