Men of the Road


(Mauro Eugenio Atzei [CC / Flickr])

One foot in front of the other. Then the other. And the other.

Ahead of the man, the road reached straight ahead to the horizon. Behind the man, a straight line of footprints in the dust bore testament to his passing.

The man became aware of an echo to his footfalls. A second foot was falling along with each of the man’s own. The man took some paces to think about it. Thinking too quickly might burn the energy needed to sustain such a metronomic gait.

There were definitely two feet falling for each of the man’s own. Therefore someone else was walking in step. The man turned his head from the point where the road touched the horizon. Another man walked beside him.

The other man looked back. His head was bare. He hadn’t shaved for a week. His hair and clothes were tinted red by the dust of the road.

The man might have been looking in a mirror.

The other man spoke, showing no regard for the morsels of endurance he was diverting from his feet.

“I hope it’s there.”

The tone demanded an answer. The man looked at the other man for half a dozen paces, loathe to waste effort on speech but loathe to snub a companion of the road.

“You hope what’s there?”

Had the man been more practised in conversation, the answer would not have taken the form of a question that invited further conversation but it was too late to take the words back now.

The other man must have had more regard for his endurance than he had so far shown, because he did not answer in words. He jerked his chin at the horizon.

The man turned his head back to where it had been before the other man fell in beside him. Grey clouds were massing over the road ahead. Before long, they would blot out the sun blazing down on his head. Rain would sluice the dust off him and turn it to mud beneath his feet. The man would be soaked to the skin until he emerged from under the clouds and the sun burned the water off him.

A hint of colour stained the grey sky. It reached out from itself, arching across the sky as it spread across the spectrum from red to violet.

“It’s beautiful.”

The man had not meant to speak, but the rainbow drew the words from him.

“It’s more than that,” said the other man. “So much more.”

This time, the man refrained from speaking. He kept his eyes on the arch hovering ahead of them. The other man would explain himself or he would not.

The other man chose to explain. “That’s refuge. That’s what that is.”

The man looked away from the rainbow and back to the other man, wishing to know what he meant. Before the man’s head finished turning, the man heard the absence of the second footfall.

The man walked alone.

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Fiction Review: Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

getshortycoverWhen Elmore Leonard wrote his ten rules of writing, he opened with:

  1. Never open a book with weather.

Yet eleven years earlier, he had opened one of his better-known novels with:

When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.

There is no denying that the first thing mentioned in Get Shorty is the weather, even if there’s a stolen jacket by the end of the sentence. It’s the theft that sets the tone as it sets Chili the loan shark on a collision course with Ray Bones, that propels him out of Miami Beach and into the world of Hollywood film financing.

Leonard was already a veteran novelist and screenwriter when he wrote Get Shorty, best known for his tales of the Wild West and the even wilder cities of 20th century America in which hard men on either side of the law traded bullets, fists and the crackling dialogue that Leonard is famous for.

In Get Shorty, he brought the world he wrote about with the world he inhabited. There’s a strong element of satire in the portrayal of Hollywood, from the egotistical horror film director who desperately wants to be taken seriously to the self-important actor who never orders from the menu, never pays his own bill and, like many actors, constantly surprises people who meet him by being considerably smaller than they expected. Conspicuous by their absence are the screenwriters, who never progress beyond the occasional contemptuous mention by the bigshots. Several times, I found myself wondering who Leonard was taking revenge on.

When Leonard has Chili effortlessly establish himself as a player in the glittering world of Hollywood, he seems to be saying that what matters is not artistic ability so much as simply not being distracted by the glitter. Or perhaps that Hollywood isn’t so different to the amoral world of loan sharking that Chili has already mastered.

Whatever the hidden meaning, it’s a great story of the dark side of Tinseltown, and it does make me wonder what the story behind the film adaptation is.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Book review: fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Walking Home


(Stacey Bramhall [CC / Flickr])

It’s good to be walking home. Good to feel the crush of snow beneath my feet and the muscular burn of movement beneath a jacket that, I must admit, is a little thin for February.


It feels almost as good as when I headed to work this morning in this same tailored suit, behind the wheel of my Merc. I strolled in with a nod for every ‘good morning, sir’ that followed me through to my office. Nodding to your staff is one of the many skills I’d had to master to get the suit and the Merc. The trick is to acknowledge everyone without giving the impression that they mean anything to you. It’s not good to let them get too comfortable.

I sent my secretary out for coffee as I started my first meeting of the day, with the representative from the Qatari construction firm. That man must like his coffee because he kept talking risks and regulations with me until he’d emptied his cup. He practically balanced it on his nose to make sure he hadn’t left any.

Then he pulled a card out of his pocket. The mind plays tricks on you at moments like that. I couldn’t see his name or the photo, but the words ‘Fraud’ and ‘Squad’ screamed out of that little card at me as if they were in flashing red letters a metre high.

The day took a turn for the worse after that.

So they’ve seized the Merc and frozen my accounts. ‘Proceeds of crime’ was the phrase he used. Cheeky of him when I haven’t been convicted of anything. At least he didn’t take my suit which was worth his whole wardrobe by the look of him, from his cheap shiny suit to his mismatched socks.

My lawyer got me bail, which spared me a night in the cell. That’s why it’s so good to be walking home.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Greater minds: John Joseph Adams on the art of short fiction titling

  • Prolific editor John Joseph Adams wrote his thoughts on what makes a good title.
  • Short stories need longer titles than novels, as they stand without cover art.
  • The best titles hook attention with tension.
  • Other approaches are to use slang or jargon, or to reference well-known quotes.


John Joseph Adams in 2009 (Houari B. [CC / Flickr])

Confession time: I am a terrible titler. All of my stories go through title after title and when I finally settle on one and send it out for critique, the feedback is usually that it’s still awful. So when I saw John Joseph Adams had written about titling under the pity title of Zen in the Art of Short Fiction Titling, I sprinted over to his website to try to wring what guidance I could out of it.

Adams is the editor of Lightspeed and Nightmare magazines as well as a long list of anthologies, so he’s slushed his way through as many story titles as anyone. He’s also had the forgettable experience of rejecting my stories more than a few times, so I’m keen to learn anything I can from him to break the trend. The starting point might be to consider Adams’s question of whether, in the absence of any information other than the title:

Would you rather read “Dune” or “The Ones That Walk Away From Omelas”?

The draw of Omelas

The question is important because it draws attention to two points. First of all, it cuts to the point of a short story title: to make you want to read the story. Secondly, it illustrates the difference between a short story title and a novel title. Dune works perfectly on the cover of a novel. It’s so short that you’ve read it the moment you’ve set eyes on it. It combines with cover art depicting a desert landscape and a writhing sandworm, it combines into a powerful hook.

It wouldn’t work as well with a short story, where it would have to stand without the supporting artwork. We usually see them in a table of contents and while many publications do commission artwork for their stories, we don’t see it until we’ve at least


1965 (left) and 1990 (right) editions of Frank Herbert’s Dune (Mike Liu [CC / Flickr])

turned to the story. A short story title must hook your attention on its own. So what does the title of Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Ones that Walk Away from Omelas, achieve that’s so much more effective than Omelas or Walking Away would have been.

The full title is a complete enough sentence to tell a small story in itself, but it’s a story that begs questions. What is Omelas? Why is it significant that someone is walking away from it? If the ones who walk away are the interesting ones, what differentiates them from the ones who are hanging around with, in or on Omelas?

To beg those questions, a title must be longer than Dune. In a list of examples of stories Adams accepted but retitled, his title is invariably longer than the one it replaced:

The Five Elements of the Heart Mind by Ken Liu, submitted as Visceral.

A Tank Only Fears Four Things by Seth Dickinson, submitted as Kontakt-5.

The Mad Butcher of Plainfield’s Chariot of Death by Adam Howe, submitted as The Ed Gein Ghoul Car.

The World is Cruel, My Daughter by Cory Skerry, submitted as Silk, Eyes, Bones, and Nothing More.

The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars by Yoon Ha Lee, submitted as Knifebird’s Game.


The story titles are behind the cover (Michelle Souliere [CC / Flickr])

For my money, Knifebird’s Game would pull me straight to that story, but Adams is the expert.

Short story, long title

Supporting the idea that short titles may not be the best is the list of the most common titles submitted to Clarkesworld, posted by editor Neil Clarke. The one thing they have in common is that they are short. They are also generic. It’s easy to see how a writer might see Rebirth, for example, as cutting to the heart of their story but if I saw that title in a table of contents, it would not intrigue me into turning to it.

So next time I’ve got a story ready to submit with a naff title, what do I do to give it something better? Adams makes a suggestion:

This might not be something you, as the author, can easily do yourself—you might be too close to the text—but if you have a trusted beta-reader or a significant other, you might try tasking them with finding and highlighting the phrases they find most evocative, and then review those to see if perhaps one of those phrases might make a better title than what you have already.

I’ve found that one of the many advantages of a critique group is that when people get to know someone else’s work, they can often come up with more succinct summaries than the writer himself, who is often so caught up with hunting the plotholes and the snippets


Has the title been found (Andy Rennie [CC / Flickr])

of ugly prose around the forest of their creation that they can no longer see the wood for the trees. Adams suggests that finding the most evocative phrase may be a way forward, although he does add the qualification that it risks the reader giving too much weight to that phrase when they reach it in the text.

If you’re going to ask a critiquer to suggest a title, there’s no reason to confine them to phrases from the text. In future, I may well ask for a set of wild suggestions and see where that takes me.


The best short story title I’ve come across of is The Screwfly Solution by James Tiptree jr, which leads me to ask myself why those three words draw me. It’s not a full sentence like The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas but a much more traditional title structure of article, adjective and noun. I think it’s the tension between the words ‘screwfly’ and ‘solution’. ‘Screwfly’ conjures something inherently unpleasant. Flies aren’t the most charismatic beasts to take wing and while I don’t know where the screwfly fits into the dipteran tribe, it’s a name that sounds like it was conferred by someone who had seen them up to no good. Yet a solution implies that somehow these nasty critters might solve a problem. Solving problems is a good thing, isn’t it? But if someone sees screwflies as the solution to a problem, is it a problem that I’d really want solved?

What it doesn’t do is tell me anything at all about what’s in the story, unlike the titles


Not an appealing solution (MEMANG RIZALIS ENT. [CC / Flickr])

suggested by Adams. It sets up such an evocative sense of tension that it makes me want to read the story to resolve it.

None of those thoughts and questions were my conscious reactions to that title. They were an involuntary reaction that I’ve been consciously examining in my hunt for a way of finding better titles for my own stories.

The titling jig

Adams suggests a couple of approaches. For stories aimed at a particular demographic, certain words might have a particular resonance. He mentions Respawn as an example for a story in an anthology about gaming, aimed at gamers. I’m not a gamer and the only reason the word means anything to me is from reading Christoper Brookmyre’s Bedlam, a novel that I expect a gamer would get more out of than I did.

I’ve tried a variation on that theme myself, by using slang or jargon phrases that simply sound evocative: Newgate Jig was from old London slang. Every Monday, a gallows was set up outside Newgate prison, the prisoners were marched out and as they hanged, their death throes looked like a macabre dance. Hence being hanged was to dance the Newgate jig. Only people like me, with an affinity for the darker sides of London’s history, are likely to recognise the term but there was something evocative enough about it that I decided to use it.

I duly plugged the title into Amazon, as I do with all my titles. I want to make sure there was nothing else under the title that was well-enough known that I’d look derivative. It was all mine, so off it went to look for a home. The week it was published, I walked into a bookshop and saw Newgate Jig by Ann Featherstone on the stand where they put the books


A different kind of jig (DJ Cockburn [CC / Flickr])

they really want you to buy. It hadn’t appeared in my search because it had only just been published. I can’t imagine that I did Ms Featherstone’s reputation any harm; in fact I very much doubt she’s even heard of me, but here is as good a place as any for an explanation.

The title as homage

Another suggestion is to use or to repurpose a quote, such as Cory Doctorow’s Anda’s Game which pays homage to Orson Scott Card’s classic Ender’s Game. A pitfall of using quotes is that there are very few quotes that everyone will recognise, and they’ve all been homaged into cliché. Even if Anda’s Game was aimed at a dedicated science fiction readership, I must have been seen by people who either hadn’t heard of Ender’s Game or didn’t make the connection. It is, however, a title that stands reasonably well on its own, which is a necessary qualification for a title that uses a literary reference.

To use another one of my stories as an example, I can’t remember if I was trying to be clever when I picked Perchance to Dream or if I’d got so frustrated and went with the first title I’d thought of that didn’t make me cringe. I do remember that I’d called it What Dreams May Come for a while, which is lifted from Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy. The ‘dreams’ the dithering prince is referring to is the afterlife that awaits him after the


A character that launched many titles (V [CC / Flickr])

sleep of death, which dissuade him from suicide. As the story took place in a labyrinthine bureaucracy that unwitting souls are condemned to – a theme many writers of the weird visit sooner or later – it seemed a particularly apposite quote and one that indulged my weakness for Shakespeare. As it was looking for a home, a Robin Williams film appeared under the same title (yes, this was some years ago now) so I moved down the soliloquy to Perchance to Dream.

Looking back, I ask myself if I made the right decision. It doesn’t mean much unless you recognise the quote, which you’ll only do if you’re familiar with Hamlet. On the other hand it does have a pleasing ring to it, and the story is now in press after the third time I’ve sold it under that title so it must have something going for it.

Advocacy in brief

We’re left with the question of how important a title really is. Adams’s examples of replaced titles do illustrate the fact that he’ll retitle a story rather than reject it, and Neil Clarke says:

Changing a title is easy, so if I don’t like it, I’ll discuss that with the author.


Tor’s famous slushpile in 2009, when they were still accepting hardcopy submissions (Cory Doctorow [CC / Flickr])

No doubt Clarke is sincere when he says he doesn’t look at a title unless and until he’s decided to buy the story, but I also find it hard to believe that there aren’t editors and slush readers who do look at the title first. They may not make a decision on the basis of it but if they’ve never heard of the writer and they know they’re going to reject 95-99% of the enormous slushpile they’re working their way through, every little has to count.

Adams describes the title as ‘the only constant advocate it will ever have over the course of its lifespan’, which is worth taking it heart. Now I just need to do it better.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification



(Oscar F. Hevia [CC / Flickr])

I open the shutters and let the night in. Night knows me. Night is my friend. The night hides me and for the few hours we live in its hemisphere, the night allows me to be me.

I open the shutters to let in the day. I must conceal myself before you people of the day can see me. I use the day to check that my mask is in place. The mask allows me to look you in the eye and bid you good morning as you stroll past. You meet the gaze of my mask, and you think it’s me you see smiling back at you.

You don’t hear me laugh.

I open the shutters and let in the rain. The rain washes away my mask but, you are not there to see it. You hide in your hoods and your umbrellas, scowling at your feet even as you imagine my smiling mask is still in place.

Only in the rain dare I reveal myself in the day.

I open the shutters and let myself out. I am smiling, but it is not the smile of my mask. You might, if you are truly unfortunate, hear me laugh.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Inspirations: Apocalypse at the touch of a button

  • Shuntaro Hida has been an anti-nuclear advocate since seeing Hiroshima destroyed.
  • Modern nuclear weapons are orders of magnitude more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.
  • Carl Sagan, Richard Turco and colleagues described nuclear winter in 1983.
  • A small percentage of the world’s nuclear warheads would cause a global catastrophe.


The nuclear blast that destroyed Hiroshima. Photograph by S/Sgt. George R. Caron, the tail gunner of ‘Enola Gay’, the aircraft that dropped the bomb ( National Archives and Records Administration [Wikimedia Commons])

Dr Shuntaro Hida is a very lucky man, though he probably didn’t appreciate it at the time:

I saw a very strong light that could make my eyes blind and the core of my head all blank and white, and at the same time I felt burning hot all over the place which was exposed, not covered by the shirt…wind came maybe three, four seconds after…I looked up and what I saw was this mushroom cloud being formed. It was a clear day so I saw it very clearly.

At one o’clock the morning of 6th August 1945, he’d been called out of a boozing session at the Hiroshima hospital to attend a sick child in a nearby village. He sobered up on the back of a bicycle and was attending the boy when the world changed. Hida had just witnessed the second nuclear explosion the world had ever seen. Had it not been for the sick boy, he would have been part of that cloud.

Hida hurried back toward the hospital where he usually worked, expecting he would be needed to treat casualties. He didn’t know the hospital had been within a few hundred metres of the inexplicably enormous explosion.

I thought this is a human

The most remarkable thing about Hida’s story, told in an interview for BBC radio 4 and repeated in a briefer televised version, was what he didn’t say: having just become one of the first people to witness a nuclear explosion at close quarters, his reaction was to run


Casualties of the Nagasaki bomb awaiting medical treatment, photographed by Yosuke Yamahata (Australian War Memorial)

into the looming mushroom cloud to try to help the casualties.

I saw something weird, something strange, something black approaching me and there was a head, shoulder and legs so I thought this a human but it was all black so she came in front of me and she fell down towards me and died.

It was the first time Hida set eyes on the Hibakusha, as people injured by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and a week later, Nagasaki, would become known. That day, he would start the caring for the Hibakusha that would become his life’s work. Initially, he could do no more than try to make people as comfortable as possible as they died. He had no medications, surgical tools or even bandages. It took him months before he persuaded General Douglas MacArthur, then commanding the American occupation forces in Japan, to grant him a building to use as a clinic. By then, Hida knew as much as anyone in the world about treating acute radiation exposure. His patients were losing their hair, unable to keep food down, anaemic and in many cases simply dying. The American occupiers didn’t want to hear about it, and they certainly didn’t want anyone else to hear about it. Hida was arrested several times as part of the effort to cover it up.


Shuntaro Hida during World War Two and today (Publicity for the film, Als die Sonne vom Himmel fiel)

Hida is a very difficult man to shut up. Aged 99, he is still campaigning against nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

The shadow of the bomb

That white light changed the way we all view the world. It wasn’t only the scale of the devastation that made such an impression; a few months earlier, the ‘Operation Meetinghouse’ air raid on Tokyo had killed more people in one night, and Tokyo was bombed regularly until the day Japan capitulated. It was that the devastation could be caused by a single aircraft carrying a single bomb.

As the Cold War gathered momentum and the USA and USSR ploughed resources into their ballistic missile programs, they didn’t even need aircraft. Nuclear warheads could be mounted on ballistic missiles and fired halfway round the world in under an hour. There is at least a chance of intercepting an aircraft carrying a bomb, but there is still no way of intercepting a ballistic missile.


Reconnaissance photographs of Nagasaki before and after the atomic bombing (U.S. National Archives [Wikimedia Commons])

What is often overlooked is that the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan look like party poppers compared to some of the weapons in today’s nuclear arsenals. The explosion Hida witnessed was around 15kt (kilotons), meaning equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki was 20kt. Compare that to the 340kt W78 warhead currently strapped to the top of American Minuteman-III missiles, or the warheads for the Russian SS-18, which can be as large as 20Mt (megatons): more than a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.

For decades, we lived ‘in the shadow of the bomb’, to use an oft-spoken phrase. We knew that the USA and USSR were engaged in a nuclear standoff, and that we would get next to no warning if the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, aptly abbreviated to MAD, failed. Missiles launched between the two principals would take around 30min to reach their targets. In Britain, we knew that we had just enough nuclear weapons of our own to make us a target and at most, seven minutes’ warning if the button was pressed. We didn’t bother with the ‘duck and cover’ exercises practised in the USA. We wouldn’t even have time for that.

Nuclear winter

One man who was scathing about the accumulation of nuclear weapons was astronomer, physicist and author Carl Sagan. In a 1991 interview with C-Span, he identified three looming global catastrophes: ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect (now better known as global warming) and nuclear winter:

Looking back on it, the good news is that thanks to an unprecedented success of international co-operation, the ozone layer is slowly repairing itself. The bad news is that the greenhouse effect continues unabated and, more pertinently to the theme of nuclear weapons, the current presidents of Russia and the USA are both talking in terms of improving rather than depleting their nuclear arsenals.

Sagan, along with atmospheric scientist Richard Turco, had led much of the research leading to an understanding of nuclear winter. They came to it sideways from research on the way that dust in the atmosphere of Mars blocks sunlight from reaching the surface. At the time, Luis and Walter Alvarez had recently theorised that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a dust cloud thrown up by a meteor impact. Sagan, Turco and their colleagues reasoned that if a meteor could cause a global dust cloud, so could a nuclear explosion. They couldn’t stage a nuclear war to see what would happen, but they had plenty of information from nuclear tests to base a predictive model on.

Their findings, published in a 1983 paper in Science, make for chilling reading. The effects


300kt warheads of the LGM-118A Peacekeeper ballistic missile, retired from the US inventory in 2005 (Mark Mauno (CC / Flickr])

of nuclear bombs exploding over cities were bad enough:

A 100kt airburst can level and burn an area of ≃50 km2, and a 1-MT airburst, 5 times that area.

To put it another way, the 100kt bomb could blast Paris to dust with a few kilotons to spare and still look feeble compared to its 1Mt big brother, which was far from the largest weapon in service.

Dust and smoke

The paper focused less on the devastation from the explosions, which was already understood, than on what would happen to the dust forming the mushroom clouds so emblematic of the nuclear age. A 1Mt blast throws up between 10,000 and 60,000 tons of the stuff and they anticipated that a small nuclear exchange would amount to around 3,000 such blasts. Dust would be blasted as high as 30km, well into the stratosphere, where it would disperse through the jetstreams. Once up there, the dust cloud would absorb and reflect sunlight, preventing it from reaching the earth’s surface.

Added to the dust would be plumes of smoke from firestorms blazing in any part of a city where there was enough left to burn. Because many of the nuclear targets were military bases outside cities, a nuclear war would start massive fires in forests and grasslands, pumping yet more smoke into the atmosphere.

The average surface temperature would drop by some 20-25°C (35-80°F) in the weeks following the war. That’s an average drop, and living close to the sea would reduce the effect to some extent because of the very high thermal capacity of the oceans: it takes a


Hemispherically averaged earth surface temperatures after different levels of nuclear exchange (Turco et al [1983])

very long time for temperature changes in the sea to catch up with temperature changes in the atmosphere. The model assumes a nuclear war would be in the Northern hemisphere, so the effect on the Southern hemisphere would take longer to arrive and would be less serious, but would be substantial once it arrived.

As important as the temperature drop would be the loss of light reaching the surface. Without sunlight, plant growth would slow down and agriculture would collapse. For many of the survivors of the nuclear holocaust, the reprieve would be short lived. They would die of cold or starvation within a few months.

Global fallout

Most of the dust would fall to earth in a few months. The worst of the nuclear winter would be over, though it would take years for temperatures to return to the pre-war levels. The settling dust would bring another problem: much of it would be radioactive. Quite how radioactive is difficult to quantify. Modern nuclear weapons are much ‘cleaner’ than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs because much of the yield is derived from nuclear fusion rather than nuclear fission. On the other hand, they are much more powerful so a small percentage of fission-derived yield still adds up to a lot of radioactivity.

The dust would settle on the skin of anyone still alive. They would breathe it in the air and ingest it in their food. Sagan and his colleagues estimated that it wouldn’t be enough to cause the acute radiation sickness that Hida found himself dealing with, but it would be enough to make an early death from cancer very likely.


US nuclear weapon test at Bikini, 1946, colourised in post-production (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons [CC / Flickr])

The nuclear winter ensures that a nuclear war will not only be devastating for the countries hit by nuclear weapons, but will cause a global apocalypse. ‘Mutually assured destruction’ should have the addendum, ‘and we’ll take everyone else with us’.

Overkill and megadeath

That a nuclear winter would devastate neutral countries does not seem to have featured in the considerations of the Cold War belligerents. Most of Africa and South America, and much of Asia, would not have been involved if the Cold War had turned into a nuclear war, but they would not have escaped the nuclear winter.

Perhaps what we now call ‘collateral damage’ simply didn’t feature in the minds of people used to formulating policy with terms like ‘overkill’ and ‘megadeath’. the former refers to the policy of firing more nuclear weapons than was thought to be necessary to make sure the target was wiped out and the latter means a million human deaths.

Or perhaps they regarded nuclear war as so catastrophic that they saw no point in


Poster originally designed as the back page of the Socialist Worker in 1985 by John Houston (Duncan Hull [CC / Flickr])

considering what the world might look like after it. In 1984, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said as much to the rising star of the Soviet Politburo, Mikhail Gorbachev:

I am not sure how relevant the concept of nuclear winter is when set against the destruction, incineration and death which would precede it.

The conversation took place at Chequers, the country retreat that goes with the post of prime minister, which says a lot about the impending thaw in the Cold War. The quote appears 28:30min into a podcast describing documents declassified in 2014.

MADness rejects disarmament

Reading the article, the sheer scale of devastation makes it difficult to remember that it isn’t drawn from science fiction. In Star Trek or Doctor Who, super-advanced aliens who think nothing of crossing light years of interstellar space often spend an entire episode working up such a comprehensive apocalypse, if only to be thwarted at the eleventh hour. Here is a document from the days of cassette tapes and the ZX81 describing something that our own species could have done to itself at the touch of a button. Although there are only around a third of the number of nuclear warheads now as there were in 1982, there are still more than enough for the worst-case scenario they calculated of a 10,000Mt exchange.

Sagan’s work on nuclear winter propelled him into the anti-nuclear campaigner. He was arrested twice for protesting nuclear tests in Nevada, though he reached more people with

his writing and broadcasting than his direct action. In the 1991 C-Span interview, he was scathing about American nuclear policy which, at the time, was to resist the Soviet initiative for a complete ban on testing nuclear weapons. Worse, in his opinion, was that the nuclear-armed states had all committed to nuclear disarmament under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty but had made no move to meet their obligations.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed five years later and the number of warheads has been reduced since then, but none of the nuclear-armed states suggested a move toward full disarmament. Consequently, they are all in breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.


HMS Victorious can launch up to 16 Trident missiles, each with 8 x 100kt warheads (Defence Images [CC / Flickr])

In 1991, the five openly nuclear-armed states were, not coincidentally, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the USA, USSR, UK, China and France. South Africa was in the process of dismantling its warheads while Israel was thought to have a nuclear arsenal, which was confirmed when South Africa declassified the minutes of meetings in which Israeli ministers offered to sell nuclear bombs to the Apartheid government.

Today, Sagan’s concerns seem prophetic as India, Pakistan and North Korea have joined the nuclear club. The club’s old boys cannot claim any moral authority for persuading them to disarm while they themselves are in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. While the new members’ arsenals are dwarfed by the old boys’, India and Pakistan could still cause a nuclear winter between them while North Korea looks as if the ability to do so is a national ambition.

The danger of complacency

Most people alive in the world today grew up with the unrealised threat of nuclear apocalypse, which makes it easy to get complacent. There is, however, no natural law that states that just because it hasn’t happened in the past, it can’t happen in the future. Worse, the brash statements coming from Washington and Moscow recently suggest that the complacency may have spread to the men whose fingers are on the trigger. So far, they are threatening no more than an expansion of their nuclear arsenals, which is an order of magnitude less serious than the Cold War when they threatened to actually use them. It is, however, a threat that implicitly includes discarding the agreement to desist from nuclear tests.


Russian SS-27 ‘Topol-M’ ballistic missile with 800kt warhead (Dmitry Terekhov [CC / Flickr])

When Sagan gave that interview in 1991, the Cold War had recently ended and the Soviet Union was in its final months before it fragmented into the Commonwealth of Independent States. Sagan sounds deeply frustrated at his own government’s failure to seize the opportunity to disarm while relations between the old foes were warming up:

If we were to be complacent about this issue, if we were to say…’the Cold War is over so what are we worrying about?’ Then in effect we are saying that we are confident in the sanity and sobriety of all leaders, military and civilian, of all nuclear armed nations from now to the end of time. And nobody can be sure of that…even the United States has had leaders in living memory who have shown serious instabilities.

His question remains: how confident are we of the ‘sanity and sobriety’ of the leaders of nuclear armed nations today?

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

Nothing is Sacred


(Alex Watson [CC / Flickr])

“Nothing is sacred,” said the vicar.

Carys squinted at him. “That’s not what I expected you to say. It’s not very helpful either. I came to you for some spiritual guidance or something.”

The vicar spread his hands. “It is not as I would have it. I wish I could point to one thing and say, ‘This is sacred. This is absolute’. But if I were to do that, I would be deceiving you.”

“Right,” said Carys. “So you don’t want to deceive me. You reckon the truth is sacred.”

“Not exactly, no. I cannot hold the truth to be sacred when I do not know what it is. I do, however, aspire to honesty at all times, however frequently I fall short of my aspirations though confusion or ignorance.”

“I’m beginning to think you need guidance from me more than I need it from you,” said Carys.

“That is indeed a possibility.”

“All right then.” Carys rolled her eyes. “Let’s try this. Are you saying you’re saying honesty’s sacred? At least trying to tell the truth even if you’re not sure you can manage it?”

“You are correct, I do,” said the vicar. “But my holding it to be sacred does not make it so in any objective sense. I may simply be showing my ignorance once again.”

Carys sighed. “I miss the old vicar. He might have been less honest but he was a sight more helpful.”

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Non-fiction Review: Wikileaks by David Leigh and Luke Harding

wikileakscoverIf his commanding officers had listened to Specialist Bradley Manning (as he still was at the time Wikileaks was published), it would never have happened. When he first arrived at Contingency Operating Station Hammer in Iraq, he reported the poor systems security but nobody was interested in changing the way they had always done things. Being the inquisitive sort, Manning poked around to find out what a 22-year old with very low security clearance could access.

The answer, it turned out, was a lot. Diplomatic cables, combat reports and even recordings of classified operations popped up on his screen while he listened to Lady Gaga. As he read, his dismay at the poor security turned to disaffection from the army he was serving. It’s tempting to speculate that the turning point was the cockpit recording of an Apache gunship strafing what the crew believed to be insurgents, but who were actually a group of Iraqi civilians and Reuters journalists. Whether that was true or not, it was the first of the materials that he passed on to Julian Assange and his Wikileaks organisation.

Assange himself presented the video in a 2010 TED talk, apparently unaware of the storm that was about to break over him:


At the time, Assange was in discussion with an informal collaboration of newspapers and magazines in several different countries about releasing the rest of Manning’s material, which is presumably why he denied having it.

Assange’s first port of call was the Guardian, which is where the team of authors led by David Leigh and Luke Harding first became involved. Wikileaks tells the stories of Manning, Asssange and the Wikileaks organisation, but it is primarily the story of the Manning leak up to the time of publication in 2010.

Assange sits at the centre of the story: an unkempt, itinerant genius, founder of Wikileaks and freedom of information zealot. He comes across as an ambiguous figure, presumably because Leigh and Harding prefer to let us draw our own conclusions about him than to impose their own. This is a man who turned up late one night in the Guardian office having had nothing to eat and not knowing where he was going to stay. Leigh took him to a brasserie where he ‘ate 12 oysters and a piece of cheese’ and spent the next few weeks couchsurfing the homes of various journalists and on one occasion, was found explaining the big bang to a children’s party complete with equations. He eventually set up his base of operations in Ellingham Hall, a stately home belonging to libertarian journalist Vaughn Smith. He appears to have taken his backpacking lifestyle to something resembling Downton Abbey in his stride.

His view on how to handle the information that Manning had placed in his care was less endearing. When it was put to him that some documents needed to be handled carefully as they identified Afghans and Iraqis who had given information to the US military and would be killed, he replied, “well, they’re informants. So if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.”

For a man committed to passing on illicit information and at the time, protecting the identity of his own informant, the view that informants deserve to be killed appears less to do with the freedom of information and more anti-American than he admitted.

The biggest question around Assange remains what happened behind closed doors when he was seeking residence Sweden. Leigh and Harding devote a whole chapter to the allegations of sexual misconduct and Assange’s denial of them, though it’s impossible to draw any conclusions when they have never been tested in court.

Perhaps I read too much John Le Carré but when I first heard the allegations, I suspected he’d been set up in order to get his residency application denied. Sweden has some of the strongest legal protection for journalism in the world and if he’d been able to stay there, he would have been considerably harder for the American State Department and the many other enemies he’d made through Wikileaks to take action against. It wouldn’t be necessary for the case to come to court; the allegation alone would probably have been enough to get his application denied.

Assange’s supporters shot him in the foot by identifying the two women who had accused him. Presumably they were hoping to find a pair of shady femmes fatales who had been paid to set a honeytrap. They actually found two women with track records of political activism and a complete lack of anything to damn them with. One had been a university equality officer and neither reported him to the police until they met and compared notes about his behaviour. Their initial position that they wouldn’t report him if he took an HIV test may seem somewhat strange, but it is not the action of people whose priority was to get an accusation on record.

Much of the discussion online ignores the fact that one of the allegations clearly fits the legal definition of rape, not only in Sweden but in most countries.

In the twists and turns of the Manning documents’ path into the world, relatively few pages are given to the content of the documents themselves although there is an appendix containing some of the juicier diplomatic cables. Part of the reason for that is that the Guardian had set up an interactive guide to the documents online that we could have referred to, although none of the three appears to work anymore so any search tends to lead to articles about the documents rather than to the documents themselves.

Most of the discussion I have seen has revolved around the enormous stash of over 250,000 diplomatic cables that Manning leaked, which offer an insight into our recent history but as far as I know, do not expose any particularly egregious activities on the part of the US government.

If Manning can be described as a ‘whistle-blower’, it is not because of the diplomatic cables but because of the logs of the Iraq and Afghanistan war showing that the American military was covering up the number of civilian casualties in both wars. Those casualties were not deliberately killed by US forces and in fact, one thing to emerge was that the Americans went to great lengths to follow rules of engagement. In one of the more surreal excerpts quoted, an Apache helicopter gunship crew consulted with a duty lawyer before firing on a group of insurgents. However, many civilians were killed either because they were mistaken for insurgents, because they were in the line of fire or by insurgents, intentionally or otherwise.

The logs do not discuss the legality of the wars themselves, which would have been outside the scope of the military command. Since the book was published, the UK public inquiry on the Iraq War has come as close to calling it illegal as it’s possible to do outside a court of law.

A minor problem with reading Wikileaks now is that while it’s as definitive account as was available in 2010, the stories of Assange, Manning and the largest leak in American history were still ongoing at the time of publication, and were about to enter a whole new chapter thanks to Edward Snowden. The Snowden leak was the subject of Harding’s next book, The Snowden Files, which I pontificated about a few weeks ago.

When Wikileaks went to press, only around a tenth of the diplomatic cables had been published by the Guardian and its collaborators but the following year, Wikileaks published them on its own website, mostly unredacted.

Leigh and Harding’s account leaves Manning in solitary confinement awaiting trial, after he had made the mistake in confiding in Adrian Lamo who reported him to the American military. Since then, he was sentenced to 35 years in prison, undergone a sex change to Chelsea Manning and has recently had her sentence commuted by the outgoing President Obama. She will be released in May, by which time she will have served nearly seven years.

Assange was confined to Ellingham Hall by bail conditions, awaiting a court decision that would almost certainly see him extradited to Sweden. Soon after publication, he jumped bail and sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. The reason he gave was that he feared extradition to the USA under espionage charges, although the USA has never requested his extradition. As Sweden has no extradition treaty with the USA while the UK has a fast-track extradition system, his reasons for staying in Britain seem somewhat disingenuous.

Even stranger is his recent tweeted statement that he would agree to be extradited to the USA if Manning’s sentence was commuted, making no mention of the fact that the extradition he is facing would be to Sweden, not to the USA.

The tale of Assange and Wikileaks shows no sign of reaching a conclusion any time soon.

Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Oak in Winter


(Andrew Birch [CC / Flickr])

The winter sun is our friend. The kind that half-rises in the middle of the morning, makes a half-hearted effort to force some light through the iron sky for a few hours and loses interest by the middle of the afternoon. I know from the first sight of grey light that this is a morning that will not truly break. It would be one of the days we waited for.

I live alone, so I don’t need the precautions that some of us dare not leave their homes without. I can pull on my boots and coat and sally forth into the snow without concerning myself with who might wonder why. No one will follow the trail of prints in the snow to ask where I’m going but as the sun climbs to its feeble zenith, I stay close to the hedgerow. In this gloom, a watcher would need to be within a few hundred metres to see me against it.

For people like us, caution is a necessary habit.

In summer, we meet beneath the oak. Without its leaves, its bare branches do not cover us so I will say we meet by the oak.

I am the third to arrive. My blood quickens at what that means. I almost run the last few steps to huddle in the snow beside them. We are invisible to anyone who does not know exactly where to look for us.

“Do you have something new?” I ask.

A fur-coated hood nods in answer. Gloved hands pass what had led me through the snow for the past two hours.

“Thank you.” My voice quivers.

I open the book.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Greater Minds: When writers wrote their writing tips

  • Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing are widely quoted.
  • In 2010, 28 other authors offered their own rules for the Guardian.
  • The value of technical rules depends on whether you’re trying to do what the rulemaker does.
  • There are some common themes on motivation, problem solving and receiving critique.


Elmore Leonard in 2005 (mtkr [CC / Flickr])

Elmore Leonard started it. His ten rules of writing have passed into legend or notoriety, depending largely on what one thinks of Elmore Leonard’s writing. For myself, how could I resist a set of rules that refers to ‘perpetrating hooptedoodle’?

A few years ago, someone at the Guardian picked up on Leonard’s article and asked 28 authors what their own list would look like. The resulting article is titles Ten rules for writing fiction, parts one and two, in honour of Leonard even though not all the writers came up with the full ten.

Evaluating writerly lists

Irresistible as I find such lists, I’m never sure how useful they are. Leonard himself added so many qualifiers that it’s obviously a description of his approach, acknowledging that different writers can make different things work. It’s telling that four of his ten rules refer to writing dialogue; if there’s one thing about Leonard’s novels that leaps off the page, it’s the dialogue. Other authors devote far fewer words to their dialogue and more to their description. Because approaches are so subjective, I’m not going to say much about the more technical points. When you look through the authors you like, their advice on description, structure and characterisation will either speak to you or it won’t.


(Thad Zajdowicz [CC / Flickr])

When I read an author’s advice on writing, I read it as a description of how they write rather than a generic approach to the writing process, so I get the most out of it if I’ve read and enjoyed their work. If I’ve been less than enthusiastic about it, their advice is not so helpful as they’re describing how they do something I’m not trying to do. Of the authors contacted by the Guardian, I’d tend to pay attention to the ones I’ve liked more than the ones I’ve been less keen on, and even less to the ones I haven’t got round to reading.

Now and again, I found a point jumping out as sounding incredibly pertinent but when I thought about it, I found myself wondering if it was a new revelation for me or if it simply phrased something I already thought in a particularly pithy way.

Writing on the fly

It’s also evident that some of the authors took the exercise more seriously than others. Michael Moorcock gives a practical guide for how a beginner writer can get started on their first project. On the other hand, Margaret Atwood placed her tongue firmly in her cheek with her guide to writing while flying:


Margaret Atwood in 2009 (peter pelisek [CC / Flickr])

1 Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

2 If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

Personally, I find it hard enough to jam myself into the seat in a way that doesn’t disturb my fellow passengers or give me a cramp in mid-flight without trying to write as well, but then I take up more space than she does.

Roddy Doyle’s humour took a characteristically dark direction:

1 Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

Lost in the woods

Some of the more useful advice refers to what to do when you get stuck. It’s a feeling I know well: either I’ve taken my characters down a blind alley that I don’t know how to get them out of or worse, I’ve set up a situation that won’t lead anywhere interesting. Helen Dunmore says the solution is not likely to be found by staring at the page or the screen on which it must ultimately be put into words:

A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.


Portrait of Hilary Mantel, painted by Nick Lord in 2014 (Chris Beckett [CC / Flickr])

A sentiment echoed in more detail by Hilary Mantel:

If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

Saying it’s best to avoid talking to other people is an interesting insight into Mantel’s creative process. I often find that listening to other peoples’ lives can jog something loose that solves my writing problem, though not at the sort of party where people stand around making small talk.

It’s Margaret Atwood’s advice that comes closest to the solution I’ve usually ended up resorting to: if I can’t see how to get out of a situation I’ve set up, I usually end up changing the situation:

Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

Motivation by skiving

I found it rather surprising how many of the authors talked about motivation and distraction. I’ll put my hand up to problems with both, but I’d tended to think that part of being a professional author was rising above such things. I’m both dismayed and


Geoff Dyer in 2012 (Chris Boland [CC / Flickr])

reassured by how many professional authors regard cutting themselves off from the internet to be necessary to concentrate on writing. Geoff Dyer finds the best way to sit himself down to work is to fool himself into thinking he’s avoiding work:

Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.

AL Kennedy takes a more uncompromising approach:

Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.

She sums up another theme that several of the authors touch on: writing is not performance art. The value of the writing lies in what is written, not in who is writing it or how they get it written. Sarah Waters says it more directly:

Writing fiction is not “self-­expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely


(annie_c_2 [CC / Flickr])

engineered pace.

On the receipt of advice

Join a writers’ group and it’s only a matter of time before you meet someone who doesn’t get that. They’re often more interested in the air of gravitas they think goes with calling themselves a writer than in writing anything. Sometimes they’re trying to come to terms with something that has happened to them, and sometimes they’re just pretentious. Wherever they’re coming from, that person is not likely to take criticism well and so they’re not likely to improve their writing. As Margaret Atwood says:

You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

Neil Gaiman offers what I’ve found to be one of the most useful guidelines for evaluating critiques:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost


Neil Gaiman in 2010 (dtd72 [CC / Flickr])

always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

His advice ties in to Margaret Atwood’s advice to backtrack to find a solution. I often find that if a critiquer says that something isn’t working for them, the problem is often lurking several hundreds or even thousands of words before the problem the critiquer has identified. For example, if a critiquer tells me that they didn’t think a certain character would perform a certain action and that they’d be more likely to do something else instead, my first thought is likely to be something like ‘but…but… they have to do that! The plot requires it!’

If I’ve managed to retain any sense, I will neither speak nor act until the second thought, which should be that the solution is likely to lie in how I’ve set up either the character or the situation they’re in. With a bit of editing that may be hundreds or even thousands of words before the problem that the critiquer has identified, I can often have the character do what the plot demands without changing a word of them doing it.

The accountants’ employment scheme

Most of the advice focuses on the writing itself, though Richard Ford throws in some advice about life in general:

Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.


Don’t have children.

Two pieces of advice that few of us are likely to follow all of.

Hilary Mantel recommends getting an accountant though there are far more of us who


Ian Rankin on the right, 2014 (byronv2 [CC / Flickr])

dream of getting to the stage where an accountant would be of any use than who would benefit from the services of one.

Perhaps Ian Rankin offers the best advice about how to get to that happy stage:

Get lucky.

Followed by

Stay lucky.

Richard Ford advises seeing other’s good luck as encouragement so if you, like me, are trying to write better and to be read more widely, I’ll say this:

Good luck.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification, Writing
Follow Cockburn's Eclectics on

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 439 other followers

Lonely Lookout

Memory of the Conquest

East Hill Cliff Railway

Under Carlisle Parade

Carlisle Parade Car Park

Resting in Peace

Message from the Monks

All Saints in Hastings

Moon over the Channel


More Photos