The Man without Leg Days

About three months ago I embarked on a bit of a fitness jig. While I was in the forest, this involved getting up to do half an hour of sinawali, going for a run in the forest around lunch time, and lifting weights before bed. It’s not a particularly intensive regime – more on that in a bit – but it does mean I’m exercising for between an hour and ninety minutes every day. I’ve, in the main, kept this up in the two and a half weeks I’ve been living in High Wycombe, despite having to find a new running route and adjust my time table accordingly. At the moment, I am up at half-six to get in the time for my escrima.

My motivations for this are as dorkly as anything. I really like dressing up in costume for Halloween and, a few months back, watched the Netflix Daredevil series.[1] I quite liked it, and especially liked the ‘Black Mask’ look. I thought I would poach it but, at that point, I was in shabby shape. The components for the costume were relatively easy to get together[2] but, to quote a phrase, I did not want to look like a bipedal frog, all spindly limbs and bubble belly.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done a bit of ‘get fit.’ I first started caring about exercise when I was about sixteen, seventeen. That was prompted by, of all things, a news article about Michael Jackson hiring a personal trainer because he was worried about bone strength and getting brittle in old age.[3] This made me worry about the state of my bones. So, I started doing a little bit of body-weight stuff – press-ups, sit-ups, and lots of stretching – until my brother Kris invited me to his gym.[4]

ROKO in Portsmouth was basically a giant, well-lit warehouse filled with (then) high-tech exercise equipment.[5] You had a profile set-up recording your range of movement on a given station and then from there you were on your own. You could ask for coaching or help from one of the staff but why would I do that? I’d turn on my music player and just pootle around for an hour every other day, going through my twelve or so stations. It was great fun and, on the way home, I’d reward myself with some chips.[6] ROKO ended when I got so sick I had to be hospitalised and ended with chronic fatigue. I also lost loads of weight, going from a healthy adult male to skeletor in the space of an evening.

I next attempted to climb the hill of physical fitness while living in Greenwich. That pretty much involved more of my old regime and a bit of shadow-boxing thrown in for cardio. It was very, very low impact because I was in no shape to do anything more. I like to think that this helped me recover better than I would have done but I never reached the lofty heights I had achieved at ROKO. This tailed off when I moved to Stoke-on-Trent. While there, I walked two hours each day to get to work, which I figured was exercise enough. Whether it was or not is neither here nor there.

It wouldn’t be for another three years, when I started at Nottingham Trent University, that I would resume the Sisyphean pursuit of personal fitness again. I joined a local gym about fifteen-minute’s walks from home and, once again, started to go every other day. This wasn’t as high-tech as ROKO had been, but was a bit fancier than the local gyms stuffed with hard bodied bros that comes to mind when I think of ‘local gym.’[7] This wasn’t as successful a time as going to ROKO; a combination of stuff that darkened my mood led to me not going as often, or with as much dedication, as I should have done. I stopped going to that gym after a year, though only because the initial incentive low-price expired and I couldn’t in good conscience afford any more.

Another period of laziness followed, which gave way to swimming. I’m not a strong swimmer and I didn’t learn to swim properly until I was in my early teens. The Lenton pool was a tiny little thing, in the abstract a representation of what a local community can do for itself, but my strongest memories are of banging my head repeatedly on the sides.[8] I remain unsure as to why I stopped going.

After graduation, my exercise turned back to the old standards of press-ups, sit-ups, and stretches. I also added, for the first time, jogging.[9] I would get up early and go for a run around the block. Much as now, it wasn’t anything a real runner would consider running, but it made me feel good, especially once I’d managed to actually do my whole circuit without collapsing dead. However, being unemployed does wonders for the mind and I lost my motivation.

About a month after moving in with Liam, I had a small epiphany and started exercising again, and a lot. I would get up at silly o’clock to do press-ups, sit-ups, stretches, and lifting. At that point in time, I didn’t have the money to buy weights so instead I stuffed some bags with books and lifted those instead. Much to my surprise/pleasure it worked. I started to beat myself in to some shape. I actually managed to beat the 100 press-up thing. Later, I started adding escrima to my regimen, buying a pair of sticks and proving myself a menace to my skull and masonry. That bout of exercise tailed off during my time in Lenton Manor, once again putting up with cold and misery sapping my will to keep in shape.

So, obviously, at this point I think it’s fair to acknowledge that to keep this good habit I am developing, I also have to own up to being a bit of an inconstant exerciser. With that in mind, I’ve been establishing to myself what makes for good exercise practice. Mostly, this is things I’ve gleaned from people saying motivational slogans at me as I lift:

  1. Have a goal. This is my own one. In this instance, I want to not embarrass myself when I dress up as Daredevil, even if it’s just in the privacy of my own room.[10] I think it’s important to have something tangible to aspire to, because you can compare yourself against it. This also applies to the structure of your work-outs – I have a timetable for increasing weight and reps for my lifting, so I can see how much I’ve improved.
  2. Finish strong! This one is from Kris. I don’t know if there is an actual fitness reason for this, but I’ve internalised it as a psychological principle. If I finish better than I started – so twelve reps rather than eight – I feel better about the work I’ve done, even if I am tired. It works for me.
  3. Don’t train yourself to hate something. I mentioned earlier that my exercise is low-intensity. This comes from something a friend of mine said, many years ago, about going from unfit to marathon runner: don’t do something until it hurts you, because all you are doing is training yourself to hate it and want to stop. Instead, keep it reasonable, keep it fun, and you’ll want to keep doing it.

So, with those three things in mind, I’m off to do some arnis. Maybe nobody will see my impressive Daredevil cosplay but at least my secret identity will be safe.


[1] All a bit moot now, mind. I was intending to visit Oop North for Halloween but Liam’s moved and Rob doesn’t want to do anything for Halloween. As yet, the RAF do not seem to ‘do’ Halloween. They’re big on Oktoberfest though. Must be the German connection.

[2] The only problems I ran in to: Tactical gloves are illegal and I would love to know how they made the actual Black Mask, because apparently Charlie Cox’s one allows you to see.

[3] Turns out, he needn’t have worried. That’s life.

[4] I believe I did go to the Gym with Jon once or twice as well. Suffice to say, watching Jon lift weights is an experience.

[5] Also free-weights, but I have never been fond of free-weights.

[6] I didn’t think of this at the time, but those chips were probably why I put on any muscle while going to ROKO. Fuel and that.

[7] I would like to take a moment to say I’ve found most gym guys quite friendly, though overly competitive. I’m just not that chatty when I’m exercising.

[8] I swim underwater with my eyes closed. I don’t recommend it.

[9] Perhaps, more correctly, gasping.

[10] Take that, Crime!


Take This Walk with Me

As of 1 October, I no longer live in the Forest of Dean. I’ve secured a job, and a room, and I’ve gone away. Before I went, on 29 September, I took the two dogs for a walk, along with my brother Jim. I wanted to go around the Forest as a sort of ‘goodbye’ to the place.[1] Thanks to his reminder, I took a few pictures. It was a lovely day, the kind of crisp end of September day that, but for the chill, wouldn’t be out of place in the heart of summer.


As we walked, I reflected that it would be nearly a year to the day since I properly moved back in with my parents; I’d had to arrange collect my things about six weeks after leaving Salisbury. I never came to love living in the country-side but I did come to appreciate the forest itself. Each day I would take a short run through it as part of my exercise regimen. Slightly less frequently, we would take the two dogs for a long or short walk depending on the weather and our mood.


In Sky’s death, I mentioned that I used to walk with her and it helped me by giving me time to myself, outside of the house, to think. It remained as that, a location removed from the dreariness of life where I could think freely. When walking the dogs with Jim, we’d discuss what we were writing, or thinking of writing or, most recently, my plans for a theoretical 13th Age game.


One half of the help of the forest came from getting away, but the other half was undoubtedly these chats with Jim. I think, with all sincerity, I would be in a much worse state if he had not been around to talk to.[2] I’m genuinely grateful for his friendship in what has been a properly difficult time of life for me.

The struggle to be front dog

The struggle to be front dog

Most days, to properly exercise the dogs, we’d take hour-long walks. The Forest is well traversed, with paths marked out with stones. Around you, thick limbed trees give the false impression of the periphery of an untouched wilderness. You can see marks on the earth, there are stacks of uneven stone, and if you are lucky you might encounter a deer or a wild boar.[3]


We went off of the usual paths, opting to take a detour on this last trip, to make it a last adventure. A muddy path, which he soon diverged from, took us across a shallow bit of marsh, past disturbed earth, and all the way to a tiny road running through the forest. It turned out to be a non-starter, and we went back around to where we had begun. Pointless but absolutely worthwhile.


Otherwise, much of the forest looks like much else of the forest. That’s neither here nor there, good nor bad, it’s just something that is. Still, I’m glad I took the time for this last walk.


[1] Also, to Freya and Daisy or Thuggle and Doozer as I think of them. It’s a contrast between cats and dogs that I hadn’t thought of before – I have never gotten to say goodbye to a cat.

[2] And, it should be noted, drive me around the country in pursuit of employment, lodging, and a more fulfilling scotch egg.

[3] I once ran in to a jet black deer with a white tale. I’ve seen a young stag, his antler’s bright in the summer air. One late evening, Jim and I were startled by a sow and her piglets. It was rather exciting.

The Darkest Dungeon

Of late, I have been playing a game called the Darkest Dungeon. It is a side-scrolling Roguelike RPG, designed by a studio called Red Hook, and funded (in part) through Kick-starter[1]. It is one of the success stories of the current trend of crowd funding, in terms of both money raised and the product that is being delivered. I first became aware of the game’s existence through a video put together by Matt Lees, a videogame/web-media personality whose work I follow. I wasn’t part of the Kickstarter, I was given the game as a birthday present. It is currently available through Steam’s Early Access feature. I’d like to share my thoughts which are, overwhelmingly, positive.

First of all, and probably most importantly for me, the game is absolutely amazingly realised. I am of the opinion that there is a bit of a glut of Lovecraft-mythos inspired media currently out there, a kind of lazy embrace of Cthulhu and assorted monstrosities without any interrogation of the text. Similarly, the trend for ‘dark fantasy.’ To put it another way, given I did write ‘dark fantasy’ novella, I have developed in to a bit of a picky snob with regards to genre.

In The Darkest Dungeon I think these two themes have been stylishly represented and artfully deployed. The game is presented to the player in two modes: a washed-out township with a collection of decrepit buildings or, the meat of the game, 2-d side scrolling sprites arranged in order as they move from the left side of your screen to the right, tripping hazards and looting treasures along the way. A simple foundation, boldly realised. The art direction is amazing and evocative: the Ruins are gothic, there’s a slaughter-house vibe to the Warrens of the swine, and the Weald is the dark forest of traditional fairy-tale married to a Del Toro-esque fantasy vision. Everything looks grubby, worn, and a little close to breaking; the heroes look nearly as bestial as the monsters they face; and the simple colour shifts of the torch wash out the world in threatening reds and obscuring blues. This is accompanied by fragmentary narration by a nameless ‘Ancestor’ who warns and entreats in equal measure, a score that emphasizes the claustrophobia and creeping unease of the setting, and a sound effects palette that shifts from soft whispered squeals to reverberating echoes. An incredible amount of work has gone in to realising this setting.

Monsters hideous and peculiar

Monsters hideous and peculiar

I’ve never really played “Roguelikes.” I remember, vaguely, the original Rogue as something my older brothers probably played, but especially that my mum really liked.[2] That meant that, apart from a little bit of peripheral reading, I was not familiar with the mechanisms of Roguelike play – randomness, nonlinearity, the tendency for things to sometimes be just unfair. That is not to say I only play games with a preset structure – a current favourite is Crusader Kings 2 – but I’m more inclined to ‘save scum’[3] if I don’t get the outcome I want. That option isn’t available in DD, which means that I have to accept my losses as I progress. This has been emphasized by a particular conceit I have embraced while playing Darkest Dungeon: I have renamed each of my heroes to a family member or friend.

Or a nickname, on request

Or a nickname, on request

It is an odd little quirk to get you more invested in the characters, that tiny amount of customisation. You can do a similar thing in the 2012 X-Com game;[4] my actual first play-through of the game featured me renaming every recruit that of my friends and family, semi-prompted by the narrative of familial duty that the game presents.[5] This added investment, the tiniest of tweaks in customisation, added another layer to my engagement with the fictive universe: I wasn’t just some nameless inheritor sending strangers off to die, I was me, and the people fighting in the tombs were my friends. Yet the game itself exceeds the expectation of just naming your soldiers that the afore-mentioned X-Com offered. The heroes of Darkest Dungeon suffer for their travails, bend and break as they are exposed to danger and horror, and develop strange quirks of personality as a result of it. I think it is telling that, while the quirks that affect stats were the one’s that were most obviously detrimental, it was the traits that reflected personality that brought the characters to life and affected game play. One Graverobber was ‘Curious’, rifling through books and scrolls even as they further eroded her mind. Then there was the Crusader, a holy warrior, afflicted with Kleptomania; sometimes, against my wishes, he would open chests and pocket the treasure for himself

Meanwhile, in Hamlet...

Meanwhile, in Hamlet…

Even back in town, characters would refuse or require certain activities: the Highwayman who refused any comfort other than drink, or the Vestal who had been barred from the Brothel for her ‘Deviant Tastes.’ The band came alive with quirks beyond my direct governance. When, finally, the deathblows fell,[6] I had become attached to them through their habits as much as the names I had given them.

The center cannot hold

The center cannot hold

There are also, mechanically, so many little features of Darkest Dungeon, all geared to evoking the claustrophobic feel of the descent. Your characters are not just at risk of bodily harm; they have a Stress meter that endures between forays in to the dungeon. Gain too much stress, and your hero can break, becoming abusive or paranoid. Gain even more, and it could kill them.

All too much

All too much

Stress is gained in combat, but also from unexpected surprises such as finding a gruesome scene or reading a particularly troubling text. You have limited supply space when you go in to the Dungeon; your heroes need to eat, but how much will you bring? You need to plan for what you might encounter: tunnels to clear passages, or bandages to bind up cuts.

Come prepared, and you may reap the rewards

Come prepared, and you may reap the rewards

Yet this all costs gold, and takes up space, reducing how much you can bring home from the dungeon. The money so spent is lost. That’s the core of the gameplay, balancing the risk of pushing on and losing everything, with the potential to gain more treasure. A tough fight might be winnable, or you might prefer to retreat when things go south. Unlike, say, a modern MMO where the only thing lost is time, in Darkest Dungeon you could lose a treasured Hero (and the investment they represent) as well as everything they were carrying

.Darkest Dungeon is not without flaws. Despite your heroes deteriorating state, there is no sense of urgency in the over game. It is a perfectly viable strategy to rinse through several heroes just to get gold and heirlooms. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the Occultist being locked in as mystic and coded as non-white.[7] There are a lot of bugs, from graphical glitches where objects, events, and even characters will be locked out; there is a consistent problem with crashes and lock-ups, and the game is not at all well integrated with the Steam Overlay. I had to turn off alerts of any sort, and frequently had to restart when taking screen shots.

For example

For example

This would have been a bigger problem without the constant auto-saving. I also think that the game’s difficulty could use some attention; the balance between the risk of exploring in the dark doesn’t feel that great, while the rewards are staggering. There are some abilities that just come across as emphatically better; I can’t imagine using any of the Hellion’s self-bebuffing abilities when other classes can do more for less; the Arbalist and the Bountyhunter’s Marks are both vastly inferior to the Houndmasters and the Occultist’s. There’s some need for another balance pass there.

It is an excellent, atmospheric game though. It achieves the tense feeling of a classic dungeon crawl without reference to complex placement. The music, art, and tone of the game draw you in; what at first seems a plea for help is gradually revealed as more of a protracted confession of wrong-doing. The little touches on the Heroes makes you feel connected with your favourites, even as you throw them again and again in to the jaws of doom. Each classes offers something a little different, a different strength that, it turns out, has a niche in the Dungeons. Build a party around Marks, build a party around Blight, or build a party that is so tough you can just wear the enemies down. I love the kind of real, tactical choice Darkest Dungeon offers, and more that it wraps it in a game so evocative and ridiculously beautiful. It is already amazing, and there is more to come.

Gather strength before pushing onward.

Gather strength before pushing onward.

[1] Also involving the company Klei, who were behind the equally quirky “Don’t Starve.” There’s some commonality in the aesthetic of the two games.

[2] In fact, when I was chatting with her about The Darkest Dungeon, her face lit up as she said “So it’s like Rogue!”

[3] That is, quit and reload from an earlier point in the game.

[4] Which I also quite enjoyed.

[5] I made my exploits available to send friends through a private screenshot collection, some of which you see here.

[6] In some cases, multiple times.

[7] Though by and large the game is excellent when it comes to the diversity of the heroes. For most characters with visible faces, the tones vary dramatically. So good on Red Hook.

A Dog’s Life

Today, 28 August 2015, my mum and my brother took our Sky, our oldest dog, to the vet to have her put to sleep. It’s a recurrence of a tumorous growth, perhaps a cancer, that she had two years ago. Then, it required operation. Now that it is back, it’s worse, and there’s nothing that could be done: the tumour had become infected, and either one would have killed her. So today is a sad day.

When I first moved back in with my parents, following the disintegration of my life after an ill-timed moment of trust, I would take Sky for a walk in the forest. It was a way to get out of the house, and have space with my thoughts; there is nothing like the (mostly) silent constancy of a dog to provide space for your thoughts. After a while, those walks became runs. Though Sky is – was, it will be past tense from now on – was old, already eleven, she loved to run. To begin with, she ran faster than me, loping ahead in her particular, peculiar doggy stride. It encouraged me to push harder and go a little faster. It was good, but she deteriorated quickly. The last time we ran together, I was outpacing her and it was only after I turned a bend and stopped to see her loping so far behind that I realised she couldn’t keep up. Even then, once she had reached my heel, she tried to start running again, still filled with a doggy enthusiasm for life. The runs turned back to walks, but eventually she couldn’t manage that. I noticed a growth on her back leg.

I remember the first time I met Sky, both vividly and not. I was back home in Portsmouth, visiting and checking my post. I still had my key, and let myself in as no-one answered the door. As I opened my letters, I heard a little yip and looked down to see a fluffy grey pup poking her head nervously around the corner of the sofa.

That was Sky, an anxious puppy. She never overcame that shyness, always happier to let the more boisterous and inevitably smaller dogs take the lead or boss her about. But that grey pup is old now, and quite sick.It’s gotten to the point where Sky struggles to stand, her back legs shaking so much it is painful; where younger dogs playing causes her to be so upset she hides; where her eyes and her nose have failed her so that she has to get so close to something to see it that she frightens herself with its proximity. It’s my mum, whose love for Sky can’t be doubted, who has been the closest witness to Sky’s deterioration: mum feeds her, walks her, sits with her, washes her with water and, when that got too hard for Sky, with baby wipes. Last night, Sky’s last night, my mum turned off all the lights and locked all the doors as normal but, when it came time to leave Sky on her own, she couldn’t do it. My mum sat up all night so that Sky’s last night would not be lonely, and sat with her at the vet so she would not be frightened in the end.

Sky has had a good two years since her previous diagnosis. It might feel like when the tumour was first spotted, she should have been let go. But there have been runs and walks in the forest, sniffing this plant and looking at that wild animal in mild but not aggressive interest; new dogs came in to the family, which though at first they made her nervous, she befriended and until very near the end she would wrestle with Freya, or clean Daisy (the newest, and noisiest Spry dog); the Forest was a place of belly rubs and treats and away from frightening roads and cars. It helps somewhat to think of Sky as a grand old lady, enjoying her retirement out in the woods in the sunset of her life, but that’s really a human projection on to a different type of thing entirely.

Dogs are magnificent creatures. They are not human, though we humans project ourselves on to them in ways large and small. It’s a human foible that dogs haven’t picked up. Their love is not a human love; their loyalty, as immortalised as it is, is not human loyalty. But they are things that are real, and that exist, and perhaps most important of all that we can recognise. It’s a strangeness about us that we can’t reciprocate, not in them that they love us so fully and without limit, that we form bonds with them that require no language, transcends the limits of speech. Perhaps that is the greatest gift dogs have passed on to humans, the ability to breach a divide between species without words. It is the privilege of the dog owner to share some space in time with the dog, to share in kinship with a species that, at the last, though not our own, understands us perhaps more than we understand ourselves, and certainly more than we understand them.

Goodbye Sky. You’ll be missed.

“One Small Part of Myself” – Ancillary Justice

A few days ago I finished Ann Leckie’s multi-award winning debut novel Ancillary Justice, released in 2013. I had heard and read about it in the past, and picked it up for my e-reader as it was on sale earlier in the month. I am really pleased that I did; it doesn’t need me to say it, but Justice is a splendid example of science fiction, the fiction of ‘ideas.’ Spoilers of major plot points follow, so please be aware if you want to read the novel unspoiled, stop now.

The story, set at some indeterminately distant future, follows the experiences of Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, an Ancillary of the troop carrier Justice of Toren, who is on a mission to avenge the murder of one Lieutenant Awn. Of course, the story is straight-forward neither chronologically nor motivationally. One Esk Nineteen – by this point operating under the identity of ‘Breq of the Gerentate’ – is not just a subsidiary component of Justice of Toren. She became the totality – or as near as possible – of it after the ship Justice of Toren was destroyed. Even before that, One Esk Nineteen had quirks of behaviour that differentiated her segment from the other segments within Justice of Toren; she sang, she had her own favourites. Justice of Toren was Awn’s executioner, just not the segment of which One Esk Nineteen. It is the ruler of the space empire of which Justice of Toren is subservient to who ordered Awn’s execution: Anander Mianaai. Mianaai has multiple bodies who have started to struggle at cross purposes to themselves, segments of the ruler as One Esk Nineteen is a segment of Justice of Toren.

Science Fiction uses technology as a device to have readers ask about both the world we live in, and of our assumptions about it. Ancillary Justice continues this tradition by questioning our ideas of what is the self and what it means to be a person, asking questions of how we construct our identity. As Breq thinks “It seems very straightforward when I say “I”” yet is anything but. Breq is open about not understanding her subjectivity, the novel begins with her professing that “sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do.”

We are told in the first chapter that she “is not what [she] once was” a statement that at face value is linked to her diminished capabilities but, underneath that, hints at the sprawling complexities of an identity: “it’s hard for me to know how much of myself I remember.” She was once part of a ship with many components, and is now one alone;

“I was all but dead, had been for twenty years, just a last, tiny fragment of myself that managed to exist a bit longer than the rest.”

Before that, the body of Breq was that of a human taken in an annexation – the conquest and subsumation of a planet in to the Radch. Whoever that person was is lost, unless they exist on in One Esk’s love of singing. Breq’s identity is questioned, not just by herself, but whether she is herself at all. On Nilt, with the doctor Strigan, Breq is advised to seek out a new life away from Radch, to which Breq’s response is, if she did as advised, should she let go of her vendetta, would Strigan require monthly updates on her exploits, so that she ‘approved’ of Breq’s identity. Does she at all have any say in what Breq makes of herself as a person?

“Is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by a convenient or useful narrative?”[1]

This is something that Breq struggles with, the way in which societal convention plays a part in how we construct ourselves. For example, among the Nilters, there are differentiated genders that she cannot identify:

“I had to take gender into account – Strigan’s language required it. The society she lived in professed at the same time to believe gender was insignificant… yet no one I’d met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did.”

I was really intrigued by the gender construction in Justice as I was reading the book, as it forced me to stop and think. Obviously, I live in a nominally two-gender society.[2] The Radch have only one gendered pronoun, ‘she’, and Breq continues throughout the book to refer to characters as ‘she’ and ‘her’ almost exclusively. Even Seivarden, a time-lost officer who Breq rescues, who is identified as biologically male, Breq thinks of as she and her. Leckie could have just used a neutral pronoun, or a made-up one, but by instead going with she, she pushes us in to a critical position. As Breq explains to Strigan, it is not that there is no gender, or sex, but that the priorities of Radch are different. In English, we possess two gendered pronouns and, as grammarians would have it, ‘he’ is the neutral pronoun. In Justice, ‘she’ is not just the default, but the exclusive pronoun. This inverts the linguistic culture in which the text is composed, forcing the reader to pay attention to the characters in the text, and communicating Breq’s discomfort. Being part of Patriarchal society, we are taught from an early age to look for gender signifiers, which Breq struggles with. In turn, we the reader peer in to the text trying to discover gender without the helpful shorthand of pronouns. It also places us in a position to approach the characters divorced from any hold-over linguistic assumptions: Breq, Seivarden, Mianaai, Awn, Saaiat are just there; old Sevin’s cognitive estrangement achieved with the simplest of flourishes.

Justice does not present self in a dichotomous fashion, with reason as you and your emotional life as some nefarious other desperate to drag the higher mind down – I mentioned in watching the film Lucy that I find this othering of emotional consideration a frustrating and lazy tendency that manifest in sf – but rather a vital part of the cognitive process. When we are introduced to Seivdarden, she is suffering withdrawal from a drug called Kef. This drug numbs the emotions of the users, in the belief that “emotions out of the way, supreme rationality would result.” Breq, (and the ship that she once was) dismisses this simply that “it doesn’t work that way.” Emotions are useful: Mianaai does not excise the emotional reasoning of the ships despite the risk of disloyalty because without it, they are simply unable to prioritise. It is because she, or One Esk, is able to have emotional attachments that she is able to oppose Mianaai. Seivarden, without emotions, was dying in a snow drift until Breq found her.

It might be easy to dismiss that as all that book does, explore the fragmentary psyche of a being questionably possessed of personhood, but Justice is far better, and far smarter, than that. Breq’s problems are reflected in the universe she travels in, and the conflict of the story, those contradictions that flourish in living. The culture that Justice of Toren originated within and served, the Radch, is structured around the idea of civilisation and being civilised. Breq illuminates a pun within Radchai is that to say one is not Radch is to say one is not civilised. Yet, much like the Roman culture which Leckie drew on for some inspiration, the Radch are barbarous, a culture built on ceaseless aggression and conquest, that dispenses atrocity in conquest, a police state; it is also a utopia that provides for its citizens, practices syncretic religion, and has (as evinced in the pronouns) massively more progressive values re gender than our own society. Yet “the noblest, most well-intentioned people in the world can’t make annexations a good thing.” This is absolutely clear to the reader, as it has already been described to us that the humans that are converted in to Ancillaries are neither dead nor insensate, but aware the whole time. The things in Radch that are considered good, that civilise the society, are inextricably intertwined with the brutal, bad things:

“The same drugs used for aptitude testing… could also be used for interrogation.”

Radch had an irreconcilable differences within it that manifest in the supreme leader, Anander Mianaai.

“Which me do you serve?” Mianaai asks Breq near the end of the novel, when the crippled, vengeful ship has come to kill Mianaai, as many of her as she can. Of course, what she is really asking Breq is what vision of the Radch she aligns to: the nominally progressive Radch that wants to change as circumstances change, or the Radch that seeks to retrench militarily and preserve, or reassert, the older values of the imperium. Breq rejects the idea that she serves either – “I didn’t kneel, or even bow” – or even the Radch; if she serves anything it is only the memory of the dead Lieutenant Awn. The point of allegiance to the Radch is, for Breq, a pointless one. The whole thing is morally compromised as, whatever end is met, it will be Anander Mianaai. This is familiar territory for science fiction[3] but it is Mianaai who observes that for all the fact that, while from a high-level view, small changes mean nothing, for many people those small changes could be the difference between life and death:

“If you’ve got power and money and connections, some differences won’t change anything… It’s the people without the money and the power, who desperately want to live, for those people small things aren’t small at all. What you call no difference is life and death to them.”

To return to the Roman inspiration for a moment, Breq and Mianaai both have their Rubicon moments that establishes discreet identities, the choices they make birthing their new and separate selves, connected to their prior identities but also forced to acknowledge they are somehow different. As we experience the story in Breq’s perspective, that sense of self is always tinctured with a feeling of loss, of diminishment. The synthesis (if you’ll forgive the butchered Hegelianism) is more a fall from the perfect knowledge of Justice of Toren to the limited perspective of just One Esk Nineteen. And yet as Breq she can achieve things, think things that the ship never could. Similarly, when Breq forces the Mianaais to recognise their fracturing in to more than one self, something is lost in the change, but something is gained, even if only in the possible. Justice is replete with the idea that identity is not a fixed thing, subject both to ourselves and others, and often unpredictable, whether it is One Esk shooting the Mianaai that ordered her to kill her beloved Lieutenant Awn, or the change in perspective that Seivarden undergoes that sees her embracing change in the face of reaction. Though, as she thinks she is dying, Breq thinks of herself only as “a machine meant for killing” we see that her internal contradictions make her much more, and create the possibility for us to consider others in the same light.

[1] The idea that identity is something that is subject to scrutiny resonated with a favourite exchange in China Mieville’s Embassytown, here BrenDun tries to explain to Avice: “If I’d thrown his away and kept mine, you’d think I was clinging to my dead identity or resenting his death. If I threw them both away, you’d see me in denial. If I kept his but not mine you’d say I was refusing to let him go. There’s nothing I can do you won’t do that to.”

[2] It should be noted here that the reality of life is very different from the way it is described – basically, two genders doesn’t even begin to describe what actually goes on, but it is used to do so.

[3] Any conversation about utopian cultures and intelligent spaceships gravitates around the late Ian M. Banks’s Culture novels, and if I still had access to those, a compare and contrast with, say, Use of Weapons, would be cracking.


This week was one of many ticks on many clocks: My mum celebrated her birthday, my youngest brother came to visit, and another had his final day in the Forest before heading off on adventures new. Alongside a tea-party for my mum, we went to an activity centre to throw ourselves off a cliff. It was rather fun.

Of the people who went over the edge, three of us suffer a terrible fear of heights: Liam, Jim, and me. I think I’m not being too bold when I say mine is the worst: as we were walking up to the jump point, I found myself concerned that my dad and Jim, the brother who is leaving (now left), were walking too close to the edge of the path. They were a good six feet from it! There’s no helping being a scaredy-cat.

As there were seven people jumping, and the set-up only allows for pairs or solo jumps, one of us had to go alone. I was that lucky fellow, having resolved the matter with Jim in a quick game of Rock Paper Scissors. Because, as I said, I have peculiar obsessions, I can remember my strategy for my second draw which went: ‘Because I have gone scissors, Jim will not be expecting scissors again. Because he will not be expecting scissors, and will expect that I expect scissors, he will expect for me to go rock, so he will use paper, so I will remain with scissors.’ We both know of the Monty Haul problem, even if neither of us is proficient enough at maths to truly grasp it. The point was, I was jumping alone, and that meant I was jumping first.

At the embarkation point, we handed over both our entrant rubber bands, and our waivers to confirm that we were willing to accept injury and death were our own responsibility. The attendants helped me in to my harness – though they were reluctant to loop ties through anyone’s legs, a moment of modesty that felt a little absurd in the circumstances – and then I got in to line. Ahead of me were two boys, children, who had that air that children always have when they are doing something that might be dangerous, and so that danger makes it feel illicit. The rest of the crew came through. Dad danced a little to the Bob Marley that was playing. He may have been nervous; he’d never say.

I was. Liam reflected later that it would be easy to mistake me for a tough guy. In my combats and vest top, I certainly looked like I was trying for that role. I stood at the point of no return as the attendant tied me in to the harness. I made weak jokes which, no doubt having both heard them all and grown tired of them being repeated, he paid no attention to. It was probably for the best. “Lift your knees up when I ask you to” was all he said, as absurd out of context as not wishing to risk improperly groping my legs was within it.

I stood. “You can hold on to the rope if it helps you,” the attendant, finished tying me in, said. I did so, but it didn’t help. Inside, I reached for something to help me relax, to not take me away from the height but allow me to embrace it. And I thought: There is no emotion, there is peace. You can’t help but smile at yourself as, when confronted by your terrors, you find comfort in the dorkiest thing. But my name is Luke Spry, and if you think I haven’t heard a thousand iterations on Sprywalker then I don’t know what to say. I was named not for an apostle or a god, but a space farm boy from a film with a magic sword. I’ve been bought lightsabres regularly for much of my life. I was baked a Death Star cake for my birthday once. My Dad, when not dancing to Bob Marley, does tell me he is my father. Perhaps it is that, because it is fictional, there is nothing guilty about reaching for the Jedi.

There is no death, there is only the Force, I thought as I went over the edge. The wind buoyed me like a new invisible organ, a sense that carried the rattling wire through the rope I held on to. Then, I let it go. I reached out my hands, first left, then right, then both. I soared over blue waters and under blue skies. It is only seconds, but I am primed for time losing all meaning so it became a perfect and eternal moment, all just mine. I drifted, alone and at peace, arms out. One and the same and no longer there.

A Tale of Two Kitties [1]

Look at this fine fellow of a cat. Behold that smile! Look upon those whiskers! Doesn’t he have the very firmest of paws and the cleanest of limbs! If there is a modelling agency for cats, surely this handsome chap deserves a top rate contract for an indefinite period of time. He lounges at ease, king of all he sees, rightful monarch reclining as he should. There is just one problem. That is not my cat. That is Socks.

I wrote a little last year about the two Spry family pets: Sky the Dog and Odin the Cat. They are quite fine, but the family had an addition early this year. Sky was lonely and, more importantly, so was dad, so a pet was adopted from the local sanctuary. Dad had wanted a King Charles but what they returned with was a Puggle.


Enter the Puggle

Freya gets in to everything, chews on everything, and, unlike Sky, had the most tremendous problem with Odin. Attempts have been made to acclimatise the two to one another which is now starting to bear some fruit. She also terrorizes Odin.It become such an issue with her chasing Odin that we had to section off a part of the house to Odin (and to a lesser extent, Sky3) could get some peace.

However, because Freya is in the part of the house with the kitchen and the cat flat, and Odin still longed for the great outdoors4 we had to work on a solution until Freya settled down around the cat. At first we’d open and close the doors for him but also started to leave a window for Odin to hop in and out of just fine.


Further complications arose, though, as Odin has a best friend. That is the cat initially pictured, a fine fellow by the name of Socks. He is more than happy to pop through the open window and hoover up Odin’s left overs. Socks is an affable cat, incredibly friendly and charming, who is no doubt loved by someone otherwise we’d just take him in. Unlike Odin who, though he’s our cat, or we are his, Socks is more than happy to have a hug and a tickle. He’s a difficult cat to dislike.

He also happens to be Odin’s best friend. Unlike what you may expect from a pair of male cats, Odin and Socks are thick as thieves. They go on hunting jaunts together, they do that cat rub faces thing, and Socks stick up for Odin in the face of the new menace Freya. In return, Odin doesn’t eat so much and Socks grows rather fat. Or at least that’s what we thought at first, that Odin was clearly the submissive cat and Socks in charge.

Then, I happened to catch them having a bit of roast pork. As a treat, after a roast dinner, Odin is sometimes given a bit of roast pork as it is his no joke favourite food. Socks had also introduced himself for tea and my Dad, being a softy, also got him some pork too. Odin was having none of it, and gobbled down the lion’s share. Later, in the garden, Odin bopped Socks on the nose to let him know who is boss.


Socks does take the piss a bit, and we can’t really have him coming and going. Odin is a bit of a nervous fellow, and while Socks is his friend, we can’t have Odin thinking he is second cat in his own home. So, sad to say, whenever Socks come in now, he gets carried over the garden fence.


  1. Alternatively, the Two Moggie Problem (with apologise to Dickens and Cixin).
  2. Mum insists that Odin winds Freya up. The criteria for this appear to be: a) being a cat; b) being in Freya’s vicinity. My mum is, of course, hideously biased.
  3. Sky was initially not sure about this new dog but now they are top chums.
  4. Those mice aren’t going to eat themselves.
  5. An ongoing process.