Posts Tagged ‘Richards & Klein’


Seasons greetings all!

Yep, snow is falling on my blog. It looks like dandruff, but it is supposed to be snow. That means Christmas approaches, and so do many deadlines… Ulp.

But I’ve been so remiss in not blogging, so here’s a short message.

For your delectation today, I have three marvellous pieces of news. First, here’s the cover of The Crash, my second book for Solaris, out next June:

Crash

It’s a work in progress right now, but it’s nearly done, I think. For a description of the book, see my previous post.

Another announcement – I’ve been fortunate enough to have been asked to write a short story for the Black Library’s advent calendar this year! I can’t tell you what it is about, because it’s Christmas and Christmas is all about surprises, but I can tell you that it will be available on 17th December. Click on the link to find out more.

Lastly, if you go here to Whatever, John Scalzi’s blog, you can see me dance like a monkey on an electric wire (figuratively speaking), trying to get people to consider  Reality 36, Omega Point, and Champion of Mars as Christmas presents. You mean you hadn’t thought of that yourself? Then think about it. It’s a great idea. Really.

Ahem, I should mention that Mr Scalzi has thrown open his blog to all authors,  other books are available, and indeed, there are many other writers in the thread talking about their own books, many of which sound pretty damn fine.

If you’re a writer yourself, I heartily advise taking advantage of Scalzi’s generosity and join in the festive PR frenzy.

Later this week, I’ll be posting the cover for my next 40k book, The Death of Integrity.  Till then, stay frosty, it’s cold enough to do so, even if it is unfashionable to say so (at least it’s not raining any more here in England. And it has been raining ALL YEAR).


At last! I can tell you about some of the very exciting things that I know about and that you don’t, or rather didn’t know until now!

Today I can finally reveal not one, but two of my Black Library novels. In case the picture above doesn’t give it away, one is Skarsnik, about the infamous night goblin warlord.

I’m a big Warhammer fan, as you might know. I started playing in 1984 with the first edition of the fantasy game. That’s right, when there was none of this new fangled Warhammer 40,000 business and Toughness values were represented by letters. I was 11. I’m now 39, so I’ve been playing for 28 years. And I still play. I love it. (Playing for so long puts on odd perspective on things – I bought myself a little birthday gift on Wednesday, a box of plastic bikers for my 40k ork army. I’ve wanted these for ages. To me they are “new models”. They came out five years ago).

I’ve always been a massive greenskin fan, leading orcs and goblins since day one. For years they lost, but the last half decade has been kind to my green minions and they now win more often than not. It helps that Skarsnik himself is my army general. Want to see my army list? Here it is.

Skarsnik’s Stabbas

(I date all my army lists when I draw them up. This is the most recent variation on Skarsnik’s army, but it really doesn’t change that much. The last game I played with this was 7/5/2012. It represents but a small proportion of my greater goblin horde. No, I don’t have any orcs in my army, although I have Ruglud’s Armoured Orcs prepped for painting because they are very cool. Other orcs can go feed my squigs. Literally).

Naturally I was well up for it when Nick Kyme at The Black Library suggested I write a novel about Skarsnik. Nick worked for me when I edited White Dwarf magazine, now I kind of work for him. A strange reversal, but a fruitful one. Our earlier association means he knows full well how much I like my goblins.

I’ve put up a page on Skarsnik here with a brief breakdown of the plot, so I won’t repeat myself, but I will tell you some of what I am trying to do with the story. A lot of people see goblins as funny, comic relief characters (why, just check out The Black Library’s own blog post to see how prevalent this attitude is). Granted, they are funny, but they are also vicious, wicked, baby-eating horrors of the first degree. “Ooh! Look at the funny goblins”, gamers say. Yeah well, you wouldn’t want to be bound to spiky stick in a stinky cave with a lot of them standing around you. They’d have knives, and they’d be laughing. Not so funny now, are they?

Come to think of it, you probably don’t want to face mine on the battlefield either.

So, I wanted to capture both sides of this character. You’ll see how amusing and horrifying goblins are as we watch Skarsnik trick, wheedle and stab his way from sporeling to king of Karak Eight Peaks. For non-goblin fanatics there is plenty of skaven and dwarf action, with a little bit of the Empire thrown in. Truly, Skarsnik is a cornucopic fantasy delight.

Now to the other project. Sharp eyes might have seen this on Amazon. Yes, I’ve also written a Warhammer 40,000 novel called Baneblade. It’s about the tank of the same name. Although I wrote this book quite a while ago, and it is actually out some time before Skarsnik, the arcane nature of publishing dictates that I can say only that it’s about a young lieutenant of a noble house who joins a veteran baneblade crew. And that’s your lot.

By the Emperor, there’s more! I’m also writing another book for BL called [REDACTED] about the [REDACTED] and the [REDACTED] who must [REDACTED] before [REDACTED] and the [REDACTED] is [REDACTED]! I’ve not finished writing that yet but I’m having a lot of fun with it. More later when I am free to talk.

Of course, none of this is out for a while, so why not (blatant plug time! Please forgive me, I have to eat) check out my Richards & Klein books. A buddy-cop adventure series set in the 22nd century that pairs a dour, ex-military German cyborg with a wiseass super computer in a trenchcoat. Click here for more on both books, and free R&K short stories “The Nemesis Worm” and “Ghost”. You may also like Champion of Mars, an epic tale spanning millennia from the next century to the far, far future of the Red Planet.

There are further free short stories here on the site (of varying vintage, so perhaps not me at my best, but still interesting). There are some others you can buy if you wish at The Angry Robot Trading Company.

Right, you’ve been good and read my pleading for you to buy my books. In return, please feel free to ask me anything about anything – including these hot, newly announced BL titles – in the comments. Games, journalism, GW, Mantic, SFX, White Dwarf, whatever. I will answer what I am allowed to. Think of it as an interview by you, if you like.

If you’re into wargaming, you might want to follow me on this blog and/or on twitter, as there will be another announcement on the little toy men front soon. Plus there’s all the SF/Fantasy/Horror reviews, interviews, features and so forth you get regularly on this site. On twitter you might have to put up with a bunch of stuff about dogs, beer, social issues, the environment and children, but I do talk about gaming, SF and writing sometimes.

Thank you for your attention. Guy out.


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.


Wassup.

A brief post regarding the SFX Weekender. It’s like, wow, the end of this week.  I’ll be there, will you? As a publicity pig and part-time SFX flunky I’ll be hosting a couple of panels and yes, doing some signings. Also, I’ll be in the bar. A lot. So come and have a drink, because I like drinking even more than I like science fiction.

I’m confirmed for another convention already this year, more on that later, so don’t weep if you’re not coming and you really, really want to stand near me. I’m putting myself around a bit in 2012.

Friday

16.00 – Screening Zone

How to Get Published

I’ll be moderating the panel How to Get Published, a self-explanatory title. With me will be editors Anne Clarke of Orbit, Anne Lyle of Angry Robot, Simon Spanton of Gollancz, and David Howe of Telos. That’s a really good mix, covering two of the biggest imprints, the fast-rising new star on the block and a small press.  Referring back to my earlier posts on this matter, if these guys say something is so in this field, then that’s the way it is. A great opportunity to find a bit about how the publishing industry works, and tailor your writing plans accordingly.

As I’ll be directing the discussion, I’m not supposed to say much, but I’m sure if you want to ask me a few questions about how I got my words into the datasphere, I’ll be allowed to coyly answer.

18.00 – Bartertown

I’ll be signing my book Reality 36 alongside living legend Gav Thorpe at the Angry Robot stand in Bartertown. Come along and say hi. Maybe you could give me a cuddle. Gav’s great, but he’s not the cuddling sort.

Saturday

10.00 – Bartertown

I’ll be on the Solaris stand with fellow author Jonathan Green. Although Champion of Mars isn’t out until May, please come along and I’ll tell you all about it. I’m sure I can sign Reality 36 too, if my publisher isn’t looking. This is a great chance to see what I look like with a hangover, by the way.

15.00 – Screening Zone

We’re All Doomed!

Another day, another panel to moderate, this one on apocalypses in SF. Generally more famous authors than me will be commenting, including Simon Bestwick, Ken MacLeod, Paul McAuley, and Gareth L Powell. I’ll be passing the conch.


Look! Look! Look! It’s the cover of my next Richards & Klein novel, Omega Point! This is book two (or should I say part two?). I say part two as really, the first two books are one case. But buy lots, then I shall be able to write more novels featuring this intrepid, post-human investigative duo. I really want to, you know. And I swear that, until the big finale at least, it will be one book per investigation from now on in.

If you don’t know Richards the Class Five AI and his ex-military German cyborg partner, check them out. I’d urge you to  nip out and buy the book, but if you prefer a taster can download “The Nemesis Worm”, a short novella featuring another of the pair’s cases, either off Amazon, or here on this site. Oh, they’re detectives, in the future. It’s way cool, really.

The cover art is by Neil Roberts. Ain’t it grand? Go to Angry Robot’s website for more. I’ll be putting a page up for the book myself this week.

Omega Point is out 24 April in the US and Canada, and 3 May everywhere else.

 


Matt Bielby is the man who set up SFX, and who launched Death Ray. I worked with him only on the latter, but have known him for years. He’s got a looooong CV in the magazine industry. Google him.

He read Reality 36, and seeing as he’s a prolific wordsmith, he sent me a critique of it (he wrote it while becalmed on a sailing boat, would you believe). I emailed him back a set of responses, as you do.

Some of this reveals some of my thinking on writing the book, and a little bit of the backstory to the universe so I thought I’d share. So here goes. My bits are in bold. I figured I’d just reproduce it as it was in the correspondence, although I’ve removed some of the more spoilery stuff, and tidied up some of my points. However, please bear in mind that this still contains several spoilers for Reality 36. Read it at your own peril. It’s all very honest, too, so if you’re a writer, or are interested in the writing process, it might be useful to you.

All fair comment mate, no worries there.I think part of my problem is that I have to write so fast, my pay is quite low as I’m new, so I can’t afford to spend 18 months making each book perfect. On the other hand, some of the stuff you mention is resolved in the book. Other parts of it are not covered as I was trying to achieve two things; one, to keep info-dumping down to a minimum and the other, to throw the reader into the deep end. The analogy I always use is that you go to observe a meeting of say, social workers or physicists whatever they have their jargon, and they don’t tone it down for you. You have to catch up. Ultimately, I hoped the pace would cover over the cracks, and from what you say, I think I almost pulled it off!

Thanks for the compliments. And don’t concern yourself over my replies, I really do find all this useful, and I do not feel in any way defensive (apologies if it comes across that way).

Here are those notes, as promised — tidied up a bit, of fairly epic length (as ever!) and hopefully interesting and/or useful. (Or, at least, not annoying.)

Cheers! M

First, and most important, thing to say is that I liked it, really liked it. More than any of the short fiction of yours that I’ve seen, and certainly more than the vast majority of debut novels I’ve read. You deftly sidestepped most of the obvious obstacles and kept me distracted from whatever (relatively minor) flaws there are by fast pace, engaging characters and a seemingly endless run of invention.

Inevitably, the following seems to contain more negatives than positives, but that is the way with these things: if I haven’t mentioned them, assume that I think they work!

Some general points

I wasn’t bored. Not once, not even for a page. For me that’s huge: countless classics have their dull bits, loads of bestsellers have their clever plots near-ruined by clunky prose. But Reality 36 was a smooth, entertaining read. I didn’t just finish it because I know you or because I had to for a review; I raced through it because I was having a genuinely good time.

The prose throughout was solid, sometimes very good, though some bits worked for me better than others. (Details follow.) Way better than in much science fiction, certainly.

Characters were almost universally engaging, distinctive and well drawn, if often rather simple. (I’ll get onto what I think I mean by that.) Even more minor characters, like Chures, are very well done.

I like the general style – things like your invisible(ish) narrator, single-POV-character-per-chapter choices, and the fact that once the story starts to move faster you have little Dan Brown-style cliffhangers at the end of most chapters. The balance of humour with action, character stuff with exposition, etc. seems sound.

The world-building, as has been much commented on, is excellent: confident-sounding and convincing. We get tons of info, and while for whole chunks of the book it seems hardly a paragraph goes by without some new future fact being slipped in, it never feels like we’re swamped or bludgeoned by it. Top stuff.

I like the way you follow modern scientific speculative thinking most of the time, then just ignore what currently appears likely to make things more fun when it suits you: flying cars, say, are probably quite unlikely, but the book’s more fun with them, so they stay.

You’re quite right there, but I think the flying cars fall between two stools – they’re not very likely, but not completely unlikely. The idea in the book is that new carbon composites and high-powered hydrogen fuel cells overcome the two main obstacles to contemporary flying cars – weight, and power source. They’re very much based on this: http://www.moller.com/

Some things I particularly liked

Your well-handled action sequences, especially the one with Otto in the diner (except for Otto’s comment on sniper movement; as I understand it, real-world snipers mostly stay put, or move incredibly slowly, for fear of being spotted), and the one with Richards and Big Daddy.

The sniper in this is a [SPOILER!], shooting at a cyborg. Otto would have been able to see him if he stayed put in this case, it’s the future, so things have changed.

The sidekicks, chiefly Chloe and Tarquinius. But especially Chloe. (She was especially cute on p262: “’No,’ she said in a small voice.”)

As I said, the constant invention: you’ve always got some new future concept to pull out of the bag, be it huge things like the Great Firewall of China, or the way more minor stuff Quifang sees on his trip to London.

You’ve plenty of good twists.

Some things I wasn’t sure about at first, and grew to like

Jag and his world: I was worried we were going to get loads of silly names, a plodding quest etc and was rather glad when we didn’t.

Otto. I was worried he might come across as something of a stock character – the gruff, heavy-drinking ex-grunt – and though that is there, I ended up rather liking him.

I tried to keep the characters simple, archetypes, hopefully without them being cliché. I figured with such a dense world going on, to have massively complicated character types would have undermined my aim of writing a fast-paced adventure.

I find many genre books I read go for kitchen-sink characters (as in they describe everything but) and they all end up seeming the same. It’s better to let the reader fill them in with their imagination. Simplicity is key. On saying that, there are depths to them, but they are hidden for the time being!

The names, like Reality 36 and Omega Point, which initially sounded too meaningless and SF-generic, have actually grown on me. (I’m less certain about the chapter names, which don’t seem to follow any set rule: sometimes the name of the POV character, sometimes of another character they meet, sometimes of a place, sometimes repeated, sometimes a first name and sometimes a surname, sometimes a more general description of the chapter’s content, sometimes the same thing said in different ways: The 36th Realm vs Reality 36, etc.)

Chapter names aren’t that important. I just wanted something short and punchy for each that helped set the scene.

Some things I’m still not sure about

Hughie and Richards together: I’m just not certain I ever quite reconciled their more buffoonish dressing-up-box character qualities with the hugely powerful and important supercomputer serious business that must be ticking over out of sight.

With this, I was trying to make them human, without being human. The thing with the Fives is that they try quite hard to be human, but they are not really. The rules governing my AI are quite complex, and I didn’t want to bang on about it and swamp the narrative. I thought it best to present them as characters, no matter how… Odd. If there are more books, more of all this stuff will be revealed.

The whole AI hierarchy thing: did they really build over 1,000 Fives in a single year, from scratch, and then give them all important jobs, which they could then fuck up right royally, within the same year? 2104 seems awfully busy! And how come a Class Two AI (like the one Quaid says he has just to sail his boat) seem so much more stupid than, say, Chloe, who is only a near-I?

Two things here. First, the Fives. The Five Crisis is a major part of my backstory, which I intend to fill in over time (there’s a bit about it in Champion of Mars, which is set in the same universe). They weren’t all given important jobs –Richards was bought to be a digital archive retrieval machine (there’s more on this in ‘The Nemesis Worm’). All AI in the universe were bought (before emancipation), like Windows is now – in fact, maybe best to think of them as smart operating systems or system administration computers? You know, years of development, then a roll-out, they were products. The Fives went crazy for reasons that will eventually be revealed.

They weren’t all running the European security services – and in fact the ones that remain and are in powerful roles have worked their way into those positions (Hughie says as much).

The Fives have a fundamentally different architecture to those that came beforehand. The ones that came after share the same underlying structure as the Fives, but were deliberately limited. This is also alluded to.

Chloe is an exception to the rule dividing Near-I and AI. She’s been heavily tinkered with, by someone who is something of an AI genius. Like the Fives, Sixes and Sevens (and unlike the Ones to Fours), she has evolved elements to her capabilities and personality. The more indivualistic Threes and Fours – like Lincolnshire Flats and Cybele (who’s she? Find out soon) also use heuristics and progressive mental evolution in how they live and adapt, not this is not how they were built. That’s all I’ll say on the matter for now!

The Reality Realms: if all they are is big, futuristic computer game world like WoW or whatever, why are they so powerful and important? I get that they can’t be switched off because of all the ‘life’ within them, but surely anyone rich enough (like, I assume, k52) could just build new ones that are as good if they wanted, instead of trying to usurp existing ones? And why didn’t Jag, if he’s so powerful, send a more obvious, can’t-be-ignored warning out of R36 that it’s all going badly wrong?

The Realms represent a massive slice of Grid real estate, even though their hardware is somewhat outdated. They are also entirely isolated, so k52 could do his stuff undetected.

Jag and Tarquinius are not all that powerful. They are entirely part of their world.

To carry dialogue, I’m usually of the belief that you should nine-times-out-of-ten (at least!) only use ‘said’, and very rarely with a qualifier: don’t get me wrong, R36 isn’t bad in this regard, but there was still a little too much sighing/crying/muttering/gasping etc going on in places, and too much ‘he said disappointedly/sharply/enticingly/unsurely’ etc too.

Yeah, maybe. I can find it a bit bland without any. En masse they help build character — if you’re careful. I’m still finding my way with this. I hate it when people overuse them myself, or have one stock phrase they use over and again in this circumstance (“He gave her an ‘Oh please!’ look”).  Which way do I turn? Sookie Stackhouse, or Cormac McCarthy? : )

Just occasionally, I thought the almost 2000AD-like parodies of modern-day stuff got a little heavy-handed, though they were perhaps worth it for the gag: Otto’s thoughts on Americans and their candy, the continued existence of Starbucks, Fanta and Germoline, Toyota renaming itself Toyata (unless a typo), etc…

Toyata is a typo. It’s actually not supposed to be a 200AD type parody. Some of this stuff is in there because it’s useful shorthand for the reader. Some of it because brands can last for a long time. (Although we all remember the TWA logos on 1970s ‘future’ spaceships, eh?)

Some of it is because one of the underlying (very lightly touched on and hardly there at all) themes is that I reckon an information culture, where everything is to hand, can stagnate. Look at kids now, they listen to music of all kinds. When I was a boy it was what was hot now, and everything else was old and past it. Companies trade off nostalgia. Brand identity is so important now, and I don’t think this will change.

We could, I reckon, be grinding to a halt in some respects, maybe even losing our artistic vitality. I touch on this when Otto is looking at the diner, which is a pastiche of a pastiche of the 1950s. Or it could all be bollocks.

Occasionally information was either hidden or only revealed very late: unless I missed it (which I might have done), we don’t discover Veronique is black until way, way into the book (p143, I think);

I agree. That’s a bit dumb.

USNA takes an awfully long time to be explained;

United States of North America— that’s a deliberate deep-ender.

we never discover why Richards has called himself Richards, etc.

I will reveal this eventually. In the real world, he’s named after a know-it-all friend I have, who is called Richard.

Now I like the drip-feed of info, but it’s annoying to have to reboot the visual you’ve got of someone half way through. (It’s like watching Star Trek in black-and-white as a kid: I thought all their shirts were blue, because I’d seen a colour photo of Spock in a blue shirt, then when we got a colour TV i was really annoyed that I’d been imagining it all wrong!)

There is no wrong Matt, it’s your imagination!

I occasionally got confused about things: is Chloe actually her phone, or a near-I program that lives on her phone but could live elsewhere too, or what?

She’s a programme. She exists mostly on the Grid, with a large part of her personality kept inside Valdaire’s phone. She’s actually illegal– an AI that powerful should have a registered base unit. Cloud existence for AI is not permitted. But she’s a near-I, so that’s alright then. (Valdaire’ll get busted for this, one of these days).

Can Chloe copy herself (as the Fives are not allowed to do, seemingly) elsewhere?

They ALL can, but they’re not allowed to. Although it wouldn’t occur to a baseline near-I to do so, or to a One or Two, for that matter.

Similarly, what exactly is Genie’s status?

This will be revealed later. This is deliberate on my part. There’s a short story here. The most important thing is that she’s the new girl.

And how much multi-tasking can a Five do: a lot of the time they seem to be only in one ‘place’ at a time, but surely the whole point of having an AI do Hughie’s job is that they can handle a million different cases etc all at once? Things like this may have been explained, but perhaps not clearly enough for a doofus like me, or that info got swamped in all the other explanations of near-future things.

I didn’t really explain it on purpose. But they’re just like really smart people, they’re not massively awesome supercomputers in a godlike SF over-noggin, Mekon’s-pocket-calculator sense. They can be aware of a lot. They can work on a fair few things at once. But look at the way they work: Hughie is an overseer, really –he doesn’t work on those cases he mentions himself. Richards can assimilate lots of information, but to really use their superior brains, they have to concentrate on one thing, just like us. They theoretically can split their consciousnesses down into subminds, or copy themselves, but that is illegal. The price of freedom is to live as we do.

One underlying theme here (these themes are very minor) is that the Fives are almost, almost, like a new pantheon of gods — capricious, flawed, human, but inhuman. Richards is a [SPOILER] type, a friend of man.

The repetition of elements, and air of manipulation, in having Otto twice come across Bad Men so evil they have a truck full of poor little orphans they plan to do nasty things to.

Yeah. Guilty. My bad. Although the kids in the jungle were the families of the rebels. I find that writers do get trapped in thematic cul-de-sacs (and linguistic, character and whatever else – the limits of one human mind are not so great. Indeed, I made the characters simple as by complicating them, I’d just run into the walls bounding my own intellect) and I’m no exception.

p145. Jagedith ‘wobbled his head’. Really? Like in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum?

Jagadith was programmed by an Indian. He was based on my experiences of actual Indians in actual India. They really do do that. It’s a cultural thing.

p167 Quaid’s shock that he had sex with a robot. Surely as common as sneezing for a guy like him?

No! Fucking a robot!? He’s a genetically engineered aristo, way below him. Well, maybe not, the shock was because he didn’t notice. The little brain was in charge there. I think he was embarrassed.

Why can’t Jag etc just ‘teleport’ about the R36 game world instead of traveling physically? They could easily be coded that way, and it would make them much better at their job, surely?

Meh. Who knows? My reckoning is that once he manifested from wherever he was before he was (mostly) bound by the rules of that reality. But what do I know? I’m not an expert on the Reality Realms. Ask Veronique.

I got a bit confused about exactly what was going on, why or how ‘matter’ from Reality 36 was being stolen to build Reality 37, as described on p306 and elsewhere, or exactly what is going on in a couple of sequences, like the top half of p308.

It’s processing space, not matter per se. A lot of the weirdness can be explained by the computers that run these worlds trying to visualise things like file swaps or overwriting in a visual way that makes sense to those observing it, in the context of where they are observing it from. It’s all quantum : )

Some things to think about

Did the plot actually make sense? I’m not sure. Reality 36 is a bit like a Raymond Chandler or something in that it seems to hang together at the time, and then afterwards you can’t remember exactly who did what to who and why. Certainly, did having all these super-high-end, presumably super-expensive robot doubles of the famous and easily-spotted Quifang running around blowing themselves up and getting killed in unlikely places really help anyone achieve anything they couldn’t have done in a much simpler, easier way? Not sure.

Bit late to think about that surely! Qifang’s face is not that recognisable, really. The people of the 22nd century are even more self-obsessed than we are, and overly reliant on technology. But yeah, maybe the plot is not entirely believable. Or maybe it’s too complicated, I thought this more than once, but it’s that way because a) It’s an entertainment, and b) lots of things in real life don’t make sense, so why should they in fiction? I am aiming for a ‘Whole Cloth World’. (See the interviews on my blog for what I mean by this). Not ‘Tied up In Bows’.

Does the book read too much like a particularly sophisticated YA novel, with only the odd, slightly-uncomfortable moment of true adult-ness creeping in? Of course, no characters are kids here, and there’s no teen angst, but I think here’s what I mean: nobody comes across like a modern-day adult in that there’s no sex (or romance), at all, and nobody has anything resembling money worries, job worries, relationship worries, family worries, or any of that. Certainly, because of this lack of grit (except in the action sequences, natch) those moments where the adult world was more front-and-centre jumped out at me: when the narrator, up until now largely dispassionate, seems to weigh in calling Hughie a cock on p119 and throughout that chapter; when hundreds of people were killed in a bomb; when Veronique pulls the catheter out. (The fact that I was occasionally reminded of writers like Philip Pullman – Chloe, Bartolomeo etc as daemons, Veronique as Mary Malone, the Grid and the Reality Realms as the various parallel worlds – heightened the YA-with-adult-bits impression, perhaps.)

I don’t think so. Should I put sex and romance in it, just for the sake of it? I didn’t deliberately avoid them. They will feature in later books, they just weren’t part of this story. Indeed, Otto’s relationship with his wife, and her death, is a major strand of Omega Point. And there is some real horror in there too. Poverty and environmental destruction and human suffering will be a major part of this series. If it makes it to a series.

Finally (and perhaps only for me) two big weak points (and one minor weak point)

The minor one

It seems to me you constantly ask commas to do the job of full stops, semi-colons, colons, brackets or dashes: you’ll have a sentence, like this one you’re reading now, with two distinct elements to it, and all you’ll use to separate them is a comma.

Initially, I was trying to mimic the way people speak –in broken sentences, repetitively, false starts, etc. I dropped this, but the punctuation, at least in the dialogue, reflects that/ is a remnant of it. You are right, though/

The bigger ones

I didn’t always love the dialogue: it gave information, it established character, it was sometimes (even often) very good fun, but it didn’t always read to me as something someone would actually say.Much of the tough-guy dialogue in Chapter 5 is an example, especially elements like Otto’s hugely long speech on p103-104. Quifang’s ranting in R36 is another.

There is an element of the monologue here that I need to stamp on, it’s all to do with developing as a writer.

In the Hughie/Richards talks Hughie initially appears as, yes, as much of a cock as advertised (though I ended up being rather fond of him)…

Well, that worked!

…but the way Richards talks defines him as, at least, a bit of a dick too. (Similarly when he starts doing an annoying American accent around p204.)

And that worked too! He’s not going to say “Hughie’s a cock, but hey, I’m a cock too,” is he? Of course he’s a dick! I mention how Otto is annoyed by him, yes? It’s supposed to be, um, complexity. EVERYONE can be a dick. And somethimes, when a dick calls someone is a cock, the cock is not a cock at all. Methinks you want it a little too clearly laid out for you.

Quaid says things like ‘Goddamn!’ all the time, which seems a bit broad; similarly with the garage guy on p240, etc.

Quaid is a cliche made flesh –my joke at what real DNA tinkered rich bastards would be like. A lot of what you say is simply this: I tried to mimic real speech (see above). It doesn’t work, so I settled on a bunch of  ‘signifier’s’ to set apart each character from one another, which also helps keep them simple and aids the engagement of the reader’s imagination too. It’s a bit unsubtle, but it kind of works. I am sure I will get better at this. I hope.

(All this said, though – and weirdly – I quite liked the outrageous French accent around p247, so what do I know?)

The structure is a bit odd. In classic detective fiction, the hero gets the initial case – which then goes all twisty and turny, of course – in the first chapter or so; here we have to wait until page 129, the meeting with Hughie, for the set-up stuff to be over and the real plot to actually start. Before that we’ve had Otto at war and Otto’s stuff with Launcey, all with good bits but more like stand-alone short stories than integral parts of this tale, plus chapters introducing Jag and R36, Veronique, etc.

One of my worries was that the intro  is maybe too long, and maybe the book is too complicated. On the other hand, life is messy and I wanted Reality 36 to reflect life in a bunch of ways, which is why I think it works, even sometimes when it should not! I also plan to have a James Bond style pre-credits adventure to each book, which the Launcey adventure here kind of it, but we’ll see.

Then there’s the fact that this looks like a stand-alone novel, but is actually part 1 of 2, already much commented on. And the fact that the big bad (we assume), k52, doesn’t even appear, like Blofeld in the early Bond films – but more so, as we don’t even see his hands! Don’t get me wrong: none of this breaks the book by any means. But I do think it could have been better.

k52 is an enigma. Deal with it : ) I do wrap the Qifang part of the case up. I would have liked to have finished it off in one volume but, well, look at it as the two-part season opener (buy the book so there are more!)

Finally, though the book’s pretty ‘clean’, here are some typos and other minor mistakes I spotted, perhaps to be corrected for subsequent printings(!):

[I reproduce only some here, as most are simply technical errors; but there are a few that offer some insight into the writing process].

p314 Jag says R36 is the most violent of all the lands, but where’s the evidence? It seems quite benign.

They’re in the middle of nowhere, that’s why.

p314: maths doesn’t work – says one realm dies to save 35, but 4 are destroyed already, so it actually dies to save 31.

Well done. Originally, there were 40 Realms, but we changed it because it was too close to Douglas Adams’ ’42′. This is a hangover from that. We did spot it, but too late.

p336 Hughie’s based in Geneva? I may have got this wrong (in fact, I think I probably have), but I’m sure earlier on it was suggested he was based in New London. (He certainly comes across as English, with his country garden/English summer/baking cakes fixations, etc. What language do they speak in this new Europe? It’s never mentioned.)

He’s based in Geneva, as is mentioned. He comes across as English because it suited my caprice, and he may well have been an ‘English’ Five to start with. The languages of Europe are as they are now (well, the same, but different, as language shifts), but as noted in ‘The Nemesis Worm’, the official language of the EU in the 22nd century is Neo-Latin. Which is like a less shit Esperanto.

p352 Richards’ survival is a tiny bit of a cheat: like in an old Flash Gordon serial, it looked like he was shot dead/blown up/fell out of a space ship, but next week it turns out it was only a flesh wound, or he jumped clear at the last minute.

It’s an action story… He did nearly die! Come on Bielby!

p363 (and elsewhere, especially Chap.1) ‘anomalous jungle’: as physical rules would not seem to apply in a game world, why all this fuss about a jungle that couldn’t exist in the real world? And why would a game character care? So what?

Each Reality Realm is ‘fixed’, its laws of physics and so forth determining how it should be. Physical rules apply very much in the cordoned off RRRW’s. Tarq and Jag are NOT game characters, but security programmes.

Phew! And that’s it. Like I say, an exceptional start.

And thanks to Matt for that too! This kind of thing is a great help to writers. As one day I will say, when I get round to my ‘how I write post’, “Always listen to criticism”. And I mean ALWAYS. You don’t have to agree with all or indeed any of it, but great things can come of it, and at least listening says you’ve got the right attitude.