The Future of Warfare through the Lens of Science Fiction

A while ago I mentioned I went to a seminar on the Future of Warfare through the Lens of Science Fiction. Well, I finally got around to posting it. Happy New Year to all, and if this somehow makes it in front of any volunteer firefighters – thank you. I don’t know what else to say, as nothing seems sufficient to recognise the sacrifices made and the risks taken. So again, thank you.

The Future of Warfare through the Lens of Science Fiction

John Scalzi, John Birmingham, and Dr Cat Sparks are not the people I expected to run into in my day job a Navy officer. Yet sitting in the lecture hall of the Australian Defence College (ADC), shortly after the Commandant, Major-General Mick Ryan, has made his entry (flanked by Stormtroopers of the local 501st of course), there I am hearing about warfare – my profession since I was a teenager – from my literary idols.

The ADC is not an isolated case. World War Z author Max Brooks has been assisting with US military strategy since 2013, France has recently advertised specifically for science fiction authors for their Defence Innovation Agency. and Penny Mordaunt used her brief time as the UK Defence Secretary to acknowledge that science fiction is fast becoming science fact, noting their Air Force has as much a view on space as the US or Australia. There is a trend here. Governments are starting to see that good science fiction goes beyond an exciting and entertaining story. It involves the ability to look beyond the surface of an idea, isolating and extrapolating a concept across time, technology and culture, and to give different point of view, informed but not restrained by annoyances such as possibility and reality. It gives Governments something they and their militaries are traditionally lacking; an alternate perspective. And they are starting to realise that is something they can use.

Not only does it give a perspective from outside governments and militaries, but inside as well. In his discussion with Ryan Evans of War on the Rocks, Brooks speaks about the popularity of his program. The interview focussed on seminars that invited Marines to use stories to convey strategic doctrine, with some flying in from overseas to attend. The idea that doctrine is more relatable when told as a narrative was certainly a part, but also the voice with which it is told – that of the soldier, rather than the Generals.

That said, plenty of those at higher ranks, including Major-General Ryan, are fully supportive of the concepts. Ryan has been encouraging military professionals to read science fiction since 2016, when he ‘outed himself’ at Grounded Curiosity. His argument is passionate and includes the benefits inherent in a diversity of intellectual opinion, the nature of science fiction to make us consider the wider consequences of conflict, and how it will impact on wider society. His articles have continued to be just as passionate and he remains consistent in pushing the necessity of science fiction. Even as head of the ADC, he has written in military forums such as The Forge, proposed, arranged, and executed the Profession of Warfare seminar dedicated to science fiction, and even now is running a military science fiction short story competition on the concept of future warfare. What he is doing, in a not-so-subtle way, is bringing science fiction from a background interest to becoming a necessary medium, for exploring innovations, consequences, and ethics of decision and actions. It might be a bit of a liberal interpretation, but it seems his argument is simple. Devouring and considering science fiction helps develop individuals, and within the difficulties and complexities of navigating a real-world conflict, developing and educating our people to ensure they make the best and most informed decisions they can is vital.

I’ve written my thoughts before on the value of speculative fiction – I am a firm believer that the best of the genres isolates a question or truth and examines it through the world, the characters and the plot, ideally with a subtilty that allows for entertainment as well of course. For me, the seminar, along with the Max Brooks episode of War on the Rocks and the wider calls for employing futurists and authors reinforces that view.

When I went to the seminar that had all the big names and plenty of experts from different fields I’m less familiar with, I expected to hear some interesting views but was concerned the conversation would be a tad restricted. What I got was a huge array of opinions and discussions on topics that would never even be approached in the day-to-day of my job. Even when the discussions threw up the possibility that the next war would render the Australian Defence Force irrelevant (this was a discussion on cyber warfare), no-one batted an eyelid and the discussions carried on to consider the implications and how it might impact the wider community.

It wasn’t how I expected to spend my work day, and even now I’m still unpacking much of my own understanding of what was discussed. I must have written four or five draft blogs to try and go through the event and share it with everyone. Much of what was discussed was on the edge of my understanding, even after nearly fifteen years of service and a lifetime consuming speculative fiction, including science fiction, so writing it never seemed to quite capture the vibe of the event. But really, what it comes down to is that first article from Major-General Ryan – reading makes us consider broader consequences, gives diversity of voice and perspective, and forces us to examine the core of who we are and what we do. Maybe that’s a little more true in the aligned lifestyle and genre of the military and military science fiction respectively, but there’s an element of it in less aligned roles and genres as well. I guess the message I really got, despite many detailed and specific discussions, was simple; keep reading, and keep writing. You’ll be better off for it.

 

~Nathan

Random Update

Morning/Afternoon/Evening all!

I know I’ve been a bit reticent in posting recently, but I’m sure I had some legitimate excuse at the time.

But there is no excuse for not taking to time to wish everyone a fantastic end of year break – so Merry Christmas for those who celebrate it, Happy Holidays for those who don’t, and for those who celebrate something else entirely, I hope it’s a pleasant celebration.

I’ve actually been holding off on posting because there is a little bit of news. I’m having (or have possibly had) my first ever short story published (by someone other than me on my website, that is)!

It isn’t anything major from an industry perspective – its my University’s literary journal Idiom 23, Issue 28 – but it feels pretty massive to me. It’s the first time that I’ve had a story accepted, and that kind of feels like validation. Its a bit of a weird one, as being a distance student, I actually don’t know if it’s been published yet or not (its hardcopy, regional only). Still, if you had asked me in mid-November how my writing had gone this year, I probably would have winced, mumbled something that sounded amazingly similar to an excuse of some kind, and found something very interesting to look at on the other side of the room.

In truth, my novel manuscripts have gone nowhere, NaNoWriMo was a great stinking mess for me this year, and even my last two Furious Fiction stories have not been up to the standard I expect of myself. Which is why sitting down and taking stock is important – instead of focussing on what I haven’t done, it allows for a focus on what has been done, and that is something that can be built on.

So, the ‘things’.

  • Got to read a bunch of new authors as an Aurealis Horror judge
  • Moved back to Canberra and reconnected with my old writing group
  • Made it to the So You Want To Be A Writer live event
  • FINALLY got back to Conflux – and dragged a mate along too, who went 3 for 3 with pitching!
  • Completed 12 Furious Fiction short stories
  • I got straight HDs for my Master of Letters subjects
  • Got The Safe Place accepted by Idiom 23
  • Wrote my first Novella draft, thanks to a Camp NaNoWriMo led by Sandy Barker
  • Oh, back to Conflux, ran my first ever panel!
  • Edited a bunch of novels and landed my first freelance editing gig
  • Got invited to join a research group on Space Ethics, specifically looking through the lens of science fiction
  • And probably the most important thing. . . . . started submitting again. Its been a while.

There are a few other things I’m excited about as well – I’m on a couple of committees, I spoke to a potential advisor for a potential 2021 PhD enrolment, and I’ve had some really good indications about another story being accepted (nothing concrete, but enough to get a little excited). Considering 2019 felt like a pretty trash year for the most part, that gives a little perspective.

So while this is a short one, I guess the main take away is that I know I’m not the only one who always feels like they haven’t done enough, or because goals haven’t been met, personal worth is somehow less. Spoiler: it’s not.

Its one of the reasons I always do these ‘taking stock’ exercises after what I consider to be a ‘bad’ year. By looking at things to build on rather than playing catch up with unachieved goals, the path is always looking forward and is based on what you’ve already achieved. It was something taught to me before I ever started writing, but with the weird anxieties that writing seems to bring with it, its been a huge help.

The other huge help has been looking forward. Regardless of how 2020 turns out, I’m pretty excited to be going to WorldCon/CoNZealand next year, and even more excited to be heading to Wellington with my partner, Roz. She won’t be attending the CoNZealand events, but we have a few other things planned, like a banquet at Hobbiton.

So I don’t have much else to add to this. It’s probably not short by most standards, but for me its not too bad. As I said though, the big take away is that if 2019 feels like its been a rubbish year, and for some people it might have been for reasons completely outside of their control, remember that we aren’t defined by random goals made almost a year ago. . . .and I can’t wait to get to Hobbiton!

Fairy Tales Are Not For Children – The Original YA

In my previous blog post, I mentioned a bit of pet study area of mine – fairy tales, or rather folklore in general, once being tales of caution, and their potential replacements being the modern ‘dark’ tales. So, what better way to study than to dive in and practice on a blog first, right?

There are essentially three key aspects I want to look at, and all have a bit of disagreement about them. The first is the structure and role of folklore before a certain steamboat-driving mouse made them all kid friendly. That’s what I’m going to look at today.

So. Fairy tales. Colourful, sickly sweet people and clear good and evil. Stories for children. Except as most would know, the originals were a little more . . .grimm.

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“But Nathan, even when they were horrible and brutal, fairy tales were still for children, right?”

Right. But also. . .wrong. In many senses, they were the school of the day. They are, as Grimm Brothers scholar Jack Zipes puts it in one interview, ‘part cautionary tale, part repository of cultural history, part pure entertainment’. Certainly this seems to be a pretty common trait across cultures, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll be sticking with the well known Märchen (German fairy tales) collected by the Grimms. In the case of Märchen, once of their functions was to tech children, and by extension kids are part of the target audience. But to quote Jacob Grimm himself (from Zipes’ book Grimm Legacies):

Have children’s tales really been conceived and invented for children? I don’t believe this at all. . . What we possess . . .is accepted by old and young, and what children do not grasp about them, all that glides away from their minds, they will do so when they are ready to learn it.

I love this quote. It succinctly describes the layers of a story that are understood more and more as a reader grows with it. It tells me that a what child might not yet understand will become apparent to them as they grow. The knowledge is with them, and the comprehension will come. I love it.  But in this series of letters, another section (from T.F. Crane’s The External History of the “Kinder- und Haus-märchen” of the Brothers Grimm) raised a very familiar definition of where Märchen sat in the world:

Märchen were not invented for children alone, but as an intermediate . . .between children and adults, so that both alike can get much out of them, and both apparently be equally fascinated while each is taking delight in something.

This wasn’t from a Grimm, but from Achim von Arnim, a friend of the Grimms and as essential to the publication of Kinder- und Haus-märchen as the brothers themselves.

But this is where I found it interesting. An intermediate between children and adults, enjoyed by all. Without a doubt, that places it clearly in the realm of the YA genre. Now, there are those that argue YA isn’t a genre, but a demographic. To that, I tend to give the same answer as to whether fairy tales are for children. Wrong, but also right. Young Adult are definitely a demographic, and one that books are targeted at. But like Märchen, they have never exclusively been enjoyed by young adults. So the demographic might be the target, but a wider readership is always present. But even then, why can’t a demographic be a genre as well? According to author and literary agent Tina Schwarz as well as David Belbin, a senior lecturer of English at Nottingham Trent University, there are very clear rules involving theme, characters and subject matter. To be honest, both of them give a more definitive definition than most other genres do. Then there’s the adage of genre being nothing more than the shelf labels in a bookstore. Certainly in my local bookstores, I cannot recall coming across one in recent times that didn’t have a ‘young adult’ shelf – usually one of the largest sections in the store!

simpsons.jpeg
Ironically, that corporation owns the Simpsons now. Image: https://knowyourmeme.com

So by either the idea of clearly defined parameters or the bookstore test, YA is very definitely a genre.

But I think its pretty safe to say that the genre in called YA for the demographic it targets, and therefore yes, it’s very definitely a demographic too. But looking both at the Grimm letters and the idea that some stores sell 55% of their YA titles to adults, it’s one that for over 200 years has not been made just for the target demographic.

Put simply, for at least two centuries Young Adult fiction has not been made for Young Adults. So maybe there might be a gap between the term ‘young adult’ as a demographic and the same term being used differently to describe genre?

Another startling similarity contained in both Zipes and Crane’s books are the complaints made against the Grimms by parent, all of which bear a striking resemblance to the complaints against some of the darker YAs of today. Too violent, too degraded, too much adult content.  All the things that get YA books banned from school libraries in certain areas of the world. The similarities continue.

And as the similarities continue, it keeps bringing me back to those two quotes from Grimm and von Arnim indicating that Märchen are for the intermediate, and that children, adults, and anyone in between can enjoy them on a multitude of levels. That when done properly, they are full of layers that deliver ongoing revelations and subtleties.

And, of course because PEOPLE, somewhere someone will be advocating for banning them. Personally I’m with Asimov.

any-book-worth-banning-is-a-book-worth-reading-isaac-20959668

But the biggest take away is that for all the talk that YA is not a genre, it shares an awful lot with a genre that is widely recognised (so much so it was the basis of a certain company sanitising them and making billions by using them to start a revolution of animation in movies), so much so that even the name YA doesn’t even represent the majority of readers at time.

Like the Märchen that preceded them, YA are designed, though perhaps not intentionally, to provide entertainment, cultural history, and cautionary tales. They do this for children, adults, and all in between.

Young adults are a demographic. They might even be the target demographic for the YA genre. But it is still very definitely a genre. There are structures and guidelines that apply as much, if not more, than in any other genre, and the readership is not limited to the namesaked demographic.

Which means that just like the broad appeal of movies based of the old German Märchen, YA truly is a genre that can be enjoyed by just about anyone.

 

~Nathan

 

 

 

Untitled Entry – Furious Fiction October 2019

YAY! ANOTHER FURIOUS FICTION DONE AND DUSTED!

Well, it was technically done and dusted about three weeks ago, but I always hold out publishing until the winner is announced JUST in case!

But alas, another month without a mention. Still, its great practice and I’ve enjoyed almost every story I’ve entered.* This month was no exception, though instead of a darker tone I went a little more towards cli-fi this time.

Coincidentally, a member of my writing group wrote a very similar story. Well, it has similar features and mechanisms and a similar ending, though it took a very different route to get there.

But I digress. FF#21! Featured in the birthday card (yay! Happy 21st!) and wrote a story to the following conditions:

1. Must take place in a library or bookstore

2. Must contain SIX of the following words:

BROKEN       MUSIC       AROUND       MECHANICAL       SMELT       GRUBBY       GAME       COFFEE       BEIGE      HANDS       TWELVE       LETTERS       BACKPACK       NAMELESS       COWBOY       OPERATE       CUPID       TRAIN       PUNGENT       UNTOUCHED

. . .and here it is!

*The exception was one that I crafted after analysis of previous winners. I tried to recreate some of the features and styles, and in the end is just didn’t feel ‘me’. I didn’t enjoy writing it, I didn’t enjoy reading it, and I didn’t feel good submitting it. Lesson: I’ll write my own voice and just enjoy it, if anything comes from that its a bonus.

UNTITLED ENTRY – FURIOUS FICTION OCTOBER 2019

Small spots of scar tissue track up my arm, rough like scales of a snake or lizard under my fingertips. Or like a dragon, I think. It’s not far off. Flying away, leaving a trail of fire and destruction, little more than myth to them. . .

Their place seems so small on the screen. Once a ball of blue and green, it’s now covers various shades of yellow, beige and brown. We will change that soon. We will fix what they have broken. It makes me feel sick.

“Glad it’s over?” Jawan’s been around longer, done this before. My scars follow a single line – his seem to cover every vein on his body. Tiny, splotchy marks weave across his skin, pale blemishes where his DNA has been extracted as storage.

I’m silent. He’s my senior, it’s not my place to correct him. But it’s *not* over yet, and the end of this phase will be the hardest part yet. The library is complete, but not the mission. We are yet to execute the necessary steps; though necessity doesn’t make the brutality any easier. An entire planet of species relying on the twelve of us, each giving time and time again to supplement and encode each living species in our very DNA. I am surrounded by the entire body of knowledge of life here, each book a tome filled with all the knowledge of every living thing that has existed here. A library, a lab, and a warehouse all in one.

“Amazing isn’t it. Every creature, every plant, right down to the microbes.”

“Could’ve left the spiders behind,” I mumble before I can stop myself. I wipe sweaty, shaking hands on my uniform. Jawan is silent this time. He’s not stupid, he knows how I feel about this

“It’s ok. We all have something we’re scared of. But the Library would be incomplete without them. We need to record them all.”

All except the humans. I scratch at my arm again and shiver. Jawan knows me, knows what I‘m thinking. Of the twelve I’m the only one who wanted to include them.

“They still have a chance to evolve.”

“Evolution is a lottery.”

“And every lottery gives them a chance. It will be the exact same conditions as last time. They’ll be around again.”

Last time. So casual. He’s already moved on.

“What’s your fear then?” He walks towards the control panel and types in a command.

“Mine?” I hear a sharp inhale and the tap of a button. This is the moment.

“It’s the exact same conditions, Maya. My biggest fear is that they will evolve, they will build empires and kingdoms and civilizations again.”

The brown turns to orange, then an ocean of debris and atmospheric flames.

“My biggest fear? That nothing we have done matters. That we dump them on another untouched planet, and they do the same thing. And in another four billion years, we’ll be doing this all over again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unknown

Okay. . .so variety is the spice of life, right? So when subjects throw me in the deep end by focusing on two topics I have no clue about – poetry and stage drama – what am I to do? Well, in short, the answer is below. I’ve really enjoyed pushing outside my comfort zone, and I hope you enjoy the drama script for Unknown. I tried to get some sci-fi in there. . .but I guess the best way I can describe it is The Lakehouse with less romance and more nonsensical violence.

You may recognise the poems from the ‘Poetry’ section.

UNKNOWN

An Epistolaric and Poetic Drama

by Nathan Phillips

 

Characters:

An Unnamed Corporal – a 22-year-old disheartened soldier communicating via letter to an unknown future.

An Unnamed Refugee – a 47 year old veteran who has lost her home to yet another conflict, and is struggling with the dilemma of what is best for her family. Trades letters and poetry with a historic soldier of the Western Front.

 

 

 

Set 1: The scene opens to An Unnamed Corporal in the trenches of Passchendaele. He is alone, rifle by his side, and is sitting exhausted against the trench wall facing the audience. Upstage is No Man’s Land. It’s dark and raining as he addresses the audience. Lightning reveals the Hearts and Minds poem as background, each flash showing a different verse.

 

Unnamed Soldier: You write to me of hearts and minds – I’m not sure I have either anymore. Your letters are enough to make me question my sanity, and I’m not sure any of us have the heart to keep fighting.

Some laugh at me, some scowl and say I’ve lost it when I read them your poems. Some weep with me. Maybe I have lost my mind, but you’re the last hope that I have that this all matters. You know what happens, you know if we make any difference to the hell we’ve made of this place.

It might be better if I have lost my mind, if this really is the War to End All Wars. If it is, then you couldn’t be a soldier like us. There would be no need. We would have made a difference and turned the world off fighting forever.

Pause

But I’m cynical, I guess. I can see no-one would want to endure this again, but those that decide, they don’t endure it. How can they understand what it’s like to tread through the shit and the mud of this place? To see the brothers we joined with replaced by kids? To see those kids become men, before more kids replace them again? I don’t want to be replaced! I want to go home and not have any poor bastard take my spot!

Ironic that you already know. Only you can tell me if we made a difference, but if we did, you can’t be real. Or you are lying. If you are real though, it means war still exists and all we’ve done is meaningless.

Pause

I celebrated my nineteenth birthday on the way over here, bile burning through my throat as I heaved over the side of the ship. Davey Harker laughed and told me I should be heaving out behind the pub. He comforted me at the time by telling who’s waiting for him back home. Told him it would be all over by Christmas, and he’d be back to her in no time. He bought it about a year ago.

God, Christmas, the idea of a succulent bit of turkey is torture right now. All we have is this tinned shit, hard as a brick. Not much of a Christmas feast when it comes about.

It’s almost here, and they’re promising again that they’ll end this mess in a few short months. But it’s been too many Christmases since they said it the first time. If they’re right, it’s by luck alone. Even then, it’s hard to believe any of us will make it. Only a handful of us originals remain. The odds of us still being here by then. . .I don’t know.

I know it sounds petty, but I still envy you. Even though I’ve only had one war in my lifetime, – and God I hope it’s the last – you’re with your family. You’ve had them with you the whole time. Every time I read your letters, I yearn for mine. I guess that never changed. Centuries later, are the same, kind of. You still have what I miss. What I may never see again.

But you already know my future, don’t you? It’s the only thing I’ve asked of you, and you haven’t told me yet.

Pause

I just hope that those who do return can convince the rest it isn’t worth it. Not ever again.

 

The background lightens to show the relevant verse of Hearts and Minds as Unnamed Corporal recites it.

Hearts and Minds – Concrete

Concrete 1Concrete 2

 

Set 2: The scene opens to a futuristic, but damaged urban environment. A sunken, broken highway, and bright flashes of an aerial firefight show the verses of Brothers in Arms. The Unnamed Refugee enters Stage Right, crouched and moving to the centre. She stops and addressed the audience.

 

The Unnamed Refugee: There’s a book my grandfather gave me that reminds me of you. ‘We were soldiers once. . .and young’. I accepted more out of grace than interest – it took time to realise what it meant.

You’re right, I have you at a disadvantage. I can look back through the records, see your story, and tell you all about your life. But what is the point? What would I tell you? Do I tell you of how you or your brothers die? Or how about the details of your life? Does telling one infer the other? Should I tell you of the conflicts to come, or let you experience your time with all the genuine surprise, regret, joy, and pain it should entail?

If I could have someone tell me my future, absolve me of making my own decisions, maybe it might be easier. Do I keep going? Stay with my partner and children and hope the battle in the skies above ignore us, or do I take the offer, get back into uniform and fight for them? All the while leaving them abandoned and homeless, wandering through the debris without ever knowing if they’ll see me again. I am old, my reflexes are not what they used to be, and every time we look up another pilot is falling to their death. I might do the same, but it might give my family a future. Just not one with me.

So I understand that you want to know. I want to know as well. But all that I have experienced has led me to a point at which my heart breaks whatever I do. If I already knew what to do and how to react though, it takes the weight of the decision away. And if the fate of my loved ones is no longer a weighty decision, what does that say about me? Does that make me less of a mother? Less of a person?

Pause

I won’t do that to you. I won’t risk taking that true experience of life, no matter how much it irks you. And I know it will, because no soldier likes being kept in the dark. But I know you, and not just because I’ve read you future. We are soldiers, and our decisions have consequences. Should you lose sight of their importance, if I take that responsibility from you, then nothing you do will seem to matter, regardless of the outcome. You will not experiences the moment, but merely pass through it. And we need to experience it, because that’s what lets is hold on to who we are.

That’s what my grandfather’s story was about. The title isn’t a reflection on the past. ‘We were soldiers once’. It’s an identity.

Pause

You will never stop having been soldier. Even if you survive and never put on a uniform again, it will leave its mark. Once a soldier, not always a soldier, but always something different. You write of your brothers, blood or otherwise. That connection you have with them, the one we have, that’s what it’s all based on. Our past informs us. We were soldiers. We can’t change that. Your future will one day become your past – and I won’t ruin that.

The background lightens to show the relevant verse of Brothers in Arms as Unnamed Refugee recites it.

 

 

Brothers in Arms – Pantoum

Brothers eternal, or so we are told

Orders barked at kids, standing awkward in a line

From the day we sign on, until we get old

We are brothers in arms, made so by our time

 

Orders barked at kids, standing awkward in a line

Shrill whistle blows; it’s over the bags

Brothers in arms, made so by our time

Bleeding no more for country or flags

 

Shrill whistle blows; it’s over the bags

Brothers fall and run and fly

Bleeding no more for country or flags

My brothers, in my arms they die

 

Brothers fall and run and fly

From the day we sign on, until we get old

My brothers, in my arms they die

Brothers eternal, or so we are told

 

 

 Set 1, with the verses of Fate in the flashes.

The Unnamed Soldier: I think I’ll call you Atroposthird of the Greek fates, The Inevitable. Don’t be so surprised that I’ve read the classics. Apparently an education doesn’t remove one’s responsibility to catch German bullets. At least, be no more surprised as I am that you won’t tell me my future. My Atropos, who knows my fate but refuses to tell me for fear it will happen anyway. Doesn’t that seem a little contradictory? Just a little self-defeating in the rationale?

The world hasn’t changed so much it seems. To stop a war, we start a war. We’re expected to give our lives to prevent the killing. To preserve our families, we leave them. To keep me hopeful, you refuse to provide the answer I’m so hopeful for. The ironies abound.

You fear I won’t truly experience this life if you tell me, but who would want this life? There is no hope, no future, no point to this bullshit! You can’t take the fucking joy that no longer exists in the depressive bleakness of this life! You keep me ignorant for fear of taking what I lost a long time ago.

Pause

But I do hold out hope for one thing. I wait for the words you send. Ironic, isn’t it? The only hope that remains is for the letter that refuses to give me any, and robs me of any hope for the future.

Pause

I’m sorry. I guess that came out pretty angry. But again, why wouldn’t I be angry? Knowing your reasoning doesn’t make it any less agonising to wonder which bullet will be mine. Accepting my fate doesn’t make me rage at it any less. You write that you know yours. Why can’t I know mine? All I know is that those who never suffer will continue to send us over until one side has nothing left. We’re not here to make a difference or change Europe for any better alternative. You, me, the other side; we’re not here to make a difference, not really. Just to fulfil the egos of King and Kaiser.

You speak of names, places, and ideas unknown to me. Yet you see the same story played out again. And again. Your story is my story, your fight and mine alike.

We may be separated by the centuries, but we’re still part of the same story. Time and time again it plays out, just the names, the details, the justifications differ. No matter when or how it happens though, it all comes out the same.

The Unnamed Soldier reads Fate.

 

 Fate – Glosa (F)

I know that I shall meet my fate,

Somewhere among the clouds above

Those that I fight I do not hate

Those that I guard I do not love;

  • William Butler Yeats (1919)

 

I know that I shall meet my fate,

Though it’s not one I highly rate

It’s stranglehold I have long fought

But pull is strong, the leash it taut

And so knowingly I bear the weight;

I know that I shall meet my fate.

 

Somewhere among the clouds above

The powers enact their push and shove

Vying to sit on a higher throne

Than all others they can look down on

The subjects to whom they show no love

Somewhere among the clouds above

 

Those that I fight I do not hate

Reserved for those that do debate

That justify the acts to violent intent

Their moral compass, broken, bent

Sent them out, then sit back and wait

Those that they fight they do not hate

 

Those that I guard I do not love;

Not the values, the families thereof

If guarding can be what it’s called

For those I love would be appalled

The acts conducted for those above

Those that I guard I do not love.

 

 

Set 1, with the verses of Friends Underfoot in the flashes.

The Unnamed Refugee: In truth, it’s hard to see when I stopped being a soldier, or if I did at all. I have a family, I’ve had several careers – yet it all comes back to that. I wear no uniform, and I serve no generals, not like you. But here I am, still surrounded by the thunderous roar of political egos colliding. Again the young take up arms, wear the uniform and consequences alike. In that, I understand your pain, though you choose to hide it. I see your anger and your apathy for what it is. You are still young. You are still a soldier. You are told time and time again it will end if you keep pushing, if you hold on, if you are courageous enough, faithful enough, strong enough. And you don’t want to believe, knowing what it is to be wrong, but you are young enough to still want to believe as well. It is that irony again I guess.

 Pause

It’s hard to see when we stopped being young too. Was there an age? Was it after our first time we saw real combat? When the bombs and the cannons first drowned each other out, each trying to shout louder than the other? The first time we had to drag a bloodied body back to a medic just to see ‘that’ look of helplessness? Was it when my children first played soldiers, and I was gripped with the fear that they might repeat our mistakes, or when we started losing even the ones that came home?

Maybe that’s what it meant; the book. To be young, to be a soldier, once. It means we came home. Those that remained – they are still soldiers, still young in the eyes of anyone who still remembers them. Maybe that is the yearning, the weariness that we feel. Not a tiredness or a desire to be young again, or to be recognised as a soldier, but wearing the burden that comes when those times collide. The hopefulness of youth – the ones my children still wear – watered down by a thankfulness to survive each day. Or a hope that they would not. I know I was not the only one to slip into that dark place, not so much a desire to take action, but holding out that maybe someone in another uniform would do it for me. Maybe if a bomb fell in the right place, I wouldn’t have to fight anymore.

Pause

My family would never have been, never suffered, and I would have been a soldier, and young, forever.

Pause

But I’m not. I am no longer young nor a soldier, yet here I am again. This time fighting to flee with my family, to keep them from danger. It’s the hardest part – resisting the instinctive pull of returning to uniform, believing I could make a difference, but instead staying with those that matter and getting them to a safe place.

I’m not fighting to advance this time, but to let others retreat, to run, to find somewhere we can start a safe life. Somewhere the fight won’t follow me this time. Like it won’t follow you.

I want you to write back again, I really do. I want to read of the pain, joy, tears and laughter your life could have entailed. I want to tell you how you helped me choose family over the fighting. But in the end, it’s your fate that has influenced mine. I can’t tell you how much it hurts knowing you will never receive this letter. I know if I go back, I will die in service yet achieve nothing.

Pause

So I will tell you, finally and with futility, that your fight, your death – it did mean something. It saved me from giving in again to war.

You are young, and you are a soldier. May you know peace, and see your friends again, as you remain so forever.

 

Lights fade to black.

The Unnamed Refugee reads Friends Underfoot.

 

 

Friends Underfoot – Triversen

The mud and sludge

and blood and crunch

of frost and friend underfoot.

 

Merry Christmas

I say as I pass

leaving them forever.

 

Advancing always,

the General’s needs

and his will done.

 

Still, we go forwards,

– volunteered or fated? –

until we’re gone.

 

To end all wars is

a noble aim but what

ends alongside?

 

There is no more mud

sludge, or blood

for frost or friends underfoot.

 

Curtains.

 

 

My Happy Place of Darkness Rising

The long weekend in Canberra is fantastic for two reasons;

  1. Umm. . . long weekend? Of course it’s fantastic?
  2. Conflux! The Canberra Speculative Fiction Convention for writers!

And I promise that at some point this will talk specifically about Conflux. BUT –  there is not a world that exists in which the renowned Jane Friedman was going to blog about the ‘surprising’ success of darker narratives, and I wasn’t going to jump on that like a frustrated, angry demon onto the unsuspecting soul of they who summoned (and hence controls) it the second the chance arose.

Now, the specific example used in the article is the posthumously published memoir When Breath Becomes Air. I haven’t read it, but from the Friedman article, it has a dark narrative and the reader knows the result from the outset (‘posthumously published’ kind of gives it away). Yet the book was a success. Why? According to the panel Friedman was quoting:

  1. It was immersive
  2. It gave a unique perspective most won’t be able to appreciate (hopefully) in their normal lives

Even though my world is firmly on the fiction side of things, this actually sounded very similar to some of the expressions of ‘dark’ fiction at Conflux earlier this month (see? Told you I’d get back to Conflux!)

One thing I want to make clear though is that dark does not equal grimdark. When I say I write dark fantasy, there is often the assumption I mean grimdark, but as much as I enjoy reading some of it, it isn’t the limitation of ‘dark’ reading, as demonstrated by the memoir. In fact, defining ‘dark’ is something that came up on the panel and in following conversations quite a bit.

But first – which panel? Who was on it? What am I talking about?!

Well, as implied it was a panel on Dark Fiction. What it is, why people read it, and other pretty general ideas of dark fiction. It was my first panel I’ve moderated for or been on, so naturally I was a little excited (and intimidated) to have Kaaron Warron, Aaron Dries, Paul Mannering and Joseph Ashley Smith on the panel. All award winning authors, and to paraphrase Aaron’s tagline – nice people, writing about bad, bad things.

But back to definitions. Dark is tough. Is it an add on to other genres? Dark fantasy, a dark memoir, a dark take on an old favorite – they’re all an add-in. But then we’ve already discussed grimdark, and horror is certainly within the realm of ‘dark’.

It’s tough, and not something I can probably nut out in one session and a blog post. But the general idea was that for something to be ‘dark’, there has to be an element of taking people out of their comfort zone with no promise to return. Maybe there is a happy-ish ending, but it’s not exactly a happily ever after. Or maybe the bad guy wins, or the hero becomes a villain in their own right, and there is either no-one left to save the world – or no-one left to save. It isn’t definitive, and is probably a bit too narrow in focus and broad in application, but it works as a starting point. Throughout the story, if there is a genuine belief the story will not turn out happy – genuine belief, not suspension of belief while knowing full well the ending has to turn out fine – then maybe that’s enough to call it ‘dark’.

One thing I found really interesting though, and that relates very much with the comments on When Breath Becomes Air was what makes ‘dark’ work.

There were two answers that seemed to be agreed upon. The first was that dark works when it’s explored as part of the whole spectrum of a character. As in, no-one likes a purely evil bad guy – they generally want a bad guy they can relate to or understand. Writing dark doesn’t necessarily mean horrible people doing horrible things because all they know is horrible. To get people invested, it was important to have rounded characters exploring, and getting sucked into, their darker traits, and immersing readers in that experience. Just like the memoir, the immersion was the critical part in making it work, not just the ‘how dark can you go’ aspect.

The other part was looking at things from a different perspective, and getting people to still relate to it. It isn’t uncommon for the real word to describe doing things that would usually be frowned upon as indulging ourselves. Well, characters in dark fiction definitely indulge in things they probably shouldn’t. Or at least, they experience the world with a different perspective to the average person. That’s where on a technical level, there are key differences between When Breath Becomes Air and dark fiction. There is no indulgence when it comes to the horribleness brings the darkness to the memoir – lung cancer. But it is still a unique perspective that most don’t experience, and certainly most don’t want to. Dark fiction does a similar thing except instead of following tragedy, it looks more at the ‘what if’. What if something went wrong? What if someone gave in to the indulgences? What if someone took a calculated risk, and it all went pear shaped beyond recovery? Looking at the perspective of the character that screwed up, the one who thinks they’re just misunderstood, and doesn’t realise they are destroying everything they touch? Or they do realise it, but are so emotionally invested in what they do that it becomes purposeful? Or, one of my favourites, they make assumptions that are perfectly reasonable, but ultimately wrong with disastrous consequences?

That’s the perspectives that we don’t always see in other stories. Sure, we do sometimes, but I think this was the biggest point I got from the panel – ‘dark’ isn’t about being shocking or horrible (though the elements are certainly welcome in some stories and sub-genres). Its about immersing the reader in the exploration of another aspect of the spectrum of identity. Its about giving a perspective that might not otherwise be shared, and in that respect I have a theory; that dark stories are there to teach us in a way that nothing does anymore.

Now, bear with me here and I’ll go into more detail in a later post. One of the reasons I wanted to run the dark fiction panel was to help with my university studies. I have a creative artefact and exegesis to write next year and if all goes well, a PhD to start the year after that. And I want to start looking closer at dark fiction and its role in the world. My theory, which I want to question and test in various ways to find my focus for the research years, is that there is a hole where fairy tales and folklore used to be. I remember as a kid listening to First Nations Elders coming and telling us stories of the Dreaming – stories that taught, and stories about consequences. Some had happy endings. Others had consequences and punishments that lasted an eternity. Similarly, fairy tales used to have mixed endings before Disney. I’m sure I don’t need to go into detail about some of the darker narratives they used to have, used to teach children what not to do. Folklore from all cultures followed a remarkably similar trend.

And that trend often leads to a unique perspective, an immersive experience, and a lesson of what not to do. The immersion and perspective makes it real to the reader/listener. The consequences are therefore just as real to them, and guide them away from the Big Bad Wolf or the Vengeful Witch.

I think that role has been diminished, and there is a bit of a vacuum. Not entirely on either front, but enough that something needs to fill the gap of cautionary tales. Now, dark narratives in non-fiction don’t do that. When a dark narrative occurs in real life, as it did with When Breath Becomes Air, it is nothing short of a tragedy. For fiction however, a narrative is an imagination; a possibility or a metaphor. It immerses us in that character and tell us about what we still have control over. If we are greedy, if we are willfully ignorant, if we indulge in the darker parts of our identities, then this is a what might happen.

There is certainly a place for dark fiction that doesn’t take the cautionary approach. Splattergore or just adrenaline-filled action with a speculative twist – these have their place (and according to Freidman, high concepts aren’t the selling point they used to be, with straight-forward entertainment proving a winner when it comes to sales), but this is what really takes me to my happy place. Dark stories that explore dark indulgences. Willful ignorance, characters caught unawares by their own assumptions and prejudices, or simply taking a different perspective and smashing it together with the ‘normal’ world. They’re the dark narratives I like, and the ones I hope are rising along with the rest. They are my happy place, and they are where (if all goes well), I’ll be spending a lot of time over the next few years.

~Nathan