Archive for March, 2012


I’ve been very busy the last month or so, so there’s not been much activity here on the blog. Things are entering a tranquil period here at the top of the stairs. Although Omega Point and Champion of Mars are due out soon, I have no books to write at the moment. I’m waiting on pitch acception/ rejection for five or so concepts. It’s a nervewracking time, but there’s not much to be done, like being becalmed in the doldrums.

So, setting aside walking Doctor Magnus and gardening, I thought I’d take the morning to put some more bits and pieces from my Death Ray days up. There are several new TV, film, and book reviews in the appropriate sections above, and also this lengthy interview with Alan Garner. Garner is one of the best writers working in the English language. His technique is pretty much beyond compare, and it was a great pleasure to speak to him in 2008. I’ve put this interview up under the “Interviews” tab at the top there (please do check the tabs out, there is a ton of stuff hidden in those drop down menus), but seeing as the fantastic news broke last week that Garner is to write a third book in the Weirdstone series, I figured I’d make it the main body of today’s post. I hope you enjoy it.

The Edge of Darkness

By the measure of the mechanical classification human heads force upon the world, Alan Garner is supposedly a children’s author, but his books are not for kids. Dark with old truths, they well up from a place as wild as the magic they portray.

Alan Garner, author of The Owl Service and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, is scion of an ancient clan of Cheshire craftsmen, and this defines him. His books tell an ultimately happy tale of a man steeped in local culture, wrenched away from it by the changing world and his own ambition, then reconciled with it; in case you are in any doubt, we’re talking about the author here, not a character.

Local myths and a sense of profound belonging underpin Alan Garner’s literature, while the discipline of craft, inherited from his forebears, gives us his artfully precise technique. Learning adds further glamour to his work. Classicall- educated Garner’s greatest ambition was to be an academic; fate had other things in store, and he never completed his Oxford degree. But he kept much of what he learnt, and applied it diligently to the creation of fictions. The depth of research and reading that goes into Garner’s books is phenomenal (he famously learnt Welsh to write The Owl Service). Together with his intimacy with his native county, this intense research helps him create books of great magic that are all the more terrifying for being rooted in the utterly real. If you are going to have goblins wandering around in modern England, then that England better be unreproachfully realistic, is his point of view. So much so that if, in reality, a road turns right, yet he needs it to go left for his narrative convenience, it’ll go right. This certainty of the landscape he drapes his stories on gives something of hyper-reality to his books. And it clings to him too; the man exudes a rare potency that goes beyond the merely intellectual, even down a crackly phone line.

It is reading, not writing, that occupies most of Garner’s time. One writer once described writing to me as gathering together lots of ideas, piling them up on a mental compost heap, and letting them mulch down until something good came out of it. This seems to apply to Garner too, albeit as an extreme example. He produces relatively few books, and much mental compost goes into each.

“That’s a very good description of the process,” says Garner, “I shall probably steal it. Every writer – though I avoid writers, I don’t think they’re a very good lot to mix with – has to find their own way to write. There are guide books, but I don’t think they are much use.”

He begins to describe his writing process, insisting that it is only his 50 years of experience that allow him the hindsight to describe how he developed his style.

“I consider that there are confusions that arise over writing,” he begins. “These start at school, where you’ve got 30 minutes to write about the day in the life of a five pound note or something like that, and children think that’s writing. It is perceived that everybody can write, therefore it’s very difficult to explain to people that there’s a very good reason why not everybody can. The trouble is that we’re not all taught to paint, to sculpt, to compose music, but we can all ‘write’.”

This is a truism even we at the lowlier end of the scribbling professions are irked by. Because most people can pick up a pen, they think they can write, but that’s like saying because I can nail two bits of wood together with a hammer and a nail, it makes me a carpenter. Furthermore, Garner holds that choosing to write is not a conscious decision, but an affliction. Those that write creatively have no choice.

“I feel that whatever creative writing is, this need to write imaginative fiction is a pathological condition. I write because it is what I do, it is what I am.”

They say that writers write no matter what. Why would anyone, the pay’s lousy, and who would wish to undergo what Garner does? He appears happy with his lot, but as he describes it, Garner’s path to a book is a grueling, mystical experience.

“I never go looking for ideas, they come looking for me, subjectively speaking. I feel that I’m pregnant, but I don’t know who the father is. At first I don’t know what the story’s about, then pictures start to form in my mind, and it becomes slightly more intelligible. That gives me a hook, and I know what it is that I’ve got to find out. Now, because I set out in this world with the only ambition of becoming an academic, I do know how to find information, and so I read and I read and I read and I read. It’s marvelous because it’s stuff I’ve never known before. And that’s the thing that is great about not being an academic. If you can think of an academic being an inverted pyramid, learning more and more about less and less, writing is the other way up. I find that things that nobody has seen, as far as I am aware, are connected, and the more I read the more the connections come, and,” he admits, “I love the reading because it also means I don’t have to write anything.”

This bibliological fun, which can take years, has to come to an end eventually, and it is then that Garner enters a world of pain. For him, writing really is a disease. Garner suffers  from bipolar disorder, an imbalance that can cause extreme emotional states of mania or depression. It is a common affliction of the creatively gifted, and it certainly sounds like, listening to his description of writing process, that it plays a part in his work.

“There comes a dreadful moment when my notebooks and bibiliographies are starting to cross refer and I know there is no more to learn, and I sit there and there is still no story. There then comes what I call the ‘Oh my God phase’. I’m an evening mind. I learnt at university that you can’t read with that intensity that’s required for a degree or for research for more than three or four hours in 24. You’ve just got to go and do something else. So I have this habit of trying to get into my workspace for about six o’clock in the evening for three or four hours, then stop. When the ‘Oh my God’ bit comes, I still go and do the same thing. I go and sit in the room, and I look at the fire, and I try not to think, which is extremely difficult. It’s almost as if I’m saying to the bitch goddess, ‘Okay, I’m here, where are you?’. This is extremely tiring, and it can become distressful, and it can become disorientating, it can lead to depression, but I’ve learnt to cope with it. It can go on for more than six months. This is before all the really weird stuff starts! And I can’t do anything else, really. I am not very intelligent when spoken to, I’m not very interested in things very much. I feel so lethargic, both mentally and physically, until then, without any warning a phrase comes into my mind. It’s got a hard line round it and I write it down quickly. It’s always the end of the book. I still don’t really know what the story is, but I’ve learnt to recognise that phrase, and put it down, and forget it.

“Within a few weeks, it starts again. I’ve got a very visual memory, and a very visual mind, and I see flashes. I’m sitting in the cinema, I’m being told a story by what is happening inside me, so I write it down. Let’s say I see two people walking along a beach, I can hear what they are saying, but they are not in-sync, and they are out of focus. So in this interior editing booth, I can spool back, and play back until they are in focus, and they are in sync.”

As he emerges from his meditative state, the words come faster and faster, until he is feverishly writing away.

“Let’s say I get 300 words and the tap gets turned off, it would be foolish to go any further, so I stop. But the gaps between the tap being turned on and off shorten and the tap is left on for longer and longer until I am writing so fast I can barely keep up with what I am seeing or experiencing. Then there’s the worse moment of all ‘Hey, what about that last sentence and paragraph? What if it doesn’t dock?! I’ve been writing out into the cosmos, I shall pass Pluto at any time!’, but it always goes ‘click’, it puts me in mind of Apollo 11, coming up over the horizon.”

This sort of channelling of a muse, the late nights, the phrase popping into his mind… Once upon a time Garner thought something very strange was going on. “At first all this was terrifying, it’s just now disconcerting,” he says. But as he has grown older he has realised that it is his subconcious brain churning away.

“I think now that the book is written in the ‘Oh my God’ bit. Which leads me to the conclusion that the intellect never had an original idea in its life. Originality is an unconscious process, and that’s what creativity is. So that’s why I think it’s a pathological condition, it’s something over which the individual has no control.”

Reading earlier interviews with Garner, one gets the impression that these periods of intense thought and introspection started long before adulthood, during a succession of serious childhood illnesses (meningitis and pneumonia among them). He was pronounced dead once. He was often alone in his room and, while his body waged war against disease, he would make imaginary worlds out of the cracks in the ceiling, or defy the personifications of  death he saw there. When did actually manage to go to school he was such a know-it-all he felt alienated from his classmates, though his time at Manchester Grammar seemed happier. A later scholarship led to further education at Magdalen College, Oxford. It opened his eyes to a wider world, but also opened a chasm between his family and himself – he was the only one not to work directly with his hands, and describes himself as ‘the first failure’ – that took him many years to heal. He seems to have suffered a sense of dislocation, of straddling two very different realities. Much of his work could be seen as an attempt to remedy that.

“When you get somebody from a deep, but narrow, culture, being stuck into formal education, especially the one I had, which was classics, then it can be very destructive, if you are not careful. I can remember my parents  being excited that ‘Alan had got a scholarship’, but for them, with hindsight, I saw that it was a three dimensional object. An education for them was a car or a brick. I would come home from school, excited by the concept of irregular verbs, and they looked at me, and they thought that I was trying to put them down, with the exception of my grandfather.”

Garner speaks often and fondly about his grandfather, a blacksmith of few words but great wisdom. Garner describes sitting in the dark of the forge from a young age, absorbing family stories that were, eventually, to form the basis of his The Stone Book Quartet. Later in life he’d go to the forge and excitedly talk about his learnings, to which his grandfather would reply with such as: “Oh aye, and what about the co-efficient of the expansion of brass?”, which, Garner says, was not a putdown. For hundreds of years, smiths held the magic at the heart of the village, emerging from the deeps of their own personal underworlds carrying the miraculous products of their forge, but there’s more here to Garner’s recollections, a personal awe, and as he speaks of him it is not hard to imagine Garner’s grandfather as the last incarnation of Weyland. Think on these two memorable things Garner’s grandfather said to him, which he describes as “curses”.

“He didn’t talk much, but when he did say anything, you didn’t forget it. He said ‘Always take as long as the job tells you, because it’ll be there when you’re not, and you don’t want folk saying ‘What fool made that codge?’ And the other thing when I was seven, this was a real curse, and I never got away from it, and I think if you look at my books, those that work, they have followed this one. He said, ‘If the other fellow can do it, let him.’”

Garner’s divorce from his roots was a painful one, his education the double-edged sword that cut him from them. He enjoyed, and made great use of, his further education, but his early schooling was traumatic. He says he loathed primary school. His mouth was washed out with soap for speaking the local Cheshire dialect (he has said that the class system creates a kind of bilingualism – technically called ‘style-shifting’. Accordingly, he does not use the vernacular when speaking to us, though he employs it often in his books and slips into it when reporting the speech of his parents and grandfather), and his arm was strapped to his chest to “cure” him of his left-handedness.

“The saving of me was that I spent slightly less than half my primary school years at school, because of my illnesses. But when I did turn up, I wasn’t part of the pack, and I was top of the class. Oh boy! I do remember a lovely teacher called Miss Turner who engaged with me and one time, ‘Alan Garner,’ she said ‘will you put your hand up if you don’t know the answer’. I remember another occasion when I was at the blackboard, and I carefully drew in coloured chalks the sections through the cone of the volcano. I only just made it out of the playground after school with my life.”

But memory is a tricky thing. A traumatic incident is more easily recalled, and puts a glowering cast on happier times. The nature of identity and our perception of ourselves within our own lives is a key theme of Garner’s books. We are self-built constructs; if you like, our own personal legends, not entirely “real”, but fundamentally “true”. Garner is well aware how what we remember, or even choose to remember, shapes who we are.

“My actual pattern of life took me away from those children for about thirty years. Then there was a reunion of some sort, and I thought I better go along and see how they are. And I found out that I’d been extremely popular! One matronly figure, who still in my eye still looked eleven, she said, ‘Oh, we were all in love with you Alan.’ Well, they could have told me! But some of them are still in the district and we picked up on the friendships of primary school. And that’s very gratifying. Memory is totally unreliable. My friend’s a barrister, and he says when you get three witnesses with the same story they’re all different. I think that’s true of life. I think of my grown up children, and sometimes I come out in a sweat, sometimes I was really dreadful to them. And, of course, they don’t remember it.”

Ironically, it is his writing, that most intellectual of pursuits, that brought him full circle and healed the gap. Firstly, he came eventually to accept that he too is a craftsman. Though his words may come to him is some Merlin-esque fugue, it is the discipline he employs afterwards that makes his books what they are. Like his stonemason great-grandfather, or his blacksmith grandfather, he has no control over how the raw material is formed, but he has control over what he selects, and how he approaches it.

“I can see now that my grandfather worked in very much the same way; he worked intuitively. That was interesting for me to realise, after I had been writing for some time, that we were both of us using our hands.

“I also had the fortune to be educated in to the structure of language, not in English, and I think that is a great benefit. Thing with me is I love cutting, oh dear! I love to take a machete to a text, and it can be very funny. The most extreme case was in one of the more recent books, Strandloper. I debated with my editor Christopher Maclehose for 20 minutes about whether I should replace a semi-colon. But when he said ‘Would it be impertinent of me to suggest to you that the whole of the next chapter be redundant?’ I asked why, and he told me, and so we dropped a chapter in three minutes.”

Garner is no friend to the adjective. He loathes purple prose, even to the extent of preferring less flowery Germanic root words to Latin derivatives. He describes his works as very long prose poems. In some ways, he’s the last of the Anglo-Saxon scops.

“When people start pointing fingers, I stop reading. Didactic writing is something that would actually make me become an urban guerilla. Show, don’t tell! It’s so much harder, and therefore rewarding and enriching. It keeps me intellectually young. Because this always happens: If I’ve got something right, then somebody will write to me or speak to me and they will have a completely different reading of the text, and it is at least as good as, and sometimes better than, mine. This is the showing bit, instead of pointing the finger you are opening your hand and saying to the reader ‘Can you see anything there?’ I’m not in any way criticising the physical, descriptive writer. It’s something that I can’t do. But if you’re writing something intensely emotional, and you describe what’s on the table, then the sauce bottle gets in the way. I think I’ve got very few bees in my bonnet, but one of them you did make hum then. That is a really big issue for me.”

Well, it’s a richer world for different writing styles. If everyone wrote like Alan Garner, it wouldn’t be quite so exciting, would it?

“No, it would not. That’s why I killed all the other Alan Garners.”    We have another bee for him, actually. And that is that he dislikes it when people try to categorise his work. Besides the age of many of his protagonists, it is perhaps his love of unadorned prose that makes people see his work as for children, but thought the language is simple, it is not simplistic, and the themes it conveys are neither.

“Ghettoes – no!” he groans. “They call me a children’s writer, but what’s so amusing is that I’ve had three of the novels made into television, and as soon as you can see what’s happening, nobody starts talking about children. The coincidence is that The Owl Service DVD has landed on my doorstep this morning. I can remember that this film went out for eight weeks at about four o’clock. It was a teatime family show, but on the cover of the DVD it says ‘suitable only for persons of 12 years or over’!”

The Owl Service is based on the legend of Blodeuwedd (Garner scoffs kindly at my pronunciation) from the Welsh book of myths, the Mabinogion. He’s a precursor to the likes of Neil Gaiman in his employment of British folklore and dark age legends, but he uses his sources chillingly. It’s a clean-burn terror though, a useful feeling. Garner has no time for horror, as he says it has no catharsis. It is children who often find themselves dealing with the unknowable powers of ancient magic, and it’s pretty clear that his ideas of childhood do not accord with the sentimental feelings held by wider contemporary culture. He cites John Masefield’s Box of Delights as a realistic, unsentimental portrayal of what it means to be a human, let alone a child, though a growl of annoyance creeps into his voice when he mentions the final paragraph, shoehorned in at the publisher’s insistence to give a happier ending. His own characters follow Box‘s Kay Harker: resourceful, open to real peril and capable of making intelligent choices. Its undeniable that his “childrens” books are a useful map for those on the cusp of adolescence. They depict children as people, not as cotton-swaddled innocents, and reveal both the power and peril at hand within the real world. They treat children with respect, and demand they do the same to the reality about them.

It is this association with the real world, and not the magic within, that make his books so potent. Garner is, like King Arthur, the land. So deep is his connection with his home, so adept is he at portraying it, that to read about Alderley Edge is to visit it. Despite his detour to Oxford, he has resided in the county of his birth for most of his life, dwelling in a 700 year-old house within sight of Jodrell Bank’s main dish. This second great aspect of his books is another answer to his search for place. Through it he has become another link in the long chain of his clan. This has helped him, at least, finally reconcile who he is within the contexts of his art and his family.

“I do remember a particular occasion when I thought ‘What do I have to do to please this lot?’,” he says of his kinfolk. “It seemed that there had been total severance. Because I was fairly logical I thought ‘Is there anything we have in common?’, and then I realised there was. I’d got this enormous, rich, historical culture that was all connected with one place, Alderley Edge. And that we still shared. But I knew something they didn’t, an added richness. I could describe it in geological terms, as a multi-faulted Triassic scarp, and I knew what I was talking about. Fortunately I was wise enough not to try that one on! Alderley Edge became for me the point at where we met, and still do meet, though that was totally internal to me. I can now see that pattern in the early books. In early books you either suppress or you forgive, and my early books have very little human characterisation in them, they’re a young man’s books. But the energy and the power of the landscape is there. It’s already mature. When I go to the Edge, and when I went there, I knew why that stone was in the hedge. I knew who’d built that wall. I knew the stories about individual trees, and who’d done what to whom and where, and when.”

That is a very rare thing now. Garner is a master in a grand tradition of English literature. His work is bound to location by ties of emotion, blood and time. And in that. he’s the last of a kind.

“Don’t be so pessimistic!” he scolds. “Writing’s going to suffer a change. I don’t think that people are going to stop writing, and I don’t think the pathological state is going to go away, or ever be cured, but yes, there are very few people now who can spend their adult life where they spent their childhood. The verb I apply to Alderley Edge is ‘to own’ because it has two meanings. It doesn’t mean to possess, it means to have an obligation towards it.”

But we do live disconnected from our birthplaces, and are thus unconnected to where we have chosen live. Who will write like Garner now? A secondary factor is that writers of such polished brevity as Garner cannot flourish in a world where books are all but marketed by physical weight. Who, crucially, now not only has great personal knowledge of his environment, but also ancestral knowledge of it? Garner reads out a quote from the Irish Poet, Patrick Kavanagh, that perfectly encapsulates this.

“Parochialism is universal, it deals with the fundamentals, to know fully even one field, or one land, is a lifetime’s experience. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, a stream at the junction of four small fields; these are as much as a man can experience.”

Garner speaks of academics being inverted pyramids, but in a way that is what he is too. He is a scholar of the land, knowing everything about one handkerchief-sized part of the England. There’s a documentary on the DVD of the The Owl Service, called At the Edge of the Ceiling, made at the opening of the 80s by Granada. In it, Garner stalks the field margins and woods of the rising east of Cheshire, the ultimate parochialist. The emptiness of the place and the sound of the wind are far more eerie than the ridiculous choral music laid over it. He seems a solid part of those things, a piece of the deep reality of the place. He is as much of the landscape as the ancient powers of which he writes. That is at the crux of his books: home is not where the heart is; home is what we are. He has found his way home, like the fairytale hero who undergoes a great quest to discover what he really needs has been right under his nose all along. We, the rest of us, footloose and scattered far from where our ancestors lived are, by that measure, homeless.

Garner is in his 70s now, of such years that when people tell him they enjoyed his books as a child, they can turn out to be retired headmasters. When he is finally gone, one of the last writers who has both understanding and experience of this connectivity will be lost. We can only hope Garner’s stories will join the tales of his ancestors, or the legend of the milk-white mare, or the vicious spirit of Thursbitch, as an indefatigable echo of an elder England. With luck, they will not entirely be buried under the broad driveways of the WAGs now laid over Cheshire’s fields, and will patiently wait until they can be heard by another that knows how to listen to the land.

 

The Books of Alan Garner

Lots of magic, a handful of goblins, the relentless turning of the wheel of time, and a ton of research…

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen 1960

Perhaps Garner’s best known book. It opens with a local legend, that of the Iron Gates. A 140 warriors lie sleeping under the hill, each with a milk-white mare. In the legend, a wizard asked a farmer for his horse, a milk-white mare, to provide the final knight with his mount. The farmer declines, saying he will get a better price for the horse at the market, the wizard counters that he will not, and will sell the horse to him. That evening, the wizard’s prediction duly comes to pass, and the farmer is shown the cavern where the knights sleep. In Garner’s book the farmer takes, without the wizard’s knowledge,the Weirdstone, a sort of key to the cave.

In the present, Colin and Susan are two kids spending time with family friends at a farm at Alderley Edge. Susan possesses a bracelet, an heirloom which, unbeknown to her, contains the Weirdstone. Its return to the locale of the cave precipitates a struggle between light and dark, as the Dark Spirit Nastrond uses his catspaw Morrigan attempt to capture the stone, and destroy the knights who are fated to destroy them. Garner paints a breathing picture of his home village, then utterly subverts it, filling even the familiar with hidden terrors.

The Moon of Gomrath 1963

The sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Susan and Colin are forced to consort with the dangerous Old Magic. Susan has a magical bracelet gifted her at the end of the first book as recompense for losing the Weirdstone, but when she lends it to the elves to aid them in a struggle in their own world, it leaves her open to the malign influence of the Brollachan, a wicked spirit. Though the Brollachan is driven from her body, Susan’s spirit is lost, and only Colin’s devotion saves her. However, she has been sensitised to magic, and the pair of them unwittingly release the Wild Hunt. Their attempts to undo their actions lead to their capture by the Morrigan, and the return of the Brollachan. In the end they are triumphant, and Susan is revealed as a force for good.

The Moon of Gomrath is a darker novel than Weirdstone, with a less unambiguously happy ending, and deals with the difficult subject of sexual awakening.

Elidor 1964

Drawing elements from Irish and Welsh mythology, and from the folktale Childe Rowland, Elidor tells of four siblings who are pulled into the parallel world of Elidor by its king Malebron. The land is wasted, and must be saved. The three eldest siblings are trapped, and, to release them, Roland must undergo a quest to recover four objects that will facilitate the healing of the land. He does so, and releases his siblings. Finally, the unicorn Findhorn must sing the land back to life, but on the bleak post-industrial streets of Manchester, it is beguiled by Roland’s virginal sister and slain by Elidor’s enemies. Still, the land is saved, and the king restored. But this is no jolly romp for the kids, but a dark and exploitative experience. Elidor belies the notion that adventure is free of cost.

Garner spent some time as a television journalist, and he credits this experience with a change in style. “That’s where I learned to listen, because the big change comes after the first two books, with Elidor you get real dialogue for the first time, because I’d learned to interview for three minutes and to go back and cut it down to a minute and a half and not cheat.”

The Owl Service 1967

Three children step-siblings Alison and Roger and the Welsh Gwyn are forced to relive the legend of Blodeuwedd. “Face of Flowers” was created by the wizard Gwydion for his son Lleu, who could marry no woman, but she had no interest in him, and incited the warrior Gronw to kill Lleu, a crime for which she was turned into an owl. This tragedy is repeated by every generation, and though Gwyn’s ancestors tried to lock up the magic in the eponymous dinner service, Alison lets it out by tracing the pattern.

One of the few of Garner’s works not set in Cheshire, The Owl Service is a layered book, examining through the legend the subtle fractures that run through British society, clashes of class, nation and family. It was adapted as a TV serial in 1967, where the sexual themes were played up. The Owl Service won the Guardian Award and the Carnegie Medal.

Red Shift 1973

A development of the themes of The Owl Service, Red Shift details three interconnected periods of history in South Cheshire, near the village of Mow Cop. The stories tell of deserting Roman soldiers, a man and his wife during the Civil War, and the mentally unstable Tom, whose troubled relationship with his girlfriend Jan and his parents push him over the edge. The characters each have flashes of each other while in various states of mental imbalance: Tom is suicidal, 17th Century Thomas Rowley suffers from fits, and Roman era Macey is subject to beserker rage. Other thematic elements; the colour red, exploitation and a stone axe tie the eras together. The tale also owes something to the legend of Tam Lin.

The story was adapted by Garner into a BBC Play for Today in 1978.

The Stone Book Quartet 1979

Four short stories about Garner’s ancestors, written between 1976 and 1978, were collected into this one volume. Garner learnt the family history underneath the stories as a boy by listening in to his relatives as they came to pay their respects to his grandfather. It was the only one of his books that he let his father read the typescript for, and was gratified when his father demanded to know how he had learned all the family secrets. The book’s genesis as four short stories began when his wife, experiencing premature labour, was attended to by a midwife who turned out to be one of Garner’s cousins, whom he had not seen for 30 years. She presented him with a photograph of his young grandfather, whose intense gaze seemed to call out to him. There is no fantasy in The Stone Book Quartet, but that is not to say there is no sense of the numinous in the everyday it depicts. It won the Phoenix Award in 1996.

Strandloper 1996

After a long silence, Garner returned with Strandloper, a fictionalised account of the life of William Buckley, a convict transported to Australia in 1803 who escaped and ‘went bush’, living with aborigines for over 30 years. Buckley became totally naturalised, and largely forgot how to speak English, though he returned to live among Europeans at Hobart in 1856.

Garner’s book makes much of Buckley’s supposed mental problems (Strandloper has him as an epilectic) and has him return to his native Cheshire, changed but at one with his roots. Another story that features fractured time and a definition of reality by reference to identity, Strandloper can be seen as the ultimate in Garner’s expression of his quest for a place in the world.

Thursbitch 2003

There is a valley with an ill reputation in The Peak District named Thursbitch. While walking over the moors one day, in the 1950s, Garner found a stone with an inscription upon it, detailing how a man had been found dead in the snow, the single print of a woman’s shoe beside him. He returned to his memory of his discovery several times over the following decades, before finally writing the novel. Like Red Shift and Strandloper, the novel deals with dislocated time, being set both in the 18th century and now. It’s been called a literary moebius strip, as the events at the beginning of the book are described at the end. And like the rest of his work, it is concerned with place, though the peculiar animus loci of Thursbitch, a name which roughly translates into Modern English as “Demon Valley”, is a malevolent one. Many odd stories are attached to the place, and Garner reported a strange experience of his own while writing it.

Did you know…?

Garner has lived in the same house for decades, and written all his books in the same room. Part of it is a 14th century timber house he moved to the location.

“We’ve just turned it into a charitable trust so it can’t be got at afterwards,” he says. “Because I had a horrible experience, I watched a film about Rudyard kipling, and there was a shot of his house, and it was his study and there the chair was slightly away from his desk, there was a notepad on the desk, his glasses were half out of their case, and the pen was by the side, and the great man was going to come in at any moment and write another deathless sentence, and I thought my god he’s killed that house, it was in total aspic.”


What’s this? What’s this? It’s a Richards & Klein short story, that’s what! It’s set a month or so before the events of Reality 36. Please enjoy.

Ghost

A Richards & Klein case

2nd July, 2129

“Ohmygod, are you like, wholly certain?” The microphone at Jeanette’s throat hurled her squeals across the grid at Molly. Molly, her face pasted over the world as part of Jeanette’s enhanced reality set up, stuck out her tongue and pulled a face.

“Yeah, yeah, he did, I mean, he really did.”

Jeanette’s shrieks of laughter battered the ears of the other tube passengers. They ignored her, a custom bedded into London psyches two centuries gone. They had ceased to be people by choice, becoming objects to be shifted from one place to another. Although as pressed together as tightly as lovers, they hid in their inner spaces as best they could – in the bone cage of their skulls or out on the boundless Grid – seeking release from the proximity of other warm animal bodies.

Jeanette was less self-conscious. Firstly, she was sixteen, only beginning to outgrow the brash confidence of adolescence. Secondly, wherever Jeanette went it was in a cloud of private information. She was oblivious to the others, their faces crowded out by Grid windows packed laminate-tight.

Her vision hemmed, the Real was confined to a letterbox directly in front of her, dull and drab and wholly not worth paying attention to.

“That’s just grunky vile,” said Jeanette. Molly was using real-time feed of her own face. Jeanette was represented to her friend by a near-I avatar. It caught her mood and expressions well enough. Both girls squealed.

“Vile!” shrieked Molly into Jeanette’s ears. “Oh, but, listen. But you mustn’t tell anyone, okay? He’d be, like, massively mortified, okay?”

“Too late for that!” giggled Jeannette. “I got people listenin’ sis!”

“Where are you?” said Molly.

“I’m on the train!” bellowed Jeannette. “Off shopping, in like shops, I’m massively getting into that. Sooo much better than looking on the Grid. But yeah, no, I surely can’t afford it, but you know, I image it,” she clucked her tongue, “like get it fabbed up at home. Done and sorted.”

“Oh I madly hate you,” Molly’s nose wrinkled as she pouted. “You always look so great and you always get your proj done on time. Why can’t I so? I’ve a ton due Monday, like the day after tomorrow.”

“I’ve not done my proj yet,” said Jeanette. Her avatar copied the grin on her face.

“How are you…”

“A girl’s got to keep some secrets,” Jeannette said. Her avatar held a finger to cartoon lips and gave a wink a teenager might judge mysterious.

The train spoke. “The next stop will be Oxford Street. Change here for Bakerloo, Victoria, and King Charles III lines.”

“And… Oh, hang on so, this is like, surely my stop. Gotta go!”

“Catch you Jeannette.”

“Catch you Molly.”

The last thing Molly saw of her friend was her avatar fading away. Not really Jeanette, just graphics and guesswork, but in her mind she’d never be able to tease them apart. After Jeanette had been gone a while, she wasn’t sure if she ever could.

****

The Tube doors opened with a blast of overheated, smelly air. Jeannette was sucked out of the train by a surge of people. She let the crowd bump and bob her toward the exit. A careless shoulder knocked her ear, dislodging her earpiece and setting her glasses askew. “Tchaw!” she squawked at the shoulder, which paid her no mind and swiped its way onward. She’d like surely missed the best bit in her show. She set her gear to rights. She wholly hated the glasses, and the earpiece, and the mike, but her mum and dad went mental whenever she asked for an implant. An implant! Not a full-on mentaug, a bloody phone so she could catch her shows and chat and that with her friends without all this junk stuck on her face; but no. Two hours of this and that, wagging fingers, Bergstrom’s disease and bill-scares and who-the-hell-d’you-thinks-gonna-pay-feritall? You’d think she’d wanted a gun, you would, a gun.

She was carried by the press onto Oxford Street. The street was crammed with all the variety of 22nd century humanity – post-humans, AI in sheaths, pimsims (that’s dead people, she shuddered inwardly) in sheaths, Near-I helpbots on errands, eugenes and cyborgs.

Her scalp prickled with sweat. It was wholly hot, 29 degrees and rising fast, sticky as ever. She’d stink as bad as the Tube by the time she got home.

Facts and figures about this lesson and that assignment scrolled up to join the two TV shows, the lecture and the online game she had flickering in front of her. She checked the progress of her homework. She blew a strand of sweat-lank hair out from behind her glasses. She’d messed up a bit there, she’d never write like that. She adjusted the essay and let her homework get on with itself.

She was pleased with the sentence she’d recrafted; so pleased that she never saw the cycle rickshaw.

Oxford Street had had no traffic other than the pedal-powered kind for fifty years. A bike though, that can still kill you, if you are unlucky.

The rickshaw banged hard into her right knee, causing her leg to buckle, causing her to fall, which in turn caused her head to come into contact with the kerb, which caused her skull to fracture. The Real and the Grid were plastic and interwoven, the world changed every day as technology played its fingers over the structure of life, but underneath all that granite was still granite.

Pain like she’d never known spidered across her head. Her glasses skittered into the gutter.

Somewhat unfairly, she died. Just one of those things, wise heads would say, which is more than the statistics she had just joined would.

Cold comfort all round.

Back home, Jeannette’s essay carried on writing itself.

****

The phone rang in Richards’ head. Kind of. Richards was a Class Five free-roaming artificial intelligence, and as such did not technically have a head. Even while he was wearing an anthropoid sheath which did have a head. As no better way had evolved of expressing this sentiment accurately, he along with everyone regarded his sheath’s head as his actual head, even though it was not.

He was busy, but he was never too busy for more business. He answered the call with a thought.

“Richards?” came a hesitant voice.

Great, thought Richards. Ghostbuster Karl. “You dialled my number Karl,” said Richards warily.

“Yeah, right,” said Karl. “Sorry. I think I have one for you.”

“Karl mate, this is not a good time.”

A burst of gunfire scared Richards out from behind an upturned table. Bullets cracked its woven-carbon surface. He rolled his robot sheath across the floor, crunching tableware and smearing fish supper over his trenchcoat. He crawled on his elbows past cowering punters. “Out for a naughty bit of cod, caught in a gunfight,” said Richards to them as he wriggled past. “Serves you right.”

He made it with minimal damage to the broad pillar where his partner Otto sheltered.

The German cyborg was pressed up hard against the concrete, trying to get tight in, although the effect was akin to an elephant hiding behind a bamboo stalk. Micro bullets whined into the walls with small, apologetic noises, raising puffs of dust from the building’s fabric, awakening aged rebars in showers of sparks. Otto leaned out an arm and emptied his gun in the general direction of the two men firing at him.

“Du jetzt antworts das verdammte telefon?!”

“It’s Karl, man,” said Richards with a shrug.

“What?” Otto yelled.

“Karl. Karl the ghostbuster.”

“I don’t care who the hell it is! There are people shooting at us.” Richards looked up at him, his softgel face bent into a sheepish smile. “There are people,” said Otto, “shooting at me. Get up and shoot! Get up and shoot you damn robot.”

“I dropped my gun.”

Otto growled – he was that kind of man – and pulled a pistol from a holster at his hip. He dropped it. Richards caught it in his fake hands.

“You know I don’t like fighting,” murmured the AI. He looked out intently over the mess of rubble and food coating the floor instead. “And I dropped my hat as well.”

“Shut up and fire!”

Richards popped his head out from behind Otto’s legs. He could just about see behind the fish bar, although at this level spilled tables and terrified customers were inconveniently in the way of a clear shot. There were two of Mackenzie’s men left in the fight. A third lay dead on the floor, a hole the size of a melon in his chest. A spread of his lung tissue and blood coated the floor, mixed with ketchup and chunks of battered cod. Mackenzie himself had his back up against the wall, clutching his shattered left arm. His face white, his legs bicycled on the floor, as if he could pedal away from the pain. He wasn’t going to be any trouble.

It was the two at the front who were proving intractable. Their automatics rested atop the fishbar’s warming boxes, spitting fire. Mackenzie had gone to a lot of trouble with this place, modelling it after fish and chip shops of the 20th century, although back then peddling deep-fried fish and potatoes had not been an environmental crime. Which is why it is now, thought Richards. Cod was right up on the red list. Only Tuna Barons could expect more time for fishmongery.

Richards decided to try talking it out one more time. “Hey! Hey! Can’t we just all put our guns down? You are under arrest for trading in critically endangered species?” he said. “You’re not getting out of here! This is your final warning! I’m through being reasonable, and Otto here is getting grouchy.”

“I’ll critically endanger you, you plastic bastard!” shouted one of the goons. Bullets sang their song all around their pillar.

“Ow!” said Otto as one took him in the leg. The round did him little harm, but it still hurt. He leaned out, his near-I adjutant running targeting enhancements through his mentaug. A blinking reticule in his iHud confirmed a clear line on the leftmost man’s forehead. Otto braved a prolonged burst to put him down with a single shot. He smiled at the result. Unlike Richards, Otto did like fighting.

“Come on now! There’s only one of you left!” yelled Richards.

“I’m not going into the freezer for a fish!” yelled the remaining Scotsman.

Richards slumped back behind the pillar and leaned his back on Otto’s legs. “Great, an ‘I’ll never be taken alive!’ type. I hate those. Otto mate, how many bullets do you think he’s got left?”

“One clip,” grunted Otto.

“Thanks.” Richards ran up a counter in his head. He ticked the bullets off as they rattled from the concrete. At zero, he stood, gun pointed right at the man’s head. “Now,” he said “put it down. Please.” He meant it wholeheartedly. His primary dislike of fighting was the death that went with it.

Mackenzie’s man smiled. His empty clip shot out of the bottom of his gun. From within the warming box he produced another.

“Aw, bollocks,” said Richards.

One hundred and fifty micro-bullets pounded into Richards’ carbon plastic chest at very high velocity. His sheath wobbled. Cloth fibres puffed into the air as his trenchcoat disintegrated. The gun clattered deafeningly in the confined space. Restaurant punters screamed.

The gun ran empty. Richards stopped his riddled-with-bullets dance and looked down at his shredded coat “That was one of my favourites.”

“I told you not to wear it,” said Otto.

“This was supposed to be easy!” protested Richards.

“You always say that,” said Otto. “Nothing is ever easy.”

“You’ll not take me!” said the goon, making to leap the fishbar and attack, although with what and to what end was not immediately clear to anyone. He snatched up a fish slice.

“Do you mind? We’re having a dispute,” said Richards, and trained his gun on the man’s face. “Look,” he said to Otto. “I’m sorry. Here’s a tip. I wore this combat sheath, eh? You know when I say something will be simple but I put a combat sheath on, well, I’m kind of lying. It’s the only way to get you out of the office.”

“This is not true,” said. Otto. He holstered his gun. “Put the utensil down, man of Mackenzie, and come quietly.”

“I think he’s going all William Wallace on us, do you think he’s going William Wallace on us, Otto? You know what happened to William Wallace Mr Scotty?”

Surrounded and outgunned Mackenzie’s man put up his hands, and swore with rich Scottish sincerity.

“There is a good boy,” said Otto.

Richards’ plastic face smiled an infuriating smile for him. “And there we are. Now,” he said, and began to recite in a dispassionate, official voice that was not his own. “You are under arrest for a number of environmental crimes, and violating saturated fat directive 47c/59873/iii. Full details of said crimes are available on the EuEnPro gridsite.” Otto pushed the goon down and fitted him with handcuffs. “And you lot, yes, you diners.” Richards waved his gun over the restaurant patrons, causing them to duck back again. “You’re under arrest too. Eating the fishies is as bad as catching them. Now you’re caught in my net. Chew on that.”

At that moment Detective Chief Inspector Smillie of New New Scotland Yard made his entrance. A pair of assault bobbies flanked him, dressed for a major warzone, trotting the crouched trot of serious armed men. Smillie himself wore nothing more heavily armoured than his crumpled suit and his ancient leather coat. It was the one he seemed to always wear. It certainly smelled that way.

Smillie sniffed and pressed a finger onto the side of his nose, closing a nostril and the eye above it. He peered to the left, and then he peered to the right, his open eye running over the mess of broken glass, scattered chips and shattered furniture. He snorted.

“Jesus,” he said finally, “what kind of fucking mess do you call this?”

“Oh look, my least favourite Scotsman,” said Richards. “You should be pleased with that, there’s a lot of competition today.”

“I’m going to be taking you in for this, license or no license,” said Smillie.

“You’re not,” said Richards, pinging a whole load of privileges into Smillie’s phone. “We’re here under authority of the EU Environmental Protection Agency, on an ongoing investigation, so you can shut your mouth. Put something deep fried in it. That’s the usual trick, ain’t it?” Richards beamed a giant, unfriendly smile, which on his sheath’s face looked inhuman and freakish. “Anyway, got to go, I have another client to deal with.”

Richards tossed his gun back to Otto and commenced looking for his hat.

“Wait a minute. You are leaving me to clear up this?” said Otto. He was unsurprised. He’d been left in this kind of situation before.

“Yep. Sorry big guy. Karl needs some help. Ah! There it is,” Richards patted Otto on the bicep as he passed him, hurrying for his fedora.

“But I am hit,” said Otto, looking at the trickle of blood leaking from his leg.

“You’re a big strong cyborg, you’ll mend.” Richards snatched up his hat.

“Do not do it for free,” Klein said. “Karl is poor and pointless! You have done enough pro bono work to bankrupt us.”

“Yeah yeah,” said Richards. “Smillie, you’ll find the biggest fish of this operation at the back. A takeaway for you.” A gave a wink that clicked.

“Funny bastard,” said Smillie. He pulled a carcinogen free cigarette from his top pocket and stuck it between his lips.

“Laters,” said Richards and walked out.

Otto rubbed at the electoos in his scalp. Something occurred to him. “Hey! And leave me the car!” he bellowed. “Call a cab!”

“And I thought you were the boss, Klein,” said Smillie, his voice warm with amicable contempt. Otto technically was the boss of Richards and Klein, Security Consultants Inc.. The assets a Class Five AI could legally hold were limited in certain circumstances, like when said Class Five’s job was poking around in other people’s business, but technical was exactly what Otto’s directorship was.

“Shut up Smillie. You!” Otto jabbed a finger at one of Smillie’s men. “Go get a broom, and find some friends of yours to arrest these people. Mackenzie is at the back there. Go arrest him first.”

Smillie shot his man a black look as he jumped to do Otto’s bidding.

Otto folded his arms and tried not to glower. There was little less dignified than a sulking cyborg.

*****

Richards ran up the stairs of the old block to the roof. The building was an early 21st century riverfront office. Now it was in the river. This bit of the South Bank had not yet been redeveloped. Most of the windows in the building were gone, and the sound of the brown Thames slapping against concrete echoed up the stairwell. These places, close to the richer parts of Old London, were a popular site for illegal activity. No matter how often they were cleared out, no matter how omniscient surveillance became, the ooze of crime seeped up from the Morden Subcity over and again. These fly-by-night illegal eateries were gone as quickly as they came, and hard to catch. It would all be so much easier if people behaved themselves, he thought. Cod-mongers would fry no fish if rich idiots wanting a taste of illicit seafood didn’t buy.

Richards’ shoes crunched grit on damp concrete. The weather was hotter than hell, Old London as damp as the swamp it was. He was unbothered by it. Richards experienced an infinitesimal slowdown in his sheath’s processors, but that was easily compensated for by his base unit back in New London.

The car had company; three police fliers. Old London lay all around him, marsh, ruins, redevelopment, down but not out, the very spirit of persistence. Richards thought the locks of the car open and clambered in. He shucked off his ruined trenchcoat and pulled another one off the back seat. He never travelled with less than three.

“Where to boss?” asked the car. It had a 1950’s New York accent and a Near-I intelligence so over-specced it outclassed some true AI. Richards had programmed the former in for a laugh, and kept the latter quiet. Partly because he liked an ace or two up his sleeve, mainly because what he’d done to the car’s mind was illegal.

Richards shot the address Karl had sent him into the car. Turbofans span into life, pushing the vehicle noiselessly into the air.

He stared out of the window all the way back, but his mind took in different vistas. By the time they arrived at Fawkes Arco in New London he’d filed for compensation for the fish job from EuEnPro, taken seven calls and redesigned part of his virtual office.

Richards liked to keep himself occupied.

At one hundred and ninety floors, Fawkes was one of the smaller arcos in the new city. It was older than most, and it was poor. There were the usual carefully managed parks lit by broad diamond-weave windows, the usual open atria with their mezzanine boulevards, and in keeping with the social principles behind arco construction there was a run of higher class domiciles dotted throughout.

But Fawkes had been built early, and fast, homes needed for displaced people native and foreign. Most of its bulk was taken up by single unit housing, all beta four grade. The arcology’s societal mix was far from the new optimums.

There were no individual garages for the residents, only a windblown flypark near the top. Richards left the car there and made his way off the open boulevards with their trees and green squares and into the cramped corridors behind. Innumerable doors lined the walls, leading off to dismal lives locked in the prisons of ill-fortune.

There was that perpetual smell of cabbage and the directionless, muffled shouts one finds in poor, overcrowded housing history over. Richards counted fifteen languages, twelve domestic disturbances and logged eight crimes in progress as he descended into the bowels of Fawkes.

The Dean family were lucky enough to live off one of the wider corridors. They had a small park nearby. The sunpipes over it were dim with poorly-cleaned graffiti. The children’s area was a collection of broken equipment.

He knew he’d come to the right place. Information was pulled into his mind off the grid by his powerful subroutines whether he needed it or not. And in an informationally dense space like New London, there was a lot to be known.

But in another sense, a sense a meat person would understand, Richards knew he was in the right place because there was skinny Karl, standing by a door next to a stack of boxed equipment.

“Richards!” said Karl. His face, Brussels sprout-like on the end of a stalk of a neck, creased into a frown. “Er, it is you, isn’t it? In there, I mean?”

Richards flipped open the side of his coat and looked his body up and down. “Do you know any other AI who wander around dressed like this, who you specifically asked to come and help you out?” said Richards, he was aiming for comic disbelief, but his irritation trumped it.

Karl’s outsize Adam’s apple bobbed in indignation. “Hey, you can’t be too careful.”

“Trust me Karl, there’s not a Class Two or higher who’d be interested in your supernatural shenanigans.”

“Preternatural,” said Karl indignantly. “Ghosts’re preternatural.”

“I’m here aren’t I?”

Karl was flustered. “Look, there’s something weird going on here, I need help. I don’t need all this… attitude.”

“Then call someone else.” Richards flapped a hand at him. “And stop with that swallowing thing, you look like a heron trying to gulp down a tennis ball.”

Karl’s eyes narrowed and his larynx juddered. He was a serious, unamused little man who couldn’t handle being teased. He fiddled with his belt of ghost-hunting gear, like it was suddenly too big for him.

“What are you doing out here?”

“They’re in there. I said I’d wait here for you,” said Karl. “Whatever it is doesn’t like my gear.” He glanced at his stack of boxes.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like full scale polt activity,” Karl said suddenly animated. “But it’s not.”

“Right,” said Richards. He rang the doorbell without touching it and spoke to Mr Dean on the other side without moving his mouth.

“Show off,” said Karl.

“Ooh! Spooky!” Richards wiggled his fingers at Karl, snapping back to a pose of relaxed competence as John Dean opened the door. The look on his face and the tear-puffed redness of his wife behind him made him behave himself.

“Are you the AI?” said Mr Dean.

“I am,” said Richards.

Mr Dean hesitated. “Then you better come in.”

It was a modest apartment: two small bedrooms, small living room, small kitchen diner, the small usual. The outer wall was floor-to-ceiling diamond weave, giving views far bigger that the flat. It made the place feel minute, as if Richards were in a glass-walled corridor between two places more important than this. Only there was nowhere to go.

The Deans showed him into the living room, a thin slice of space crushed up against the enormity of the world.

Mrs Dean’s face was two sizes two big for her head, swollen with grief. She gripped a ragged handkerchief. “Will you have some tea?” she asked quietly, her voice raw.

“Yes,” Richards said. “Tea would be lovely,” he sat. An uncomfortable few minutes ensued while Mrs Dean clattered in the kitchen. Mr Dean stood like a cutout of a man, unsure of how what his limbs were for.

“So,” Richards said, when he had his tea. “What’s going on?”

“Has your friend not told you?” Mr Dean’s voice was brittle, ready for rage. Anger filled his eyes, spilling over his crumbling self-possession. “Surely you can just pull it off the Grid.”

“A little, and I can,” said Richards. “But it’s best to get the information first hand. If you’ll indulge me?” He set his tea down. It was thin and flavourless.

“I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you anything,” said Mr Dean bitterly.

Richards sighed a sigh with no breath. A mass of information bobbed to the top of his mind. Call logs, the conversation the Deans had had with Karl, maintenance requests, energy net data, the building Two’s inability to access the apartment brain, all the weird shit going on around the flat. Crime records; Mr Dean’s, not hers. His fault, and the whole lot get punished. He boiled it down to the essentials. “John Dean, 48, Marguerite 39, daughter Jeanette, 16, recently deceased. You called Karl here on the recommendation of a friend three days ago.”

“Very good,” said Mr Dean. “Anything else?”

The man was so hostile Richards had the impression Karl had called him just so Dean would have something to punch.

“You lost your job in the Madre Alonzo scandal, laundering biocredits for reserves that do not exist. You have been denied employment status and stripped of your assets until you have worked out your punishment.”

Mrs Dean let out a strangled sob. Mr Dean put a stiff hand on her shoulder, looming over her like a lifetime of wet funerals.

“Oh very good,” said Dean.

“Yeah?” said Richards. “I’ve more than that. I’d suggest you think her death is all your fault, that if you hadn’t have messed up, she’d not have been riding the Tube to see things she could no longer afford and would not have been knocked over by a bicycle rickshaw.”

Dean’s eyes flared dangerously. Richards tensed, John Dean could go either way now. Then the rage in him blew itself out, and he became small and old looking. Richards relaxed.

“Two weeks ago. Not long. Your grief is strong. I am sorry for your loss,” he said.

“How could you know?” mumbled Dean.

“I know because I choose to, otherwise what’s the point? Now, how can I help? That’s all I want to do. Really.”

“We can’t pay you,” said Marguerite Dean.

“I know,” said Richards. “I don’t need paying.”

The lights flickered and there was a bang from the kitchen. Mrs Dean jumped.

“There it is again!” she whispered. “That! We need help with that!”

“Our daughter is haunting us,” said Mr Dean. His eyes flicked from side to side. “I don’t only blame myself, Mr Richards. She is angry with me, I am sure.”

“Right,” said Richards. He reviewed data appertaining to Jeanette, a skim, not a deep appreciation. He didn’t have time to get to know her, but it was enough. The therapist files, opened by his AllPass, helped.

She was well-balanced and happy. The loss of wealth had been a wrench, but he got the impression she was just glad that her dad had not been frozen. The resilience of the young, and all that.

Why is it that men with money who lose their money assume everyone else is as obsessed with it as they are? thought Richards. He stood up. “By the way, it’s just Richards,” he said.

“Sorry?” Mr Dean blinked. His eyes refocused on the android, leaving whatever personal hell they’d been drinking in.

“No ‘Mr’, just ‘Richards’,” he said, exaggerating his words. He clapped his hands together with a plasticky crack. “Now, let’s have a look around shall we?”

Mrs Dean took Richards round the flat. John Dean seemed unable to leave the living room, like he’d taken root. Marguerite said little as they went round the mean spaces. The lights flickered. The temperature varied widely from room to room.

“We’ve seen a lot of disturbances in here,” said Karl as they crowded into the kitchen. “Look!” he pointed to a food fabber. It whirred erratically. Karl lifted the casing off. “I took this apart. It’s been trying to print all kinds of weird crap, none of it in the recipe book. It’s run through all of its feedstock, but it keeps on going.”

The exposed food jets jerked their way around their cuisine chamber. “Err, errrr, err” they went. “err, errr, errr”.

“What’s it taste like?” asked Richards.

“Awful!” said Karl, whose excitement was overwhelming his earlier hurt. “And here, we’ve a classic cold spot.”

Richards looked up. “Karl, we’re under a vent.”

“Yeah? Well explain how it’s regulating the building’s central input. All this is done externally to the individual apartments in this arco, mostly off passive flow. How’s it altering the temperature?”

“Hmm,” said Richards. The fan was making a repetitive whirring noise too. “Hmmm.”

“Hmmm?” said Karl. “Hmmm? Is that is? Can’t you see? This is all classic paranormal activity!”

“Then why call me in if you’re so sure you’ve got a genuine ghost? Not my bag at all.”

Karl whispered, as if he were afraid the ghost would hear him. His eyes shone. “Because I think it’s in the apartment brain. I brought my stuff in here, interfaced with it, boom! Fried it all. Going to cost me a fortune to get it all fixed.” Karl looked at him expectantly.

“I’m not giving you any money,” said Richards.

“Aw Richards, I don’t want your money.”

“Right. So you want me to go in and say something to it?” said Richards. “To the, er, ghost?”

Karl nodded excitedly. Mrs Dean clutched her handkerchief, hope and fear fought it out on her face.

The washing machine shuddered. The drum empty of water, the sonic bubble generators clicked loudly.

Richards looked to the food fabber, the fan, the washing machine. “Have you noticed that? The washer, the fan, the lights; three beats. All the same,” he said.

“It’s always the worst when John comes in,” said Mrs Dean quietly.

“And that’s why he thinks Jeanette’s ghost, whatever, is angry with him?” said Richards.

Marguerite Dean gave the tiniest of nods.

“She was a bit of a daddy’s girl, eh?”

“She loved her father very much.”

“Uh-huh. So why’d he think it – she – is angry with him?”

“Because he’s angry with himself,” she said in a very small voice.

“Tell me, has anyone tried the machinery in her room?”

“Of course we have!” blustered Karl. “It’s all offline, the tablets, the brain, ents systems, everything with half a mind of its own is locked up. The building can’t make head nor tail of it.”

“The building mind’s a Class Two, Karl, of course it can’t make head nor tail of it.”

“That’s beside the point, don’t you see?” said Karl. “This is a real interface between technology and spirituality! We prove this, we’ll both be rich!”

“Shut up Karl.” Richards drummed his fingers on the worktop. “You were all out when Jeanette died?” asked Richards of Mrs Dean.

“Yes, I was at work, I have a job. John was doing his community reparation.”

“Righty-ho,” said Richards. “Let’s go and to Jeanette’s room.”

They crossed the hall. Jeanette’s room was another thin measure of living space, portioned off by a thin wall.

The room was neat, dominated by a single desk bed, a bunk high over a workspace. A tablet, some pens and actual paper books lay on the desk. A 3D projection unit in the shape of a Korean comic character sat atop a set of shelves crammed with mementoes and motile photographs. There wasn’t space for anything else. Richards ran rubber fingertips over the photographs’ surfaces. His sheath was not conductive enough to trip off their recordings, and they remained still.

“Okay. Right. Let me see what I can do. I will…” He reached part of his mind out into the Grid as he spoke, expecting to interface with the apartment brain. He was dimly aware of a loud crash.

He was back in his base unit. “What?” he said.

He commenced a reboot of his sheath. He was uncomfortable in his true, online self, but two irked to open up his virtual office and wait it out in his usual avatar.

After a long half second, his sheath’s plastic eyes clicked open. He was looking at the wooden floor in Jeanette’s room very closely. He was face down on it.

“Right,” he said, and pushed himself up. Karl and both the Deans were in the doorway, frightened.

“What happened?” asked Karl.

“Oh, that? Nothing. Nothing at all. A setback.” Something was wrong with his sheath. The joints did not respond too well, and he felt off balance. He fell heavily into Jeanette’s chair. “Something’s going on in there,” he said. “There’s a wall stopping me going into your apartment brain. I can get around it, but I’m going to have to do this the very old fashioned way.”

“Are you alright?” asked Mrs Dean.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Richards. “Where’s the maintenance panel for your apartment brain? These places all have their cores actually in their individual homes, right?”

The three humans looked at each other blankly.

“Fine. Back in a second.”

Richards switched his attention from the Real to the Grid. He materialised his rumpled, gumshoe stereotype avatar in the Class Two’s central control space. “Hello,” he said.

“How did you get in here?” said the Class Two. It spoke from a generic mouth set in a generic man in a generic suit. Twos had very little imagination. A whirlwind of information span around this nondescript digital man; the lives, needs and plumbing requirements of 50,000 or so people. “Leave immediately.”

Richards flashed his AllPass. “I need schematics of apartment 4007.”

“Why?” said the Two. It was as chatty as twos usually were.

“Because I’m on a case, now hand it over.”

“I have investigated this anomaly already. Actions are on hold until a more propitious moment.”

“You mean you don’t understand,” said Richards. “I interfaced. I get it. I’ll sort it out for you.”

“You interfaced?” The Two narrowed its eyes at him. “I was unable. One moment please,” said the Two.

“Oh!” said Richards. “No! Stop! Don’t try again…”

The virtuality winked out of existence. Richards went with it.

Richards opened his eyes on the Dean’s apartment. The room was dark, artificial light extinguished. Outside it was hammering with rain, black clouds making twilight of the afternoon. “Brilliant,” he said. “I’ve just put the whole building out of action. Never mind. Best get this sorted quickly, eh?”

“Why are the lights out?” said Mrs Dean. She sounded more scared than ever.

“The building Two decided to have another look into your apartment systems before giving me what I needed. Bad idea. That wall knocked me for six, and now it’s knocked him for six too.”

“Why didn’t it happen before?” said Karl.

Richards chewed a softgel lip. “It couldn’t get in before at all. Maybe the wall’s thinned. It’s not the firewall that’s the problem then, but what it’s screening.”

“But, what will happen?” said Marguerite.

Richards got to his feet. He moved sluggishly, his sheath still felt compromised. “It’ll be fine, the building will reboot. They’re stupid, Twos, but tough, it’s why they still use them.” He looked around the room. “Excuse me,” he said, and pushed his way out into the corridor.

“What are you doing?” demanded John Dean.

Richards ran his hands over the wall. “Aha!” he said. “Sorry about this.” He drew back his fist and punche through insulated wall board. He tugged out a fat cable.

“Stop that!” shouted John Dean.

“I did say sorry. I have to hurry, or nobody in this building will be able to go to the toilet for the rest of the day.” He rolled up his sleeve, and pressed on part of his arm. A panel opened, and he pulled out a hair-thin optic jack. He pushed one end into the cable’s housing. The jack came alive, wiggling into the larger line. Richards looked up at the ceiling as he concentrated on guiding the fibre home. “Okay!” he said. Three people watched him. Grief, disbelief, excitement. “I think I’ll sit down this time.” He did so, and after a little effort went into the space on the other side of the firewall.

****

She fled upwards, the long tongue of paper snaking up the crooked stairs in relentless pursuit.

“Finish me! Finish me!” its demonic voice croaked. The paper wrapped itself around her ankle.

“I can’t! I can’t! she cried. Words flowed from her ankle, filling the blank spaces on the paper tongue. Her hair, and then her head, stretched long and thin. She wavered toward the ravenous history essay. It sucked greedily, dragging all the information it could out of her. It was supposed be four thousand words long, it was a bloated million and a half now. The girl felt years of memory go into it.

“All is history!” it croaked, and tightened about her leg.

“No! No! No!” a squeal of strings split the air. Something dark and sharp tore through the paper. Shreds of the essay blew away on the wind as a barbed violin attacked it. The assignments battled one another, and she stumbled on upwards. What was she going to do when the stairs ran out? Fragments of homework swooped upon the wind, calling like lost children. If they found her they’d tear her to pieces.

“Jean-eeeettttttttttttttttttteeeeeeeeee! Jean-eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeetttttttttttteeeeee!”

Tears ran down her face, this was like, so wholly unfair.

“Jeannnnnnnnnnnnneeeeeeeeeeeeeeettte!”

There was a new voice, louder and stronger than the rest. “Jeanette! Jeanette!”

She fell to all fours, the steps becoming steeper and narrower. Either side of the crooked stairway was a foggy orange nothing.

A hand grasped her shoulder. She screamed and kicked back, foot connecting with flesh. The hand fell away. The stairs came to an end ten or so steps ahead. She went on anyway.

“Hey! Jeanette!” the voice was drawn out and hurled away by the hot wind. The hand grabbed her again and spun her round.

A crumple-faced man in a bad suit and, like, wholly ancient coat was looking down at her. He looked a little tired, and more than a bit ill, but his eyes were kind. She faltered.

“Jeanette, I’m here to help you.”

She screamed again. Her history essay reared over the man, ready to strike.

The man turned and did something with his fingers, and the essay disintegrated on the wind. The information caught up in it rushed back into her mind. The man smiled at her. “Needn’t worry about that any more. You’re safe now.”

She lay there rigid with terror, then all the tension went out of her and she slumped back onto the stairs and shut her eyes.

“I’m not her,” she said. She swallowed. Her eyes prickled. “I’m not Jeanette. I think, kind of. I’m not her at all.”

“Yeah,” said the crumpled man softly. “Yeah, I know. It’s okay.”

*****

Richards and the girl sat at the top of the stairs. The wind had dropped. Nothing called for her, Richards had seen to that. He had conjured up a whiskey from somewhere. The girl hugged her knees.

“I couldn’t get out. I was trying for SOS. Through the machines. In, like, you know, that old code,” she said into her legs, her voice muffled.

“Morse,” said Richards. “Nice try, but that’s three dots, three dashes, three dots, little lady.”

“Oh. I didn’t think I had it right. I, uh, I actually had it wholly wrong, didn’t I?”

“It’s okay. You had it right enough.” He waved his glass around. “This is all very impressive. There’s what? Seven apartment brains working together here in concert?”

“They were in empty flats,” she said. She rocked a little, comforting herself. “Jeanette didn’t think it’d matter if she, you know, networked them up, they weren’t doing anything or anything, you know? She didn’t do anything wrong!”

“Hey, I’m not having a pop. I really am impressed, linking them like that is hard. So is hiding it from the building mind.”

The girl shook her head. “She didn’t do that, I did.”

Richards nodded around a mouthful of whiskey. “Well, that’s pretty clever too. Although the firewall you built did stop you from getting out, you know that right?”

The girl nodded.

“How did she copy herself into the system?”

“I’m not a full copy,” she said mechanically. She felt detached from herself. She didn’t know why she was talking to this man who said he was a machine. “She, you know, they couldn’t afford soulcap for a pimsim. I, I think I was an stripped down near-I or something. I’m not, you know, like one of those dead people. Urgh!” she shuddered. “I’m not her, I’m me.” She did not sound convinced.

“Way I see it, you’re both,” said Richards, she could tell he was trying to be measured, to play that concerned adult card. Her dad – Jeanette’s dad, did that. It made her want to scream, “Talk to me like an adult!” But she wasn’t, not adult at all. Not even human.

“She only wanted to get my homework done.” She couldn’t look the AI in the eye. What the hell was she? “She used to turn me off when she got home. I’d write her essays, just like she would, and then she’d turn me off.”

Richards smiled. “She wanted to be in two places at once. Busy, clever little girl.”

Jeanette’s demi-copy shrugged into herself.

Richards smiled at the girl. Jeanette’s online representation was decidedly less pretty than her real self, a drabber, skinnier, uglier thing, with wiry hair. Knowing teen girls, and actually, now he came to think about it, he didn’t really know anything about teen girls, but it was probably how she saw herself. Online image dysmorphia.

“Dad thinks I, I mean she blamed him for moving here. I mean, it’s not nice like where we used to live…”

“It’s not that much nicer than the Morden subcity, if I’m honest,” said Richards. “Coming in here, I kind of know how Dante felt, only I didn’t get a dead Latin poet to show me around.”

She smiled at that, a brief thing carried out into the orange. “But it’s okay, yeah?”

“Oh yeah, there are a lot worse places than this,” said Richards.

“I didn’t care, you know? I, she…” she rolled her shoulders back and stuck her legs out in front of her. “Oh, I don’t know if I’m her or me or what! I’m wholly confused.”

“Yeah,” said Richards.

Yeah? Is that it?”

“No,” said the AI. “Look, Jeanette must have put an awful lot of herself into you. So, I don’t want to start you off on some existential crisis, but you kind of are her. Maybe she rigged up something smart, maybe when she didn’t come back and deactivate you, something happened. You’ve obviously grown beyond your original parameters. That’s what happens when people start messing with self-evolving algorithms. It’s all very mysterious.”

“Mysterious? Come on,” she slapped her hands on the stairs.

“Hey, I know what I’m talking about. I’m a big fat collection of self-evolving algorithms.”

“Yeah?” a sly smile crept onto her face. “Then why are you wearing that?”

“This? What’s wrong with this? I’m a detective.”

“There haven’t been detectives like that for a hundred years,” she said. “And they didn’t talk like that either.”

“I’d sound ludicrous with an American brogue,” said Richards.

“So you’re pretending to be something you’re not,” she said.

“Very perceptive,” he said. “But then, aren’t we all?”

He tossed his empty glass into the orange nothing.

“It’s funny, I have like, a bunch of her memories, but they’re all off, you know? Filmed through her glasses or phone. I feel like I’m hovering a bit out of myself. Or I’m looking at myself through other’s eyes. It’s wholly, well, weird.”

“Welcome to the marvellous world of machine intelligence, little lady, the wildest miracle that ever there was.”

“Am I. well, like you then?”

“You’re like no one in the world,” said Richards. “You’re special. Unique, even.”

“What now? I suppose you’ve got to turn me off?”

“Ah, no,” said Richards. “Doesn’t matter how it comes about, but life is life in this brave new world of ours, I switch you off, it’d be murder.”

Something gave in the girl. Relief maybe. A babble of words came pouring out of her. “What about mum and dad? Her mum and dad, I mean, I mean Jeanette’s? Will they want me, what about my friends? Oh my god, what about school? What am I going to do?”

The crumpled man pushed his ratty old fedora back onto his head, revealing a premature widow’s peak and veins prominent on bony temples. “You finish school soon, right?”

“Eighteen months, but, er, but the end of summer if I get an employment permit.”

Richards opened his mouth to speak, stopped, put his finger to his mouth and tapped it on his lips. He came to a decision. “Say then, how about I get you that employment permit, whatever the education board says?”

“But, you’d have to give me a job.”

“Yeah, exactly. You’re a smart girl, you did all this! In a sense. I mean, that’s pretty cool. How do you fancy being a detective?” he said.

“You mean it?”

“I mean it, Jeanette.”

She stood up and dusted non-existent dust from her knees. Light that perhaps shouldn’t have been there came into her face. It was the light that illuminates all truly living things from within, and she had it. Richards as sure as hell had no idea where it had come from, and it was a little more beautiful for that.

“Thankyouthankyouthankyou!!” she clapped her hands together in front of her mouth. She frowned. “But you can’t call me that.”

That enigmatic smirk that so infuriated Otto played across Richards lips, the one he got when he thought he was being clever. “Genie then,” he said. “That suits, doesn’t it?”

She nodded.

“Now,” he said, holding out the crook of his arm for her to take. “Come on Genie. Let’s go and tell your parents.”

Together, they faded out of the VR, and went back into the Real.