Tag: ghosts of the revolution

Ghosts III: last street (ii)

The midnight wind was coming in cold and hard from Zoloty Rog Bay when Yuri stepped out of the Bakunin and made his way down Poslednaya ulitsa, the Last Street. The Street was long and straight, a backbone to the strip of land that jutted out of the heart of the city into the cold waters of the North Pacific. The night did the streetscape few favours. The dim yellow-tinted glare from the few un-vandalised streetlights cast the uniform whitewash as luminous bone. Rows of squarish buildings had become a mouth of ugly, uneven teeth. No other pedestrians walked the streets here. It was not a destination, just a gap between other places. It was Yuri’s home.

Like the buildings surrounding it, the Kolchak was squat, squarish and whitewashed. Yuri never knew how the Armenian found business. There were no travellers here, only empty warehouses and half-constructed shells of buildings. The only clientele the Hotel served were the truly lost, wandering in from the docks. Except now there was a bundle of rags at the entrance. A street child, knees clutched to chest but otherwise ignorant of the chill. (more…)

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Ghosts III: last street (i)

“Explain it again,” Yuri said to the foreigner, “but this time, put both hands where I can see them.”
The diplomat complied, extending his gloved hands flat on the table. Like all of his clothes, the gloves were a simulacrum of typical Vladivostokan attire. A local’s trenchcoat would be well-patched, each layer of fabric able to be traced, like an archaeological dig, to a series of conflicts and long winters. The gloves would be thick and woollen, worn down and tobacco-stained at the fingertips. The foreigner’s trench was bespoke and unfrayed, his gloves leather and lined – Yuri thought, from the edge of the seam that he spied – with lambswool.
“Alexei Novotny. The trail is a year old. My government has narrowed his location down to this city, and perhaps two others.” His Russian was oddly crisp.
“I’m not interested.”
“Novotny is not a good man, should that matter to you.”
“I don’t ask questions about my clients. It makes it easier to avoid any moral dilemmas.”
“Then why should it matter whether you take my business or theirs?”
“Because yours, Blackwood, has a stink about it.”
The only thing that prevented Blackwood from glowering, Yuri thought, was his English professionalism. As it was, he merely contemplated Cafe Bakunin’s ceiling for a few long moments before returning his gaze.
“You empathise with those who use your services. That’s it, isn’t it? Because you’re running too.”
“I am paid to get people lost, not find them again.” (more…)

Ghosts II: border crossing

Manchukuo’s cold winter was behind them. The icy rivers had begun to crack in the mid-spring thaw. The snow was out of the trees but the ground remained sodden with its memory. The seasons were changing late here. Flowers had not blossomed, and the wind remained bitter.

They had driven for two nights, through the fractal terrain of this forgotten corner of the Empire. The path was constantly in the shadows of mountains, weaving through gullies, always searching for the peaks above. Any recognisable route had disappeared hours beforehand. There were no roads to speak of now, just fox-tracks and faded oxen-paths where the local farmers once plied their trade. The country was empty, drained by the wars. Fields had been reclaimed by the grasslands. Where villages once stood, trees now grew. They were ash-stained and still young, but it was undoubted: the forests had come to reclaim the land from the humans.

The endless paths coalesced into landmarks, and Yuri recognised the correct track. With the sun setting fast above, he turned the wheel of the car and the vehicle emerged from the blasted heathlands, climbing steadily toward the top of the ridge. Driver and passenger winced in unison as the overladen vehicle teetered for a moment, wheels grinding on the steep surface before friction was found. He had travelled this jarring route countless times before, and grown used to the constant lurching movements of the Lincoln up through these hills. His passenger was not so lucky. From his rear-view mirror, he could see her in the rear seat. Miss Kato was swaddled by her bundled belongings and the driver’s own supplies, reduced to a bobbing pale mask amongst a jumbled wall of canvas and printed kimono fabric. Miss Kato’s eyes skipped and danced along from the track and back along the Dybbuk’s Highway from where they had come, before reversing its movement to settle on the distant mountains to the west. Vast clouds amassed there, dark and fattened with the weight of oncoming storms.

Yuri cleared his throat and watched the client’s eyes snap forward to meet his reflected gaze. He motioned to the car’s starboard, to a shallow indentation in the hillside. A keen observer would notice a darkened circle amongst the rocks and scrub, a series of lazy patchwork arcs that describe where campfires might have previously been constructed. A pile of splintered trees sat nearby, which may have fallen naturally or, to those looking for such a thing, represent firewood stacked on a dusk-coloured tarpaulin.
“This is where we’ll stay the night. You’ll have to move on by yourself come morning.”
Miss Kato nodded, although, he thought, it may have just been one final jolt from the Lincoln as it struggled along a difficult stretch of shale. (more…)

Ghosts I: grim progress

Yuri Nikolaevich Leschenko remembered the first time he had seen a dragon, as it was the day of his tenth birthday. Irina was well towards her end, and his parents had sent him to play out in the square. The Leschenko’s apartment was small and on the fourteenth floor, in an unnamed street off Serdechnost’ Road. The windows didn’t open, and only a scrap of the square below could be seen from it. When Yuri had been even younger, he had assumed that only the richest of Russians could live in the upper levels, so far away from the street and so close to the bright grey skies. He learned his error after the first winter in the building, when the pipes froze over and the dripping water on the stairs turned to ice. The citizens closer to street level may have had the accumulated weight of a thousand people upon them, but at least they could wash their clothes, or leave their homes without skidding down a flight of stairs.

Tatarskaya Ploshchad was not much of a square, both more diminutive and barren than its lofty title suggested. It was more of a shape defined by its lack of a building rather than the presence of a landmark or significant site. No one that Yuri’s parents had spoken to knew why it had such a grand name. It hadn’t been used for much, ever. No market-stalls had ever been erected there, no statue had ever filled its uncomfortable emptiness. The previous Tsar had apparently burned some early Mechanical heretics here, but they were too fringe and early in that movement’s history to truly be considered martyrs for the cause.

Yuri didn’t care much for the square’s stories or their lack. The odd angles of the sky above, heavy with steel-coloured clouds, could not oppress him. He would play in the absence as best he could. Sometimes he would push the rubbish into heaps, other times kicking down piles he’d assembled. Other times he would construct something, assembling the wood, mortar and old clothes into shapes. He would tell stories amongst the rubble and filth, making scarecrow princes and princesses to act out the plays in his head. They would always end in violence, and he took the puppetmaster’s right to cast his creations down, letting their makeshift limbs splinter upon the cobblestones. He would always return and make them anew, and in so doing allow new variations to the tales. (more…)

frozen jigoku

If Hideyoshi had to choose a single thing that shook his confidence in the Institute, it would be the hands of the Manchurian. The man’s eternal reaching unnerved him. He would sometimes study the man, meditating on his pose, hoping to understand whether those unfurling digits were symbols of fear or longing or supplication. The man’s remains would unfurl and recombine, clutching on nothingness, and Hideyoshi would watch and stare.

He had not known the man’s name. Hideyoshi could not see the point in finding it out now, not after what had been done. It was terrible, true, but the man’s suffering was short. Far worse, thought Hideyoshi, to be one of those left to survive and observe. To be one like he, endlessly returning to the scene. So in his mind Hideyoshi simply named the unfortunate man for his ethnicity and wished him all the best for the next life. He may be, Hideyoshi thought, in the next life already. He doubted it though. The Institute would need to be shut down first, its indefinable purpose finally met, the natural order of things restored. Then, when that ceaseless unravelling subsumed, then the Manchurian would get his final rest.

Not that anyone had ever asked, but Hideyoshi would be the first to admit that his understanding of metaphysics was far from detailed. He had grown up in Kyoto, in a traditional family with traditional values – or at least as traditional as one could be, in this day and age. His views on Heaven had been unchallenged as he had reached maturity. Like almost everyone he knew in the Institute, he considered such topics to be private and inheritably unshareable with colleagues.  Still, Hideyoshi had some degree of faith that entropy would come, one day, to this place.

The Institute took up the entirety of the building. It was the building. All windows had been blacked out years before, when the Nipponese had moved in. There was no natural light, and few electrical lamps. Circuits didn’t behave in the Hollow House, not how they were supposed to. It didn’t matter though. The House provided its own illumination. Unnatural and fey, yes, but illumination nonetheless.

The building smelled like ozone tonight. It did that sometimes. Sometimes the air would tingle, as if before an electrical storm. On other evenings, the whole Institute would sigh and corridors would lengthen and warp. On nights like those, Hideyoshi would walk the hallways with his hand always closely gripped on the handrails. He didn’t want to fall in. Not like the Manchurian, not that he’d fallen as such. At any rate, the shapes were quiet tonight. The buildings flickered in mid-air, as they always did. Soft whorls unlaced the edges of the structure, sending shimmering shards of stone and cement off into infinity.

A belief in Heaven brought with it, inevitably, an understanding that a Hell may go with it. The Institute’s official name was Division 403. It was known, variously, as Oni Division, the Imperial Garden, or the Hollow House. Hideyoshi called it, to himself, Frozen Jigoku. This building was a Hell that had become haunted, as far as Hideyoshi could tell, with the ghosts of past decisions. Even now, the groaning of those latticed iron walkways made him think of that night, and mentions of the General’s name.

When he had first started at the Institute, Hideyoshi would say his prayers just as his grandmother had taught him. Now, he said his curses. He would routinely curse himself three times – for being born, for joining the Army, and lastly for being on shift that night when the General came. He would also, some nights, curse the General, and even the Emperor for sending him here. On occasion, he would also curse the Manchurian for haunting him so. Every night, he would also curse the Scientist, without whom none of them would be here, circling this amber-locked shard of Hell.

The man’s hands, Hideyoshi thought, were the worst. The way that the blast had caught the Manchurian, they were at the very edge of Jigoku, right where reality intersected. Where the majority of the body had blistered away in a bright continual light, the fingers were outstretched, forever juddering in some hideous stop-motion movement. Hideyoshi could, if he wished, watch for an eternity and see those gloves and skin be peeled away and then reform once more. Like an apple, Hideyoshi thought. Like some apple being peeled in a spiral and then being pushed back together again.

Ghosts, and revelations

It’s the classic question: “where do you get your ideas from?”. My brother asked me the question the other day, when we were talking about my still-in-progress novel. That’s quite a phrase, isn’t it? Still in progress. It assumes so much, such as that – one day – the document will be complete, the bow drawn finally around the sprawling story. When does still in progress become incomplete, then unfinished, abandoned? There have been literally months since I wrote a word of Ghosts of the Revolution. But, I still feel good about it. It has strong bones. Sometime soon, once I get a little more free time (hahahaha!), I’ll write some more. I have another legacy to work on for the time being, all 4.62kg of her.

Back to the question. To quote the great Alan Moore, there’s always someone who asks such a thing…
“where do you get your ideas from?’ And you know what we do? We sneer. … The reason why we have to do it is pretty straightforward. Firstly, in the dismal and confused sludge of opinion and half-truth that make up all artistic theory and criticism, it is the only question worth asking. Secondly, we don’t know the answer and we are scared that someone will find out.’

I have a bit of an answer. Not much, but a little. I’ll take Ghosts… as an example because, well, it’s the biggest, most ambitious work that I’ve attempted (if not quite there yet). First off, I simply started by writing down things that interest me. Loose ideas, circling, germinating. The list includes both images and concepts, and had (amongst many others) the following ingredients;

Harbin. It’s in northern China, just another city. But a hundred years ago, it was occupied by Russians, building a rail-line in the bandit-infested Manchurian badlands to short-cut their way to the Pacific. A dozen years later, and the city is a hold-out of pro-Tsarist refugees, the ‘Whites’ who lost the Civil War against the ascendant communists. A decade after that, and the city is surrounded by Japanese forces, who are busy crafting a fake Manchurian empire to justify their expansionism. The city is an onion, layers peeling back.

I have, in my possession, a copy of a marriage certificate belonging to a man found in Harbin, claiming to be a British national. I have copies of the correspondence backward and forward between embassies, trying to determine who he was, whether he was indeed who he said he was, and how and why he was there. It sounds like the start of a mystery novel.

I’m reading Ellroy, Hammett and Chandler. Noir, pulp. It’s sex and death, molls and gangsters, private eyes and femme fatales. It’s the thirties, the forties, the fifties. I wonder what Marlowe would look like in a foreign country.

I am reading about robotics, and about how much development came in the early twentieth century. And, how automatons had an era of popularity around the turn of the century (and yes, I have seen Hugo before you ask). I wonder how these would operate in a world that was different from ours, just a little.

I’m on the Dieselpunks website, realising how much I love the aesthetic of that day and age. The images of retrofitted technology on that website and others strikes a chord with me far more than, say, the ‘brown goth’ chic of so much steampunk (and yes, I realise that it’s a stereotype, but it’s one I’m confronted with more often than not).

Next, some Mad Max on the television, some My Chemical Romance pumping through the headphones. It’s post-apocalypse, but the soundtrack is spiky teen aggression and supercharged day-glo. I imagine a motorcycle gang on the Russian tundra, leftovers of the Civil War, left parent-less by famine and strife, ready to create their own civilisation from the shattered ruins of what came before. They are Yesterday’s and Tomorrow’s Children, black-eyed and orphaned.

I am flicking through a Frankenstein comic by Grant Morrison. He describes the concept that water has been found to take on different chemical properties depending on how you label and describe the container it is stored within. What if you labelled the water ‘love’? Or ‘cure’? And then, what about, ‘hate’ or ‘weapon’? Which do you think humans would use more often? (The concept is bogus, apparently, but it’s unbelievably fascinating in that way so much pseudoscience is.)

I have shipping lists, detailing the refugees of a dozen wars. Russians leaving Asia by Chinese ports, bound for Australia and other Commonwealth countries. They list families, individuals, spinsters and widows. Religion: Orthodox, athiest and Old Believer.

I’m watching del Toro’s first Hellboy movie, and I come across the scene where a man is thrown into an quasi-magical explosion. As he hits the edge, his flesh strips away but the body continues to move and react. The skull’s jaw widens, as if to scream.

There’s more than that, unsurprisingly, but I hope this helps in seeing how some ideas start coming together. Essentially, begin with things that interest you, and find new ways to connect them. And, don’t be afraid if most of your jottings end up in the bin. I junked a good three-quarters of what I initially thought I was going to write: or, to put it another way, the story started swiftly outgrowing those concepts I’d begun with. That’s a good thing; it means it’s taking on a life of its own.

Now, a realisation that I made early on was as follows: be prepared to either make yourself an expert, or make shit up. If your story has even a passing resemblance to reality, your instinct should be to research until your eyes bleed. This is also a good thing, to a point. The more you know, the more story ideas will emerge. The fuller and realer your characters will become; the world that they inhabit will have more depth and structure. Think of it like the difference between filming a movie on a cheap set – the buildings only paper-thin – versus filming on location, where the actors and director can get into the trenches and understand the world the characters inhabit. I have pages upon pages bookmarked (both physical tomes and on the internet) detailing wars, street maps, skeletal structures of various animals, cars, clothes, uniforms, biographies, death camps, who was who in various embassies and delegations. The list goes on. But if you’re basing something on reality, there’s always more to know, and someone who will know more than you. The former will drag you down in detail and potentially cause you to lose the spark of whatever tale you wanted to tell, while the latter is a constant bogeyman hanging over your head – in your quest for authenticity, you’ll miss some vital detail and be greeted with howls of condemnation from the reader. So, don’t be afraid to make it up. That’s probablt part of the joy found in writing fantasy or speculative fiction: except in cases where you’re working in a shared (i.e., franchised) universe, things that work however the hell you want them to.

This quickly became an easy decision for me, in that I had already decided to write an alternative history of sorts; the real world, off by a few degrees, changed incrementally at some earlier stage. The background reading I did gave me street names and geography, but I could paint the buildings whatever colour I wanted, and tear down or rebuild anything that didn’t suit my narrative. And if I didn’t know about it in the first place, well, no big loss; the over-informed reader could suspend disbelief on that small point because s/he was already suspending disbelief over a number of other things.

This reminds me, in a roundabout way, of a comic book called S.H.I.E.L.D., which came out a year or two ago and was intended to tell a ‘secret history’ of Marvel Comics’ shared universe. It was a clever enough conceit, weaving in real-life luminaries such as Da Vinci and Isaac Newton into broader conspiracies of a less-than-real world. My enjoyment came tumbling down over the most minor of issues; a double-page spread showed Da Vinci looking over a Renaissance-era Roman cityscape while a giant creature rampaged the Eternal City. And there, smack bang in the mid-ground, was a building that I knew had been built hundreds of years after that era. The frustration I had lingered for pages thereafter. I was frustrated that the artist hadn’t done enough research; it was like he’d taken a picture of the city and drawn over anything he suspected looking too modern, but didn’t notice something that was ‘fake ancient’. My enjoyment of the book faded as the story progressed – more to do with the writing than the artwork – but I can trace my first flicker of disapproval from that image.

I’ll be back next time with some further minor epiphanies on the writing process.But before I go, a quick comment that the thoughts above are not, by any stretch of the imagination, enough to turn you into a best-selling novelist, or even a published author. I’d think that getting a good agent and finishing your book would be the best place to start for that (and not necessarily in that order). These are the baby steps only, as taught by someone only just learning to crawl.