My wish for the new year, 2023: Love art, love artists

Individuals have given too much away on the Internet for free for the simple love of exchanging knowledge and art, while big companies have been completely unashamed about demanding that absolutely everything pay for itself.

This leaves users/consumers – PEOPLE as individuals – all too eager to get content for free when we can.

When people put free fiction and art and knowledge up online for free – because we love each other and want to share it as widely as possible, for the sheer pleasure of connection and growth – we resist contributing to politely-voiced requests for tips because we have so little money ourselves, and everything from the big companies that dominate knowledge, entertainment, and art, COSTS. Sucks us dry and reaches into every crevice of our lives on the off chance that it can be sold.

We have to rebalance that. Somehow, we just have to.

Obviously, proper regulation would make a HUGE difference. Govenments have to step in and break up big businesses and litigate what can and cannot be sold. Companies have got around the EU demand that permission must be given to sell data by making the dialogs to give permission as obnoxious as possible. That should be prosecuted too. The law exists because people, as a whole, DO NOT WANT their information sold and used without their ability to control it. Just as artists and writers do not want their content scraped from the web.

We need to vote for people who are prepared to radically shake up the system and not make small steps on the false belief that we will only break ground with centrists if the left-leaning-parties ask quietly or lurch ever more rightward.

We need the broad, proud, socialist steps that so many countries – even the US and UK – made after WW2 that caused such huge growth.

But we also can’t count on that.

If I have one wish for the new year it is that everyone, in their personal capacity, to the extent that they’re able, support creators.

If you can afford to (and by God, some of us can) BUY books and art and tip people who write good articles and posts. And if you’re addicted to free fanfic (that’s OK, I am too) seek out those ko-fis and paypal.mes and GoFundMes etc, which those creators whose work you devour certainly have. Give them something as a thank you for what you’ve gained, even if you can’t buy their art.

If you can’t afford to: promote. Spread. Sing about the people whose work you love.

If they have non-free works you can’t pay for, shout about them too. Say, ‘Hey, this person wrote 300,000 words of fic that kept me alive when I was struggling and I ADORE them and I’m willing to bet this other thing they wrote that costs money is astonishing – please check it out!’

Make 2023 the year we love art and artists, writing and writers, crafts and crafters.

Make the radical choice to be AWARE of what makes you happy and share it. Promote it. Be the marketing individuals can’t do for themselves. Sincere, word-of-mouth-celebration of things you love.

I’m willing to be stepping back and really appreciating the things that make you happy will lift you up and make you more aware of your own joys, large and small, too.

The value of art

Painting: Yes, it hurt when I fell
I’m talking about art today, so I’m using my own work for colour.

I saw a series of gifs the other day from an interview with Kevin Conroy, who died on November 30. Conroy was the voice of Batman, in Batman: The Animated Series, and he was recounting his experience of meeting a fan at a convention.

The fan wept and embraced him, and he did his best to reassure her. But she was aware of how strange it must seem. She said: ‘You don’t understand what you did for me,’ and she explained.

She’d grown up in an impoverished area, and every kid she’d known had died or ended up in jail or on drugs. Her parents had worked hard and couldn’t watch her after school, but when her school mates had been outside, getting into trouble, she had been at home watching Batman. It gave her a safe space in which to learn and grow

That time with a guardian-like figure who seemed to genuinely care saved her life. And she was meeting her saviour.

It is such a wonderful thing to have done for someone else. And yet, as Conroy reflected, we so rarely get a chance to know of the deep impact our art can have on others.

I am so very glad he got to know.

It made me reflect on the value of art, and how easy it is for us to not know how important even small and rough works of art can be to others.

I thought about a piece of GCSE art that was displayed in my school’s assembly room. All GCSE art was displayed there for a week after it had been submitted, and I always LOVED that part of the year. Those works of art made my heart soar in a way I’ve rarely felt in adult life.

I remember one tiny work very clearly. Most GCSE students (myself included) take the opportunity to produce art on giant canvases – or at my school, pieces of wood. We see what ‘the greats’ do in galleries and think that bigger is better; although many of us lack the skill to fill that space. Not this artist, though.

It was small – smaller than A4. A painting with a frame cut from lino. The image continued out, carved into the frame. We’d all had a go at making prints out of lino in Art, so I shouldn’t have been surprising that someone used it, but this was pure genius. To make a print with lino – fine. But actually seeing beauty in the form – making the lino itself a work of art – that was another level. And then they had used that to extend the work of art beyond the painting and into a 3D form – sheer brilliance!

The painting itself also caught my attention. It was a little fantasy landscape. Villages stood, implausibly, on top of great spikes of rock that rose up from a green valley. I knew enough at 13 or 14 to suspect that physics would not support this and it would be a very impractical place for a village, but I didn’t care. I was transfixed. Even now I feel my own inadequacy when it comes to describing this with words.

I wish I could recall the artist’s name or that of the painting, but it’s gone. I wish I could have spoken to that artist, to tell them how looking at their tiny work, in a room full of gigantic pieces, had made me feel. Perhaps they already understood the power of art. Perhaps the lino frame was a metaphor for how art can empower the fantastic to escape its frame and impact the real world.

At the time, all I could do was vainly wish I could talk to them and ask them what it meant. What else they might have imagined in the world they showed me through the lino frame.

They may not even think of that piece at all anymore. Maybe they threw it out. My art teacher threw out one of my paintings before I could rescue it. I was horrified. I still am, to be honest, but I now realise that was common. Part of the reason they let us create those gigantic pieces was because often they were not collected, and those works would be painted over with white emulsion, ready for next year’s students.

It’s something I struggle to get my head around. I never throw out old art or old writing. And yet I never wondered if any of my GCSE artwork had moved anyone the way that small piece moved me. Which is strange, given how I poured myself into it with complete and unabashed confidence. I was a different person at 16.

This was one of my first times with oil paints. The complete lack of face is, uh, deliberate.

We often hope to create a Great Work that moves others the way we have been moved ourselves. I think that’s fair to say. I suspect most of us do not think our current project to be that work.

If you did anything creative at school, would you ever imagine that a stranger might still think about your project twenty-five years later? That they still regard it as one of the most powerful pieces of art they’ve ever seen, even though they are beginning to forget the details? That whenever they’re reminded of it, their heart still soars?

I doubt that unknown artist imagines such a thing about their piece. They may have affection for it, but I’m sure they can see childish flaws in it the same way I see the flaws in my own old schoolwork.

The point is that art does not have to be recognised as a Great Work to have value. To make someone’s heart soar. To save someone’s life.

There are books I’ve read and TV I’ve watched that saved my life too. I escaped into Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series as a teenager, and Menolly’s story of success and escaping through her music helped me hang on through my own experience of bullying. Those books are not without flaws, but they made my heart soar and made me believe there was a way out. That life could get better.

When I first got sick with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but had no diagnosis, I ran into trouble at work. My anxiety about the situation was so bad my heart never stopped racing. At that time, my escape was Fringe. I watched it for hours and hours, and when Peter Bishop was taking care of his father, it felt like, finally, someone was taking care of me.

Fringe is a great show, but it’s not without it’s flaws. The first season is uneven, and I found the last season unwatchable. It doesn’t matter. Those middle three seasons still saved me.

I could go on a long time about the invaluable impact on my life of imperfect art, but I fear I’d just be entertaining myself. Instead I want to spend a few minutes thinking about a comic that’s often passed around among creatives.

Original comic, by stuffman

The comic, in its original iteration, has only two panels. Both show a person looking at two cakes. One cake has tiers and lots of detailed icing work. The other has only two layers and sloppy frosting. The first panel is captioned ‘The Artist’ and the figure in it looks glum because their cake isn’t as good as the other cake. The second panel is captioned ‘The Audience’ and shows an excited person saying Holy shit! Two cakes!’

This comic is well-liked for good reason. It shows that even if your work isn’t perfect, it can still delight someone. But I think (in this version anyway) it misses some of what’s disappointing for an artist when they compare their work to someone more skilled.

Because I think we’re all secretly hoping to produce that Great Work that really moves someone. And one of the two cakes is visibly better than the other, at least by some standards. An audience that just wants something sugary will be pleased, but will they really be moved? Which cake will they remember 25 years later? Which cake could save a life and inspire someone to become a baker themselves? Which cake will make them feel like there is love and beauty in a hopeless world?

I may be stretching this metaphor, but that’s sort of the point.

The ‘Holy shit! two cakes!’ response suggests that the audience has no deep appreciation of, or response to, either cake. So a creator can easily look at the comic and secretly think to themselves, ‘Yes, this is an important message for others. But MY problem is that I want my audience to get more from my work than that. Maybe it is foolish of me, but I do want to move someone and to satisfy more than a momentary craving for sugar.’

What the comic – and discourse generally – fails to celebrate, is that our imperfect works can also save lives. Offer comfort and escapism. Encapsulate beautiful, moving, and original ideas. Make someone’s heart soar.

Kevin Conroy was surprised by his fan’s reaction to what was, for him, just a job. You can never know the impact your work has on others. Or when you created the right thing for someone else to find at just the right time.

It does not have to be your best work. Not because the audience doesn’t care about the content, but because imperfect works can still be of incredible, priceless value.

At the moment, it feels like the work of creators has never been so undervalued.

Even for Great Works that have an estimated value in the millions, that value seems utterly divorced from their ability to move their audience. They are trading cards for the super rich. A Van Gogh painting does have value, but does it have really so very much more value than the work of millions of artists around the world who cannot earn a living?

This Van Gogh self-portrait is in the public domain. Nice.

Let us all remember, Van Gogh’s work was not valued that way in his lifetime. How is it a recognition of greatness to overvalue a work of someone who will never profit from it, and undervalue the work of a living artist who needs to heat their home this winter?

In the last month, creative industries have been under attack like never before. It’s been part of a steady, longterm devaluation of art by those with a vested interest in framing art as ‘unproductive’. (Often the same people who can afford to own Van Goghs.)

But if that were the case, why would so much money have been poured into creating AIs like DALL-E 2, which automate art creation?

I’m not actually against artistic AIs as such. I think some of the works that have been produced that way are haunting and beautiful. I also think there could be skill in selecting which works to train an AI with and the teaching methods employed. In this sense, developers can be artists. Moreover, as a philosopher of mind, I have long been fascinated by AI – what it tells us about our how we think and what it could do for us in the future.

What’s alarming is the reports that both art and writing AIs have been trained using databases for which the owners of the AI did not have any rights. Art not in the public domain, not licenced for commercial use. Art to which the companies that created the AI did not have any right.

Most notably, DeviantArt – one of the oldest and larget art archives on the web – launched an AI art tool called DreamUp. As part of the announcement, they noted that DreamUp was based on Stable Diffusion, which scraped the web for art to create its database, and many have reported that it’s likely to have used artworks on DeviantArt itself. DeviantArt paired their launch with an announcement of a way for users to opt their work out of being used in the future, but the opt out system was impractical for artists and relied on developers voluntarily respecting the marker that the opt out added to the code for works.

Even artists who had been pro AI art before reacted to this with horror.

Then, this week, evidence was found that Open AI, which is a writing AI, may have been trained on Archive of Our Own – the largest and most well-known fanfiction archive. That’s not currently been confirmed, to my knowledge, but the evidence is striking. For example, this prompt:

Steve had to admit that he had some reservations about how the New Century handled the social balance between alphas and omegas.

This one’s public domain, too. From Pixabay.

creates a story in which Steve is roommates with someone called Tony, with pretty detailed reference to omegaverse dynamics. Steve (Captain America) and Tony (Iron Man) form one of the most popular ships in the Marvel fandom. Being roommates (Oh my GOD they were roommates!) is an extremely well-loved fanfic scenario for setting up romance. And if you don’t know what omegaverse is, don’t click that link if unless you’re prepared for it to awaken something in you. Suffice it to say it’s a set of very specific, usually erotic, highly kinky tropes that arose from fandom and is unlikely to be referenced outside of recent erotic romance stories.

This is especially concerning as fanfic writers produce their work entirely for free. As fanfic usually uses copyrighted characters, its legal defence lies in the fact that the writers do not seek to profit from their work in any way. Archive of Our Own has no adverts and is a charity. But a for-profit AI does not and should not have the same protections. Stealing from work offered for free is immoral, but if the AI produces works that involve copyrighted characters, that seems open to legal challenge by intellectual property (IP) owners. Especially as it’s clear that the works produced are likely to involve situations that the IP owners would not approve for their characters.

There’s a risk that large, litigeous companies (such as Disney), that have been turning a blind eye to fanfiction (because no one profits from it) target fanfic writers again if AI writers use fanfic to endanger their IP. While the last 15 years have seen a swing towards fanfiction being generally accepted, many still remember attempts by the likes of Anne Rice and Lucasfilm to suppress fanfiction – especially erotic fanfiction.

And beyond these specific troubling developments, there’s the more general concern that the recognised value of art is disappearing as AI seeks to replace it. AI art is already being used in posters and on book covers by companies and individuals who do not want to pay artists. Many now worry: could the future see AI making all our art and telling all our stories?

My thoughts on this: in the near future? No. Not all of it. The stories in particular are not good enough. But some of the art is very good. And AI could easily replace a lot of formulaic writing, such as clickbait articles.

In the abstract, this shouldn’t have to be a bad thing. Automation should make all our lives better. If AI could take over the kind of work that’s often uninteresting and uninspiring and generate profit more easily, in a just world, that extra profit would go back into society to enable more funding for arts and humanities. Artists and writers who have made a living churning out low-value work to uninspiring briefs could be freed up to make the art and novels that would really fill our lives with purpose and meaning.

But this is not a just world. We have seen that automation has not been used to make the lives of the people whose labour it has replaced better. Instead, the people at the top of the pile, who are furthest away from production (let alone creativity) earn ever more, and the people are the bottom of the pile can no longer earn a living wage – let alone pursue a career in something they enjoy.

Don’t despair yet, though. Just as artists have apparently used big company’s like Disney to take down T-shirt bots that steal their designs by tricking them into stealing Disney’s IP, it may be that Open AI scraping from AO3 will be its undoing. The Organization for Transformative Works (of which AO3 is just one project) also has its own legal team, which has been defending fanworks from the outset. They have been alerted to the matter.

Similarly, there’s already a lawsuit against Github’s Copilot for stealing code that was shared for free and using it for profit. Which is to say: AIs that are using databases they have no right to are probably going to land themselves in hot water, and there is reason to hope that some kind of sensible regulation will result.

Moreover… I don’t know. I’m not especially interested in reading stories written by a robot. Unless that robot has reached true artificial intelligence, and has ideas of its own, in which case, it’s not a robot anymore. But that is a very long way off. Part of what I get out of reading is a sense of connection and recognition from other human beings.

Stephen King has called writing a kind of telepathy. It’s one thought transmitted from one person to another. I cry at some books not simply because I imagine something painful, but because reading those books makes me feel seen. I see a pain I recognise on the page and I know that somewhere out there is another person who understood.

Reading lets me know I’m not alone. It can’t do that if it wasn’t created by a person. If it was made instead by something that knows nothing at all in itself.

And I think the same is true of art. For artistic work that isn’t meant to make you feel anything particularly profound or interesting… yes. AI might take over that. The artistic equivalent of clickbait. It’s not great. Because society is injust, it will hurt the livelihoods of artists. But it won’t end art.

You might get a few gallery displays out of AI art, but it will be a novelty. A curiosity. I very much doubt any of us will still be thinking of a work created by AI twenty-five years later.

A mindless robot isn’t going to save many lives. It’s not going to make people feel less alone. It’s never going to make anyone wonder what it was thinking when it made the piece (not if it is mindless, and the audience knows enough about AI to know that this kind of AI is extremely simplistic and could not possibly think).

Your works matter. Even your student works and your fanfics and the little things you did and only shared on social media and got a handful of likes. Because art can stay with the viewer for decades after, even if they never spoke to the artist.

Art – creativity – has a value that is dismissed because it is hard to squeeze capital from. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s so valuable it can make someone weep in a stranger’s arms. It can make you stay up all night reading. Fill hours of anxiety with love. Provide hope that humanity can be better than it often is. It helps us hang on when we feel like there’s nothing else to live for, and it helps us dream of everything wonderful that life could be.

Art can do all that, without ever being perfect.

We should pay creatives more, because their work is already so very valuable, to all of us.

Speaking of which, if you got something out of these thoughts, you can always buy me a ko-fi…

World Con and me

So, my story, ‘The Village of the Cats’, is not getting published after all 😦

I had to withdraw the story because the changes the publishers wanted would have made it a very different story – one that didn’t reflect my beliefs or the different kind of apocalypse I was trying to envisage in that story. It’s sad. Going to a book launch at World Con as one of the contributors would have been really cool.

I’m still going to World Con, though, and I’m still going to have fun.

I’ve never been to a World Con before, so I don’t know what to expect. I have no fixed plans beyond the fact that I will be cosplaying for at least part of it.

Empress Celene at the Winter Palace. A white woman with white blonde hair in a blue ballgown with a silver mask.

Not Daenerys this year. Well, I might bring the old wig and season 6 outfit just in case, but I wanted to do something different. I’m in the process of pulling together an Empress Celene cosplay – in her masquerade garb from the Winter Palace ball in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

This means pulling together two masks and a blue ballgown. I have even bought a hoop crinoline. I’ve spent a remarkable amount of time on it for something that’s still going to look pretty scrappy and might not make it to Ireland intact.

Apart from that, I have no plans.

If you’re going, come say ‘hi’!

Hub Magazine is available again!

It’s been a weekend of positive writing news. As well as having a story accepted, I’ve learnt that Lee Harris has uploaded the back catalogue of Hub Magazine issues as PDFs.

Hub Magazine was founded by Lee in 2007. It was an innovative and exciting publication that accepted three of my stories, five reviews, and three essays.

I owe a debt to Lee Harris, Alasdair Stuart, Ellen Allen, and Phil Lunt – all of whom worked on Hub and at various points had a hand in bringing my work to a wider audience.

So… you can now read my work again! Just access the directory and select a relevant issue – I’ve listed my works and the issues they were published in below.

Some of it I might write differently now. I’ve been writing and editing professionally for years and I’d hope my style has developed over that time. But I’m still very proud of my work published by Hub. Especially the stories and the essays.

I know a lot of people who couldn’t attend Nine Worlds last year wanted to hear my thoughts on The Dark Tower. Due to ill health, I haven’t been able to upload a web version like I’d promised, but you can read early versions of my thoughts on the The Dark Tower and the modernists in Hub 137, along with my thoughts on The Dark Tower and epics (Homer, Virgil, and Tolkien) in issue 141.


  • ‘The Twelfth Day’, in Hub, Issue 135
  • ‘The Harvest of the Machines’ – in Hub, Issue 72
  • ‘Bereavement’ – in Hub, Issue 40


  • ‘Tron: Legacy’ – in Hub, Issue 143
  • The Incredible Hulk Season Three DVD Box Set’ – in Hub, Issue 89
  • The Incredible Hulk Season Two DVD Box Set’ – in Hub, Issue 80
  • The Incredible Hulk Season One DVD Box Set’ – in Hub, Issue 73


  • ‘Coming to Terms with the End of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Part II – Epic: Homer, Virgil, and Tolkien’ – in Hub, Issue 141
  • ‘Coming to Terms with the End of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Part I – King and the Modernists’ – in Hub, Issue 137
  • ‘On Being Scully, and SyFy’s new series, Haven‘ – in Hub, Issue 126

I sold a story!

My story, ‘The Village of the Cats’, has been accepted for publication in Alternative Apocalypses, an anthology to be published by B Cubed Press. It’s going to be launched at World Con!

I’m really excited! It’s been a long time since I had anything new in print, and I’ll admit, it was getting me down. The combination of PhD + illness meant that the momentum I started building around 2008-12 just kind of… stopped. In all aspects of my writing, really. But earlier this year I decided to get serious about my submissions again. I bit the bullet and signed up to Duotrope and I sent all the stories I still believe in out on submission, and I kept sending them out when they came back.

Duotrope, for those unfamilliar, is a service that offers listings and a sophisticated search engine to writers that helps them find markets relevant to the genre and pay level they want to publish at. You can also use it to track your submissions and their listings contain detailed information about response rates, acceptance rates, and sometimes interviews with the publishers about what they’re looking for. The catch is that you have to pay a nominal monthly fee.

I’m a firm believer in Yog’s Law: that money flows towards the author. I never wanted to pay that fee. Especially when a professional pay rate is only $0.08 per word, and very few markets pay that rate. The most I have ever received for my work is still the £25 Amazon voucher I got for the first story I ever sold: a piece of flash fiction that was recorded as a podcast by Radio Ryedale. Flash fiction is usually paid by flat fee rather than by word, and £25 is very good compensation compared to the $10 that I most often see offered in the market. You can see why, in this market, it’s important that the writer – the person who produces the content that makes the publication possible – shouldn’t have to spend any money before they are accepted.

I’ve been a loyal user of for years. Like, since the 1990s. If you click through that link, you’ll see that the website has not changed since the 1990s, and yet it has won multiple awards. That’s for a very good reason. Ralan is always up to date, and offers comprehensive listings for pro, semi-pro, pay, token, anthologies, books, flash fiction, and contests. It covers science fiction, fantasy, horror, and humour markets. It says which markets are open, what genres they accept, what they pay, what word lengths they accept, how quickly you’re likely to get a response, and how you can submit. It’s a free service and all in all it’s pretty good.

But I hadn’t had any success for a few years, and something had to change. Some of my best stories are for very niche audiences and I needed to widen my scope. So I gave Duotrope a go. There is a free trial – so it’s worth checking out just to see the extent of services on offer.

I wouldn’t have found this market without Duotrope. It also gave me the very useful perspective that most of the markets I had been submitting to had a 99% rejection rate, so the fact that I was even getting positive and personal rejections was a good sign.

According to B Cubed Press’s Facebook group, they had over 900 submissions for the anthology, which means they only accepted 3%. My story was in that 3%.

And I think it’s a really good fit. Long time readers will know that I’m a fan of apocalyptic fiction, but I tend to get frustrated with a lot of the popular tropes. I don’t think the majority of people will default to violent, tribe-based behaviour if the trappings of modern civilisation were to be destroyed. The implications for human nature in such tropes are very negative, philosophically troubling, and frankly out-dated. Humans are fundamentally co-operative, social creatures. And I don’t think enough attention is given to the ‘softer’ skills that would be needed in a post-apocalypse environment, especially farming and textile creation. The ‘Village of the Cats’ very much reflects this perspective, and it is an Alternative Apocalypse. I’m so glad it’s found a home in an anthology that’s all about offering a fresh take on one of my favourite genres.

And I’m currently planning to be at World Con, so I’ll get to be there for the launch!

Stay tuned for more details as we move towards publication.

Game of Thrones, The Long Night, was fucking EPIC (literally)

[Warning, this post contains SPOILERS.]

Were I not under strict doctor’s instructions not to overextend myself for precisely this kind of thing, I would be writing SUCH an in-depth post right now*. But given that I am under such instructions, I will say this:

It was bloody EPIC, in the most literal sense of the word. I mean GREEK EPIC. I mean THE ILIAD. I mean Bran Stark is friggin’ Helen of Troy.

It’s not as easy as I would wish to say that epic fantasy can be literature. It should be, but people have weird prejudices, and though Shakespeare would be epically confused by the literary distinctions (drawn by marketing departments) that are accepted too easily by many academics, these prejudices persist.

Granted, there are any number of books where the tropes of epic fantasy are used without thought merely because people like magic and dragons and battles and journeys. And all power to the writers and readers who derive satisfaction from that. There are also infinitely many ‘literary’ books about middle-aged, middle-class white men boning younger women, but are we to suppose from this that there’s nothing more to literary fiction?

It would be naive at best and willfully ignorant at most common to suppose that the best of epic fantasy is as unaware of its roots as its dime-a-dozen knock-offs. Anyone who saw the Elizabethan revenge tragedy of the Red Wedding should already know that Game of Thrones has more to it, but ‘The Long Night’ really dove down deep into our collective subconscious of not only what makes for a satisfying story, but also what makes it epic.

What is epic?

Epic is a literary genre that has its roots in Ancient Greek oral tradition. Most famously, The Iliad and The Odyssey. ‘Literary genre’ in this means ‘type of story-telling’, usually distinguished by shared tropes, themes, and narrative structures. Epic is a literary genre, revenge tragedy is a literary genre, romance is a literary genre, dirty limerick is a literary genre.

Epic is, to the best of my memory, typified by themes that encompass the struggle of nations, by a narrative that takes the hero or heroes on a lengthy journey, by struggles that encompass both gods and humans (or, on a non-religious interpretation, discussions of fate, fundamental ethics, or the individual’s place in the incomprehensibly large universe), and by a narrative form that breaks down a very long story into ‘episodes’.

The episodic structure allows not only for simple chunking of information, but for specific themes to be explored and for each hero to have their moment.

Moments of glory

One key aspect of the epic tradition is that there will be multiple protagonists, each of whom is a hero. This means more than simply being ‘heroic’ in our modern sense of sacrificing oneself for the sake of others. Ancient Greek heroes, like Achilles, were semi-divine. Literally. Usually, one of their parents was a god – Achilles, Hercules, all the greats. And the epic form of story telling would give each hero their moment.

More specifically, before they died (always in battle), each hero would have a moment of glory. This is actually one of the things that the film Troy got right. Yes – I hear you, Troy was not nearly gay enough, and the demotion of Achilles and Patroclus’s love to being Cousins who were Best Buds sucked – but they were pretty spot on from the point of view of how significant glory was to Ancient Greek storytelling.

Glory is how you are remembered. Glory is immortality. Glory bridges the gap between human beings and gods.

And one thing we get perfectly in The Long Night is for each hero to get their moment of glory before death. And they were ALL fucking AWESOME.

Theon slaughters dozens of dead men in the Godswood defending Bran, the boy he wronged – now the man, who has just confirmed that Theon has redeemed himself.

Beric Dondarrion meets his final death having saved been brought back by the Red God 19 times, specifically so he could be here in this moment, saving Arya Stark.

And for me, most strikingly heroic of all, Lady Lyanna Mormont, beloved of millions, wise and strong beyond her years, stabs a zombie giant in the face with her dying thrust.

These are all classically epic moments of pre-death heroics, where each hero gets a set fight in which they triumph before they die

Heroes are demi-gods

Note also that although the ‘semi-divine’ rule of Ancient Greek epic is not precisely embodied for most heroes in Game of Thrones, the spirit of it is.

Theon is the son of a king (even if that king bent the knee). There’s also a sense in which he is dead – Theon, Prince of the Iron Islands, died in the Bastard of Bolton’s cell. Reek was reborn in his place. Then Theon fought his way back from the lands of the dead to reclaim his identity. This fits neatly with the Iron Islander religion: what is dead may never die. And he realises that fully just before his death, when Bran acknowledges that he has come home. He is again the person who grew up in Winterfell – a person who was dead who can now never die, because his tale will live on. Semi-divine.

Beric Dondarrion is the most obvious case of a semi-divine character. He died and was brought back to life in service of the Red God 19 times, each time losing a bit more of himself. He freely acknowledges that he is not longer completely the mortal man that he was, but lives only to be the agent of a god in this world. As Bran does for Theon, Melisandre confirms it shortly before his death – he was brought back to life by the god so many times precisely so that he could be here in this moment of glory upon which the world changes.

Lyanna Mormont might be less obviously semi-divine, but she is clearly a hero and a girl with courage, intelligence, and presence of command beyond her years. Her divinity is in standing like a bear before death, despite her youth and small stature, and stabbing death in the face. She dies arguably the most heroic and viscerally satisfying death.

And of course, Melisandre, who has lived too long a life, extended by magic and the will of her god, to die here, in this cold, desolate place. Her moment of glory all the more powerful because her faith was one that had waned. This is more obvious in the books,but still articulated in the show – she never had the emotional connection and faith that propelled Thoros to bring Beric back to life. She didn’t believe she could raise Jon Snow from the dead until she did it. And we see here her emotional connection – as it had been absent in the earlier, darker arts she has practiced.

She achieved great feats under Stannis’s command, but always with external cost – sex with a king, the blood of a king, and worst of all, the sacrifice of Shireen. In the books, we see that she is half charlatan, and that’s perhaps easier to miss in the show, but I think it still holds true. When she works with power but against the spirit of the god she serves, it is always at a cost, and it usually doesn’t achieve the best outcome for her and hers. But as at the Wall, even though she is far from the warm lands of her god, when she wills with feeling and with faith, her powers not only work, they are spectacular. When she lights the trenches that surround the castle, she does so with complete conviction and sheer desperation – and that’s why it works.

Her death, collapsing as a pile of robes in the snow, is the most literal embodiment of a hero returning to the divine from which they were created. On first watching, I thought she literally melted away like a Jedi knight who has lived up to the ideals of the light side of the force. And although rewatching on a larger screen made me reconsider whether her body melted away, I believe the impresison was intentional. It is one of several iconic science fiction moments ‘The Long Night’ draws on to evoke the epic not only with ancient literary tropes but with their modern echoes

The moments of glory

The Long Night gives us more than the ancient trope. EVERY hero gets their moment.

Brienne and Jaime fight with style and pinache and power on the walls and in the courtyard.

The Hound overcomes his PTSD and, surrounded by fire, moves to protect Arya.

Dolorous Edd could not be properly said to be divine in any sense – he is the epitome of an ordinary man – a man of the Night’s Watch who has given himself up for the greater good with no expectation of glory (indeed, vociferously the opposite). And he saves Sam’s life in his moment of glory immediately before death.

The epic literary trope rings with ancient satisfaction in our bones, but the modern commentary of the show and the books take us further. It says that you do not have to be divine (even metaphorically) to be a hero. To make your stand. To make a difference.

To count.

Sci-fi and fantasy moments

I mentioned above the Star Wars/Melisandre moment, but long time readers will likely be unsurprised that I picked up on Terminator moments, too.

In fact, I was cursing myself moments before the episode punched me in the face with the visual imagery of the Night King walking out of dragon fire like the T-1000 walking out of the gas tanker explosion. Earlier in the episode I’d noticed a recurrence of the Terminator-like waaaawomp! theme music, which we first heard in the season six episode ‘No One’. For those who don’t recall, we hear it for the first time in that episode when Cersei reasserts her power by using The Mountain as her obedient killing machine (Cersei, played by Lena Headey, whose most notable pre-GoT role was as Sarah Connor in Terminator-franchised series, The Sarah Conner Chronicles). It then recurs as Arya is being chased through the streets by the unrelenting Waif, who also mirrors the mannerisms of the T-1000.

Anyway, there was clueless Terminator fangirl me going, oh, it’s nice that they’re revisiting that theme, but it’s a shame there’s nothing overtly Terminatorish going on here.

What an idiot.

Terminator basically = Death, coming for you. Which everyone has spent the last two episodes describing explicitly, both in reference to the Night King and his army. Let’s quote Kyle Reese for a second:

Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

Kyle Reese, The Terminator

Now listen again to Gendry telling Arya what he knows of fighting the Others (the dead):

Look, I know you want to fight… but this is different. This is… this is death. You want to know what they’re like? Death. That’s what they’re like.

Gendry Baratheon, Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 2

It’s the same feeling of a man trying to get through to a woman that what they’re facing is certain death – absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead/You want to know what they’re like? Death. That’s what they’re like.

But it’s better than a direct quote, because it’s updated. Here, Gendry is the one who is scared and Arya is the experienced fighter who knows what she’s doing. And so she responds:

I know Death. He’s got many faces. I look forward to seeing this one.

Arya Stark, Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 2

And this is what good literature does. It takes a cultural touch point, and it spins it to show us a new side. The warning is the same, but Arya is the hero, and Gendry is the one afraid. I love the Terminator films and I love Sarah Conner, but it takes until the second movie, when she is half-mad, for Sarah to become a badass. And even then, if she’s a kind of hero, she’s not this kind of hero. She’s not the half-divine protagonist – that role goes to her son, John Connor, hero of the resistance, and protagonist of the film, who caused a time-travel paradox to create his own existence.

Arya started her training before her trauma. Arya did her training on screen. Arya is fighting for herself, and not so some man can one day be a hero.

But I’m getting side-tracked. I’ll come back to Arya-as-hero in a bit. I want to briefly mention the other classic sci-fi reference I spotted: Jurassic Park.

Frankly, I’m ashamed it took two watchings, but in my defence, my first viewing was on a tiny screen, and as others have noted, this episode was Very Dark.

I should have seen it in the fact that both the dragons and the dead make noises not unlike the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. I should have been primed for it by the fact that there are freakin’ DRAGONS, and the dinosaur link it not a massive leap. But I missed it.

That’s OK, those links are easy to dismiss. What’s not is the fact that the scene where Arya is hiding from the dead in the stacks of the library is almost shot-for-shot the kitchen scene in Jurassic Park. Down to Arya’s/Lex’s head movements and the undead bloody well snorting at her like a velociraptor.

Again, it’s a lovely touch. Lex Murphy was another visionary character of the early 90s. She was a girl who was also a computer geek, and she protects her little brother in this scene, ultimately saving him from the dinosaurs. But again, Arya is more than Lex Murphy. Arya is a hero for the girls of the 21st century. She moves with confidence, rather than panic, and we’ve already seen her kill more dead than most of the grown men on the battlements.

And that makes it all the more powerful when, having escaped the library, she later finds herself overwhelmed and on the run in the hallways of her home.

Arya Stark the hero

OK, let’s talk about it now.

Having watched what amounted to a piece of cinematic perfection on Monday 29 April, I was utterly mystified to see ‘Mary Sue’ trending less than an hour later.

Grown-arse men were calling Arya Stark a Mary Sue, because she has the honour of killing the Night King.

It was puzzling and enraging in equal measures. And it’s hard to find a more clear-cut case of that term existing purely for the purposes of misogyny.

For those not in the know, ‘Mary Sue’ was a term coined following a 1970s Star Trek fanfic. You wouldn’t have known it from the way it was presented by the time I was introduced to Star Trek in the 80s and 90s, but Star Trek fandom, from the beginning, was led by women and girls. And they wrote fan fiction. They wrote about adventures in space and they wrote about Spock and Kirk getting it on and they successfully campaigned for the show to be renewed.

And one woman in the 70s wrote a now notorious piece of fanfic in which a character called Mary Sue saved the day and got to make out with their love interest afterwards. You know, like Captain Kirk did every week.

When men – professional authors, even – do this, we call this a self-insert or wish-fulfillment character. But when a woman does it, it is deemed gauche, embarrassing, to be discouraged. So, over the years, ‘Mary Sue’ became the label for any character who fitted the broad tropes of having a tragic (but underdeveloped) background, who was unnaturally gifted (and gifted at everything), who saves the day, and who ‘gets the guy’ as a reward.

I am not the first to point out that this description epitomises Batman. And… the vast majority of male heroes and protagonists across most genres.

What it doesn’t describe, is Arya Stark.

So, she gave the final blow that killed the Night King. And she is a supremely skilled fighter – skilled far beyond what most women could achieve. And her dad and mum are dead.

That doesn’t make her a Mary Sue.

Why not? Well, first off, she doesn’t have a tragic backstory. She lives through tragedy and trauma. Her mum and dad are alive all through season one and play far more pivotal on-screen roles than she does for that season. Both die not to advance Arya’s plot or provide her motivation, but as the result of their own folly.

Arya is supremely skilled, but, as I said on Twitter at the time, show me the eight years of on-screen training that John McClane went through before he survived the events at Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. What’s that? He was just a middle-aged white man who was nearly kicked out of the police force? DAMN, Arya Stark only trained with the first sword of Bravos, the Hound, Brienne of Tarth, and the assassins in the House of Black and White. You’re right, John’s story is way more plausible. [/sarcasm]

And, let’s just note: Arya’s training in ‘water dancing’ started before the tragic death of her parents, and she showed proficiency with a bow at home in Winterfell. Again: her parents were not fridged to explain her sudden dedication to murder skills.

She is very good at fighting, but is she unbelievably good at everything?

Again. No. She sucks at embroidery and diplomacy. She readily concedes that her sister, Sansa, is both brighter than her and more knowledgeable about politics. And she’s not even good at all fighting styles. She’s small, and her fighting abilities are adapted to suit a petite person. When she first fights with the Hound he easily defeats her because her techniques are suited to unarmoured rapier dueling. From him she learns to fight against someone who is broad and tall and has a broadsword. And when we see her later sparring with Brienne, we see what she has learnt. Both women are shown to be experts in their style. Arya is lightning fast where Brienne has power and strength. The fight ends in a standoff where each is positioned for what would have been a killing blow.

Arya learnt to not try to beat people who are taller and stronger than her at their own game. She learnt how to defeat them with her own advantages.

Lastly… Arya is a hero. She’s meant to be larger than life.

The whole idea of a Mary Sue is premised on misogyny. There’s nothing wrong with having wish fulfillment characters – people you can identify with who are better than you, who could defeat your enemies and reap the rewards you desire.

Apparently I have to break it to men that they are not Batman, or James Bond, or John McClane. And they never will be. They couldn’t be. Likely, no one could be – no real human being could do all the things those guys do.

And that’s OK, as long as you don’t start telling women or non-binary people or men of colour or disabled men that they can’t have wish fulfillment fantasies too.

Because somehow your impossible self-inserts are just naturally more believable than ours.

And I like most of those characters – well, not James Bond, never understood why his brand of smugness was meant to be attractive, but most of them. And I’ll do you one better. I LOVE, Superman. And that dude has everything. He’s not even pretending to be an ordinary human (except when… well, Clark aside, you know what I mean).

Wish fulfillment characters are not bad. Heroes are not bad. You just need to learn to share and let other people have some.

Oh, and if you’re interested in those visual references I was jamming about earlier… You know Arya Stark’s move where she goes in to kill the Night King? It’s the same move Achilles uses to kill the giant challenger he has to fight at the beginning of the film Troy.

She’s going for the exact same spot. She just has a back-up plan. Because this is the end of her hero’s journey, not the beginning.

[Edited to add:] Arya as No One

Oh my God readers, I just had a revelation. This moment is ALSO a deliberate callback to Lord of the Rings – the most famous fantasy epic of them all. I’m talking about the moment when Eowyn declares that she is no man, and kills the Witch King.

There was some discussion in the previous episode about what could kill the Night King.

Arya has been asking people what can. Gendry tells her to stop asking. They’re death. Implicitly: no one can kill death. And Arya smirks – she’s killed death before. She killed it in the House of Black and White when she killed the Waif, who, as mentioned above, gets the same Terminator/death-coming-for-you theme tune as the Night King.

As asks again of the war council: will dragon fire kill him?

They hope so, they say.

But it doesn’t. Dragon fire cannot kill the Night King. Jon Snow cannot kill the Night King. Theon Greyjoy cannot kill the Night King. The implication seems to be: nothing and no one can kill the Night King.

And so, No One does.

Arya rejects that identity at the end of her training in the House of Black and White. She says that she is not No One, she is Arya Stark. But is she, still? The deaths she brings, these are not the deaths of the people on her list, they are those other have asked for.

Alright, she kills all the male Freys, and that’s a personal revenge. But she is also avenging Walder Frey’s violation of hospitality on a colossal scale that demands divine retribution.

She kills Littlefinger, but again, she does so at Sansa’s request.

Throughout season eight we see her questioned:

The Hound – wasn’t he on your list? I took him off.

Beric Dondarrion – wasn’t he on your list? For a while.

Melisandre, are you going to kill her? They share a look, and Melisandra answers the question by misquoting herself. Years ago she told Arya she would close many eyes forever: brown eyes, blue eyes, and green eyes. And many speculated that Melisandra would be killed by Arya as she had green eyes. This time, she says “brown eyes, green eyes, and blue eyes“. And we recognise that the White Walkers and the dead all have glowing blue eyes. On first watching, I thought that merely meant that Arya would kill a lot of the dead. But read this instead: Arya kills all of the blue eyes dead people, when she kills the Night King.

This conversation isn’t merely a confirmation that Arya has taken Melisandra off her list, it is a request, from the servant of the Red God to the servant of the God of Death: to kill the Night King.

And because Arya is now No One, she doesn’t kill Melisandre, because she no longer cares about her own list. She kills the Night King instead.

*Reader, I did not follow the instructions.

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Fuck Silence Too

I wrote this poem on the day of the Pittsburgh shooting. It’s been out to submission, but I feel like it’s not something that can wait another six months to be said.

Today’s terrible shooting in New Zealand provokes the same feelings in me, and make the message all the more important. This is a poem about not staying silent about the rise of white supremacy. It can’t go unheard languishing in an editor’s inbox.

Fuck Silence Too

What more is there to say?
Another death, another day.
Another white man spraying fear,
Another closed politico ear.
We’re spoon fed empty thoughts and prayers
From empty-hearted millionaires.
I’d give a fortune of kind thoughts
For children’s bodies to unrot.

Today he entered holy ground
And brought a gun to burn it down.
This time it was a synagogue –
Immersed in Trump’s murderous fog,
Consumed by words to make him great ­–
Another Nazi, filled with hate.
But never name him plainly so,
To boldly aim is ‘shooting low’.

Lynchings now have catchy names;
They SWAT black bodies like a game.
I’m sick to my stomach with impotent grief
Too familiar with death for disbelief.
I’m an ocean away, but the problems are here,
And in every corner: fear, fear, fear.
Fuck Trump. Fuck guns. Fuck Nazi scum.
Fuck Brexit. Fuck TERFs. Fuck everyone.

Ro Smith, 27 October 2018

Remember: speak out. Condemn. Don’t amplify their message.

Don’t say their names. Don’t share their videos. Don’t share photos of their faces. Turn off media previews on Twitter to avoid unintentionally seeing or giving hits to the messages they hope will spread.

Me and Chronic Fatigue

So, long term readers (really long term readers) will know that this used to be a lively, happening blog that updated at least once a week. They’ll also know that all that changed a few years ago. Actually, more than a few years ago. Seven years ago. A depressingly long time ago.

In which I do, in fact, have pretty much all of the symptoms of CFS

And I have been back and forth to the doctors to find out what was wrong. So many doctors. Actually more doctors than I can count. The last doctor I saw both he and I had actually forgotten that I had seen him before until he checked my notes. He was the one who diagnosed me with vertigo.

Which it turns out is one of the symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitus (CFS/ME – which I will be abbreviating to CFS).

As is a sudden onset of crushing tiredness.

As is being ill All The Time. All the time. ALL the time.

As is tender lymph nodes, chiefly in the jaw area. Anyone remember the consistently swollen lymph node I nicknamed Bob the Gland, because it was always swollen? For, like, three years? Bob is exactly where people with CFS most often get tender lymph nodes.

Or there’s the post-activity fatigue that used to DESTROY me as I was trying to do the exercise the first doctor who saw me about this SWORE was the key. Because I was a woman who had put on weight (after she had to stop exercising because she was too tired), so even though I came back negative for diabetes and thyroid issues and all the things he tested me for to try to prove it was my weight, he refused to focus on anything else unless I started to lose weight. Which I could not. Because EXERCISING DESTROYED ME.

Admittedly, I have always had insomnia, but sleep problems are also a symptom. Especially only feeling energetic late at night. Now, originally my bed time moved from 10:30pm to 1am because of my goddamned awful noisy neighbours, but I moved out of the last place where that was an issue about eight years ago, I think? It’s still very hard for me to go to sleep before midnight. I used to be a morning person. I’m not now.

Also, headaches. I never ever used to get headaches. I get them all the time now. Headaches are a symptom.

As is gut pain that can’t be explained for any other reason – like the issues I’ve had for the last five months, and periodically before that, which I thought might be a bladder or appendix issue, but is not.

Also memory problems and clumsiness. I used to have a TERRIFYINGLY good memory. Very exact. Very comprehensive. Not now. My memory is shot.

I also have difficulty reading and concentrating. I can still do that, but it definitely got harder when I was doing my PhD. And everyone kept telling me ‘Oh, it’s just because you’re not smart enough for this. You should give up and try something simpler!’

Well, passing with no corrections kinda makes it clear that, in spite of everything, that was not the case. I could do the work. I. WAS. JUST. SICK. So it took longer and was harder than it otherwise would have been. If people could have just believed that I was sick instead of undermining my confidence further, that surely would have helped, though.

In which I also fit the pattern for what people with CFS were like before they got CFS

And this… this brings me to the real OHHHHHHH moment I had at the introductory session today. They showed us a graph (sadly, it’s not in the booklet they gave me – I was gonna photograph it for you, because it was pretty striking), but what it reflected was this:

People who experience CFS/ME were usually leading busy, active lives and often had no problems with their health before the start of the condition… Commonly the people who suffer with this condition have tried to continue life as normal when they are unwell, so they typically react to the start of this condition in the same way. People often talk about going back to work or college as soon as possible and of pushing through exhaustion to keep going.

(emphasis mine) Yorkshire Fatigue Clinic Introduction Booklet

What was really striking about the graph (and what the clinician explained to us) was that while most people have a variety of peaks and troughs in their energy levels, people who go on to develop CFS tend to have consistently high energy levels before onset. Much higher than most people. When they do get sick it doesn’t affect them as much and they tend to bounce back quicker.

That. Was. Me.

I was never sick. Like, at most, once a year I got a stuffy nose or a sore throat. I never felt ‘under the weather’. I knew that people could be brought so low by a cold that they would need time off work, but I didn’t really understand how or why.

I did not know what people meant when they said that they felt ‘run down’. I just didn’t get it. That had never happened to me.

Now it’s my entire life.

And it’s not just that I never got sick. I had always been the type of person who was happiest when doing a lot of things at once. This is something people who develop CFS tend to have in common. Before developing CFS they tend to be ambitious and active and manage to fit more into their days than most people.

They tend to be, for example, the kind of person who would work four part-time jobs while completing a part-time PhD, writing fiction, and updating a successful blog at least once a week.

In fact, when I think about the onset of the Crushing Tiredness and Endless Illness, I often think of a blog post I made a year or so before it set in. It’s titled: One crazy bohemian roller coaster ride. I wrote it at a time when I knew things were about to get bad, and I was determined to find a way to power through it all.

In fact, things had been bad for a long time. I did not have enough money to live on. I’d recently had to take on teaching evening classes as well as my daytime teaching job, my admin job, my proofreading, and my PhD. I knew it was too much, but I didn’t have any choice.

It still wasn’t really enough, so to save money that year I ate off what I grew in my allotment as much as possible. Oh yeah – on top of the four jobs and the PhD, I was doing regular heavy physical exertion down the allotment.

When I was too tired to cook I sometimes just ate chips from the chippy across the road. I knew that wasn’t a proper meal, but they were cheap and warm and I never got sick – I’d be OK, right?

But that wasn’t all. Remember – I never was the kind of person who could be passionate about just one thing. The PhD wasn’t enough. I had to be creative! So I squeezed in fiction writing, and at least once a week I wrote a blog post here.

In which I got sick

About a year and a half after I wrote the post about the Bohemian roller coaster ride, I got sick.

Not the big Glandular Fever sick that most of those doctors I talked to over the years were looking for. That is, apparently, is not directly connected to CFS at all. The association comes from the fact that those most vulnerable to developing CFS are teenagers and women in their 40s. And teenagers are particularly likely to catch glandular fever, which puts stress on the body and hence can trigger CFS.

CFS can be triggered by any virus or even just a stressful period in one’s life.

I had a cold. It wasn’t a particularly bad cold in terms of sore throat or cough or anything. I didn’t have the flu or glandular fever. It was just a cold. But unlike any cold I’d had before, it completely knocked me out in a way I didn’t quite know how to describe.

I thought to myself, ‘This must be what people mean when they say they feel run down.’

But it was more than just feeling run down. I was crushingly tired. I had never been someone who was able to nap in the day before, but suddenly I was napping all the time. I got home from work and I went straight to bed. Every day.

I took five days off work sick that year. I had never had a day off sick in my life. When asked what was wrong, I didn’t know what to say. My boss told me I needed to ‘manage my sickness’.

I, as someone who had no barometer for what was an an appropriate level of sick at which to stay at home, was already inclined to assume I should push through it. Now I had been tacitly advised that I should not take any more time off if I could possibly avoid it.

So I didn’t. Quite often I would show up at work feeling barely conscious, my eyes literally drooping where I sat. But I showed up. And I made mistakes. And I got more stressed, and things got worse.

In which most doctors know bugger all about CFS

I’m not going to relive the last seven years of misdiagnosis and gaslighting for you. The point is: I have absolutely goddamned classic symptoms of CFS. Yet every doctor I have seen has told me that wasn’t very likely. Even the one who referred me to the clinic thought I had some kind of fatigue, but not CFS.

Why? Because I didn’t have any big illness like glandular fever. I had a mild cold. And I suddenly felt crushingly tired. And then I never stopped having colds and feeling tired. For seven years.

The cold may have triggered it, but in terms of big stresses on the body, it’s pretty clear that I had that going on, too. I was doing too much paid work. I was studying for my PhD. I was exercising regularly and working down the allotment. I was eating very poorly. Just because I didn’t have a serious virus doesn’t mean my body wasn’t under stress.

Incidentally, always feeling like you have a cold is one of the symptoms. Not just because a simple cold will take longer to get over if you have CFS, but because your immune system will start acting as though you have a cold even when you don’t. Which is why people with CFS often don’t look particularly ill.

At the moment I have a slight stuffy nose and a mildly sore throat. I have had those mild cold symptoms for three weeks now. And I spent most of those two weeks off work sick and barely able to get out of bed.

In which, there is light

What does this mean, going forward? Well, I have my assessment on 22 March. After today, I feel a lot more confident that I’m finally going to get my diagnosis.

There’s then a programme that will actually help me get better.


I’d been led to believe that this is a lifelong illness and that the most I can expect is to learn how to manage it.


Partly born of the fact that until recently there’s been very little research into CFS/ME. But they do actually know things, now. I’ve been talking in quite general terms, but the talk today was actually very detailed, specific, and not afraid of technical language.

Apparently the big thing is that something has gone wrong in the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis, which alters cortisol regulation. And THAT sends a WHOLE BUNCH of systems haywire, including altered mood, changes in concentration and memory, altered bowel habits and abdominal pain (without cause), lymph node tenderness, immunological changes and immune activation (even when you’re not sick).

In my assessment we’ll identify risk factors, profile my symptoms and triggers, and make a plan for rehabilitation, with the aim of achieving stability, then gradually building tolerance and helping me get back to the activities I want to be able to do. Like going places and doing things.

That will probably mean doing less for a while. I probably won’t be updating this blog much and I suspect I’ll be asked to give up my allotment (although I hope not).

I’ll also probably have to put off the things I was starting to hope I could do soon, like learning to drive or getting a cat or trying to get out and meet new people.

The expectation is not that I will get back to the energy levels I once had. But the point is that most people don’t have that level of energy. They did say that some people do get back to that level, but more likely is that I’ll get back to normal people energy levels. Which would be just fine by me.

So. There’s hope. The clinic seem very well informed. And it seems likely that they won’t dismiss my symptoms in the same way all the doctors have over the past seven years, because the doctors were wrong.

That’s really, really good.

Review: Russian Doll

Has The Good Place whetted your appetite for high-concept, well-executed speculative television? If so, Russian Doll might be just what you need.

Be warned, Russian Doll is as dark as The Good Place is light-hearted and colourful, but it’s darkly humorous, rather than darkly grim. And if anything, its message is even more life-affirming.

Nevertheless, viewers should note that suicide and depression form part of the rich tapestry of subject matter explored in this original and well-observed dramedy.


It’s Nadia’s birthday. She’s turning 36, an age her mother never reached.

We meet her as she stares into the mirror in an absurdly decorated bathroom at her friend Maxine’s apartment. Maxine (Greta Lee) has thrown her a lavish party.

An Asian woman smoking a join looks quizically at a red-haired woman. She is wearing a blue, puff-sleeved chiffon blouse. A caption with musical notes on either side reads "Happy bithrday to you".
It’s a good blouse.

Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) and her friends are affluent, creative, and free-spirited professionals, mostly in their 30s and 40s. That hinterland generational mix of older millennials and younger gen-Xers. (Maxine’s apartment is fantastic and I would trade half my clothes for her stylish blouse.)

Despite her evident wealth and the many people who clearly love her, Nadia is unfulfilled. She smokes; she drinks; she has casual sex with a pseudo-intellectual arsehole.

And she ends the night being run over by a car when she spots her cat on the other side of the road. (Note: the cat is fine.)

This is not really a spoiler, as Nadia immediately returns to the exact point at which she started the evening: staring into the mirror in her friend’s bathroom while someone knocks on the door.

Meanwhile, nearby, Alan (Yul Vazquez) is having the worst night of his life.

Alan is also well off – they are not really like any millennials I know. He is physically fit and healthy – in fact, obsessively so. He suffers from intense anxiety and depression and attempts to manage these conditions by rigidly ordering his life according to strict routines. He never explicitly states that he suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, but that seems to be implied.

This night, Alan plans to propose to his girlfriend, and she plans to break up with him.

Alan is also stuck in a loop where he starts the night staring into his bathroom mirror and ends the night by dying.

While Nadia immediately starts trying to figure out what is happening, Alan simply assumes he is being punished, and adjusts his routine to compensate.

Eventually they meet, and together they begin to solve the puzzle of what the hell is actually going on.

My take

This is amazing.

Anyone who has seen Orange is the New Black will know that Natasha Lyonne can act. A witty, drug-taking woman with a self-destructive streak is not a very great leap in casting from the role that made her famous, but it’s undeniable that she does it well.

Once you know that Lyonne wrote Russian Doll in partnership with Amy Poelher (Parks and Recreation), it’s time to sit up.

Russian Doll is smart, it’s funny, and it kept me guessing right until the very end.

It has a good balance of male and female characters, represents a variety of sexualities, is racially diverse, and doesn’t do badly at all in its representation of mental health issues. While the life-affirming resolution could be taken to tie things up too easily, it’s fair to say that there’s no suggestion of an easy cure for depression or anxiety. And though the stigma of mental health issues is recognised, both Nadia and Alan have people in their lives who treat their respective difficulties with unpatronising compassion.

Particular credit is due for the character Ruth – the therapist who raised Nadia after her mother died. Played by the wonderful Elizabeth Ashley, Ruth doesn’t fall into the cliches of cookie-cutter psychotherapists one usually sees on film and TV. She offers no reductive solutions, and instead emphasises the need to build a relationship with her patients. She also steadfastly calls anyone and everyone up on the use of ableist terms in her house.

While I wouldn’t put too much stock in the metaphysics of time loops explored in Russian Doll, it’s internally consistent according to the rules of the universe it establishes. It’s also more interesting, complex, and satisfying in both structure and resolution than Groundhog Day, the most famous example of the time loop trope. I say that as someone who rates Groundhog Day quite highly.

Please take the time to enrich your life. This is an original and exciting gem of a show.

2018 – a year in review, I guess

It’s definitely been a year, hasn’t it? Trump? Brexit? Distracted boyfriend memes. Tide pods. Black Panther. Female genderqueer Doctor Who. Oceans 8. Increasing ways to fuck monsters on the big screen.

I suppose I should start with the illness

Personally, I started the year sick as a dog. Sicker than a dog. I had the Australian flu. And then every other bug going around at about 10 times the level of ill that other people had them.

It was gutting. I had to take time off work at a crucial point and some of my coworkers never forgave me for that. I was lucky in that I had a really understanding boss who insisted that I take time off when I was ill, but it was still awful.

I accidentally ended up seeing a different doctor to usual and at first it looked like that was a good thing as he seemed to take my condition seriously and be willing to help. But that just set me up for even more gutting disappointment when he declared that he couldn’t find anything and it was all in my head.

Fortunately, he suggested I try a different doctor for a second opinion before just trying me on a different anti-depressant medication again.

She’s been great. Slow. But great. Slow because my doctor’s surgery has actually been rated inadequate. They literally can’t handle the number of patients they have, but there also aren’t any viable NHS alternatives in the area. It’s been a barrel of laughs.

Anyway. More blood tests. I’m anemic again. More iron tablets.

An iron fish.

A weird pain in my lower right-hand side. New blood tests in case it’s my appendix. It isn’t, but it might be an ovarian cyst.

Blood tests reveal that my iron levels are technically back to normal (as in, the lowest number there is in the normal range) but apparently you can still be symptomatic up until 50. I am at 30. I do not know what of, but that is the iron number of my blood.

The good thing is that technically being back in the normal is all my doctor needs. I have been sick, pretty much non-stop, for six… actually probably more like seven years now. It isn’t normal. I had a week this year – one week – where I almost felt OK.

I cannot go places or do things. When I get home from work I cannot do anything. I mostly live in my bed. At work I am tired and I know I could function better than I do.

I have had blood tests. So many blood tests. I’m not going to go over my medical history again – I have talked about it ad nauseum and you, dear reader, are not going to be able to tell me anything me and my doctors have not considered, so please, please don’t try.

They don’t think it’s ME or CFS. It might be Multi-factor Fatigue Syndrome. It might still be the iron. It might be a sleep disorder (I doubt it – I have always suffered from insomnia, but there have been periods where I have slept quite well over the years this has been going on). But having technically normal iron means that I am finally being referred to the Chronic Fatigue clinic.

The thing I find most hilarious is that one of the reasons they don’t think it’s Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is that, while they insisted for years that it wasn’t anything at all, they now say that it’s been going on too long for it to be CFS.

But the fact is that I am still ill. Debilitatingly ill. I’ve seen people just about every other day this Christmas, and have ended up sleeping most of the following day to recover. And it’s not just being tired. I feel nauseous. I have headaches. I can’t think properly. It makes dealing with anything emotionally taxing very hard.

And this has meant that I can’t get on with my life. I just can’t. I can’t write fiction. I can’t publish philosophy. People have stopped believing that I ever will and hence treat it as a joke. I’m not being lazy, guys. I’m ILL.

I gave my most successful and most enjoyable paper ever at Nine Worlds this year – to a really huge packed room – and people were coming up to talk to me afterwards. It was amazing – it should have been amazing. I was too ill. I had four or five things to do that day and I had to run away to recover before the next.

It could have been a relaunching of my online presence. All kinds of people followed me and were asking for an online version of the talk – on The Ethics of The Good Place – and I haven’t been able to do it. I have been too ill.

It’s boring to dwell on this. It makes me seem whiny – I know. But it really has affected every part of my life, personally and professionally. It’s very difficult to find any kind of hope for the future when you literally can’t do anything but the bare minimum required to survive.

Professional life

Let’s talk about this, then. Overall, objectively, it’s worked out to be a good year.

For the most part I worked with good people and achieved great things and really diversified my experience. I played a substantial part in bringing two prospectuses to print and I think my contributions to those look great. It was a shift, moving from mostly website and social media work to print, but it was wonderful to be writing so much, at such a high level, and to play such a key role in how a university presents itself.

The last two years being paid to write and create graphics and web content for a university I love has been amazing. I’m very sad to have had to leave such a creative environment, but yet another short-term contract came to an end, and I couldn’t live like that anymore. I have needed a permanent job for a long time, and I am very grateful that one came along when it did.

Now I’m a Content Specialist. Which at the moment seems to largely involve technical writing. That’s a new field for me. I have written, proofread, and edited fiction, academic writing, marketing materials, even poetry, but not technical writing. Although much of the work seems very similar to what I’ve done before, there’s still a lot of uncertainty involved in doing something new.

I will be a lot happier when I’ve seen out my probation and know that this really is a permanent job.

It pays a lot better than anything I have ever earnt before. Which is good. Frankly, I need the money – my credit card bills need the money. And I don’t like having to rely on teh generosity of others so much.

I’m also hoping it will mean that I can get private medical insurance soon. I love the NHS, but the Tories have gutted it and I need to sort my health out. I can’t go on like this – limping from one thing to the next. I want to actually live my life at some point.


I am writing. Not as much as I would like. But I am. As of yesterday I have 48,000 words on what I am referring to as Courtly Intrigue and Dragons.

I am determined to finish a novel this year. I know I say that every year, but it has to be done.

It’s hard to write at home because illness usually means the place is a tip and my own despondency seems to sort of seep into the walls, but I’m hoping that once I’ve made a proper dent in the credit card bill I can afford to get away – a writing retweet. Or maybe even just a weekend away in an AirBnB in Edinburgh or something.

It would be good to sort out my study, but illness has made that hard. It is overflowing with stuff that I don’t have the time or energy to sort out.

I’ve also gotten back to writing poetry this year. I think I’ve written some good things – working in Marketing has really honed my ability to write within hard limits and to set requirements. Having always written freeform before I have tried my hand at sonnets and I’ve been pleased with the results. I read some at the open mic at Fantasy Con and they seemed well-received. Nothing published as yet, but I have some out to submission. I’ve had no luck at all with my short stories this year, so it’s been good to try something else.

I have also written a very great deal of fanfiction. But less than last year, I think. My obsession with Dragon Age is finally cooling, so I’m able to throw myself behind the original fiction more.

I treated myself to a notebook earlier this year, and I think that’s really helped.

Holidays and Conventions

I actually got to go on holiday this year. Nice was nice. It was hot and sunny and I got suitably sunburnt. I think it did me good. I hope this year I manage to get to a proper sand beach, but the pebble beach in Nice was pretty good, and I enjoyed being able to swim in the sea again.

I’m hoping this year involves some time to get away and write, but I have less leave to work with so need to have a proper think about where I go and when.

Nine Worlds was good in some ways this year. I enjoyed the Toilet Panel, my Good Place paper, and my talk on Stephen King’s The Dark Tower and the Modernists. But it was also smaller, less diverse, and with much less involvement from the publishing industry. I now know that this is because the con was in a kind of crisis and over the past few months its been in the process of changing hands and sorting itself out. Only time will tell what becomes of it, but it is a shame – local friends had just started saying that they might go in 2019.

I am tempted by World Con and Easter Con and Fantasy Con this year, but I can’t go to them all. There’s also the fact that I really enjoy taking part, and I know that more traditional cons tend to focus on inviting guests who have something to plug, instead of encouraging enthusiastic fans and academics the way Nine Worlds did.

Maybe this year I should spend the time focusing on my writing instead, so that I actually become the sort of person those kinds of cons want. But I also need to get out and meet new people, and at the moment, cons seem to be the best way for me to do that.


My resolutions for this year are very similar to those of every year.

I need to lose weight. It’s very difficult to do when you’re ill, but I am the fattest I have ever been and I hate the way my body feels.

I’ve started again with what I used to call Boredom Calisthenics – doing sit-ups and whatnot in the little bits of empty time when you’re waiting for the kettle to boil or the rice to cook. I did this before and was able to maintain my lowest adult weight for several years that way. I’ve also started on the weights. And I’ll need to eat better.

That latter is inhibited by the free-flowing of food and drink at work. I need to be better at saying ‘no’. But that’s difficult when you’re anxious, and I’ll need to settle into the work a lot more before my anxiety reduces.

I also want to finish writing a novel.

And I want to be published again. I used to manage to get at least one thing published every year, and I’ve not been able to do that for a while now. That needs to change.

I’d like to go back to my allotment and do a good job this year, but I may have to give it up because, you guessed it – my health.

A lot is dependent on my health. Writing is, exercise is, eating well is, the allotment is.

I will keep taking the iron pills and try to hope that something comes of this referral.

I also need a better sofa. That will help in getting me down out of bed and into the rest of the house.

So… as year reviews go, this is fairly dull. I feel like I should have been talking about Black Panther and Doctor Who and Shape of Water. But I haven’t the energy.

That’s what I most want for 2019: energy.