A Vital Resource

Something completely different – a sci-fi short story (fragment?) from a couple of months ago.

A Vital Resource

Evo felt the shutter lock behind him, sealing him, alone out of the thirty-three thousand on the Lunar surface, into Ancillary Chamber Complex 28.4 (Provisional).

Regocrete

That last part – ‘provisional’ – was his responsibility. Regulations required the final inspection for any new lunar structure, inhabited or not, to be carried out by a suitably qualified human. And it was a good regulation. The human ability to spot unforeseen problems – things that an automated inspection wouldn’t register – or to extrapolate risks based on human behaviour, was exactly what was needed. Inspection had prevented injury and waste when Evo’s colleague Johnson Mugembe had insisted the Assembly delay the incorporation of Complex 19.9a, only a month or so ago. The robot excavators had done their job exactly as programmed, resulting in a barrier of concreted regolith less than 1200mm wide between 19.9a and the adjacent 18.3 Complex, which was already inhabited.

1200mm was structurally stable and fine for the robots. But it had taken Johnson’s intuition, actually observing the interior of the excavated sphere, to realise that the narrowest point would coincide with the planned fish farm, which the robots hadn’t been told about. The chance of a breach between the spheres was still unlikely, but the severity of the damage to the colony, if it did happen, was unjustifiable. So a redesign was ordered.

This Complex, 28.4, was privately funded. It was also an Ancillary excavation, at the end of a long service tunnel on the northern side of the colony, without any close neighbours and a small chance of breach. The eight spherical chambers fitted closely into the depth of the regolith, beneath the covering layer of compacted spoil and above a spine of bedrock running diagonally through the site. The spheres would eventually have a flat, circular surface of aerated regocrete laid into their bases, creating flat, insulated floors, but for now Evo had to inspect the true floor – the internal surface of the chambers, excavated and chemically bonded into a hard regocrete by the bots. He took a deep breath and walked to the lip of the first chamber.

“I wish you didn’t have to go in there alone,” Angeline had said to him that morning, as she tightened the armpit seals of his lo-pressure suit. “Two heads are better than one.”

He had nodded. “They do send us in a pair after the initial inspection. It’s only the first time I have to go in by myself.”

They both knew why. In the case of catastrophic collapse, or a blow-out, the colony couldn’t afford to lose two workers. They couldn’t afford to lose a single able body, really, but this was the compromise that had been made. Nor was their atmosphere easily replaceable – hence the lo-pressure for the initial inspection.

At least it was light inside. Evo’s accompanying crabbot was fitted with several powerful LED lamps. A single lamp easily lit the interior of the first sphere, which was marked on the plans as an entry and administration space. Twin passages led out. Evo took the one on the left, through the series of smaller chambers, before looping round into the big chamber.

It was a beautifully simple design. They were true Bonin Balls, built with nothing more than the native regolith bonded together, self-supporting, airtight and adaptable. The spoil was mounded on top to add a dense, protective mound as insurance against meteor strike and solar radiation. Anthills, the colonists called them. And they were the ants.

The big chamber was big. A diameter of forty-five metres meant a displaced volume of almost fifty thousand cubic metres of spoil. He dialled up the crabbot’s lamps and flooded the space with bright, bright light.

One of the differences between the privately-funded complexes was the finish of the interior. In this case, the robots had polished the regocrete to a marble-like, glossy smoothness. Embedded flecks of mica sparkled in irregular constellations. Evo activated the laser-scanner and stepped back into the mouth of the access tunnel to give the space a critical eye.

It looked good.

“How’s it look, Evo?” called Lesti, almost as if she could read his mind.

“Looks good. No leaks or faults I can see. Roboys have done a good job again.”

“Alright,” she replied. “Take as long as you like. The owner’s on the line, when you’re ready.”

“Tell him five.”

“Roger, Evo. You know you don’t need to speak to him if you don’t want to.”

“Come on,” he replied. “Man paid for this lovely burrow. I can answer his questions. I won’t be long.”

He walked carefully down the steps cut into the wall of the sphere, out into the bowl, feeling like a true moon man. For, despite his wife’s reasonable worry and the real risk, he loved being the first one into these holes. For time immemorial, moon dust, rock and rough, broken meteorite debris had lain in a deep, deep blanket of silence over the surface of the moon. And then, spurred on by the distant program of an engineer, a robot had cut out this Platonic wonder, right into the regolith itself, and created a bubble, a void, an inverse planet within the body of the satellite itself. And in journeying to the moon, mankind had returned to its first homes – caves in the ground.

One patch of the lower surface caught his attention. He walked over and brought the crabbot with him. Inside the polished surface were pale crystals – much larger than the mica flecks – crystals with soft, ethereal hue of purple and faint green.

Evo sat down and reached out to touch them. The ground was cold, of course, even through the insulation of his thigh pads and his gloves. But there was something warm about the translucent clarity of green and lilac that almost contradicted his sense of touch. To see colour out of the rock itself, within all this grey, silver, slate… He had never seen anything on the moon like it.

Something worried him. He ran a quick sonar scan and found, to his surprise, that the sphere had reached hard bedrock. Beneath him would be the hard bone of the moon itself. No more regolith. But previous scans had given bedrock depth of a full fifty-five metres across the site. Someone had almost made a bad mistake. It looked like the robots had got away with it, though.

“Evo? Can you hear me? This is David Gregory.”

“Hello Mr Gregory. I’m receiving you.”

“How do my Bonins look, Evo? Will you be able to give them the go-ahead?”

“Well, you know that I’m only able to give them a first-stage approval. Following the second inspection, you’ll get a definitive answer.”

“You know as well as I do that no-one’s ever contradicted your first-stage inspection, Evo. That’s why I asked for you. I want this one to be right. If anything needs doing, you’ll be the one to tell me. I’ve got big plans. So tell me. Is it structurally sound?”

“It looks good so far. But I think I’m going to run a few lithographic diagnoses before I finish up in here.”

“You take your time, Evo. I’ll be listening in.”

Evo had been looking at the crystals, hard, throughout his brief conversation. A bell was ringing somewhere in the back of his head. Spodumene? He called up a reference chart. Prismatic, striated, pale purple or lilac. Green. Spodumene. Lithium aluminium silicate.

Lithium aluminium silicate.

He was about to get the crabbot to shave into the polished surface and confirm what he saw. Then he looked up at the sphere above him. Its simplicity. Its beauty.

“Mr Gregory, I want to ask you about your intention for the Complex.”

“A studio, Inspector.”

“What kind of studio?”

“A recording studio and concert space.”

Evo found he was grinning a wide grin. “On the moon?”

Gregory laughed. “You don’t believe it, do you? I had to pull every string I could, and then some more. They didn’t want to give me the excavators, of course. I’ve had to wait. And wait. And put up the money myself. Paying over the odds. Significantly over the odds.”

Evo knew a few people who played instruments – largely electronic instruments, considering the restriction on organic material and the near-impossibility of wooden resonators on the moon. But were there enough to justify the creation of an entire Ancillary Chamber Complex, just for the recording and performance of music?

Gregory continued. “Do you know there are fifteen violins on the moon? One of them is a Stradivarius. Three violas. Four cellos. Eighteen flutes. Do you know what that is? That’s the First Lunar Orchestra. We’re going to make it happen. Not just a little piped music into earbuds. Not just washboard and basfibre guitar. I mean music. The sort that makes your hair stand up on the back of your neck. I mean Brahms. And it’s closer than you think. Now that the Bonins are finished, we can move in and start to rehearse. This is the first chance at a dedicated space we’ve had since the beginning of the colony.”

“Mr Gregory, I’m going to get back to you. Some more analyses to do here.”

“Well, now you can look at it all in a new light. In a month or two, we’ll be fitted out and rehearsing. Just imagine it!”

Music. Evo shook his head. Maybe Gregory was right – that was what they needed on the moon. But they also needed lithium.

Yes, spodumene crystals contained lithium, along with the ubiquitious aluminium. But a few crystals themselves meant nothing by themselves.

No, the pale purple moments of glamour, beautiful as they were, meant that the bedrock beneath might be the lithium-bearing pegmatite granite that the colony had been looking for. Their earlier-worked deposits were exhausted. The demand for lithium amongst the electronic engineers was almost insatiable, and its value to the colony was hard to overestimate. Lithium meant batteries. Batteries meant power. There was no wind to turn turbines, no water running to create hydroelectricity. There was only the shining sun and the long lunar day. Followed by the long lunar night.

They had mechanical batteries – the massive, constantly-spinning flywheels buried beneath the deepest spheres. But for the everyday necessities of electric life, these ants depended on lithium.

And here he was. Evo was sat on the inner surface of a sphere dug right down to the bedrock, for some reason, on what might be the colony’s most important natural resource.

Or David Gregory’s recording studio.

It wasn’t even a decision for Evo. It shouldn’t have been. His duty was as clear as the lunar sky.

He got up, switched off his laser scanner and trotted back up to the access tunnel, his crabbot clicking after him.

“Lesti? All clear in here. Book Johnson to join me tomorrow. And you can tell Mr Gregory to prepare to take occupancy of Ancillary Chamber Complex 28.4.”


Evo returned through the airlock, through a magnetic shower intended to remove the sharp-edged lunar dust from the living quarters, out into the adjoining corridor. Once the Complex had been flooded with nitrogen wind and all the particulates shuffled into a less dangerously abrasive powder, they would do without the magnetic shower. Another of his privileges and dangers. Silicosis was a considerable risk for him, Johnson and the rest of the team.

He took off his breathing mask and skullcap, shaking out his hair. There was a public blister just down the corridor, at 27.62(b). He’d sit for a while on the bamboo-fibre bench and complete his report through the direct access. Maybe get some water. Plan the rest of his day.

Time. He had too much of it, really. With that job done, there was nothing scheduled until Johnson came onto shift tomorrow and they could re-enter. He could have rushed forward, found another qualified inspector available. But he knew Johnson. He knew how he worked. And they were friends.

It had not been like this to begin with. For the first decade, man-hours were the limiting factor in every equation. Operating remote excavators, writing software, repairing broken equipment, fabricating specific tools, making observations that robots could not be trusted with… Everything required attention and time.

Now it was the other way round. For the past five or six years, the Colony had been sliding further and further into a serious resource shortage. There was a seemingly unlimited supply of moonrock and sunlight and human time, but tools were wearing out. Aluminium could be had for the price of moment’s sunshine, but reagents, iron, complex carbohydrates, starches, water – these were another story. The greenhouses were thirsty and several thousand of the Colonists were devoted to running them at increasingly near-perfect rates of efficiency.

And yet no-one would dream of putting bamboo aside for something as frivolous as seating in current circumstances. Basfibre weave, perhaps.

Even his hair was a luxury. Just about everyone was cutting theirs short, now.

Evo wondered whether war had felt like this. Not for the fighters. But for those left behind, scrimping and saving and sharpening and re-using, to eke out what they could for the sake of some great victory. Not because they were forced, by law or authority, but out of a public and shared compulsion to succeed in one thing needful.

But if this were a war, what were they fighting for? That was becoming the question in everybody’s mind, if not on their lips. And who really was the enemy? The idea of a sustainable, independent lunar colony was no longer one that depended on stability. In fact, stasis would kill them. They simply had to keep on falling forward. But towards what?

Evo wondered whether David Gregory had found an answer.

When the report was completed, Evo looked him up. Billetted in 3.45, right on the other side of the massive network of tunnels and burrows. Currently there. About a two-hour walk. Not that anybody walked on the moon.


Chamber Complex 3.45 was an old one, split into around a hundred and twenty ‘tins’ – the first private quarters that had been built. Expanded aluminium sheeting and crumbling regofoam. Not really the place Evo had expected to find the patron of the First Lunar Orchestra.

Gregory’s quarters didn’t even have a door. Hanging up was a sheet of coarse material that Evo didn’t immediately recognise. The weave was wide and the fibres had to be at least 40 microns. It was fairly ragged, somewhat stretched, and had a discernable shadow of human grease where it was lifted aside.

“Hello?”

Evo recognised David Gregory’s voice immediately. Slightly rasping. How old was he?

“Mr Gregory? Can I come in?”

An aluminium bedframe creaked and a creased hand swept the woollen blanket aside from the doorway. David Gregory stood there, waiting for Evo to speak.

“I’m Evo de Andrada. I inspected your chamber complex this morning.”

“Ah! Evo, very nice to meet you.” Gregory seized his hand and shook it. “Is this about the inspection?”

“No,” Evo replied. “I… just wanted to meet you.”

The older man smiled. He was clearly older. His hair had greyed unevenly and his skin had a slightly desiccated look.

“I want to thank you for going in,” said Gregory. “And giving it as much attention as you did. That’s what everyone says about you, you know? In the construction division. Why, as I think I said, I wanted you to be the one to go in.”

Evo cleared his throat. “We’ll be making the second inspection first thing tomorrow. I have to warn you, we might still find something. That’s the point. Two heads are a lot better than one.”

“I appreciate that,” said Gregory. “After all this time and sacrifice, the last thing I want to happen is a collapse, or some accident. We’d lose the dome, of course, but we’d also miss this chance. This chance to make something greater out of what we’re doing here.”

Evo looked into Gregory’s little cubicle. An alumium bunk hanging against one wall. Several dusty storage boxes. A repeatedly-repaired surface suit. Not much else.

“There’s nowhere to sit other than the bunk,” said David Gregory. “Come round the corner. A neighbour of mine does noodles.”


They sat at bench and table in the passageway outside the eatery. A bowl of rice noodles in a thick, glossy broth. Evo supped at it in wonder. “Is there meat in this?”

“Apparently not. Tastes good, doesn’t it?”

He had to agree. “Delicious, Mr Gregory. I’m sorry I’ve still not really worked out what I wanted to say to you – or ask, I suppose.”

“That’s quite alright. You said you wanted to meet me. That doesn’t need to involve explicit information exchange.”

“But you made me think. When we spoke earlier.”

“About the orchestra?”

“Yes. Exactly. What do you mean?”

Gregory concentrated on his noodles. He didn’t speak for a while. Then he looked into Evo’s eyes with a new, hard gaze. A challenge.

“People are becoming hopeless, Evo. Have you noticed it? We’ve grown to thirty-three thousand inhabitant, can you believe, and for all the security and carefulness, we’re missing something. It’s not Earth we’re missing. Earth is gone to these people around us. Humankind is adaptable – almost infinitely adaptable – and we’ve adapted to this life, underground, lit artificially, living to an abstract cycle, based, yes, on the Earth day. But utterly out of touch with the surface life up there.”

“But you know why we can’t live on the surface,” began Evo.

“I do. Radiation. The temperature range. Fourteen days of darkness. The meteor barrage. Of course. But it’s not the surface itself that we’re missing. It’s risk. It’s purpose. We’re safe, here, for the first time since the colony was established. Hungry and thirsty, yes, but safe. The systems we’ve designed around us are resilient and we’ve got backup plans all the way up to our shoulderblades.”

Evo narrowed his eyes. “Why would we want a more dangerous place to live?”

“I don’t. That’s not my point. There’s enough danger here. I still surface walk. Do you know what I do? I’m in the panel maintenance team, day shift. Have been for eight years. How else do you think I’ve managed to earn enough to pay for that beautiful bubble of air? Danger money. You can’t even call it blood money. Do you know what happens when your suit tears up there? Massive depressurisation? Blood doesn’t flow. It evaporates into a red mist. There’s still danger. You know that – you take your life into your hands with every inspection, don’t you? Sidula died only a week ago, didn’t he?”

Sidula had been on another inspection team. Evo knew his face, said hello, but couldn’t claim to have known him. He’d make it back to the airlock, but a combination of lo-pressure sickness, trauma and blood loss meant that he’d lasted about six weeks before giving up the ghost on his sickbay bed.

“What I don’t see is innovation,” continued Gregory. “People are just content to do as they’re told and to eke out their lives.”

“What about this lady?” asked Evo, motioning to the woman industriously manning her wok behind them. “This looks like free enterprise and innovation to me.”

“This is survival,” said Gregory. “And it’s delicious. But what about things that haven’t been done before? Entirely new ideas? Not noodles or better ways to get power out of the sun or a replacement for lithium batteries. Paradigm shifts. I’ll tell you, ideas come into people’s heads all the time. But what makes it possible for those people to carry out those ideas? To fulfil their dreams? Where do they get that hope?”

“Brahms?”

“Brahms.”

“You don’t think that this is something for the Assembly to decide?”

Gregory laughed. “Politics is a mug’s game, Evo. I spent my first ten years trying to run this place. Rules can only change people’s behaviour, not their motivations.”

Evo had to smile at that. “You sound like Saint Paul.”

“Glad to hear it,” replied Gregory, returning to his noodles. “That man changed sides too.”

“Alright, one more question. Is there really a Stradivarius on the moon?”

Gregory’s eyes glinted. “Why do you think I wouldn’t let you sit on that storage box in my quarters?”

“You brought it here?”

“No. A Chinese woman named Xuan Xuilan brought it here at considerable personal expense, in L3. I heard of it five years ago, but I couldn’t be sure if it was anything more than a rumour. It took me three years to track it down.”

“It must be worth more than the price of the Complex.”

“I paid eighty ludo for it. And the holder, at that time, was glad to get it. Xuan died on the surface, maybe twelve years ago, as far as I can tell. Her possessions were put in storage, then auctioned off, sorted, so on. It passed through several hands without anyone really knowing its value.”

“Have you played it?”

“Once or twice. Needs some repairs. The moon isn’t kind on wood. Our dry air down here. And we’re famously short on gut for new strings.”

Evo pushed his empty coconut bowl aside. “Thanks for the soup. You’ll have a final report by midday tomorrow. And thanks for the conversation.”

“Are you a musician, Inspector de Andrada?”

Evo paused. “I don’t know, Mr Gregory. I might be. I’ve never had the chance to find out.”

Business Brewing…

There’s a brewery in Steam Highwayman III that would like to expand. That’s nice, isn’t it? So your friendly ale-drinking hero is going to get involved, of course.

But how involved, exactly? If the Director is keen to offer independent pubs contracts and pay you a generous commission for each signature, would you do his bidding? What side will that put you on, exactly?

Camden Brewery in 1913

This is the question at the heart of my recent chunk of writing. I’ve passed 130 complete passages and have reserved a further 300 reserved: these are early days in the writing process, but so far I’ve sketched and reserved the vast majority of street and hub locations, written a large proportion of the ambushing and random traffic passages, and spent quite a lot of time creating some interesting pub interactions, particularly in Hampstead and Highgate.

There are a couple of complete quests in and a few loose trailing ends, but the cast majority of the story is to come. I’m thinking about a complete range of quests and interactions – tiny, spontaneous stories on the streets, quests that involve travelling across the map, larger ones that involve several decisions and then a couple of big stories you will keep bumping into. Behind the scenes, you see, are the great unwashed crying for Reform or Revolution, just as they really did in the 1830s. Then there’s the rivalry between the Guilds and the powerplay in court and Parliament. Nowhere is closed to our silver-tongued, sharp-bladed adventurer!

What would you like to see in the adventures of the Steam Highwayman? Let me know!

Other recent projects: infusing some rhubarb gin, exploring Shoreditch on various maps.

A Child of the Jago

Now that my gin is bottled, I’ve been putting in some time sketching passages 301-400 of Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis. Like with the two previous volumes, I began by laying down a web of interlinked location passages. This portion represents the east central portion of the map: Bethnal Green, Shadwell, Whitechapel and Shoreditch.

There is so much to write here in an alternate, steamed-up East End. Body-snatching, sweat shops, front-room industry, the London Docks… and the slums.

Shoreditch has a big hole in it in 1894…

My usual map of recourse has an interesting gap just here: take a look. And hereby hangs a tale.

In 1896, a now-forgotten novelist called Arthur Morrison published an angry and brutally honest story called A Child of the Jago, set in a fictional slum based very closely on streets immediately adjacent to Old Nichol Street in Shoreditch. It follows the fortunes of Dicky Perrott, who scrapes through childhood and into a criminal survivalism that seemed unbelievable to polite readers of the day. This was at the end of the Victorian period, when the bad old days were meant to have been left behind. But they hadn’t been.

The text is available online and it makes tough reading. I don’t find it over sentimental or graphic – just frank. Morrison was trying to rub his reader’s noses in the reality of desperate poverty just streets away from their own lives, much in the way that we see independent documentary makers nowadays. But one result is that it really prevents me from being too sentimental or simplistic about the depiction of the poor in my own gamebook. There’s no way I can do justice to those realities in the little passages I use, but at least I hope to avoid cartoon poverty.

The Old Nichol – marked by black and dark blue housing

If you go looking online, you may find that there is a Covent Garden tailor that uses the name of Morrison’s book, which I find really quite distasteful, as I don’t think a romanticisation of the criminal dandies implicit in the clothing on sale is at all helpful. Or you may find one of the little maps that show the location of the Old Nichol. It was located on one edition of Booth’s Poverty Map, but by the publication of the more widely available edition, the Old Nichol had been cleared and replaced with social housing… that the original inhabitants could not afford, displacing them to other slums and destroying what community they had. Plus ca change, eh?

After the slum clearance

One more little detail: do you notice the thick red lines on the left? Shoreditch High Street. Up the top, St Leonard’s Church, whose bells say ‘When I grow rich…’ in the East End rhyme Oranges and Lemons. That’s a interesting place in itself, as the burial place of Shakespeare’s business partner and fellow actor, Richard Burbage. But you might recognise it as St Saviour’s from Rev, in which Tom Hollander did his best to minister to a desperately poor inner-city parish.

Rev.

Shoreditch is entirely different nowadays, though, isn’t it? Hipsters and hamburgers and cold-press coffee and cycle shops. Well, to be honest, I think there’s still a lot of hidden needs and poverty in Shoreditch. It’s enough to make me wonder what the unseen, spiritual dimension is behind all of these stories. There’s something desperate there.

Highwayman’s Hamper: Rhubarb Gin

I’ve been helping a church friend manage her allotment since Christmas. Once of the challenges; rhubarb glut. There are around 12 rhubarb plants on the five-pole plot – which means that as cut-and-come-again croppers, these delicious Russian beauties can easily produce more than 3 kilos of rhubarb every week between April and September.

I love it. Sour and surprisingly fragrant, as well as possessing a beautiful bright pink colour, rhubarb has now colonised our freezer as well, cut into chunks ready for a year’s worth of crumbles. And our shelves, pickled and chutnied with onions, malt vinegar, cardamom and coriander seed.

But I still had too much. So I bought some gin to infuse. After three weeks on the jar, the chunks of rhubarb were greyish brown green and the liquor… floral pink.

I think inside me there must be a frustrated product designer, born one childhood breakfast when staring at cereal boxes. I did in fact design food packaging for fun from about the age of eight or nine.

If I have time (it’s been a full and looks to be an even busier year) I might be returning to this brand. Rosehips will be ready to make cordial before I know it, the first elderflowers are already out and desperate to be champagnified and with allotment access… Anything is possible. A Highwayman’s Hamper reward level on the next Kickstarter?

A note on allotments: in the UK, the standard size of a Local Authority Allotment is 10 poles – around 250 square metres. However, many allotments are let, as my friends is, as a half-allotment of 5 poles. Now these are strictly square poles – areas of ground 5 1/2 yards broad by 5 1/2 yards long, and the traditional dimensions of an allotment are 1 pole  broad by 10 long, similar in size to ancient shares in common fields. OF course an acre is exactly 160 square poles, so it won’t surprise anyone that my friend’s allotment is 1/32ndth of an acre, or around 5.5 by 27 metres.

If you’re still with me, take a quick look at these two maps. The first is a hundred years old, published in 1919 but surveyed in 1915, and shows the site of the current Barking Abbey School and Barking Allotments. In the centre, beneath a label number 58, is a decimal number: 42.579.  This means that the surveyors making this particular map in 1915 measured enclosure 58, the eastern portion of Barking Park, to be 42.579 acres. Or the equivalent of 681 full size allotments. Or 1362 allotments the size if my friend’s. The second image shows the same piece of England now, with the patchwork of the allotments in the far upper right. Of course, the good council men of Barking didn’t decide to turn the entire plot into 1362 half allotments. If they had, extrapolating from the density of rhubarb plants on our share, that could have produced 4 tons of rhubarb every week between April to September. Or around 80 tons in a season.

Barking Park 1919 (note the acreage on the right)
And in 2019. Allotments in upper right.

That would be a lot of rhubarb. Most of the UK’s rhubarb is grown in sheds in the Rhubarb Triangle, up in Yorkshire. But not the fragrant pink treasure that flavours the Highwayman’s Hamper Rhubarb Gin. That comes out of the alluvium of the Thames floodplain, with gratitude to Barking council and Danguole.

Still reading? You deserve a refreshment. If you haven’t a bottle from the most exclusive Steampunk Hamper on hand (understandable – I’ve only made two so far), then other rhubarb gins are available. These are the two suggested servings printed on the rear label:

Crooked Billet
Pour two measures Rhubarb Gin and two measures rosehip cordial into a heavy mug. Top up with hot water, a strip of orange zest and a cinnamon stick.

Hedgerow Ice
Shake 1 measure Rhubarb Gin, 1 measure Creme de Cassis, crushed ice and fresh mint leaves. Strain into a Martini glass and top with a borage flower.

A Warm Invitation

I will performing at the Berkshire Brouhaha in a couple of weeks’ time, at the kind invitation of Duke Box himself. The Brouhaha is a new steampunk event, masterminded by the Duke and his cronies, and is sure to draw a good number of the region’s Steampunks together.

And while Bracknell itself is a little off-the-map, it is still a part of Steam Highwayman country: when I was living in Marlow, I would ride down to Bracknell to participate in teacher training events. For any of you interested in post-war housing estate developments (like me), it’s worth a wander.

If you’re local or intending to be there, it would be great to see you. I hope to be reading for you at around 2.30 (dependent on the many vagaries of steampunk time, as once you mess with the historical continuum it plays havoc with our modern clocks). I’ll also have copies of Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways with me, on sale at a particularly good price, and be happy to sign any.

If you want more information about the event, you can try the Facebook or Eventbrite pages just here.

A Twitter Playthrough

Steam Highwayman by Sam Iacob

A little while before Christmas, my fellow Gamebook author Sam Iacob began chronicling his adventure as the Steam Highwayman on Twitter. If you’ve read any of his work, then his sarcastic pleasure in mad adventure will come as no surprise – but you may not know what a talented cartoonist Sam is as well. These are his images (shared with permission) which have the honour of bring amongst the very first fan art for Steam Highwayman. I love his interpretation of the velosteam above, as well as the desperate expressiveness of the Highwayman’s face. There’s a Beano-sort of quality to it, don’t you think? And that’s from a chap who says;

My favourite artists are Otto Dix, John Blanche, Ralph Steadman, Raymond Briggs and Caravaggio.

Well, I haven’t found anyone quite get into the spirit of Steam Highwayman like Sam has. Always on the lookout for cash and advancement, utterly ruthless and driven to pick at any loose narrative threads… And he looks after grandma too.

Steam Highwayman performing an act of charity

Sam and I crossed paths at that Thing at Tring, and he showed a gratifying interest in the project. Slightly inspired by that playthrough, I’ve started a fresh playthrough in Highways and Holloways, partly with the intention of taking a player’s mindset into the writing of The Reeking Metropolis, which has had its first clean passages written, amongst many placeholders and structural drafts.

Feed those birds, Steam Highwayman

Smell the oil, the coal-gas and the hot metal once more: the Steam Highwayman is heading for the Reeking Metropolis itself – London.

I’ve been working on the navigational network that underlies Steam Highwayman III. I drafted a map and began on numbering it some time before Christmas, but now I’ve started the dog-work of creating the passages and links that tie all that movement together. Creating an explorable city is very different to adapting the country lanes and villages of Buckinghamshire for a map. Some areas need to feel like dense networks of streets, but I don’t want the reader’s journey through them to feel slow or boring, so there have to be some short-cuts, timesavers and asymmetrical routes to keep the movement interesting.

I’m using the excellent National Library of Scotland’s georeferenced archive of OS maps that I’ve blogged about previously, but I’m imagining some differences due to the departure point c.1785. For a start, ‘Regent’s’ Park is right out. Queen Maria’s Park seems a better fit for this timeline.

But what these maps really offer is the detailed alternate world of a London that has almost disappeared. Mews, old watercourses, slums and old bridges… The site of the London stocks (that’ll come in handy) and old Devonshire House…

Some of it is unchanged, of course. So as I was detailing a movement along Upper Thames Street from London Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge, not only did I realise that I should include a quest engaging with the Royal College of Arms, but that I also needed to give St Paul’s its place.

There’s only one melody that says ‘St Paul’s Cathedral’ to me. Not ‘Zadok the Priest’, not even ‘Jerusalem’, but the Sherman brothers’ ‘Feed the Birds‘.

Now what sort of self-respecting Steampunk would miss the chance to check on that old birdwoman and buy a bag full of crumbs?

Well, at this rate it’s going to be a long, detailed and intensely-researched book.

Great.

How Many Books?

Since the publication of Steam Highwayman: Smog and Ambuscade, on 31st December 2017, I have sold 644 books. In some ways, that’s not a large number. From other angles, it’s still really quite a small number. Approximately two-thirds of these are copies of Smog and Ambuscade, another third Highways and Holloways and I’ve sold a total of just sixteen copies of Write Your Own Adventure: Choice-Based Fiction in Schools.

But there’s something unique about selling books in the age of print-on-demand. Take SH1 (Smog and Ambuscade)‘s sales during 2018. I sent backers 197 copies as rewards for my first Kickstarter campaign in 2017: I know the names of every one of these readers. Then I sold another 68 copies through face-to-face sales at events or meetings: these customers, too, are known to me. 68 more were sold online, and these I know less about – only the country in which they were sold by the distributor, Ingram – the UK, US or Australia. They could have been ordered by bookshops at retailer’s discount and still be standing on the shelves (unlikely), ordered through Amazon (although Amazon’s reports for SH1 only account for around 40% of this number) or ordered through other online bookshops or dealers. Then another 70 copies were pledged for during the SH2 campaign in Autumn 2018 – again, to named, interested readers.

Volume is small, and so is my profit. Booksales have made me around £350 in total to date, as the larger amounts pledged for Kickstarter campaigns are absorbed by the costs of working with an illustrator and publishing the book. My intention is to create what publishers call a long-tail product – a book that does not go out of fashion and continues to sell steadily for years. In fact, I do hope that online and face-to-face sales of Steam Highwayman will increase. At 1000 copies a month, I would need no other income……..

But instead of volume, what I have is connection. I have good estimates of how many of my backers pledged primarily to support me and how many have actually begun to read the books. I have received good, personal responses from interested gamebook readers and writers, steampunks and readers that directly improve my ongoing project. The numbers are still very small, but behind most of those numbers is a name and behind many of those names is a face. Very few authors or publishers can boast that they know their readership as I do.

I would love to see my books going further afield and I’d love to earn more from them, but a good proportion of the current situation is a result of my own choices about how to play this game of authorship. I could have hunted for a publisher for SH1 – and I’d certainly still be looking. I could have looked for an agent – and I don’t know where I would have begun. I could have started with ‘normal’ book – a novel – and I still wouldn’t have completed writing and perfecting it. What Steam Highwayman has done for me is to allow me to become an author in miniature. Now all I have to wait for is for reality to catch up!

If you’re writing, don’t give up. Persistence works. Find an outlet that allows you to succeed, not to mimic other writers of the past or the present. You won’t be Pratchett, or Rowling, or Dickens, but each one of those had to persist and to play the long game…

Christmas Eve by the river

The days are short, the light is low,

It bounces on the water like a skipped stone.

Ripples in the gravel become waves on a sea,

Casting shadows in lines, semi-regularly.

Reeds hang o’er the river, wheaten gold,

The mud gleams and shimmers and doubles each gull

Which waits while the tide returns and the sun struggles up

To a low zenith.

This quiet eve of Christmas is a short day

And a little work goes a long way.

Warm in the sun but cold on the breath,

The air catches clouds in mysteriousness,

Holding them still, for a moment, till they disappate,

And I, like the gulls, reflect and wait.

A Birdin the Hand…

Is worth two in the bush. And here, at last, but not behind schedule, is the first printed copy of Steam Highwayman: Highways and Holloways (featured alongside its sister volume and our family Christmas tree.)

It feels wonderful to have this hefty chunk of book in my hand after seeing it in my mind’s eye and on the screen for the best part of nine months. Thankyou to everyone who pledged towards the project, allowing me to commission this fantastic artwork from Ben and pay for the much-needed proofing and so on. I’ll be checking this book as carefully as I can before excitement gets the better of me and I ship the backers copies. Then the book will be live on Amazon too – and in fact, I already have pre-orders to fulfil!

Dragonmeet was a real adventure for me. I had a great time crossing paths with several increasingly familiar faces from the Gamebook community – Mark Lain, Colin Oaten, Jon Green and Stuart Lloyd among them. I also made a new friend in fellow author, David Cartwright of Camelot 2050, with whom I shared a table. If you, like him, want something to fill the space where Arthurian legend should meet saturday-morning science-fiction, then check out his two novels – a third is promised for March.

It was tiring day, I’ll not deny. I hit a new high on step-counter… But I was particularly encouraged by the interest in my WYOA book and took several pre-orders for that, which have now been ordered. There were even a couple of orders for SH2, which will be shipped after the backers’ copies.

So where next? Nottingham – the richest plum of them all (as King John would say). Next weekend (8th-9th) I’ll be featuring at the Steampunkalia at Wollaton Hall with live readings after 3pm on Saturday and around noon on Sunday. And this time I’ll have a hard copy of SH2 to show…