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Trapped in the Real World. Why I Envy Fantasy/Horror Novelists.

Although recently I read a cracking set of horror/fantasy short stories (Chris Coppel, Last Light), horror/fantasy is not my usual fare. Never-the-less, I cannot help but envy the writers in this genre.


I try to write espionage novels that have believable people and believable events – no super-hero who single handedly defeats a couple of dozen villains, preferably using some ancient oriental martial art he learned at a secret monastery he stumbled upon whilst spending six months trekking across Tibet. Neither high speed car chases through major cities, nor car wrecks, nor shoot outs that seem to have no consequences. Where are the police when you need them? Busy failing en-masse to accomplish what our hero does with little more than the clothes he stands up in and a wry smile upon his face? Apart that is from the devilish super weapon craftily disguised as stick of liquorice.


No, I have to stick to realistic technology and capabilities. It is even worse when your novel is set twenty or thirty years in the past. Was there much in the way of a world wide web beyond Netscape and email? Was there even email? Searching was different, Google wasn’t founded until 1998. Data was stored on genuinely flexible five inch floppy discs or on the revolutionary three and a half inch hard cased floppy disc that wasn’t floppy at all.


Sophisticated technology did exist, but who knew about it? I recall, as a student, reading an article in the magazine Scientific American. It had a picture of a man, standing on the quayside in New York, reading a newspaper; the headlines were readable. So, you might ask, anything unusual there? No, except the article claimed the photograph had been taken from space by a satellite, and this was nineteen seventy two or seventy three. So much of an eye opener that I still remember it fifty years later.


Of course you can’t have a decent espionage novel without a little bit of mystery and uncertainty. When the plot hinges upon who knew what and when, with the all important surprise twist, well that ends up with a lot of reviewing, readjustment and rewriting of the chapters that you thought you had put to bed a couple of weeks ago. What exactly did the villain say that doesn’t give the game away but you can look back and think, ‘Oh yes, that was a clue’?


No, better to write supernatural mysteries, or even the more ‘exotic’ scripts for the blockbuster secret agent films. The kind where our hero crawls through a convenient air conditioning duct, navigating by dead reckoning to reach the fortified chamber protected from every angle, bar the ceiling. Once there, he dangles from a single wire whilst avoiding the laser beam detectors, deftly switching the precious artefact with a bag of sand of identical weight so as not to trip the sensor in the display pedestal. Needless to say whilst making an escape the hero leaps off a high cliff, in what appears to be suicidal madness, only to land in the open rear cockpit of a World War One biplane that his fellow agent found in a hangar and flew, with impeccable pin point timing, to pluck our hero from the air. Easier still, go the full supernatural fantasy where people disappear and reappear somewhere else, perhaps even in a different time, and it is taken for granted that is just what happens. In a world where spirits and ghosts can be good or evil, helpful or malevolent, whatever suits. Where drawers can mysteriously open, or fires mysteriously start. More mysteriously, after the fire, or any cataclysm, everything can return to how it was – no sooty stains, no charred remains, no evidence it happened at all. Apart, perhaps, from the inexplicable lingering smell of burnt flesh. The husband opens the door and puts the shopping on the pantry shelves. Minutes later, his wife opens the same door and there is a staircase leading to a secret cellar or attic; better still if it leads to another world in another dimension. There are no rules, it can all be explained away by the supernatural, otherwise it would not be supernatural.


Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not criticising the horror/mystery/supernatural genres, nor even suggesting that it does not take talent to write a successful novel. Far from it. It is just that rules are more elastic. The man in nineteen ninety five did have a USB memory stick because the man from the future, or the alien, gave it to him. And you can believe it.


Oh yes, I am envious. If things don’t seem to add up in my novels, I have to explain them away rationally – even though the explanation may take some thought to make it believable. Imagine, for example, you are writing a trilogy and in book one, in a passing reflection back to the nineteen forties, you mention that a character was in his early twenties. Not thinking of any consequences. In subsequent books the character develops and then you realise, in book three, he still has not retired in the late nineteen nineties. I would probably have to claim something like, in between times, he had spent a couple of years overseas, perhaps as an administrator in a British colonial territory. Being a villain, however, he had forged some of his identity documents whilst over there and, upon his return, they became accepted as genuine. Just about believable but oh, so much easier if I could claim time runs differently for him, and not even having to explain that all the records about him are stretched in time as well. Who asks for those details in a fantasy novel? These things are quite natural in the supernatural world.


I am sure some of you will be thinking that there are bizarre, or exotic, pieces of equipment in the real world of espionage. The ‘umbrella’ that shot a ricin laden pellet into Giorgi Markov for example. Yes, they do exist, but they are rare and they tend to attract a lot of publicity. Whereas in the more fantastical films the police force wrecks its entire fleet of cars chasing the hero (who escapes, obviously, without a scratch even though his car is more or less a total write off) but there are no consequences. Our hero’s boss does not chastise him for causing mayhem, and it isn’t simply because nobody gets hurt. In the real world a whole fleet of police cars would not just appear along our hero’s route, people would be killed, news reports would be full of the dreadful events. Above all there would be consequences, even if the havoc was wreaked in a foreign city, and only the bad guys were harmed.


An umbrella gun? Believable. Nerve poison in a perfume bottle? Believable. A sports car fitted with machine guns, oil slick sprays and an ejector seat for unwanted passengers? Not in my world!


So I am stuck. Rereading and reviewing earlier chapters, as the plot develops. At least they can be rewritten, unlike earlier novels in the sequence. Woe betide the careless author who has made a blunder in an earlier work — that is fixed for all time and cannot be changed. All you can do is hope nobody notices the inconsistencies.


My Tufton Street novels are set in the past, the early to mid nineteen nineties. Telex had more or less given way to the fax machine, but people still wrote letters. Very little email, no Google. If you did have access to the web, Netscape was the predominant browser, Internet Explorer was not released until 1995. And therein lies the rub, things were beginning to change and to change rather rapidly. In nineteen ninety, only the large corporations would have an electronic messaging service, office to office directly. The world wide web, itself, was not introduced until nineteen ninety one. By the end of the decade, we had email, we had the web, we had home computers that had MS Windows and dial up internet connections. Our stand alone in splendid isolation BBC Model B microcomputer had been consigned to the attic. The man on the Clapham omnibus had a mobile phone. So much changed in those few years. It was not a decade in which a wise man would have chosen to set a series of novels, constantly having to check and ask, ‘Did that exist, then?’.


Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Better to invent a world where historical accuracy is irrelevant, where the laws of physics and chemistry are different. Where time and tide can be made to wait for anyone!


Postscript. To add a little touch of mystery. I recently checked Amazon UK for reviews of ‘Last Light’ only to find all the reviews were from the USA, and a box announcing there were no UK reviews or ratings. This I knew was nonsense as I had posted a review. I switched to Amazon.com to check the US site for reviews from other countries, of which there seemed to be none. Returning to Amazon.co.uk, the UK reviews had now reappeared. Could it be that Amazon is haunted?

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