Sunday, 29 May 2016

Total Perspective Therapy

I'm going to retire another story this weekend. This is a bit of fun. We had a theme on week in the Hackney Writers Group, we had to write spin-offs from great works. One guy, a super bloke who writes under the name Lochlan Bloom, brought in a story based on Kafka's Metamorphosis. I brought in this. It's OK, it's funny but it's insubstantial. Nowadays he's a published novelist (and well done!)and I'm a bitter, ranting weirdo. There's a lesson in there somewhere. 

Believe me when I say, Mr Sifford, you are suffering from existential despair and existential despair is one of the hardest states to cure... To decide not to decide is itself a decision, after all.” Dr Halford shrugged. “There are those who say we shouldn’t cure it and that without existential crisis we would lack motivation and understanding and regress to the state of helpless children.” He paused and looked meaningfully at his patient, sat opposite, expressionless, no apparent reaction. 

Dr Halford rallied to his point: “But I say bunk!” and he bumped his fist lightly on the table between them. This brought a smile and a nod at last from Mr Sifford. “A man of your profession must remain motivated and sure of what he is doing…” Mr Sifford smiled some more. It was working. “And, the fact of the matter is if you or I or anybody else actually got their head around what the hell it is you do for a living, civilisation itself would be rocked to its core, we would be overwhelmed by scepticism, disbelief and downright Jacobinism and that… that is why I want to offer you a brand new treatment… experimental… expensive… very radical…”

What’s is it?” asked Mr Sifford.

I’ll show you” said Dr Halford. "Come with me to the basement."


Mr Sifford worked in the City for Babel-Brookes Financial Services, a centuries-old company that dealt in futures. Now a global business, back in the day it provided price hedging for agribusinesses, shipping and freight. Since deregulation the line between hedging and speculation had blurred. When Mr Sifford of Babel-Brookes ordered grain trucks to stop north of the Rio Grande to help correct the price of Mexican flour, or when he advised that rice imports into South-East Asia should be increased because of poor monsoons, he had to show Babel-Brookes was hedging not betting.

Sifford was a success. So why did he feel so ill at ease? Sifford knew that, beyond a certain stage, capital begets capital. Once you invest enough in a particular market the act of investment itself becomes self-fulfilling, the value will go up because… because.
Within this sure and certain paradigm the 2008 crash was a troubling event. For a few awful nights, Sifford laid low in his mansion, would go to bed and be haunted by the Invisible Hand. Despite appearances Sifford’s confidence was rocked and everything depended on his confidence. 

Sifford needed to hold his own. Normally, as Chief International Account Holder, Sifford would boss his office, like a master of the hounds. High finance was a dog-eat-dog world. The only way up was if someone fell off the ladder of dogs. If it got out that he was having doubts about his work it would spell disaster and the end of all dog metaphors. Sifford still wasn’t keen on psychotherapy but he read about Dr Halford online, about his practice off Harley Street, and the blurb on the website looked good:

We promise nothing but the best from our clients – the full range of inducements will be insisted, from the talking cure to compartmentalisation, role-play, ECT, differential exegesis, entropic methodologies, even pin the name on Rumplestiltskin – we will do anyone to anything and at any cost!”

Then there were the excellent testimonies from former patients:

Better than a course of leeches…”

I could feel the back of my head for the first time in years…”

Dr Halford is a real person…”

There were positive, in-depth write-ups too, from sites like What Quack magazine and  
Doctor and patient, down in the basement, one by one crept through the door. “This, this here is a unique new the Total Perspective Vortex... sorry, therapy... what do you think?” Dr Halford seemed anxious. Sifford didn't seem to think anything, until:

It's... big…?”

Big?” It was big, it almost filled the basement floor of Dr Halford's practice, whatever it was. It seemed to be a wide flat dome, silvery, with no markings, no knobs or buttons and no exit/entrance. “It's bigger than you think...” said Halford, “but does it ring any bells perhaps? No ill forbodances perchance? Does it trigger any eerie auguries, fell shadows...? Do you know what this is...?”

The Total Perspective... um?” said Sifford, frowning, confused.

No” snapped Halford. “I mean, do you know what it does...? You haven't read anything about Total Perspective Vortexes before anywhere at any time have you...?”

I'm a Senior Account Manager at Babel-Brookes” said Sifford with a thin smirk. “I don't get a lot of time for reading.”

Good” said Halford, clapping his hands and smiling warmly, “then I'll, uh... The Total Perspective Vortex, Therapy, is very simple. It’s the latest tool in extra dimensional therapy… experimental… expensive… very radical… but it’s showing promising results in the field of, um, therapy. Tell me, Mr Sifford” he said with a frown, “are you a humanist…?”

Sifford was thrown. “I’m a human, if that’s what you mean…?”

We all think we are” said Halford with a renewed smile. He reached up clapped Sifford on the back. “Have you heard of …” He corrected himself. “There’s an old saying, a maxim if you will, that ‘man is the measure of all things…’ It’s a reasonable proposition, after all we know humanity, or at least we know something about it, enough to be able to compare it to other examples of matter, to see how they stack up, like a universal equivalent, a currency, yes, like a philosophical currency, a reliable value… or is it…?” Sifford wasn’t sure but Dr Halford didn’t seem to mind. “The point is there have been many great humanists… Some of my best friends are humanists… But there's a problem in all this, can you guess, Mr Sifford…?”

Sifford shrugged. “It, uh, takes one to know one?”

Indeed it does” laughed Halford. He pressed on Sifford’s shoulders for a moment. “But we’re talking about humanists.” He let go. “The problem, Mr Sifford, is the Parable of the Dolphins…”

No reaction. Halford continued:

The story goes that human beings thought they were the most intelligent species on Earth on account of the great cities and civilisations they built, and the wars they fought defending them, whereas the dolphins just spent all their time mucking about in the sea having a laugh. The dolphins meanwhile thought they were the most intelligent species for exactly the same reason… Humanity, Mr Sifford, is only one currency, just one perspective. This on the other hand” said Dr Halford, pointing to the device in front of them, “this gives you the Total Perspective... Have you ever wanted to know what it’s all about?”

It can’t harm, I suppose."

Dr Halford just smiled. “Step right this way, Mr Sifford.” Without prompting a door swung open and Sifford climbed inside the Total Perspective Vortex. The door closed.

 Thirty seconds later it opened again and Sifford strode out, beaming: “Wow! That was fantastic! I feel so much…!” He shook Halford by the hand. The Doctor's whole body quaked with the force of Sifford’s enthusiasm. “How can I repay you, Doc? Cash, money, yeah, that’s what you guys like, isn’t it? How much do you want, Buddy?”

A… million… pounds…?” said Dr Halford slowly.

 “I don’t have that kind of money on me” said Sifford, letting go. “Anyway” he smiled, winsomely, glancing around the dim, dusty basement, “I was thinking more like two grand?” He returned to Halford’s gaze. “Does that seem right…?”

That’s also fine” said the Dr, meekly.

Send the bill to my fake company” said Sifford, "Magrathea Industries." He strode through the door to the basement and up the nearby stairs. “I’ve gotta be going, there’s a job needs doing.”

Halford shouted after him “what job?”

The meaning of life” said Sifford, “I don’t know. Something like that… I’ll know when I get there.”

Where?” asked Halford, but there was a slam of doors. Sifford was gone. The Doctor smiled again to himself in the lingering silence.

The 23rd floor of Priapic-Compensator Towers, a thrusting new development just off Threadneedle Street, was given over to Babel-Brookes Head Office. It was a busy, noisy place, an open plan affair, where people paid little heed to anything except their phone and their terminal. Even so, when Sifford came striding in people noticed. His PA came rushing over from the coffee cart:

What’re you doing here, boss?” the PA puffed. “This is supposed to be your bogus day off.” She looked troubled, rushed off her feet.

Plan’s changed, Tricia” said Sifford, without breaking stride. “I’ve got a mission. I’ve got to save the world... That or destroy it… Maybe… Or perhaps both… The point is I’m back.”
That’s great” sighed Tricia. “Arthur, the staff baboon is not going to take much more anti-psychotic medicine. We had to strap him to your seat, you know...? The mess is just horrible…”

Give the poor guy a rest” said Sifford. “I need to work.”

Baboon removed,  mess cleared away, Sifford sat down at his terminal. Though the noise and the hustle continued Head Office seemed instantly more relaxed... that is until a cascade of alarming colours and sounds passed along computer screens. What was going on? Someone was selling and selling everything, dumping huge amounts of capital onto the market. It was Sifford. There was a chorus of voices:

Hey, what’s going on?”

What’s happening?”

Where’d the money go?”

Sifford, acknowledging the hubbub, stood up on his desk.  “Guys, guys” he said repeatedly until the room came to a slow stop. “Ladies… gentlemen… froods… I know what you must be thinking and, don’t worry, everything’s going to be alright. It’s like the parable of the ant and the dolphin, you know… or something. No... The important thing is, my friends, is that I’ve had an epiphany today. We are at final readout. It’s time to see what the score is before we evolve. Money is just the movement of bits of green paper, or digital information, which might be green, I don’t know. We’ll know when it gets there. The point is, the important thing is I have seen the Total Perspective. Yeah…? And the answer to all or some or none of this is we have to sell everything…”

But that will cause a global crash” said a heckler.

Exactly!” said Sifford. “That’s right! The price of everything will fall, everywhere… We have the means… We control the market... We can bring the Invisible Hand down... Yes! Everything will be extremely cheap but no one will have any money to buy things with but we will.” There were nods and smiles around the office. “Isn’t that brilliant?" Sifford smiled. "It's post-modern scarcity, no, post-scarcity! Then, because we've got all the money, then we'll really rake it in” said Sifford. More nods and murmurs of assent. “We can do it... Yes! Now let's get selling!” There was a loud cheer and staff got back to work, the hubbub renewed; sell, sell, sell!

Meanwhile” said Sifford, though no one was listening, “if you don’t all mind I’m going to do my bit to defuse the pensions time bomb.” With that he charged through the nearest window and fell to his death.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Opinions or Creative Commons and Collective Creation

So it's come to this, a blog post about opinions. Sigh I have two stories that I have high hopes for that I'm due to hear back about soon, in the meantime enjoy... or don't, my opinions. The picture is from here.

About four years ago I was surfing the internet when I came across a list of Creepy Things That Seem Real But Aren't. There were several compelling stories but I want to talk about two particular ones.

First - the Slender Man...

He's now very well known but back then he was just beginning to emerge in wider public consciousness. He was begat in 2009 during a bulletin board competition to create creepy images. He only appeared several pages in but once he arrived he took the thread over. Over days and weeks participants vied with each other to flesh out his story.

His basic features have been elaborated on but Slender Man is a thin, tall figure, dressed in a suit. He has no face but does have hypnotic powers and tentacle-like arms. He is a superb avatar of fear for two reasons 1) he is not human but humanoid, he is almost right but as a result is spectacularly wrong 2) he is faceless and his motives are similarly inscrutable, making him perfect for imaginative projection. Like most monsters he was not created ex nihilo. His folklore ancestors have been spotted all over the world, for example in Germany (der Grossman), Scotland (Fear Dubh), Colombia (Huipa) and Japan (Noppera-Bo) It's no surprise then why he became popular.

But things have not gone well for Slender Man. If you follow the first link I gave you'll find the first pictures of the Slender Man have disappeared. He has been acquired and third-party copyright. Even before his capture he was becoming overexposed, in images, games, t-shirts and web-series, most of which were not great. The best example is a series called Marble Hornets. It started out well but got profoundly lost as time went on. Marble Hornets was converted into a feature film which ended up a flop with predominantly negative reviews. This really is the point. Slender Man was a collective creation but it was poorly-developed, an anarchic free-for all, one that was ultimately enclosed.

Second - SCP-087...

Also known as The Staircase, SCP-087 is in my opinion one of the best short stories I have ever read.

It is a horror story written in an unusual style, a mock-technical report. It is a description of a strange phenomenon and the attempts to explore it. It works in a similar manner to good Slender Man tales, through bluff and suggestion. 

The story itself is in the addenda. They describe how a team of scientists send human guinea pigs on expeditions through an unmarked door in an unnamed university. Beyond the door is a dark staircase. The stairs are not what they seem to be. They go down far deeper than is physically possible. The guinea pigs report the sound of someone crying for help at the bottom of the stairs though they never reach them. Before long they encounter an faceless apparition which pursues them up (and in one case down) the stairs. There are four missions to the staircase. The first two are scary, the third is a disaster, the last is [EXPUNGED] entirely. We end with the door being covered in industrial padding to muffle the monotonous knocking sounds coming from within.

The Staircase is one of more than two-thousand collected on a wiki-site called the SCP Foundation. In-universe the SCP Foundation is an extra-governmental organisation with (almost) worldwide reach, dedicated to securing, containing and protecting humanity from dangerous anomalies. In this world it began in 2008 as a collective writing project and has now bloomed into visual arts, spin-off computer games and such like. One of mthe best things on Youtube is the small-constellation of channels dedicated to SCP Readings, my personal favourite is the Eastside Show.

The Foundation is covered by Creative Commons Licencing (this is the version it uses). Creative Commons is a form of collective creative government. It means everything on the Foundation website can be used (with appropriate credit given) but it cannot be expropriated. There is a process, an organisation. The Foundation is open-source but goes to great lengths to develop new pieces. There is the application process, which you have to read in full and numerous how-to and beginners guides, a sandbox site where drafts can get critiqued. The main site itself offers comments sections for instant feedback and the ultimate judgement in an up/down vote function. Stories with positive ratings remain, negative-rated stories are removed. All of this is based around CC Licensing. Compare this to Slender Man's chaotic, artisanal creation, it's like the difference between an automated factory and a potting shed.

Creative Commons is a solution in waiting to all sorts of creative problems. In the creative arts goes a long way to meeting the challenge of the zero margin economy. The conventional media set up, including conventional copyright encloses the arts but modern technology, new means of distribution are creating abundance. 

Capitalist media and creative corporations are looking for a profit margin. They are forced to hedge their bets and they are forced to police intellectual property even more zealously. They have a vested interest in scarcity, hence the disappearance of the Slender Man... hence a lot of things. In publishing you will often hear that there is no real market for short stories and there isn't, that doesn't mean there's no demand. Just look at the SCP Foundation.  Tens of thousands of hours have gone into creating and maintaining it. People have given their time and effort entirely for free. This is the future of creativity already happening. All it needs is support and recognition.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Over London

This must seem so sudden and new to you. I shall explain. There are or have been lots of anomalies in London, many kinds. It is our job as Field and Containment Agents in our particular branch of the Department of Metaphysics to come to terms with these oddities, ensuring the city continues to run smoothly. You won't see our name on any ledger and not all of our income is from taxation. Yes we may be a state within the state but that's not for us to resolve here. The point is what we do. Many anomalies we can remove, some we can contain. Some of them we can't, so we have to help the city adjust to what's going on. We stick to our brief... mostly. That's what we did with the Parakeet Embassy in Kingston or the Witch Factory in un-Soho. Sometimes the city must give a little.

One of the most difficult to manage is the Sky Tunnel over East London. All it is, or all it has been until recently, is a cuboid of space. We're not sure of its precise volume. We don't know how far it goes up but the anomaly lies above the area between the Leamouth, Stratford Interchange, Shadwell Station and Hackney Town Hall. The area is spatio-temporally unstable. All that means is an object, usually a plane, will enter that space then be transported suddenly by some still unknown means to another location somewhere above the Earth in somewhere between a few seconds to a few hours later.

We do not know how long the anomaly has been there for. It only became apparent with heavier than air flight. What we do know is we can take preventative measures. Accumulated incident records suggest there are dangerous periods and associated dangerous activities. Planes that get rerouted tend to be in the third or fourth journey through the affected area. There is also a correlation between clockwise stacking and disappearances. Aircraft in the danger zone, so to speak, are given a the choice of an airborne escort or being diverted to a different airport. The usual destination is London City. The usual alternatives are either Southend or Luton. Yes, we have agents embedded in LACC and all nearby airports. I work out of London City Airport.

You might think this is not containment. Certainly this is, or was, no secret, though you granted hadn't heard of it until now. We can't keep people from knowing about it, except you of course, I apologise... but until recently we were able to keep it in a state of plausible implausibility. This is, was the domain of conspiracy freaks. There are Sky Tunnels in several locations across the globe. I can't divulge where they are. We maintain good relations with the local authorities in all but one of the locations. I can't say which country... You wouldn't want to go there anyway. The people aboard an affected plane are amnesticised and released with a cover story. Eyewitnesses are usually quite easy to discredit. 

This situation has changed. Three months ago an object appeared in the sky. There was a glitch in the anomaly, incredible though it seems. It appeared an estimated 27,000 feet up, we're not sure, not quite though. The object appeared, shortly before sunset and remained motionless. It appeared in of the path of an overnight flight, Frankfurt to Boston, which took evasive action. Two other crews soon reported seeing a strange object in the sky. It was motionless and did not respond to hailings and, oddest of all, did not appear on any radar, above or below.

The object was too high to intercept with helicopters so two planes were mobilised from RAF Northolt. The pilots confirmed it was a plane though they could not make out any identifying features or get any response from the craft. They also could not approach particularly close. Despite radar showing the plane was stationary the pilots both reported it 'retreating' as they tried to make closer passes. Fortunately we were able to get the pilots to withdraw before they did anything unwanted or stupid. London City Airport was closed for the night. This is where I came in.

My colleague from the night shift handed over to me first thing in the morning. It was he who got control over the case, identifying the object as an anomaly or part of the anomaly and having it transferred to the DoM. My colleague was able to debrief the pilots. It was night-time when they encountered the anomaly. They did not get a good look at the object, though they described it as 'plane-shaped.' Onboard cameras revealed little as well. The best still image rendered concurred with the pilots' assessment. It was plane-shaped. It also revealed something very interesting - no lights. Who would fly with no lights and why?

I was able to second a plane, a light aircraft that could cover high altitudes, and raise a trusted, experienced DoM pilot from the staff pool. We climbed in reverse-stacking circles, bearing up on our target, which slowly resolved, bigger and more definite. I took pictures as we went. Something was wrong however.

We reached a similar altitude and circled the target, being careful not to get too close. Even so, though it was indeed plane-shaped and seemingly quite large too but from where we were we should have been able to make out details such as insignia or basic design. I took pictures but we could see nothing, just a grey, plane-shaped blur.

What to do? Well, we had a bit of luck, though it wasn't immediately obvious. The pilot tried hailing the plane/object. The signal bounced back in a fast echo. Light seemed to pass through what my colleagues and I would soon call the bubble, but radio waves could not, which would explain the lack of a radar signal. 

Time was of the essence, though that phrase would become apt in more than one way. The airport below was still closed and cover stories only last for so long. We had to develop a provisional containment strategy. To do this we had to map the bubble. Fortunately there was a radar-plane on hand at Gatwick. Two hours later we had a basic map of the anomaly, The Bubble and a plan to divert all City Airport planes to the south as they approached. They would have to stack in a dangerous clockwise direction but that was a risk we would have to take. The airport was reopened a little before midday, a manageable situation.

We have been in a holding pattern since that time... There's that word again, 'time.' The anomaly has been under consistent observation. We have learned more about it. We knew that light could pass through The Bubble, what we didn't know until recently was that it was getting blue. Light-waves from 'inside' were blue-shifting. The plane was getting closer. But how? It is motionless. We have also been above the anomaly, looking at the ground through the bubble. Though picture quality has been sketchy we have discovered that the ground seen below the Bubble does not accord with the ground as it is. 

We have mapped The Bubble and found it is shrinking. It is a sphere, for all practical purposes a perfect sphere. To begin with we found it was just over 200 metres in diameter. The Bubble has shrunk however, at a rate of roughly 10 centimetres a day. It is now around 110 metres across. In this time the object, the plane has appeared in greater resolution and detail. We now know what it is. Here is a picture, taken yesterday.

This is a Messerschmitt ME 264 VI, otherwise known as the Amerika Bomber. It was developed by the nazis during World War Two. Only ever a prototype, it was never used in anger but was intended, among other things, to deliver the German atomic bomb. 

We have calibrated the blue-shift measurements taken according to time. If what we are looking at is a temporal bubble then this plane is coming at us from 1944, though clearly we don't know which 1944. We need to be ready. In just over 100 days we will find out.

Monday, 9 May 2016

London Versus...

Hopefully there will be more link to soon to come but this is the last for the time being. From the recent winter edition of Sein Und Werden, the theme was Blackout. This was my individual contribution, called London Versus. I also helped with the Songs that Won the War medley. Coming soon, a list and maybe a bit of a novel.

The picture...? VY Canoris Major, the largest known star in the universe.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Beach Sequence

Here's a short one, a vignette called Beach Seqence. It came from casting about for something and digging up memory of a holiday in Finisterre years and years ago, repurposed here for some basic symbolism. Whether you like it or not depends on how you take your literary symbolism, subtle or blatant. It could be either here. I'm also giving this up here because I want to put something out that shows I don't just do wacky, format-screwing stuff. The picture is a still from this Youtube clip.

Sophie poked her head over the windbreak. 

"How far away is that?"

"Hmm" said Sophie's Dad. He glowered. "Well, the horizon is supposed to be three miles away so..." He put his book down on his belly and had another squint, "a bit less than that." He smiled; his daughter frowned. It was a daft thing to say but, then again, Sophie's Dad said a lot of daft things, it would be pointless pointing it out. That was just the way he was, too late now. "Looks nasty" he puffed. “Let's hope it doesn't come this way, eh?" He gave Sophie his traditional reassuring wink. It hadn't worked for years but still...

Of course it was going to come their way. 'It' was a long, dark body of cloud looming in the distance, far out in the bay. Of course it was headed towards them, it was late afternoon, the land would drawing in cool air from the sea. The Weather Woman had said it would happen, she said it this morning though, of course, the Weather Woman was French. Sophie's parents couldn't speak French. No use... of course. Sophie walked off. Time for one more pointless stroll along the beach.

This was the first holiday where Sophie felt something was up. Something had been up for a while in fact. Time was you went on holiday and on holiday you spent your time on the beach. That's what you did. 'You' meaning Sophie, and her two older brothers, would pester Mum and Dad to play, build sandcastles, go rock-pooling and so on. All they ever wanted to do was sit and read or lie down, close their eyes and zone out. The answer was always to threaten to do something stupid like jump off a rock, kick a jellyfish or adopt a crab. Sophie didn't want to do any of that any more. Her brothers hadn't done any of that for a while. One was off snorkeling. The other was off practicing his French, if you knew what he meant... They weren't children anymore.

It had never occurred to Sophie before but what was the meaning of the beach? Had anyone even asked that question before? Perhaps not but, as far as Sophie could see it was a lot of bodies, mostly prone, in irregular intervals, half-naked and poaching in the heat. Looking at it all she felt ill at ease, vulnerable. Her Mum loved sunbathing, splayed out across the sun bed she'd hired, utterly comfortable, perhaps even asleep under her shades. It was like she was born to it, her natural state. She looked like her Mum, Sophie, everybody told her so. She had Mum's eyes, her nose, her smile. Would she ever be like her though?

That said the storm was coming. It would all be over, the patient hours of doing not very much. Ten minutes after the cloud appeared the waves started to get up, frothing and building. There was a breath of wind and a hint of thunder. 

Sophie wandered back to where her parents were. "I think it's time we packed up" said Sophie's Dad. "Can you get your brothers?" he asked. Sophie did so and soon her family began collecting cricket bats, shaking down rugs and gobbling sandwich remains. Just as Sophie's Mum took down the wind break the first solid gust struck. 

Sophie took one more look at the beach and the sky before heading back to the car with the rest of them. The front was now a tower of roiling darkness, awesome in its power and scope. She could see rain already falling out in the bay. Sophie smiled. Not long now, she thought. 

Just as her Dad closed the last car door a passionate blast of wind whipped up the beach with a livid roar, casting sand everywhere. Sophie felt safe and happy, secure in the family car. The wind blew hard for a minute or so then subsided slightly. Then the rain began to fall.

"What is that?" Sophie gasped. 

The raindrops were bright red.