Saturday, 28 May 2011

Thought of the Day

"We are a race of naked apes, crawling on the surface of a tiny dot of water, air and rock, orbiting a ball of incandescent gas revolving round the fringes of an unremarkable galaxy. It's time we stopped thinking of ourselves as anything special, or arrogating to ourselves the powers we attribute to our imaginary gods. For gods who made us in their image cannot be very important gods. And, for we will die and fade away, but the Cosmos will go on."
                                                       - saith Bill the Butcher.

Death of Another Dream


One of the most depressing things about growing older is that the things I used to take for granted would absolutely, certainly, happen turn out to be impossible.

For instance, I grew up reading Golden Age science fiction, and among my possessions is a book called Forbidden Planets, a collection of stories revolving around the idea of first landings on other planets, both within this system and orbiting some far and distant star. And, before them, there were the old – and, in retrospect fairly hilarious – tales of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Oh, you know those stories. Those are the tales where a couple of professors with faintly Germanic-sounding names construct a spaceship in their backyard, much to the amusement of the village yokels. And, after many chapters of describing the professors’ arguing over theories of spaceflight, etc, and much to the consternation of those selfsame yokels, the spaceship takes to the skies, to deliver its professorial load to some planet – Venus, let’s say – with breathable air, pleasant blue skies, and luscious purple fruit hanging from the trees.

So Professor von Stopperfossen and Doktor von Schellinghausen climb out of their spaceship, and wander through the trees hungrily eyeing the luscious purple fruit. And just as they pluck a couple and are about to bite into them, a beautiful humanoid girl comes running up to them, and in English (albeit perhaps of a pidgin variety) informs them that the fruit are poisonous, and that she is Princess Cosmica of the Kingdom of Venus, and that she wants the help of these two gods, descended from heaven in their flaming chariot, to –

All right, you know those stories.

Anyway, the point is that I grew up believing that someday, probably well within my lifetime, people would be standing on the surface of another habitable planet, living out the science fiction stories printed in the pages before me. I actually, you know, believed that would happen.

The first knocks that belief took were a good long time ago, when I was still in my teens and I first examined seriously the fact that nothing could travel faster than light. What about all those FTL ships, screaming across galaxies at velocities that would put them on the other side of the Milky Way in a day? What about bloody Star Trek, the USS Enterprise and warp speed?

                                                         Where did the future go?

Now, the problems of interstellar travel – or, hell, with current technologies, travel across this tiny solar system – are well enough known that I don’t have to go over them here. I’ll just say that even if we put most of our effort into it, a reasonable method of transport to another planet – one that could take a sufficiently large payload of passengers and cargo sufficiently quickly at a sufficiently low energy expenditure – will most likely never be possible when the distances stretch across stellar systems.

Of course, we aren’t even trying. As Arthur C Clarke said, the Vietnam War could have paid for a permanent Moon programme as depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We haven’t even been back to the Moon since 1973, but the people who control the funding of space research prefer instead to spend trillions on weapons systems that can never have any practical use while getting their asses handed to them by illiterate villagers in turbans and flip-flops. Meanwhile, as energy resources approach their inevitable end, our window of opportunity to strike out across space is beginning to close. I very much doubt if serious space research can survive the first half of this century.

But even if it were possible to strike across space, should it be done? Is it a desirable thing?

About the same time as I was still reeling from the speed of light as a limiting factor, I read an interview with Carl Sagan where the professor was talking about the dangers of microbial contamination from another planet. I’d paused a bit, I remember, my teenage brow actually furrowing. Microbial...contamination? How on earth could that happen, because the SF stories I was reading never mentioned a single damned microbe? Could it?

As I grew older and read more, I realised all too well that, yes, it could.

There are microbes called extremophiles. They live in places where one would think no life was possible, around underwater volcanic vents, or deep below the Antarctic ice. These are creatures which seem to indicate that if life is possible somewhere, then it will exist. If the conditions inside an intergalactic dust cloud are right for some kind of life to emerge, we probably shouldn’t be all that surprised if it does emerge.

So, you can imagine NASA blasting off a spaceship to Europa, to gather a few glasses of the water of the seas beneath the ice crust of that moon; and it brings back, along with its samples, a load of stowaway bacteria, at least some of which are capable of survival under earthly conditions...and breeding.

Do you get the idea?

And it’s not just microbes either. Imagine something that can be crushed, broiled, frozen to close to absolute zero, dried out, poisoned, starved, put in the vacuum and cosmic radiation bombardment of space, and still survive. Uh, I’m not talking about different organisms here, one capable of being boiled, another desiccated, yet another poisoned. I’m talking about one animal which can withstand all of these conditions.

Actually, that’s not even science fiction. These animals exist, right here on earth. They’re called tardigrades, and are members of the Phylum Tardigrada.[1]

                                                               This is a tardigrade

Now, it’s hardly likely that a miniature eight-legged moss-dwelling herbivore has evolved specifically to withstand vacuum and radiation in space. It’s even less likely that the tardigrades are aliens dropped off from a UFO dispatched to us from a far distant star. What’s probable is that their adaptations to extreme conditions here on earth allow them to resist conditions like vacuum, to which they would never, under normal circumstances, be exposed.

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? If tardigrades on earth can be – just by the accident of evolution – resistant to the rigours of space travel, sans spaceship, then  what prevents the denizens of some distant planet from being able to do precisely the same thing?

Answer: nothing.

The consequences of this are more alarming the more you think of it. We humans already have an unenviable record of exterminating other organisms. Some we exterminate directly, whether deliberately or as a by-product of our other activities. Some – perhaps more – we exterminate indirectly; these are the creatures killed off by the creatures we take along with us, rats and cats and dogs, syphilis and smallpox and bubonic plague.

Recently, I came across a report[2] that Gliese 581d, a planet orbiting a red dwarf star just twenty light years away – that means pretty much next door – has a stable atmosphere, comfortable temperatures, and a surface covered in liquid water. As I’ve said before, where there’s a possibility of life, we can assume that there is a likelihood of life. For the moment let’s just say that Gliese 581d may have life and see where that leads us. 

                                                        Click on this for an enlarged view

Now, with current technologies, which aren’t likely to be bettered unless the powers that be smell some kind of profits for the military-industrial complex, it would take some three hundred thousand years to get there. If we merely send a probe at a fair fraction of the speed of light, that would still take upwards of a century, and any information it sends back would take another twenty years, at the speed of light, to reach us.

Of course, it would be extremely interesting to know what the probe finds. If it does discover life, then we do have the confirmation that we aren’t alone in the Universe. Most thinking people already believe this, but there’s a big difference between belief and proof. If there’s life on Gliese 581d, religions, especially, will take hard knocks, as will several kinds of philosophy which hold humanity on some kind of pedestal. But if it doesn’t find life, then we shall be reminded again how precious life on this planet is, and how we ought to safeguard and not destroy it.

The problem is that we probably will never know. Here’s why:

Suppose we send a probe there in 2015; it will get there by, let’s say, 2120, even if it doesn’t fail on the way; its first reports will reach us in 2140. By that time we might well be living in a post-apocalyptic world, said apocalypse having been brought about by a combination of global warming and the implosion of fossil fuels, and we might not even be able to detect the signals any longer, let alone interpret them.

And just suppose we do detect and interpret them, and discover there is life on Gliese 581d. What do we do about it? Send an invasion fleet, to do unto them before they do unto us, as many of the dreadful pulp SF stories of the 1940s and 50s insisted? Send an embassy? A scientific mission?  What?

Now, assume that we did send some kind of probe. Can we completely and absolutely sterilise that probe of all earth microbes, as well as any other organisms? If we don’t, what effect will those bacteria, those viruses, those protozoans...those tardigrades...have on the native life?

When the embassy ship we send finally gets there to Gliese 581d, will it find a world wiped free of its native life by bacteria from earth? Will we have actually, if inadvertently, done unto them as we did not wish to be done unto?

This is an important question. Just how much do we have a right to destroy? Can we risk devastating an alien ecology, even if it has no technological or even intelligent life, in the quest for knowledge? For the time being, let us set aside corporate greed, a la Avatar, or military aggrandisement, like Starship Troopers. Can we wipe out an alien world just to find out what makes it tick?

I’ll say that the answer is no. We do not have that right, and we never shall.

So, it comes back to the starting point. Those SF stories of walking on alien worlds snacking on purple fruit, while voluptuous princesses call you god and implore you to help them, aren’t going to happen. Those stories of lone explorers trudging across barren wastes while vast organisms lurch beneath the methane ice sheets aren’t going to happen. Nor should they.

All the same, I still feel sad about it.

After all, it was a dream.

Sources:

The Creeping Terror


Yesterday, I invested some time and a few brain cells in watching the best movie I shall ever see.

I mean that. This is the best.

I consider myself a fairly hardened B-fan; they can’t make movies too cheesy to suit me, and I’d of course heard of the members of the Hall of Shame, alias the Worst Movies of All Time, and even seen Plan 9 From Outer Space, and my word that was bad.



But, let me tell you, Plan 9 had nothing on this one. The Creeping Terror isn’t bad. The word “bad” doesn’t do it justice. It’s transcendent. It leaps over bad like it isn’t there. It pole vaults over worse like Sergei Bubka. And it jumps over the utmost definition of worst like Javier Sotomayor at the Olympics. Trust me on this. It’s not so bad it’s good. It’s so bad it’s...it...OK, I think my brain imploded from trying to think of words to express my feelings.

Right, I’ve dunked my head in ice water and I’m back.

Before I go further, it might be worth a few moments to describe what passes for a story. The film begins with stock footage of a satellite launch being played in reverse an alien spaceship landing. Then, from inside the spaceship, which now looks nothing like the "spaceship" we just saw launching landing, a Creeping Monster, uh, creeps out. Believe me that this film wasn’t kidding about the “creeping” part of the “creeping monster”. An arthritic snail could move faster.

So this Monster creeps over the town, its shaggy carpet-covered behind humping along as though there were several people underneath. Oh, did I just write that? I meant of course that there were several people underneath. You can, actually, see their shoes.

                                                                    The face of fear

Meanwhile, humans arrive at the spaceship, crawl in, and promptly stuff themselves into the mouth of a second Creeping Monster which happens to be tethered to the wall for, maybe, some goddamn mating ritual or something. Did I mention that the Creeping Monsters have mouths highly reminiscent of anuses, down front, and that their victims have to literally crawl into said mouths to get themselves eaten? No? Consider it said.

                                                              Or see it for yourself

Ahem. Where was I? Oh yeah. Monster Number One creeps across town, and finally eats its way to a dance hall where a lot of people are drinking/fighting/dancing (or all three at the same time; sometimes it’s kind of difficult to tell where one stops and the other begins). It then proceeds to eat them all, including a couple who considerately wait until it finishes to be consumed in their turn, though they were behind it and could have literally, um, crawled away. (In fact, come to think of it, the male part of the couple seems to be pushing the female part into the Monster’s mouth. How very considerate of him.)

OK, from there the plot gets – if you want to know – stupider, to the point where I can’t be troubled to describe it here. Instead, I’ll just mention a couple of things...

First, this flick has hardly any dialogue. What it has is a lot of...narration. Someone keeps narrating the events as they’re happening, including the conversations. Apparently this was either because the original soundtrack was lost and the makers lacked the cash to recreate it in the studio, or else they had no money to record sound in the first place. The same allegedly happened to the monster, which was stolen before filming began and substituted by this...creeping...thing.

In fact, the story of the making of this piece of cinematic gold platinum plutonium Metal X from the Andromeda Galaxy is fascinating in itself. The director, producer and star (all the same guy, one Vic Savage, and that’s a hell of a name) was apparently a con man who sold parts to the actors. They paid to be in this film. I’m not altogether surprised that he skipped town before production wrapped. Are you?

But, again, what’s not to love about this film? Look at what it’s got that you’ll never see anywhere else.

First, the Creeping Terror. Let’s look at it one more time, shall we?

                                                                   Oh the humanity!
 
Then, it’s got lots of screaming hussies (remember this is a film made in 1964, and daring to enjoy yourself by, say, dancing or lying around in a bikini, kissing, made you a hussy) getting eaten.

It’s got an army of precisely six soldiers who pack considerately together so that the Creeping Terror can creep up to them and eat them in a gulp.

It’s got alien spaceship controls marked in English.

It’s got that wonderful, wonderful narration, which often swerves off the storyline into bizarre territory, including a seemingly interminable homily on the benefits of marriage. I kid you not.

Yeah, baby, this movie’s got style. Not what you think when you hear the word style, but, style. The kind of style why it’s officially my best film ever.

Verdict: 10,234,567 stars. Do you hear that, Creeping Terror? I gave you 10,234,567 stars.

Now please don’t eat me.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Why I write


In recent days, I’ve been going through what can be called, most accurately, a crisis of faith.

No, don’t get me wrong on that. I don’t mean I’m getting all religious. Not unless what I’m going to talk about is religion.

Regular readers of my earlier blogs will be aware that I’ve been somewhat...unsettled of late. In my defence I’ll say that I’ve been through a significant amount of emotional turmoil, but I think I’ve pulled out of that flat spin, even if it did require shifting home a good bit. But that alone isn’t the thing.

See here, I am primarily a writer. By that I don’t mean that I’m a writer by profession; as I shall explain in a moment, I have never earned a single royalty cheque in all my years pounding away, first at a typewriter, and then at a computer keyboard (and I’m a self-taught typist who still has to look down at the keys while he’s typing). So, yes, writing for me is probably more of a physical effort than it is for a good many other people. But that’s not what I’m going on about here.

In recent times, quite frankly, I’ve been questioning the entire raison d’ĂȘtre of my writing. I’ve sacrificed a hell of a lot for this, I can tell you quite factually without either whining or being boastful. I have no social life whatsoever. I spend all – quite literally all – of my spare time either reading, or writing, and over time I’ve even begun cutting down on the former in favour of the latter. And what have I actually got out of it, so far?

If I were Yiddish, I’d have the perfect answer: bupkes.

And this is the crisis of faith: my faith in myself.

Once upon a time I used to believe I could make a living writing; that there were publishers just waiting to publish good writing. Because I was naive enough to believe they’d recognise good writing when they saw it, you know? Gah! How stupid could I be? But it was this mistaken belief that drove me on during the year and a bit I took to write my first novel, Rainbow’s End, and it wasn’t until I tried to get it published that I learnt the horrible truth. I’m glad, looking back, that I wasn’t disillusioned early, or I’d never have written another word.

Or, maybe, glad might not be the bon mot.

I’ve frequently wanted to stop writing. I have actually downed fingers on more than one occasion and decided to quit. I couldn’t; any dedicated writer knows the feeling, as of a devil sitting whipping away on one’s back. In recent days, especially, ever since my last novel (Fidayeen, and it’s a good novel, though I do say so) was repeatedly rejected by publishers without even a pretence at a proper consideration, I’ve asked myself again and again whether it’s worth going on.

After all, what have I got out of this? If I don’t write, I feel depressed and anxious, it's true. But if I do write, it’s almost always a hard grind, especially when it’s fiction; the essays usually are easier but the essays aren’t what I really write for, if you know what I’m talking about. Once I finish writing and post the thing, I usually have a few minutes to a few hours of mental satisfaction before I have the same old devil flogging my back, not just to write, but to write better than last time.

In fact, this thing was getting to be a physical, psychological and even a financial drain on me; and I don’t think there will ever be a time when I can break even, financially speaking, so far as writing goes, and goodbye to all those dreams of someday becoming a professional writer. Even though I am in a situation where with a little luck I should, in a few months, acquire a quarterly royalty cheque, I don’t believe it will come close to compensating me for the effort I put into it.

But there are more important things than money, and the most important things, it seems to me now, are the most intangible.

Yesterday, I was on Fakebook and I came across a former fellow student from medical college who’s now a big-shot in a hospital somewhere in the US. He's always in green surgical scrubs and – from the comments – getting a lot of fame, fortune and adulation for his efforts. Well, all the more power to him, but looking at his exhausted, raddled face, and remembering what he was like back then, I wouldn’t have his life for all the fame and fortune he has. No.

Today, he operates on a specimen, and tomorrow, there's another. And in the end, they all go away, grow old, and die. As he will grow old, retire, and die; and, meanwhile, the flow of specimens will go on.

That, ultimately, put the whole thing in perspective for me. I am not famous, or rich, and I will never be famous or rich. I haven’t left my name on the pages of history, and I never will leave my name on the pages of history (and going by those who do leave their names on those pages, I’m happy not to be among their number). But I can leave something that survives me, and if my writing survives me, then I’ll have done something to justify my existence.

And that is why – despite it all – I continue to write.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Creature Feature


You know all those Hollywood Creature Features, of course; the ones where a ludicrous monster begins snacking off unwary tourists, or invades some tiny town out in the US Midwest. They’ve used just about every animal they can think of, including giant rabbits.

I swear that’s true. Giant rabbits. It was called Night of the Lepus. Check it up.

Anyway, I had the perfect Stupid Movie Monster dream: the skeleton of a dinosaur in a museum came to life and began stalking the town. Not the dinosaur, you understand. The skeleton of a dinosaur.

I have a clear memory of the scene; the evening sky, flat fields of grass, and, across the way, near the Museum buildings, the silhouette of the skeleton of the dinosaur, stalking across the landscape, slowly and ponderously as one of those Imperial Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back

                                                                 Also a dinosaur

It was on four legs too; a vegetarian sauropod by the looks and size of it. But since when did people who could make a creature feature on giant rabbits give a damn for biological accuracy? I’m willing to forgive them the sauropod. I'm generous that way.

I do have to wonder at the menace of a creature that could be dismantled by a hungry dog, though, and my dream did feature a Dobermann watching the skeleton and probably looking for a good long gnaw on those huge long bones.

The crowning part, though, the one I couldn't forgive, was that this skeleton was apparently capable of changing size; by the end of the movie/dream, the Monster was chasing the requisite beautiful, blonde, screaming girl, clad in her bra-and-panty ensemble, through an ordinary house. Like the shark in Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, it could fit its size to its prey.

If I were the Monster Hunter, I’d have given it an earthworm to eat, and stamped on it when it had shrunk to the size of a mouse. Crunch!

Now all I have to do is find someone to make this film for me.

Volunteers?  

The Empire's Screwing With My Mind


I’m beginning to think the Empire is out to get me, personally.

I mean, from every possible viewpoint, it seems to me that it’s deliberately screwing with my mind.

Like, look at me. As a far left wing godless atheist commie of no spiritual leanings whatsoever, you’d expect that I’d be naturally anti-Taliban, right? As an author who’s written stories and (if I do say so myself) a damned good play mocking the Taliban, you’d think I’d be anti-Taliban, right?

Right.

Well, just you see what the damned Empire has done to me. I’m beginning to support the Taliban.

                                                                    Oh my badness

Try to understand why I’m saying this. I’m, despite what anyone might think, not exactly a supporter of what’s commonly called “terrorism”; and I have, unlike 99% of the people reading this, actually seen terrorists in action, even interviewed a former terrorist for my first novel. I’ve seen what havoc it can create. But the Empire has screwed up my perceptions so much that I’ve begun to believe that what the Taliban are doing is not terrorism.

Just look at life from the viewpoint of a common Afghan villager.

He’s got a country occupied by a hated foreign army, one whose troops break into his house when they feel like it, abuse his women, kill his sons, and cut off their fingers for trophies.

Flying high over his head, he’s got drones piloted by bored CIA men sitting in safety in their luxurious bunkers in Langley or wherever, drones which can blast him to pieces with a Hellfire missile for the crime of “looking like a possible hostile”, without fear of retribution.

He’s got a government he didn’t choose to be placed over him, a government so corrupt that it ranks as the worst in the world after Somalia, which has no functioning government at all, comprising warlords who can kidnap and rape his daughter if they feel like it, drug barons who build opulent homes on the hillside while his children starve, corrupt contractors who use the money that should go to help him to line their own pockets, CIA stooges who can drag him off to jail and waterboard him because he might know something about the local insurgency, and people who make all of these look almost savoury.

He lives in a country where he doesn’t know what will happen to him and his an hour from now, let alone tomorrow. He lives in a country where everything is corrupt, from the judiciary to the police to the people at the local hospital.

Except whom? Except, you got it, the local village youth whom he’s known all his life, who have now grown beards, put on black turbans, and spend the night hours creepy-crawling the highways shooting up the hated occupier and the hated occupier’s even more hated stooges. Why shouldn’t he support them? In his place, wouldn’t you?

Then, look at the Taliban from a non-ideological viewpoint for the moment. Forget that they are Islamofascist evildoers if you can, and just consider the idea of illiterate villagers in flip flops fighting the world’s strongest ever military to a standstill. How does that make you feel?

I’ll tell you how it makes me feel. Pretty damned good, that’s what.

After all, here we have an Asian force beating the World Hegemon, The Eternal Empire, to a bloody pulp, just as the Vietnamese did back before I was even born. Here we have Asians, like me, and with far less education than me, fighting back against an Empire which (going by its actual actions) thinks Asians, Latin Americans and Africans have no rights or privileges except to be useful vassals of the Empire.

Just look how the Empire reacts when the illicit ethnic-European regime in Jerusalem bombs the bejesus out of Gaza, also known as the world’s largest concentration camp, and tries to starve it to submission. Think of how the Empire coddled the apartheid regime in Pretoria. And then think of how the Empire’s general claims Afghans burn their own children to give the Empire a bad name.

We Asians were meant to be cannon-fodder, just like all the other lesser breeds without the democratic, or in this case Democratic, law. I'm right, aren't I?

But the Taliban – they’ve turned the cannon-fodder to cannon.

Oh, but there’s the other problem. I’m a feminist too, and the Taliban have the horrible anti-woman agenda on, haven’t they? Well, yes, I’m no more a fan of the idea of women being shot between the goalposts during football matches than you are. But at the same time, the other side, the people the Empire supports and coddles, are if anything even worse than the Taliban (who are still ignorant village louts even though the word “talib” means “student”). A Talib who bombs a girl’s school probably knows no better. A Saudi prince who spends his vacations in London but has women arrested for stepping out of doors without a male relative’s written permission or for daring to drive a car has no such excuse.

And I also remember that during the Taliban’s worst repressive times, between 1996 and 1998, they were in the Empire’s good books, just as Saddam Hussein was while he was gassing all those Kurds. When President Najibullah was castrated and hanged by the Taliban, guess which country made a point of not condemning the murder?

Well, yes, I do hate the friggin’ Empire. First they set up the damned bad guys and then they force me to root for them.

The Empire has it in for me, I tell you.

Of Common Clay



The eyes were becoming too prominent in the angular architecture of the face.

The sculptor stood back and considered the bust, and glanced at the model. She stared back at him, bored but too professional to show it except in her eyes. The sculptor didn’t like her in any way, but her face had the sharp angles and prominent planes he wanted; the high cheekbones, the line of the jaw, the slope of the forehead. He sighed to himself; this was one of those which wouldn’t work out. Lately, there seemed to be a lot of those that didn’t work out.

He wiped his hands on the towel and nodded. “Enough for today,” he told her. “I’ll see you the day after tomorrow.” Perhaps, he thought, a new start would give him what he needed.

Shrugging slightly, the model got ready to leave. The sculptor paid her fee, and looked her over again as she quite unself-consciously counted the money.  As always, he tried to see the bones below the skin, because that was how he tried to create the busts and statues he made – from the bones up.

“I’ll see you Friday then,” the model said over her shoulder, and exited into the night.

The sculptor draped a damp cloth over the bust, knowing already that he would have to start over again, and not feeling any particular enthusiasm for the task. Lately, he’d been getting increasingly concerned that he was losing the desire, the burning drive to create something akin to life out of the formless clay. He looked at the line of other, completed busts lined up on his workbench. They were all of young women, and all different; and while making them, he had thought he was doing good work. And, yet, looking at them now, he thought they were all utterly soulless, more like mass-produced factory manufactures than the work of an artist’s hands.

He decided that he needed a break. He would go out on the town tonight, take in the bright lights, and maybe take in a late show at the cinema if there was anything watchable playing. It had been years, he suddenly realised, since he’d gone out purely for pleasure. In fact, pleasure, in either the physical or mental senses of the word, was something he scarcely remembered. He lived alone, had for many years, and had long since – with relief – given up all attempts at forming lasting relationships. As he told himself, it wasn’t in him to devote himself to more than one thing in a lifetime, and he had his art.

Lately, though, it seemed that his art was beginning to desert him.

Dressing, he looked at himself in the mirror. Though he was past fifty, his hair was still thick and his face fresh and unlined. The weariness showed in his eyes, in the wrinkles around them, and the distant stare with which he unconsciously surveyed the world while not actually sculpting. He shook his head. In his own estimation, he could pass for ninety.

“The evening awaits,” he said to himself, with a humourless smile, and walked out to his waiting car.

                                                          **************************

He saw her just before the movie began.

She was standing in line at the counter for a ticket, her face calm and grave, eyes looking off into the distance, expression unreadable. She wasn’t, by any definition of the term, pretty; sturdy-bodied, short, with a broad face and prominent nose and heavy brows. From under her headband, braided hair fell over her denim-clad shoulders. To most people, she would simply have looked like another young woman; not even an attractive young woman. But to the sculptor she wasn’t another woman. In real terms, to him she wasn’t even a woman at all. She was the One he had been looking for.

How long had his quest lasted? From the first time he had ever picked up a dollop of moulding clay in his life, he had been unconsciously searching for the perfect one, the one who could be the distillation of his art, the culmination of all his efforts. He had searched, and over the years, as he had honed his skills, he had almost forgotten the search, slipping slowly into the not-quite-best that still brought him, if not quite fame and fortune, an appreciable amount of money and some name recognition. Over the years, in fact, the idea that there might be the perfect subject had vanished from his conscious mind. And yet, there she was.

In the moments left to him before she entered the darkened hall, the sculptor drank her in with his eyes. Everything about her was perfect; the set of her ears, the heavy jut of her jaw, it was all there, perfect. This would be his masterpiece. No matter if the world never recognised it; it would be for himself alone.

He scarcely noticed the movie; later he didn’t even remember what had been playing. He had guessed where she must be sitting, a few rows ahead of him, and his entire attention was on that part of the theatre, as though he could burn the darkness away. He envisioned the braids falling like snakes on her shoulders, and how he would sculpt them from the clay, how he would recreate, with infinite detail, the heavy lashes that fringed her eyes. She was dark, and he would fire the clay to give that impression of darkness. His heart was thrumming with excitement.

The only problem was – how would he get her to sit for him?

She wasn’t a model; he had a long experience of them, and knew instinctively that not only was she not a model, the idea of modelling had never occurred to her and would almost certainly be rejected by her outright. Besides, he didn’t want to see her as a model; he wanted to see her as a human, living, breathing, emoting, not posing. Posing would destroy all that made her special.

By the time the movie ended and the lights came on, he knew that he was obsessed.

                                                     ********************************

Rose came out of the cinema hall feeling not particularly satisfied.

It had not been a bad movie – she acknowledged that – but it had been far less than what she’d expected from the glowing reviews she’d read, even though she automatically excluded ninety percent of all that as hyperbole. She’d watched the film with professional interest, because she was studying film making and because she had an interest in the subject matter, and had concluded that she could have – even though she was still only a student – done a far better job herself, with a lighter touch and a great deal more humour. It wasn’t conceit, she knew, it was only fact, and in the discussion of the movie she’d be writing for the class project, she would clearly describe the flaws she had noticed and how she would have done it.

Before heading off to the parking lot, she bought herself a cup of cappuccino at the stall in the lobby of the movie theatre. It was exorbitantly expensive, but she decided she needed it. It had been a long day, and it wasn’t over yet. Besides, she wanted to let the crowd clear first. She detested crowds.

Afterwards, stopping briefly on the way to the car, she lit a cigarette. She’d begun to dislike the habit acutely, but couldn’t make herself stop. Either she’d have to kill the fags or the fags would kill her – but not yet; not tonight. Tonight she could still drag the harsh smoke of cremated tobacco into her lungs and she wouldn’t die of it.

The parking lot was empty but for a few vehicles probably belonging to the staff of the theatre; it was almost midnight now, and they’d be closing down. She’d successfully avoided the crowd. Her car, which had been hemmed in by other vehicles earlier, now stood all by itself, a dark blob in the shadow of a huge leafy tree. She thought wryly that the birds in the branches had probably been relieving themselves on it.

Squinting through the puff of blue smoke, she noticed a man watching her. She thought she’d seen him earlier, at the coffee stall, too, He was middle-aged, quite distinguished-looking, and somehow familiar. She may have seen his picture somewhere, on TV or in the papers. He didn’t seem threatening in any way, and the only reason she even noticed him was that he was quite unmistakably looking at her. She glanced over her shoulder – no, she was alone, and he was looking at her and no one else. This was unusual for Rose, who had no illusions about her own appearance, especially when there were a hundred other women, pretty ones, all around for men to ogle.

With a mix of mild curiosity and amusement, she watched the man take half a step towards her, and then step back again, a telltale twitch of indecision in his hands. She wondered what he wanted and briefly considered waiting to hear him out. But she hadn’t the time, and was tired, and when she got back to the flat she shared with two other girls, the place she called “home”, she still had to transcribe her observations about the film while they were fresh in her mind.

No, she had no time to spare for some random man who might well be some kind of creep who got off on ugly women.

With a final look at the man over her shoulder, she turned away to her car.

As she drove away, she checked in the rear view mirror.

He was still watching her.

                                                                 ***************************

Over the next few days she began to see him everywhere. She would come out of her class, and before heading home would head for the grocery, and there he would be. Or she would decide on a night out with her friends, a rarity as far as she was concerned, and somehow he would be there, on the far side of the restaurant, always watching. At times she wondered whether she was somehow losing her mind, imagining that several different men were the same. But that particular worry was laid to rest when her roommate asked her who the old guy was who’d been hanging around each time they went out these days.

Every time, he just watched her. After the first night he never even showed any signs of wanting to approach her again, directly, but he was always there, with an avid gleam in his eyes. Slowly, he began edging closer and closer; at first he would be right across the cafe or grocery store, but by the end of the week he would be sitting at the next table. Always watching.

She began to dread the prospect of seeing him. Each time she went out, her eyes would rove around, and seek him. It became so bad that by the end of the second week she could only relax once she saw him; until then she would be tense, dreading his appearance. And still she couldn’t do a thing, because he had never even spoken to her, or approached her, or done anything at all that anyone could call illegal.

He was just always there.

She even began to dream about him. In the midst of trees swaying in a gale force wind, with shadows whipping back and forth as though the moonlight was being whirled about, he would be there, standing outside her bedroom window, staring. Sometimes she dreamt that she would go to him, walk up to him and demand who he was; but he always melted away when she opened her mouth. And, when she thought of doing it in real life, she could never, for some reason, summon the nerve.

One night she went for a drive, out on the highway where the road was straight and empty, jamming the accelerator down until the trees and lights blurred, until she grew dizzy with her own speed and finally slowed to a stop before she could lose control and crash in a heap of mangled metal and broken flesh. She sat there in the car, just leaning back, breathing, her eyes closed while she waited for her pulse to return to normal. And when she turned on the engine and opened her eyes, right in front of the car, in the beam of the headlights, there he was. Staring at her, his eyes black in his white face, his hands hanging limp by his thighs. Just staring.

Later she even tried to rationalise what she did in the next moment, but failed, except to tell herself she’d gone momentarily crazy. Her foot slammed down on the accelerator as she jammed the gearshift into first, and the car leaped towards the figure in the headlights, engine howling.

He didn’t even try to get out of the way. There was an explosion of noise and pain, and everything went dark.

                                                    *****************************

Just sit and talk about whatever interests you,” the sculptor said.

Rose looked around the studio, moving her head carefully. Even now, almost two months after the accident, her neck hurt. She’d grown weary of being told she was incredibly lucky not to have broken it.

“You’re good,” she acknowledged. “I remember now where I’ve seen you before; I mean before this. You had your picture in the paper a while back.”

“Yes, they did a feature on me.” The sculptor’s fingers, long, tapered and delicate, worked at the clay. “I’d like to apologise...again...for scaring you like that. I never knew you’d be so disturbed.”

Rose laughed, her voice still a little shaky. “If you hadn’t actually been there that night when I crashed, I’d have died. I ought to be more thankful than I am.”

“It was just luck that I happened to be there. I was hoping to see you, but you’d driven off too fast for me to follow. I saw your wrecked car...” He bent close over the sculpture, a knife in his hand, shaping the clay. “I didn’t know it was you until I looked in the window. I’d already phoned the police by then.”

“Should I hold still?”

“No, keep moving and talking as you want. There’s a dynamic quality about you that I’ve wanted since the first time I saw you. What was the reason behind the accident? I never asked you. Did you lose control?”

“You might call it that.” Even now, she wasn’t ready to talk about the hallucination in the headlights. “I don’t remember much about it.”

“Thanks,” he said when he’d finished for the evening. “A couple more sessions and it will be done. Thank you very much.”

“I wish I could say the pleasure’s mine,” she told him, smiling slightly. “But, I just owe you.”

He smiled back at her. “I know.”

                                                 ********************************

Once she had gone, the sculptor sighed and massaged his aching shoulders and neck. He had not yet fully recovered from the days and weeks of sleeplessness and starvation when he’d followed her about, watched every move of hers he could, and tried to commit them to memory. Those nights, he’d stayed up till the early hours of the morning, making effort after effort to commit the tilt of the head, the rise of the eyebrow, to clay – and failed. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d destroyed the work, and begun over again.

At last, driven to the edge of endurance, he’d known that if he had to wait any longer he’d break. He didn’t know what form the breakdown would take, but was terrified that it would include violence; that he would destroy the very thing he was seeking. He’d begun to have fantasies of kidnapping her, tying her to a chair and sculpting her, and these fantasies frightened him most of all.

Finally, gaunt and hollow-eyed, he’d given in and gone to the old woman. He’d known all about the stories that went around about her, and – unlike most people who heard those stories and passed them on, embellished – he knew something of the truth, from certain things that had happened many years ago. And it was because he knew the truth that he hesitated until he could no more, before he went to her.

The old woman lived in a small house in the oldest part of town, hiding behind a high hedge and a weed-choked garden. It seemed to the sculptor that neither the hedge nor the garden, nor, indeed, the house ever changed, down to the rainwater stains on the windowpanes. It had been just like this when he had come here, desperate, twenty years ago.

She’d known him at once, without him even needing to identify himself. She’d looked the same too, the years seeming to have had no effect on her at all. She’d stared at him expressionlessly as he’d explained what he wanted.

“This is what you want? You’re sure?”

“I am,” he’d confirmed.

“This is an unusual request,” she’d said, her eyes boring into his. “Most men would want the woman herself. I’ve never come across this particular desire before.”

“But you can fulfil it?” he’d asked, anxiously.

“I can. It will cost you, though. And it involves risk.”

“Risk? The money is not important...but what risk?”

“I can arrange it so you will have an opportunity to get what you want from her. But it will be a fleeting opportunity, and once only will it come. If you miss it, you will lose her forever.”

“I will keep a close watch on her.”

“Good,” she’d replied. “She will be yours. But there will be blood, and pain, and fear.”

And so it had turned out, in the end.

He never knew what she’d done, in that tiny house with the heavy wooden beams and the small grimy windows that hardly let in any light. She’d taken his money – up front – and shooed him away. The night after that he’d found the crashed car, and there had been blood, all over the dashboard and the seats. And, oh yes, there had been the pain, when she’d begun gaining consciousness. He’d heard her whimpering, too hurt even to scream, as they had loaded her into the ambulance.

But the fear – the fear of losing her, that had been his own. He still remembered that terror, when he cared to think of it, and how he’d turned into a kind of ghost haunting the hospital, waiting for word of how she was doing. Over and over, he’d decided he’d lost her for good.

But he hadn’t lost her. No.

Before he put the wet cloth over the bust, he looked it over. It was, quite without a doubt, going to be all he’d expected. It would surpass, in every sense, anything he had done before. The brows, the nose, the jaw, the braids falling over her shoulders; they were all as he’d visualised them. Nothing he’d ever done before came close to this; nothing he’d ever seen anywhere came close to it.

The rest was statuary, he thought, but this was life.

Two more sessions, and the sculpting should be over, and he’d be able to fire it.

He knew, now, that he would never be able to make anything again after this one. Nor would he ever show it, or sell it. He had given it all he had, and once it was over, there was nothing more.

All for art, he thought, and smiled. If there had been anyone to see it, they would not have thought it a pleasant smile.

Draping the wet cloth back over the bust, he left the studio for the night.




Copyright B. Purkayastha 2011


Wednesday, 25 May 2011

On the Care and Feeding of Zombies



Dear Customer

Congratulations on your decision to acquire an Undead TM zombie. We feel confident that your genuine Undead TM zombie will give you many years of excellent service and you will feel completely satisfied with your purchase.

However, before you begin utilising the services of your Undead TM zombie, there are some things you need to know, in order to avoid danger to yourself and your family, and damage to your newly acquired property.

Before you unpack your zombie from its travelling crate and confine it in its holding cage, therefore, please read these instructions carefully and follow them exactly. While your Undead TM zombie is guaranteed against manufacturing defects, failure to follow these instructions will render the guarantee null and void.

The first thing to remember is that your Undead TM zombie is a delicate piece of work created to a very high standard. Unlike zombies supplied by our competitors, it is built to a standardised design, and comes with features designed to ensure your safety and the zombie’s own longevity. These features are common to all Undead TM zombies, of all classes and models, and are regularly updated to ensure your security. You are strongly urged to avail of our economical Update Package, with six-monthly servicing, repair and upgrades of your Undead TM zombie to keep it at the state of the art. For details please see our website

For the particular additional features unique to your particular class and model of Undead TM zombie, please see the Features section of the Handbook. This section is devoted to basic upkeep and maintenance.

To return to the point, your Undead TM zombie has been created in accordance with the very highest standards, and requires adequate care to be able to give the best satisfaction. It is not a crude basic model, like those advertised by our competitors, still less one of those brought into being by one of the illicit DIY kits available online and through certain channels. Your Undead TM zombie is like a piece of highly tuned, immaculate machinery, and requires you to keep it in good working order.

At all times, keep in mind the fact that your own safety is of the utmost importance. Before your purchase was authorised and you were issued a permit, you will have had to undergo a Zombie Handling Course, during which you will have been trained in the techniques of using a zombie in the average domestic situation. However, the salient points bear repeating, and with particular modifications as they apply to your Undead TM zombie.

The first thing you need to remember is that your Undead TM zombie is not a toy or a household pet. It is a domestic and personal security device, created out of a cadaver secured for the purpose, and potentially extremely dangerous to yourself and the rest of your family. The procedure for manufacturing an Undead TM zombie involves introducing millions of self-replicating nanobots into its system, which animate and control it according to programmes pre-installed in their collective memory. These nanobots are programmed, among other things, to look after their own survival and propagation, and they can detect the electromagnetic field of other nanobots. This need inherent in the nanobots to propagate themselves causes the Undead TM zombie to have an uncontrollable desire to bite and claw anyone its senses do not recognise as a fellow nanobot carrier.

[Note: For this reason, the classic Living Dead movie act of destroying a zombie’s brain has no effect at slowing down a Undead TM zombie. The nanobots infest the entire nervous system of the Undead TM zombie, inhabiting every nerve synapse, and even an amputated limb will continue to make all efforts to claw at any unprotected human who comes within range. This is one of the features which contribute so highly to the longevity and utility of your Undead TM zombie and make it so cost-effective. Also note that by international law, these nanobots have been rendered incapable of tertiary infestation, meaning that while they can and will turn anyone bitten by your Undead TM zombie into a zombie, anyone further bitten by that zombie will not receive viable nanobots in their system.]

As part of the procedure for issuing your permit to own a zombie, you and your family will have been asked to submit blood samples for a DNA profile. Undead Industries® have programmed the nanobots that inhabit your Undead TM zombie to recognise your family’s particular DNA code as other nanobots. Accordingly, as far as direct attack and resultant infection is concerned, you and your family are safe, but in a crisis situation, as when the house is under attack by armed robbers, the Undead TM zombie may have to act faster than its sensors can process information. Also, friends of the family or non-blood relatives are not recognised by the Undead TM zombie and they are liable to be attacked. This is an especial hazard where there are young children of the family with friends who might drop in unannounced, their presence unknown to and unsuspected by the adults. Accordingly, please ensure that you keep the Undead TM zombie caged at all times except when it may need to be used.

In your own best interests, keep your Undead TM zombie caged safely away.

Also, please remember the signal fact that your Undead TM zombie is not a robot or a cyborg. It is a human corpse, albeit one which has been embalmed and treated with reagents which will very considerably slow down the process of decomposition. However, decomposition cannot be completely halted, and this is one reason why Undead Industries® urges you to avail of the company’s semi-annual servicing and maintenance facility, available at a nominal cost, with or without the recommended Upgrade Package. For details please see our website.

Because of this tendency to decompose, your Undead TM zombie’s holding cage is refrigerated. Please refer to the relevant section of the Handbook for instructions on the maintenance of the holding cage; all that will be mentioned in this section is that the long-lasting power pack for the cage is non-rechargable, but replacements are available from the company’s website at standard rates, and that power packs manufactured by other companies are not compatible with cages manufactured by Undead Industries®. Again, in your Undead TM zombie’s best interests, it is advisable to keep it in its cage at all times except when it actually needs to be used.

Next, your Undead TM zombie is capable of responding to a limited series of voice commands. Which particular commands it is capable of understanding depends on the particular class and model you have purchased, from approximately fifty for a Basic Class One model to upwards of four hundred for the De Luxe Class Platinum version. The Undead TM zombie is programmed to recognise and imprint on authorised voices as part of its security features. You will, therefore, have to practice these commands along with you family members while the Undead TM zombie is present, so that it can imprint on your voice and respond only to commands issued by authorised family members.

The next point to remember is that you have been provided a set of zombie handling tools and instructed in their use. These tools are meant to secure and immobilise your zombie for routine bathing and cleaning, for which, also, tools have been provided. Failure to bathe your zombie at least once and preferably twice weekly with soap and warm water, followed by a rubdown with Eternal Life TM scrubbing liquid (available at a nominal rate from our website) may allow flies to lay eggs in its body orifices, and cause significant and possibly irreparable damage from maggot infestation. Please make sure that you, therefore, bathe your Undead TM zombie accordingly and keep it clean.

Then, it is important to remember that the zombie is not a sex toy. Cases have been recorded where certain individuals have taken it on themselves to have sexual relations with zombies. It is true that the process of zombification causes a state of permanent erection in male zombies and of nipple hardening and vaginal lubrication in female zombies, which gives out a false appearance of sexual interest and availability. Also, it is true that zombies are always completely nude because they cannot be kept adequately clean if wearing clothing. Neither of these facts, however, allows for zombie sex.

Although the Undead TM zombie’s nanobots will regard family members as fellow zombies and therefore not attempt to infect them, unprotected sexual intercourse with it has an extremely high chance of passing on the nanobot, and protection has a high chance of failure since the zombie is, of course, not alive and unable to cooperate in any way. To summarise: please use a proper sex toy or have intercourse with a living and willing partner. Do not have sexual relations with your zombie. Please. On top of everything else, it’s disgusting.

The next point is that your Undead TM zombie needs an energy source, meaning food. The inferior zombies produced by our competitors can be fed raw meat, but the uncertain composition of this material can cause digestive upsets and nutritional failures in the zombie. This is why all classes and models of zombies produced by Undead Industries® are genetically modified to be capable of consuming only special sterilised food materials produced by the company, of which you have been supplied a starter pack. Further details on Zombie Royal TM and Zombie Excelsior TM including composition, prices and packaging are available on our website.

Remember: please do not feed your Undead TM zombie meat, kitchen scraps, dead rats, captured enemies, or any other food substitute. It will not be able to digest them.

Most important: Failure to follow any one of these instructions will result in the voiding of our guarantee to you, and the company will consider itself not responsible for any consequences suffered as a result of this failure. 

Now, despite all precautions, it is possible that at some time your zombie may get out of control. If such a thing happens, for reasons mentioned above, your attempts to destroy the zombie will not be successful and may actually be dangerous, because zombie body fluids are laden with nanobots and a splash of said fluids on a mucous membrane or open wound may be lethal. Also, do not attempt to burn the zombie down, because its body is treated to be, among other things, fire-resistant, to guard against incendiary attacks by would-be miscreants; you may endanger your home or hearth but will not endanger the zombie. Instead, please contact the company immediately on the emergency number mentioned on the front cover of the Handbook, and a specialist squad will be dispatched to your address to take care of the problem.

Note: Undead Industries® offers a range of insurance policies to guard against the financial consequences of any zombie mishap. Please check the relevant section of our website for details.

A final point: your Undead TM zombie is meant to look intimidating and dangerous, to strike fear in the hearts of malefactors and evildoers. It is not meant to resemble a friendly butler, maid, or supermodel. Accordingly, attempts to apply make-up or other similar agents are strongly discouraged.

Warning: Your Undead TM zombie has specifically been programmed to regard lipstick and rouge as a threat and respond accordingly.

For further queries on any point not mentioned here, please contact Undead Industries® either by email or call the hotline mentioned on the back cover of the Handbook.

Operators should, in the absence of emergencies, be standing by.