The Classics, Science Fiction and Fantasy

It’s not only the fantasy end of the speculative fiction genre that owes an awful lot to history. So does science fiction – something recognised by the Science Fiction Foundation when they put together their 2013 conference “Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World”. The most recent issue of the SFF journal ‘Foundation’ includes a selection of papers from the event. As you can imagine, being a Classics graduate myself, these are of considerable interest to me.

What can looking backwards contribute to our understanding and enjoyment of the literature of the future and of imagined, secondary worlds? Granted, all contemporary writing ultimately has its roots in the Classics but surely the arrow of time should be pointing us in the other direction, to see where creative developments will take us? Not so. As far as I am concerned, a Janus-headed approach offers far more benefits.

Authors of prose fiction, graphic novels and those writing for the screen, large and small, continue to draw on the Classical myths and motifs that can so often provide points of contact and a common frame of reference for readers and viewers widely separated by geography, educational systems and life experience. This alone is argument enough for the continued teaching of Classical literature in our schools and not merely the works of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Where readers (of all faiths and none) can pick up an author’s subtle references and allusions, thanks to a working knowledge of writing from the Bible to the Epic of Gilgamesh, this significantly enhances their depth of understanding and thus their enjoyment.

Then there are two ways of looking the use of such myths and allusions. Firstly we can see how a writer adopts and adapts Classical motifs and find insights into their creative process and its evolution throughout an individual career. We can also trace their contribution to the development of archetypes such as the hero and the villain, both within SF and Fantasy and in wider literature.

Secondly we can analyse a writer’s choice and use of Classical elements in the light of their own life and times. Academic or amateur, every historian learns how interpretation of sources, from potsherds to plays, says at least as much about the onlooker’s where and when as it does about the material in hand. For instance, for more than a century, authors have used the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to explore problematic aspects of cultural and political hegemony from the heyday of British Imperialism to the Cold War and beyond. Of course, Science Fiction and Fantasy have always done this; using somewhere far, far away and long ago or far ahead, to stand outside the world we live in and thus gain a clearer perspective.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. That much is true. However studying the Classics and Speculative Fiction alike shows us time and again, that however different externals like hemlines and hairdos might be, humanity’s concerns remain constant and eternal. Love of family. Longing for security. Fear of the Other and of the Unknown. Tensions as to when the needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few.

In the midst of our current uncertainties, with so many selfishly seeking to exploit political, cultural and religious differences for short-term gain, we can all benefit from the seeing how much more unites us than divides us, through the storyteller’s eye.

History & Fantasy in Bristol. A day of two halves.

Actually, the first – and really irritating – bit of my day wasn’t even in Bristol. It was in the gridlocked traffic around Swindon where I got thoroughly stuck, thanks to an accident and road closure just ahead and at a point on the route where I had no hope of escape. So I never did get there in time to chat on Ujima Radio – which just goes to show the risks of arranging single-guest events. I’m always an advocate of having at least two authors along, in case of unforeseen gremlins. And thank goodness for mobile phones – since texting from in a stationary car with the engine turned off and handbrake on doesn’t contravene the law.

Happily Cheryl Morgan and Lucienne Boyce were at Ujima to have what sounds like a fascinating conversation about what history is versus what people think it might be, touching on issues like the persistent and false belief that multi-cultural communities are a recent development in England. The briefest glance at a city like Bristol’s history shows that for the tosh that it is.

Anyway, once I got out of the traffic jam, the day improved enormously. I got to Bristol without further incident, met Cheryl for lunch and we discussed life, the universe and future plans for my writing with Wizards Tower Press, of which more news as various projects develop. Then we went to the Bristol Museum and Gallery. I love visiting local museums, especially to look at their paintings and not just for any big names like Pissarro or whoever they might have on hand. It’s the local artists I like to find and in this case, I was very interested to discover the work of Rolinda Sharples (1793-1838). She was a female artist specializing in portraits along with some larger pieces, who was good enough to be exhibited at the Royal Academy. The whole family were successful and commercial artists including her mother (unlike a good many of those big names) living at various times in England and New York. Tell me again how women didn’t get to do anything noteworthy in days of yore. And as anyone will know who’s heard me talk about using visual references, work like Rolinda’s is a source of invaluable historical detail and unexpected inspiration.

Then we headed to Foyles in Cabot Circus, and that’s a lovely bookshop with great staff, well worth checking out if you’re in the area. It was a pleasure to meet Helen Hollick and Jack Wolf, along with Lucienne and we sat down with Cheryl to discuss the relationships between history and fantasy. We touched on what does or does not constitute ‘accuracy’, and the challenges of making the past accessible without obscuring the very real differences in how people thought and felt – and those are important, especially if we’re hoping our writing will make readers think (as well as enjoying an engaging, exciting read), whether it’s fantasy or history or as was apparent for us all, somewhere between. We talked about the challenges of the correct versus the appropriate language in our writing, in using real people and real events – and not for the first time, it was soon apparent that formal, academic education is in no sense required for an author to do solid research to underpin their work. All that’s needed is the curiosity and the common sense to spot what assumptions or agenda might lie behind a source.

We had a good audience, in terms of numbers and most importantly, in terms of people keen to listen and think and ask questions and discuss. Oh and a handful of local steampunk fans turned up in splendid costumes which added a further dimension to chatting about the relationship of history and the modern day. As with all good events, we could have gone on talking as a panel and then informally afterwards for hours. As it was, we writers headed out for a meal before we went our separate ways, and yes, the conversation did continue round the table in many, varied and fascinating directions.

I had an entirely uneventful trip home, so a day that started mired in frustration got better and better and now I have three new-to-me authors to add to my Must Read list.

Remembrance. Of those who couldn’t speak of war and of those who told me vital truths.

It’s a bit odd to see all the Centenary of the Great War commemoration this year when I can remember talking to men and women who lived through it. Granted I was a very little girl when my Great Uncle Harold explained he’d been in the Royal Flying Corps, in the skies above the Western Front.

I’m pretty sure I was five, which makes sense because the twenty-fifth anniversary of D-Day in 1970 would most likely have prompted me to ask what he did in ‘the war’ as we walked to the paper shop one sunny summer morning, when we were visiting my grandma’s elder sisters in Rustington on Sea. So Great Uncle Harold explained he’d been too old for the war when Grandpa had been in the RAF but he’d been in the war before that in the RFC. No, he hadn’t been a pilot. He’d been a bomber, in those open-cockpit bi-planes, which meant sitting in the back seat, setting the fuses and literally dropping bombs by hand over the side. I remember him talking about seeing the trenches – on both sides – so far below, with the men scurrying like ants and all looking exactly the same. I vividly remember him pausing, looking away into the middle distance and saying with heartfelt passion, ‘Poor devils.’ Then and now I don’t believe he was making any distinction between English and German forces.

My grandma and grandpa were seven years old when the Great War broke out, so they only remembered it as children. My grandpa recalled seeing zeppelins going over Felixstowe where he lived, heading for bombing raids on London. My grandma remembered her eldest brother, Albert, coming home from the trenches where he served from 1914 to 1918. Her mother saw him at the front gate and ran to hug him, only for him to say, ‘Don’t touch me, Mother, I’m crawling with lice.’ So the gardener had to set up a bath in the greenhouse where Albert could strip off and scrub himself down with carbolic soap. Grandma was naturally sent well away. Equally naturally she crept down the garden later, so see what she could see. Albert’s uniform was burning on a bonfire and she couldn’t even see the water in the bath for the layer of vermin covering it.

That’s all she learned about life on the Western Front because Albert never spoke of his experiences to anyone in his family. He gradually lost contact with them, especially after he became involved in the Spiritualist Church. Since then I’ve learned how many people turned to mediums through the 1920s, hoping to make contact with those who had died in the war. It’s impossible to know what Albert experienced but we can guess at some lifelong trauma. He died before I was born, not least from the lingering effects of being gassed.

We know of at least one traumatic experience which my stepfather’s father, Grandpa Joe, suffered in World War Two, but only because sorting through his effects after his death turned up the Distinguished Flying Medal and its accompanying citation. He would tell a few war stories, like borrowing an American jeep in Paris after the Liberation and driving it through the Arc de Triomphe. But he never told anyone, not even his wife, about the day when the Lancaster bomber where he was a radio operator, took such heavy fire that everybody was killed apart from him and one of the gunners. Between them those two young men flew the plane full of their dead comrades back to England and landed it safely. Whatever he thought of being called a hero, he took that to his grave.

Someone else who went all through the Great War in the trenches was Mr Brown who lived a few doors up from my grandparents. He never spoke of those four years either, according to my grandfather who was his friend. Not that I ever spoke to Mr Brown beyond saying hello if our paths crossed when I was walking the dog. He would smile and tip his hat to me and say good morning or good afternoon. He always wore a hat because he was Jewish; I knew that long before I had any clear idea what being Jewish meant. Because grandparents can’t tell war stories to a child like me without being asked ‘but why?’

Well, I never did understand who Kaiser Bill was or what he’d wanted until much later on, but the Nazis were more straightforward. There had been a second war because the Nazis wanted to invade and kill all the people they didn’t like. People like Mr and Mrs Brown. Why didn’t the Nazis like them? Because they’re Jewish. What’s Jewish? Apparently that meant only reading Old Testament stories from the Bible, going to somewhere called a synagogue instead of a church on Saturday instead of Sunday and if you were Mr Brown, always wearing a hat. Which did no harm to anyone and was no one’s business but their own. So that was clear enough. The Nazis had to be stopped from killing Mr Brown just because he was Jewish!

The Nazis, not the Germans. That was a distinction I was very clear on, from as early as I can remember, thanks to stories like how Mr Marsden won his medal. He was my grandparents’ next door neighbour and even as a small child, I remember him as a little man, short and slightly built, among the other grown-ups. Presumably this was why he was a clerk in the Pay Corps rather than a front line fighter in World War Two. That didn’t stop him being sent to Normandy in the week after D-Day. I realised the army’s inexorable logic as I grew older; someone had to update the records of all the dead who wouldn’t need their next pay packet.

Somehow or other, Mr Marsden got separated from his unit and ended up wandering round Normandy on his own as the shadows lengthened. He turned a corner in a country lane and came face to face with two young Germans about his own age, none of them over twenty. They all looked at each other. No one reached for a gun. Who knows who said hello first but he spoke a bit of German and they spoke some English. That was enough to establish that no one wanted to kill anyone. Since it was getting dark, they found a dry ditch where they could spend the night without getting shot by soldiers from either side. He had some chocolate and they had some bread, so they shared that all between them and showed each other family photographs and talked about their lives.

At some point they realised they’d better have a plan for the morning, so no one got shot, either as an enemy soldier or for fraternisation. So they decided their story would be the heroic capture of a prisoner or prisoners, depending which side they met first. Meantime, they exchanged names and addresses, agreeing to write to each other whenever the war finally ended, if they got home safe. Dawn came and off they went to find the Second World War. The first soldiers they encountered were an American unit and so the German lads were safely taken prisoner and Mr Marsden ended up getting a medal for capturing two enemy soldiers single handed. He found that very amusing but the most important thing to him was exchanging letters after the war and knowing those two young men got back to their families, just the same as him.

So this is why I wear a poppy and pause to mark Remembrance Day, for the sake of ordinary young men who found themselves in extraordinary and often appalling situations, which marked them, one way or another, for the rest of their lives. For the sake of their stories, retold in hopes that young men like my own sons, and everyone else’s children, won’t ever see such history repeated.

Requires Hate, aka Benjanun Sriduangkaew, is a multiple, serial & proven bully, liar & manipulator.

This is my considered opinion, formed over several years of watching her(?) antics under a variety of false internet personae, of which Benjanun Sriduangkaew is merely the most recent and, I firmly believe, as calculatedly fake as the rest.

I read the Requires Hate blog from time to time, over a relatively short period some years ago and didn’t see a single post of merit. Nothing that qualified remotely as valid criticism. I saw deliberate and targeted spite, often very carefully chosen to hit the latest SFF ‘hot button’ issues – along with a puerile glee in obscenity and deliberate offensiveness. I didn’t see anything of the ‘satire’, ‘performance anger’, ‘justified rage’ and similar excuses which her(?) apologists made to try and excuse her(?) excesses.

Every so often, she(?) would butt into a Twitter conversation I would be having or following with further viciousness and derailing abuse. I went from simply not following that RequiresHate account to actively blocking it. I ended up blocking a few other people who persisted in retweeting her malice.

I had my own run in on LiveJournal with one of her(?) many other fake personae, where she(?) came crashing into a discussion about the Celtic experience of oppression and attacked me with an argument that basically ran – White people are racist. You are white. Therefore I have proved beyond all argument that you are a racist – and will now proceed to hurl capslocked abuse at you and anyone who tries to support you.

At the time I expressed my opinion in various places that Winterfox/Requires Hate/Whoever the hell this vicious troll might be was a manipulative bully – and found that won me further accusations of racism, bullying, arrogance based on white privilege from her(?) enablers and hangers-on.

I decided to ignore all of them from then on.

Others have not been so fortunate.

Laura J Mixon has done sterling work gathering evidence on the duration, breadth and persistence of the campaigns of abuse.

Here is Rochita Ruiz’s latest post on the subject

The campaign against Athena Andreadis

There are more posts emerging as I write this one. I’m sure googling will soon find them for you.

So all this is why it is my considered opinion that Requires Hate, aka Benjanun Sriduangkaew, is a multiple, serial & proven bully, liar & manipulator. I do not believe a single, solitary word of the so-called apologies posted a few weeks ago when these two names were first publicly linked.

I don’t believe a single thing we have been told about ‘Bee’ as she likes to call herself, not least because the admission that she is/was Requires Hate makes so many of Benjanun’s statements to this point quite simply and demonstrably lies.

I am not interested in any arguments trying to excuse of defend her(?). I am not interested in reading any of her(?) work or any arguments that we should somehow acknowledge the supposed merits in her(?) writing, never mind what her(?) personal failings might be.

There is more than enough good, insightful, diverse SF and fantasy out there to be read which is written by people who are provably not multiple, serial & proven bullies, liars & manipulators hiding behind fake names.

Why am I saying this? Because one thing that has become very apparent, not least thanks to Requires Hate/Winterfox/Whoever’s assiduous habit of deleting offensive internet activity and locking down posts, blogs and twitter accounts, that a great many of her(?) victims have felt isolated, disbelieved and friendless.

Not least as so many folk within SFF have ducked the issue of tackling all this unpleasantness… not for the first time…

It’s in this situation that we should remember Dr. Martin Luther King’s words “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I choose not to be silent. Requires Hate, aka Benjanun Sriduangkaew, is a multiple, serial & proven bully, liar & manipulator. Those who’ve been targets of her malice should consider me a friend and ally.

Historical Fantasy Event at Foyles Cabot Circus, Bristol on 12th November.

A quick update for those of you who prefer to keep in touch through the blog rather than Facebook or Twitter, I’ll be over in Bristol on 12th November for an evening event discussing the fun and frustrations of writing historically based fantasy fiction, and doubtless we’ll get onto actual historical fiction as well. It’ll be from 6.00 to 7.30 pm and it’s free, though booking is essential so they know what numbers they’re expecting. I’ll be chatting with Helen Hollick, Jack Wolf and Lucienne Boyce. You can find full details on booking here

Earlier that same day, I’ll be on Ujima Radio talking about the event and the subject.

I’m really looking forward to it all!

Waterstones? Yes, I’m still watching…

Back in July, with the help of generous folk willing to spare their time surveying display tables, and analysing the promotional emails to loyalty card holders, I looked at the gender balance in the books Waterstones was promoting. As the last national chain bookseller in the UK, the picture they present to readers of what’s available and who’s writing it really matters.

You can read that post here.

Since then? The monthly ‘Books To Read’ email to loyalty card holders – Aug/Sep/Oct – has featured a total of twenty four books, sixteen by men and eight by women, so a two to one ratio. Books of the Month? Four by men, two by women, so once again, a two to one ratio. Backlist promotions? Two men to, er none. No women at all.

Well, that’s only a three month sample, so let’s really, really hope things improve over the rest of the year. Though I’m not hopeful unless and until the ‘Staff Picks’ and ‘What We’re Reading’ sections are restored to these emails. Those always used to help redress the balance but are currently suspended as part of a website/online presence redesign.

Other promotional emails? Two flagged up the latest half price offers on new titles, highlighting a total of eight titles by men and five by women plus a book by/with/about the pop group One Direction. One highlighted the Booker Prize shortlist – with four men and two women. Anne Rice got an email all to herself, flagging up her new novel for pre-order.

One flagged up Super Thursday when the publishing trade pushes its hoped-for Christmas bestsellers and featured nine books by men against three by women. Those by women were two focused on romance and relationships and one children’s book. Of the twelve in total, four were autobiographies, two of sportsmen, one comedian, one rock star, so that’s quite a skew in itself.

Add those numbers up and the overall ratio remains two to one in favour of men over women.

Any good news? Well, I was in my local branch and saw this display featuring five new SF&F titles by women writers, so that was cheering.

five women SFF

Mind you, Cheryl Morgan was at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and saw their SF&F table which featured one, count her, one female writer out of twenty two titles – at least until Margaret Atwood had done her signing and doubled the total. Sigh.

The thing is though, Waterstones can’t be held solely responsible. Not if they’re picking titles to tie in with the festival’s programme as is standard practise for such events. The Lit Fest had what sounds like an excellent panel on dystopias (do read Cheryl Morgan’s report here) with Jane Rogers, Ken Macleod and Christopher Priest (so maintaining that two to one ratio…). However the Celebration of Sci Fi and Fantasy event featured Ben Aaronovitch, Joe Abercrombie, Mitch Benn and David Barnett alongside Sarah Pinborough. Fine writers all and interesting, entertaining talkers as I can personally attest. But that’s really not going to do much to counter the prevailing – and incorrect – idea that SF&F writers are predominately men. Especially if neither Jane nor Sarah’s books were actually offered for sale.

Of course, that’s not just an issue for bookshops and literature festivals. In our local Cineworld cinema this past weekend, I picked up a leaflet and saw they’re now promoting forthcoming films as ‘girls’ night out’, ‘boys’ night out’, ‘date night’, ‘fun for the family’ selections rather than by genre. Yes, SF is firmly tagged for the boys. Sigh.

Here’s something else that’s new. When it comes to local bookselling, Waterstones are now the only game in town as far as West Oxfordshire is concerned. Redesign in our local WHSmith has seen their selection of paperbacks drop from two hundred titles to seventy five while Sainsbury’s locally seem to be getting out of books in any meaningful fashion. They’ve reorganised their layout and are now carrying a total of twenty paperbacks, compared to the seventy five they used to offer.

I’ve been saying for a while that one way for bookstores to compete with the supermarkets would be to offer a more diverse range of titles. If the supermarkets are getting out of bookselling now, what are the chances of that happening? While we wait to see, I’ll be very interested in reports of any other supermarkets cutting back on their range of books, if you’d care to take a look while you’re buying your groceries?

Halloween half-price sale on Challoner, Murray & Balfour, Monster Hunters at Law!

For one day only, (though it’s an extended day to take account of time zones), you can buy my short collection of stories about a group of Victorian monster hunters from Wizard’s Tower Press at half price – and this offer’s only available from Wizard’s Tower Press.

So if you fancy a few Halloween shivers with some classic monsters, paying tribute to the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, H G Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, click on through.

You can find out a bit more about these stories in my earlier blogpost here.

Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan – a review

From the outset this story grips the reader with energy, vivid characterisation and a compelling economy of writing. We learn so much about who Jade, the protagonist is – and why – before the first page turns. Before the end of the chapter, we know her hopes and dreams, and just as clearly, we can see how her personal flaws and fears will be the biggest barrier to her achieving her ambitions.

Jade’s a mixed martial arts fighter living in New York who hopes to turn professional as soon as she turns 18. She isn’t cherishing some implausible fantasy. Sullivan portrays Jade’s place in this particular world with persuasive reality, not least because Jade herself is an uncompromising realist. She’s aware of the undercurrents of sexism in her chosen career, along with the financial and other pressures governing so many aspects of martial arts contests and films, often with unsavoury consequences.

Which is to say, she’s aware of these things in a wholly appropriate manner for a 17 year old. Sullivan never falls into that trap of portraying a teenager with a forty-something mindset. Jade’s world view, along with her impulsiveness, her occasional naivety and her grudgingly admitted vulnerabilities ring just as true as her relationships with her phone, with social media and with the opposite sex. Romantic relationships is merely one area where Sullivan writes with a refreshing lack of sentimentality about boys and girls alike who are still in the process of forming their own identity amid the pitfalls of peer pressure and social expectation. The book’s exploration of violence within pop culture is just as thoughtful, while the dramatic fight scenes are wholly convincing – of particular interest to me personally as a martial arts student for over thirty years.

Having spectacularly disgraced herself at her home gym, Jade is sent to Thailand to train for the summer, until the fuss dies down. Her culture shock is sympathetically portrayed without ever patronising that country or its culture. Nor does Sullivan gloss over problematic and frequently exploitative relationships between the First World and the Third. Here she shows clear appreciation for the teenage mindset’s virtues; most notably in Jade’s absence of and intolerance for hypocrisy and dubious compromise. It’s the corruption of adult greed, whether for sex, drugs or something far more sinister and fantastical, which now drives the plot forward with increasing intensity.

This unfolding combination of action-thriller and fantasy novel is handled superbly, especially when Jade has to cope with the consequences of collision between a mythic otherworldly forest’s denizens and cold hard reality. Now Sullivan brings the portal fantasy, which has been a staple of Young Adult fiction from EE Nesbit and CS Lewis onwards, right up to date. Mya, refugee from Myanmar, may be able to step from one world to another but if she’s caught in modern-day New York as an illegal immigrant, there’ll be no end of trouble. If the man who’s been exploiting her magical talents tracks her down, Mya and Jade alike face far more chilling dangers. Can they help the journalist who’s trying to blow the whistle on his real-world evil? At what cost to themselves and to innocent bystanders? All I’ll say is Sullivan pulls no punches as the narrative reaches its climax.

At 302 pages, this is a fast-paced and eminently readable story for all ages and all genders. The book’s available in paperback or ebook, from your local bookstore or preferred online retailer. If your local bookstore isn’t stocking it, draw their attention to it and if you have dealings with local or school libraries, do flag it up to their staff.

Creativity Within Constraints

Over the weekend, I read Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey. This is one of The Austen Project books, wherein half a dozen very fine writers are (re)writing contemporary versions of Jane Austen’s novels.

I don’t mind saying my first reaction on hearing this was ‘but why?’ What could possibly be the point? The original books are there, readily available for reading, and by general consensus, are some of the finest writing in the English language.

Well, okay, not according to my stepfather. As a schoolboy in the steel and coal communities of South Yorkshire in the 1950s, being made to study Pride & Prejudice for O Level left him with a lifelong loathing of Jane Austen, the Regency, Bath – pretty much anything tangentially linked to a fiction that was so far removed from anything in his own daily life to that point and his primary interests in science. No, he’s not dumb – he went on to get a doctorate in Chemistry and more besides. The book just wasn’t for him.

So is that the point? Would a modern version be more relevant to him – or his current equivalent – and somehow get Jane Austen’s genius for unpicking human relationships in under the radar? Maybe so, but what’s in it for the likes of me, who’ve known and loved the originals for decades? I simply couldn’t see it, and honestly, only picked up Northanger Abbey because I’m such a great admirer of Val McDermid’s work. I started reading mostly in hopes of finding out what could possibly have convinced her to do this.

Wouldn’t it be just like one of those pointless shot-by-shot remakes of a popular TV show? For instance, I cannot see what’s to be gained by remaking Broadchurch as Gracepoint, even up to the point of using David Tennant with an American accent? Where’s the creativity in that? Though I’m equally down on remakes that diverge from their source material. I watched the first dozen episodes of The Killing and the further it diverged from the original which had held me so enthralled, the crosser I became. If they wanted to tell a completely different story, why not do something properly new?

On the other hand… I’ve watched both versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Swedish and English, and enjoyed them very much in different ways, while being very familiar with the book as well. Each production followed the source material closely, adapting it intelligently for visual rather than written story-telling, while the variations in performances did bring out different nuances and explore different aspects of that original. Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s the world that got the ideal version with Daniel Craig and Noomi Rapace…

Besides that, I know for myself that finding the room for creativity within constraints can be great fun, as well as a worthwhile test of a writer’s skills. I’ve written a couple of short stories for licensed properties; Doctor Who, Torchwood and Warhammer 40K. Those projects come with huge amounts of established detail and guidelines which you absolutely cannot break as an author. The challenge of doing something genuinely, satisfyingly new within those boundaries of characterisation, tone, background etc, is considerable – and that’s what makes it so rewarding.

The fun of working within the constraints of a theme is one reason why I’ve been involved in anthologies from Tales of the Ur-Bar, The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, Legends – just to name a few. It’s why I’m really hoping Temporally Out of Order reaches the Kickstarter’s stretch goals, so I can write up my idea… I’m also really pleased that open-submission slots are available for that anthology, because working within these sorts of boundaries can often be a valuable learning experience for new writers.

Well, I won’t spoil this new version of Northanger Abbey for potential readers. I will just say that my reading time was emphatically very well spent. This retelling is great fun and so well crafted on many levels. A reader won’t need the least acquaintance with Miss Austen to thoroughly enjoy an excellent contemporary story. Most impressive of all for me, there are twists to surprise even those of us familiar with all the ins and outs of the original.

Language problems for time travellers – the ones we don’t see.

I’ve been thinking about time travel, in particular questions of communication. This is something we’re used to seeing glossed over for the most part. Occasionally someone turns up from Elizabethan England saying things like ‘forsooth, varlet!’ but that’s about as much of a nod as it gets. This has always irritated me, after having studied Chaucer in the original at school. Drop me in 14th Century England and I’d be reduced to communicating by writing things down in Latin, always assuming I could find someone who could read Latin.

On the other hand, there are obvious issues for storytellers, where being accurate about linguistic barriers is going to throw massive obstacles in the way of smooth narrative. I’m reminded of the TV series, Stargate SG-1, where they did try to avoid the whole ‘universal translator’ cliche in the early series, thanks to the polyglot Dr Daniel Jackson. That faded away pretty soon, I’m guessing as script writers, actors and directors alike simply found it too unwieldy.

The thing is though, this wouldn’t be the whole story by any means. Even if people are conversing in mutually recognisable English (or any other language), there are still going to be misunderstandings around slang and pop-culture references. Here’s an example. A few years ago now, I was sitting in the lounge, reading a book. There was some music playing and a son came into the room. We had the following conversation.

Recognising the music, but not quite able to place it, Son: ‘Who wrote that?’

Mostly concentrating on my book, Me: ‘Elgar. Nimrod.’

Mildly indignant Son: ‘Okay, I only asked. No need to be rude.’

Looking up, slightly bemused, Me: ‘Sorry, what? You asked about the music and I told you. Elgar wrote it. It’s called ‘Nimrod’.’

Incredulous Son: ‘He called a piece of music, ‘Nimrod’?’

Now definitely confused, Me: ‘Yes, Nimrod, the mighty hunter.’

Curious Son: ‘So how did it come to mean ‘stupid person?’

Closing my book, Me: ‘It means what?’

Okay, we subsequently established that, at least according to the Internet, ‘nimrod’ became a term of derision thanks to Bugs Bunny. That’s what he repeatedly calls Elmer Fudd, in ironic fashion but presumably younger cartoon viewers didn’t get the literary, Biblical reference and simply went with the insult. Which does make me wonder what happened in the RAF, since that was the name of one of their planes through the 70s and 80s. In my experience, aircrew are much more likely to be familiar with Looney Tunes than the Book of Chronicles. But I digress.

I’ve been trying to think if I’ve seen this sort of thing ever covered in SF&F. The closest I can come up with is Janet Edward’s ‘Earth Girl’ trilogy (highly recommended YA SF) which isn’t about time travel at all but is set in the future where linguistic shift has seen ‘butt’ become a taboo swearword.

Oh and I think there may have been a few one-liners in the TV series ‘Quantum Leap’ but it’s so long since I watched that I may well be misremembering.

Can anyone else flag up a book, TV programme or film that’s tackled this sort of thing, well or badly?

At least this wouldn’t be a problem for gadgets finding themselves Temporally Out of Order. Or could it be? I wonder if we’ll see any stories along those lines in the anthology we’re hoping to write. Excuse me while I go and see how well the Kickstarter’s getting on today.