Monday, 6 July 2015

Apoemalypse. Armversegeddon. Three Poems About the Apocalypse.

Today we've got another taster in the run up to the Apocalypse track at Nine Worlds Geekfest. This time, a series of apocalyptic poems by Matt Wieteska. Matt is one of the writers behind, among other things, Zombies, Run!, an app that takes your regular morning jog and turns into a harrowing dash for survival. Matt is going to be at Nine Worlds this year talking to us about zombies and apocalypse survival. Come see him at our Zombie Breakfast and Ragnarok sessions!

we were in the library
when the warning came,
push notifications
and staccatto vibrations
crying out table to table

it took us a moment to believe it
still whispering, despite our panic, because
there are some rules you just can't break
and by the time we'd donned our coats
and made our way outside
we only had
five minutes left

and you asked me what I wanted to do
with the last five minutes of daylight
and though other couples did;
madly against trees and walls and even on the swing-set;
that wasn't how we were anymore

so we walked up the hill a little way
to the bench we used to sit on,
always keeping our eyes to the heavens
so as not to squander anything

and we stood there
our dirty feet on the wood

at the last minute you took my hand

the past didn't matter any more

we were watching the last of it pass towards us
through boundless space
and all we had left was the absolution of the future
which waited in the coming cold


it's probably more than most new couples get.
the shared knowledge of an unique experience.

so I suppose we're lucky
to know these subterranean walls
the time-locked doors
these panels of controls
which we hope to never use:
the furniture of our days

and the phone
which never rings

until it does
and we share that moment of disbelief
at what we're told to do

but we're well trained
and our reflexes take over.

yes, we're a perfect pair
we who have know
the wait and the authorisation codes
the recycled air and the fact that
This Is Not A Drill

except for the language barrier.
I never could read cyrillic,
and I suppose you made the first move.
but that's ok, I'm a modern guy.

the etiquette is different now
and we don't need to share an alphabet
to understand the messages we've launched
across continents
which will be known only by their effects.


the problem with it is
that by the time you recognise the signs
it's already fatal

increased body temperature
heightened pulse
a certain nervousness

there's been no cure yet found,
and the number of cases rises every second
the contagion requires barely a touch to spread

sometimes even a glance will do it
or a word out of place
you know how it is - once these things get under your skin
there's no getting rid of them

the second stage is characterised by a kind of delirium
words fail to be processed properly
and the tiniest symbols acquire supernatural importance

experts from the C.D.C estimate that in two weeks
the infection rate will be 90%
at that point it's just a matter of time

there's little that can be done now
except wait for the end
mercifully it's a quiet death

the mind fills with one object
physical needs are ignored
in favour of

the flashing of your eyes
the quiet moments before dawn

and the silence in your smile

Friday, 3 July 2015


It’s hot. Skin meltingly, eye-searingly, hot. While all sane people are moaning about this and complaining that they have to do anything except lie naked in a bath full of ice, there’s always a few smug people who say “It’s nice to get a bit of sun! It’s no big deal! It’s not the end of the world!” These people somehow think that being soaked in the radiation of a gigantic ball of nuclear fire is somehow okay just because it’s there every day. Well those sun drenched fools are wrong, and these stories prove it!
This story about a mad missionary walking a post-apocalyptic Earth takes place in a world where the sun has expanded and the planet has been singed to a crisp. Cities have burned and the seas have boiled away, while survivors scrabble about on the dusty ocean floor. The only greenery to be found here is at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.
The Midnight Sun
One of the bleakest episodes of The Twilight Zone (a series not afraid of going extremely bleak when it’s in the mood). The Earth has come off its axis and is drifting closer and closer towards the sun, resulting in a deadly heat for the people that live there.
There’s no adventure here, no hope, just a woman alone in a flat while the world melts around her. You can probably relate.
Doctor Who
The world has ended twice in Doctor Who, and both times it was for the same reason. The first time is in The Ark, in which the TARDIS lands on a generation ship fleeing an Earth that is falling into the sun, and the second time is in The End of the World, when the sun finally expands and blows the Earth to smithereens.
Even before then though, the sun has had it in for the planet. The Ark in Space (not to be confused with The Ark), The Sontaran Experiment and much later, The Beast Below, all depict a future where mankind has had to flee the planet to avoid solar flares.
In this 1961 movie it’s a nuclear blast that sends us hurtling towards the fun, with orange infused footage going somewhere to make the film feel as hot and sweaty as, y’know, reality is right now. It being the sixties they decide that the solution to the problems created by all these nuclear bombs is more nuclear bombs, but by the end of the film we never find out if the Earth is saved or doomed (although it has to be said, very few storytellers leave the ending ambiguous when they intended for something really good to have happened).
A film I originally only knew about thanks to a trailer on the Super Mario Bros. VHS that I owned, because I liked the film. There, I said it. The plan is pretty much identical to that of Sunshine (which doesn’t make the list because the sun is going cold in that one) – go to the sun and drop enough nukes on it that a solar flare will point away from the planet.
I’ve not seen this yet, but one day I plan to make it part of a Nicholas Cage apocalyptic double bill with Left Behind. A kid can predict the future. The future is a solar flare going to roast the planet. That’s all I know about this one. I bet Nicholas Cage is great in it though.

Chris Farnell is the author of Dirty Work and Mark II. He is writing this blog as a terribly exploitative way of drawing your attention to the newly released timetable for the Apocalypse track at this year’s Nine Worlds Geekfest, where there will be panels discussing post-apocalyptic survival, zombies, and how useful our stories are going to be when an actual apocalypse hits. Come along and bring plenty of sun cream. 

Friday, 13 March 2015

Terry Pratchett on the Apocalypse

"Not an apocalypse. There had always been plenty of those - small apocalypses, not the full shilling at all, fake apocalypses: apocryphal apocalypses. Most of them had been back in the old days, when the world as in 'end of the world' was often objectively no wider than a few villages and a clearing in the forest.

And those little worlds had ended. But there had always been somewhere else. There had been the horizon, to start with. The fleeing refugees would find that the world was bigger than they'd thought. A few villages in a clearing? Hah, how could they have been so stupid! Now they knew it was a whole island! Of course, there was that horizon again..."

Terry Pratchett - The Thief of Time

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Moving Home

Regular readers of the blog will notice it hasn't been properly updated in, well, a long time. Work's overtaken it somewhat, and I've been getting involved in other things. To keep track of what I'm up to these days, please check out the new official Chris Farnell site for information on my latest projects, as well as regular begging for work.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

5 Green Films That Undermine Their Own Message

The environment is important kids, we need it t live and junk. Film makers for the last couple of decades have been super keen to teach kids the importance of looking after the environment, apparently missing the fact that all their children are going to hear is “Because Mummy and Daddy drive cars, you and all the whales are going to die!”

What’s worse however, is that most of these films, one way or another, end up undermining the very message they’re trying to spread.


Photo Credit: Ben K Adams via Compfight cc

This is my personal favourite on this list, mainly because, like most Pixar films, I can’t sit through it without bursting into tears like some sort of baby. The film opens on possibly one of the most kid friendly apocalypses you can imagine. No seas of acid, no global warming, no meteorites or super strong rabies variants. Nope, this is the trashpocalypse. The Earth came to a halt because there was too much littering.

This is fine if you’re a kid, as “not littering” is something you can realistically contribute to, unlike global warming, which you just have to watch in despair as your mum drives you to school in a 4x4.

The Day After Tomorrow

This film is basically Independence Day but with the gigantic alien spaceships being replaced with really bad weather. At the start we see the noble Dennis Quaid scientist desperately trying to persuade the evil politicians to sign Kyoto and not kill us all. They don’t and we all die.

Unfortunately, any moral you might have gleaned from this film is spoiled by the fact that the science is terrible. There are scenes where see people literally run away from the cold and escape from it by shutting a door just in time. In one seen we see a cold breeze literally freeze an American flag in mid flight, ignoring the fact that to do that the flag would have to be so damp it would be unable to fly anyway.

Fern Gulley: The Last Rainforest

Not to be confused with Gurn Fully, the tale of a man who pulls funny faces, then is forced to find his way to the home of the wind gods with his tongue hanging out after his face gets stuck that way. Also not to be confused with the film Avatar, which ripped this film off so hard it really is amazing that the Robin Williams bat didn’t sue James Cameron.

The message of the film amounts to “cutting down the Rainforest is bad”. The message stumbles a little bit though, since it turns out the creatures of the rainforest have the power to reduce a human being to the size of an insect at will.

Faced with power like that, you can forget chopping down the rainforest. We should nuke it from orbit just to be sure.

Free Willy

Free Willy is a touching story about the importance of looking after wild life and protecting the world around us. It shows us that keeping a whale in captivity is wrong and that it should be released into the wild where it can run (or swim) free.

Of course, this is slightly undermined in two ways. Firstly, not a single kid saw that film and came away not wanting their very own trained killer whale. Two, Willy, with his damaged dorsal fin and psychological damage from years in captivity, would almost certainly die when he reached the ocean.

The Simpsons Movie

Back when it was good the Simpsons often dealt with environmental themes, and continued to do so long after the show stopped ever being funny. The cartoon saw a brief return to form for The Simpsons Movie, where the town of Springfield’s constant pollution lead to the evil, maniacal head of the EPA isolating the entire town under a glass dome in a way that bore no resemblance to the Stephen King book “The Dome” that came out shortly afterwards.

We see that our careless, selfish attitude to the environment utterly destroys it, hence the giant glass dome. Except that at the end of the film the dome is destroyed and everything goes exactly back to normal. Like, exactly back to normal. Nothing is done about the deadly nuclear power plant or the heaps of toxic waste being dumped in the lake. It’s forgotten about.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

#52 Bioshock Infinite: In Defence of the Violence in Bioshock Infinite

Last night I finished Bioshock Infinite. Then I went and ate a pizza and had a long sit down because frankly, I was over-stimulated like an angry toddler and needed to calm down before nap-time.

Oh, and after the very next line break I am going to start raining down a hellfire of spoilers which you do not want to read unless you’ve played the game yet. Seriously, this is a great game but it’s also a game you don’t want to have spoiled, so off you fuck. Oh, and for good measure I’m probably going to spoil the movie Trance, although to be honest that’s less of a tragedy.

Bye bye.

Okay, is everybody left? Yeah? That guy at the back? Are you cool? Good, I thought you were but I just wanted to check.

Spoilers start here.

I really hope we can be done with the tired old “Are videogames art?” thing now. This week I enjoyed two pieces of media content that dealt with the unreliability of your own memories and ended with a gigantic mind fuck where someone’s memories weren’t what they thought they were and the hero of your story turned out to be something else entirely. One was Trance, which stayed with me the entire length of the walk from my seat in the cinema to the first set of traffic lights I passed on my way home, where I parted ways with the friends I’d been seeing it with. The other was Bioshock Infinite, which I can already tell is going to stay with me for a good while longer. Does it affect you as much as say, the Mona Lisa, Mice and Men, or Citizen Kane? Well I don’t know how much any of those three things affected you, it turns out that stuff’s subjective, but if you can technically describe Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo as art, then this game passes all the tests by a mile.

But I’m not writing this to add to the white water rapids of gushing reviews that have already been written about Bioshock Infinite, if you’re reading this I assume you’ve played the game, so you know it’s good.

No, I wrote this to talk of one of the few criticisms about the game that have come about (always prefaced by more gushing about what a great game it is). Some have been saying that the game is too violent, and this time it’s not Keith Vaz or Tipper Gore. It’s Kirk Hamilton and Kotaku, and Cliff Bleszinski, one of the videogame designers behind Gears of War who happily describes himself as “the guy that brought you a chainsaw gun”. The argument that both people make is that Bioshock Infinite is such a masterpiece of world building, story and character that it detracts from that to have spend so much of the game slamming a set of spinning fishhooks into people’s faces and proving right PC Danny Butterman’s theory that there's a point on a man's head where if you shoot it, it will blow up.

I empathise. When I first sat down to play the game last week, after a while I tweeted this:
And the fact that gamers and game designers are asking these questions and expecting more from games is a good thing, and I hope that the nuanced, character-driven game that uses mechanics other than violence to move the plot forward comes along soon – assuming you believe we don’t already have it in games like Grim Fandango, or Portal, or Fallout 3 which I played through mostly by talking my way out of problems or running away (although personally, while these are all great games none of them quite delivered the gut punches that Bioshock Infinite was dolling out).

However, on this one case I believe they’re wrong, that the violence in Bioshock Infinite is a core part of the story, not just an add-on that’s there because you need shooting to break up the plot.

Yes, if this development of this game was anything like the last one, the fact that it was a shooter probably came before the plot about sky racists, time travel and dimension hopping. The original Bioshock was set on a tropical island full of genetically modified Nazis before it was set in Ayn Rand’s extremely wet dream (do you see what I did there?), and a lot of the gameplay mechanics had been nailed down long before there was a story. However, the story they ended up with in Bioshock Infinite was a story that embraced the fact it was built around a violent gameplay mechanic.

I’ve talked before about how zombie movies aren’t just violent, they’re about violence, and to certain extent the same is true here. When Booker and Elizabeth walk into a ticket office, only for Booker to end up murdering everybody in there, Elizabeth is terrified and disgusted. Throughout the game we are given reminders of the terrible things that Booker has done, at the battle of Wounded Knee and as a Pinkerton. We see Elizabeth go from being horrified at the violence Booker commits, to accepting it as a necessary evil, to performing her first murder and eventually leading a brutal attack on the city of New York.

By the end of the game we discover that everything that happens, from Elizabeth’s imprisonment to the city of Columbia itself are all consequences of Booker’s attempts to escape his violent past. In one world he escapes it by drinking too much and getting into gambling debts, in another world he does it by becoming born again as Zachary Comstock, and building a floating city capable of an even greater scale of violence and genocide.

Which is all very well, but that’s back story. Why does Booker have to be ‘sploding heads left right and centre in game?

Because, while in films and books the rule is always “Show don’t tell” in games you learn by doing. In the original Bioshock the fact that you’re a brainwashed slave has emotional punch because you realise that it’s you who has been blindly following instructions since the game started. When you arrive at the scene of Booker/Zachary’s baptism at the end of the game, you don’t need to be told that it all seems weirdly familiar, because you’re already getting déjà vu from the baptism at the beginning of the game.

So if you’re playing a violent character it’s not enough to know that he did violent things, you need to see that violence, and perform that violence yourself, and see how others react to it. When you discover that in another life your character razes cities to the ground, it’s made more believable knowing the trail of bodies that brought you to that point.

There are some great stories that can be told with games that don’t need any violence at all. But this story was about a violent man, and it’s no worse for it.

Monday, 4 March 2013

How I Got Published

So Chuck Wendig’s written a piece about all the misinformation about the publishing industry, and asking writers to use the mighty power of anecdote to shed some light on the process and get rid of any conspiracy theories. I wrote a comment, it turned into a long comment, and eventually it turned into the definitive story of how Mark II got published. Not written, Christ I’m still not sure how you write a publishable book, but this is how it got published, and I think it’s probably a pretty good template to work to. So I’m sticking this up here as a link to refer to so I don’t have to repeat myself again.

Mark II got published by Tindal Street Press in 2006. It was, I believe, the third book-length piece of fiction I had written and attempted to submit to agents, so by that time I was intimately familiar with the cycle of submission and rejection letters – my favourite remains a standard form letter I got when I was 15 that someone had scribbled “Stick at it!” across.

I wrote a book. I redrafted the book. I got some friends who I trusted to read it and tell me which bits were crap, then I redrafted it again. Then I paid my sister and her friends £20 to go through looking for typos, because she was 15 and I didn't have any scruples about child labour when it came to siblings. Then I went through it one more time to polish it.

This wasn't the first book I'd gone through this process with, and I already had (and still have) a nice thick folder full of rejection letters. This time I decided, rather than spending a small fortune on printing and postage (Again, this was 2004/2005, and no literary agent worth their salt would dream of accepting email submissions in those days) I decided to send out a bunch of query letters. I found my agents by going through the Writers’ and Artists’ year book with an orange highlighter, marking out anyone who didn’t explicitly say they hated teenage or science fiction.

The query letter consisted of three things: That I was 19 years old and was taking the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia (a prestigious course, although I’ve no idea how much this helped- the agent that eventually accepted me didn’t know I was taking the course when we met), a short sentence describing my book, and a further sentence explaining why I was interested in that agent, customised for each letter to prevent it sounding like a mass mailing (which it was).

I sent off 28 query letters and kept a spreadsheet of the results. I still have that spreadsheet. I don’t know exactly how many of those agents asked to see the manuscript, but I remember it was the majority which meant that I could include a cover letter that said “as requested, here is my synopsis and first three chapters...”

I do know that out of that 28, 5 never responded, I eventually received 13 rejection letters, although most of them chose to read the book first. 7 requested that I send them a synopsis and first three chapters, and then I never heard from them again.

The one agency replied to me query letter asking to see the whole manuscript (I expect it was a screw up on an interns part, as traditionally they look for 3 chapters and a synopsis, as does everyone). This was the agency that eventually called me up asking me to come and visit, and who eventually agreed to represent the book. I suspect (though don’t know for certain) the reason was a combination of genuine enthusiasm for the book, the passing resemblance its tone had to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and that they also had Never Let Me Go on their books and thought cloning was going to be big that publishing year.

From there we went through the whole cycle again, they approached numerous publishers, many of whom had nice things to say about the book, some recommending we target YA publishers. Eventually one publisher, Tindal Street Press took us on. Shortly afterwards it was also sold to Fazi Editore in Italy, and the Italian translation actually netted me a bigger advance and twice as many sales. The Italian translation also allowed me to say I share a publisher with Richard Castle, which I'm eternally grateful for.

Mark II was published in 2006 by Tindal Street Press, with a launch party in my home city of Leicester. Since then the book’s sold roughly 3,000 copies worldwide, and once a year I buy a meal with my PLR payments. I’ve had a couple of film companies inquire about the movie rights, but as near as I can tell film companies inquire about the rights to everything, so I’ve never got more than a little excited about that.

My second novel was wildly different from the first. Both books were science fiction, but my second had actual spaceships and aliens in, so my agents were a bit at a loss as to what to do with it. We parted on good terms and I entered the whole cycle once again. I’m currently working on a third book (well, fourth, but the third one is banished to a bottom drawer for the time being) and have received a lot of “loved it, but don’t know how to sell it” style rejections for book two, which I’m considering attempting to self publish, since I think I’ve got a pretty good idea how to sell it.

So that’s how Mark II went from being a lengthy word document on my laptop to an actual book with pages and a cover and everything. Although name-dropping UEA probably gave me a bit of a boost in the being-taken-seriously stakes, I started out with zero contacts and no more insight into the publishing industry than you can get by reading about it and by building up a stack of rejection letters. If I had to put Mark II’s getting down to any quality other than “it being a good book” (naturally, they’re all good books) I’d say it’s a willingness to accept many, many rejection letters as a natural part of the process, not the end of the world (some times that's easier than others), taking the time to get the presentation right, and being very, very lucky.