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Worthy of Stories: Voynich

By J Patrick Allen

On a sunny day in 1912, an eccentric book dealer named Wilfred Voynich walked in to a Jesuit college in Italy. What he purchased there would confound antiquarians, historians, and linguistics professors for decades to come: A 246 page book of apparent antiquity containing bizarre images of imaginary plants, bathing women, and occult diagrams.

This archaeological curiosity would become known to the world as the Voynich Manuscript.

Thanks to the miracle of radio carbon dating, we can trace the beginning of the Manuscript’s story to the fifteenth century (somewhere between the years of 1404 and 1438), though who penned it is a mystery. We know that it was at least two authors and a separate illustrator. Thus, the Manuscript was a collaborative work—but of what?

That has been the subject of popular and wild speculation for years. Theories abound from magical texts penned by such stars of history as John Dee and Roger Bacon to extra-terrestrial influence. Far more mundane, some have speculated an attempt to create a written form of a now-dead spoken language, and a codex of that language’s culture. What truly fascinates me, dear reader, is just how thoroughly the book has confounded cryptographers and linguistic scientists. For decades, we inched no closer to truly understanding the manuscript than we were when the whole mess began.

The book’s history is almost as colorful as its pages. Alchemists and doctors, a Pope, and renowned scholars. One of its previous owners has a crater on the moon named after him for his contributions to science. Colleges have held the manuscript, and it was “liberated” from Catholic ownership by the troops of Padre della Patria, Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia and Italy. Men of power and learning have long been attracted to its literally arcane allure.

What do we know about the Manuscript?

Its purpose is now believed by many to be medicinal in purpose, utilizing that fascinating Renaissance belief that a truly holistic understanding of the natural world encompassed the physical sciences as well as the occult. It is a book of three parts: Botanical, astrological, and… something else. Alchemical? The last is not truly clear. It illustrates hundreds of nude, possibly pregnant, women residing in baths. In turn, these baths are built in to vessels that greatly resemble illustrations of the kinds of alchemical alembics and sundries found in other manuscripts of the time.

The most exciting thing about the manuscript—something I was unaware of until beginning research for this blog—is that we have the beginnings of a decryption. Stephen Bax, a professor of Modern Languages and Liguistics at the Open University of Britain believes he’s found Rosetta stones scattered throughout the text: Familiar groupings of characters that could potentially be identified with known constellations and plants. Through continued study, he believes that one day we may be able to fully transcribe and read the Manuscript in English.

Who made the Manuscript, and for what cause? Cloistered monks? Italian Witches? Martians? What ever the answers may be, the Voynich Manuscript is certainly worthy of stories.

Further Reading:

Soph Watches Classic Doctor Who – The Daleks (Part 1 of 2)

By Sophie Iles

This week in this series we get to our first really meaty serial of Doctor Who, which to this day leaves a lasting mark on our favourite Time Lord as this serial introduces us to Terry Nation’s Daleks for the very first time. As this is a seven episode epic, I’m going to only talk about the first two episodes, which I think considering the fact the rest of serial drags out a lot and the story dynamic changes from the beginning of episode three it’s a good place to stop. This means in this article I will be talking about The Dead Planet and The Survivors and even with just these two episodes there is a lot to talk about…

The Dead Planet is as creepy as it’s supposed to be, an introduction to what in the future will be classed as the planet Skaro, the home planet of the Daleks. The episode is also as simple as it sounds, introducing what will be quite a formulaic approach to Doctor Who in the future, landing on a planet, exploring it and getting into trouble. Something that happens here for the first time.

Not without a little meddling from the Doctor however, but I’ll get to that soon enough…

When they first arrive Ian, Barbara, Susan and the Doctor are fascinated and terrified admittedly by the place and its stone cold death like manner. They are unaware that the radiation on the planet is incredibly high and causing them to slowly become sick, and discover that there is a city past the jungle they had landed in. With some meddling from the Doctor, they decide to go take a look in the city, but not before Susan believes she was touched by someone in the forest, and that a strange box of vials was left outside their TARDIS…something unfortunately they put on the ship before continuing their adventures.  

It is in this city we meet the Daleks, a race that Whovians need no introduction to these days. They have been in the show many times in the last fifty years but now is the first time the Doctor meets them on screen; the metal casing and the balls formed on the outside, the toilet plunger tool for a weapon and of course the blaster gun and its creepy eyestalk — and that’s without the voice barking in a vibrating tone ordering about our heroes. I’ll be honest, the point of view shot cliffhanger when a Dalek is heading towards Barbara is one of my favourite cliffhangers in the entirety of Doctor Who.

Barbara Wright meets a Dalek for the first time.

Before I skip on to the story chunks of the next episode I really do love the first episode because there are some beautiful character moments in The Dead Planet with each character, so let’s have a good look at those.

Firstly, The Doctor’s curiosity is something that we are familiar with in the show. This is the first time we really see it in action. At first, the Dead Planet interests him but not enough to stay for a long period — until they see the city off into the distance. This changes everything. This even leads the Doctor to even temporarily break the TARDIS on purpose, and lie to all his passengers so they are all forced to go explore the city just for his gain. If only he had checked the radiation counter again, there wouldn’t be the certain danger that followed…perhaps he’d might not be so foolish…

Meanwhile Ian and Barbara’s moment come two fold in this episode over two conversations, firstly, Ian’s bold acceptance that this is how it’s going to be whilst travelling with the Doctor is apparent. Compared to the first time he steps out of the TARDIS, dazed and bewildered and completely skeptical, here he is taking the new adventure in his stride. Barbara is less enthusiastic this time. She had obviously hoped for Earth, she clearly hopes for something she is able to recognise. After all their first adventure was cavemen and no matter how foreign they seem, it is something she had probably read about as a history teacher. Dying planets and metal creatures are something far out of her understanding and it puts her at a disadvantage.

IAN: Try not to be too upset
BABARA: I counted so much on just going back to things I recognise and trust. But here there’s nothing to rely on. Nothing.
IAN: Well, there’s me. Barbara, all I ask you to do is believe, really believe, we’ll go back. We will, you know.
BARBARA: I wish I was more like you. I’m afraid I’m a very unwilling adventurer.
IAN: I’m not exactly reveling in it myself.

It’s the conversation about trust that I love so much in this episode. They can’t trust in anything but each other in that moment. They can’t even trust the Doctor yet (which he’s obviously made apparent the cheeky alien that he is) and Susan is still learning so they can go in blind to these exploits but at least they’re not alone and I think in some mad way — this is something I love about having more than one companion in the TARDIS, and something that I think sometimes lacks in the New Who series, that feeling of togetherness. The Doctor is an alien, and no matter how many pop culture references he makes or how much he will eventually love Earth, the companion is always the one who has to be on the back foot and so the idea that it’s okay to be scared and at least we have each other feels like a very powerful message to me, for all age groups and all different types of relationships. That, or I’m really just a big softie myself.

Lastly we have Susan and her adoration of the nature that she finds on the planet which is another favourite moment of mine; not to mention her sadness when Ian breaks said flower, accidentally when Barbara screams in fright at a dead metal creature. We are so focused on Ian and Barbara’s fear about not getting home and here is Susan finding beauty even on this sad and lonely planet. Basically what I’m saying here is Susan Foreman must be protected at all costs and her role only gets better as the episodes go on.

The Dead Planet leads neatly into the next episode The Survivors, where we watch as the TARDIS team are captured by the Daleks and are all suffering from radiation sickness, the Doctor more than the others. It finally comes out that he was lying to get the team in the city in the first place and Ian and Barbara don’t even have the energy left to be upset. The Doctor is basically dying for all of the episode and the feeling of intensity just grows and grows as it’s unsure how any of them will survive.

It becomes clear that the Daleks believe they are something to do with The Thals, a ‘mutated’ race that live out in the jungle. But The Doctor explains to their captors they are just travellers and so The Daleks confirm that the box that was left near their TARDIS is the drugs they need to survive. They decide they will let one of them go to get the item in question so they can cure their ailment and protect themselves against the radiation. Ian wants to go of course, but thanks to his being a heroic fool at the beginning of the episode, the Daleks shot at him and temporarily paralyzed his legs. Despite Ian’s displeasure at doing so, and Barbara’s insistence that she’s just a child, Ian tells Susan it is up to her to save the day. This young time lady who before this point has probably not had to do anything like this before, scared to death and visibly shaking, as her teachers and her grandfather are dying in a Dalek cell has no choice but to take up the mantel. She goes back out into the terrible jungle to try and get back to the TARDIS and get the vials they need.

The Doctor being interrogated by the Daleks for the first time.

As Ian recovers with his legs, he like Barbara and the Doctor continue to suffer with the radiation sickness and its dark nature actually made me cry at the screen for Susan to succeed like I was watching a football game. Susan runs through the forest for a few screen minutes before to everyone’s relief she gets to the TARDIS, gets the drugs and almost decides to wait there. We hear Ian’s sick voice as a memory to tell her to come straight back and then she opens the doors again and leads us straight into another cliffhanger moment, back out into the jungle.   

You can’t help but be hooked by this point, even though I have seen this episodes that follow, the questions still fall on the tip of my tongue: What will happen next? Will she meet the ‘mutated’ Thals? How will they escape the Daleks? Will the drugs actually help or will it make things worse? Will Susan get back in time? You can’t help but wonder what the families thought as they watched this for the first time around their television sets in the 1960s and it’s that sort of intrigue and passion that I believe keeps these stories alive fifty years later.

Next week, we learn about how Daleks hold objects, we meet the Thals, we watch our favourite TARDIS crew trick a Dalek and watch as we get a tiny glimmer of what the original Dalek mutation looked like and see just how they get away from Planet Skaro together out of the firing pan and into another proverbial fire that is The Edge of Destruction.

There’s no doodle this week, but instead have a picture of me pretending to be Ian in The Survivors holding my legs back in April at the Doctor Who Experience:

Longdog Library: 1893 – The Year of The Nesbit

By John Linwood Grant

Today for the Longdog Library we browse some Victorian oddities, and end up going supernatural and historical at the same time. Why? Well, because every fine library should contain a selection of classic books from the year 1893. Trust me. They may not all be brilliant – or, indeed, entirely readable – but many of them are certainly odd.

For example, published that year you have Byron Alden Brooks’s ‘Earth Revisited’, one of those end-of-the-century Utopian novels. Early SF, basically, though with a lot of spiritualism thrown in.  Brooks, incidentally, is credited as inventing the first typewriter where you could shift between upper and lower case. Also in 1893, H Rider Haggard published what he considered to be the last of his decent books, Montezuma’s Daughter, though I’m not sure I’d recommend that one.

Then there’s Hartman the Anarchist, or the Doom of the Great City, by Edward Fawcett, brother of the explorer Percy Fawcett – who disappeared looking for the Lost City of Z (recently filmed). The illustrated 1893 version of this tale of anarchists, socialists, giant airships and the like is often overlooked, but always worth a browse, especially when London is set ablaze from the air.

Or how about Anatole France’s At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, which tells of the struggles of a young meat-turner amongst alchemists and wicked uncles? Part of the novel draws on ‘Comte de Gabalis’, a 17th-century French occult book by the Abbé de Villars, and the main alchemist is on the hunt for salamanders. The magickal kind, not the newt-like fellers.

However, we covered a lot of men in our previous outing, so let’s pick out a female writer who had two collections published in that same year. Do you remember those heady days? We laughed, we shared brandy by the Seine, and you were sick in a gendarme’s hat. We snuggled close and read E Nesbit’s scary tales. Later that year, the First Matabele War started in South Africa, so we went back to knitting socks for the missionaries. The Nesbit carried on, to some acclaim.

Edith Nesbit

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) was a typical British housewife of her time. Oh, apart from:

  • Her friendship with Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist dissident
  • The fact that she adopted two children fathered by her first husband, and let the mother live with them as secretary
  • Her Marxist-socialist beliefs and involvement in founding the Fabian Society
  • The seventy or eighty books she wrote or co-wrote
  • Her political lecture tours, which included the London School of Economics

Strange, then, that nowadays she is best known as a children’s author, the woman who wrote the Railway Children, The Five Children and It, the Bastable series and the Enchanted Castle. Not that these have been without influence. Her children’s stories are referenced in C S Lewis’s Narnia series; Noel Coward and J B Priestley both admired her work.

Gore Vidal wrote in the New York Review of Books, in 1964:

There are those who consider The Enchanted Castle Nesbit’s best book. J. B. Priestley has made a good case for it, and there is something strange about the book which sets it off from the bright world of the early stories. Four children encounter magic in the gardens of a great deserted house. The mood is midnight. Statues of dinosaurs come alive in the moonlight, the gods of Olympus hold a revel, Pan’s song is heard. Then things go inexplicably wrong. The children decide to give a play. Wanting an audience, they create a number of creatures out of old clothes, pillows, brooms, umbrellas. To their horror, as the curtain falls, there is a ghastly applause. The creatures have come alive, and they prove to be most disagreeable.

(Yalding Towers, incidentally, from the Enchanted Castle, is a setting in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.)

Her approach to writing children was less sentimental than many, making her legacy more important. Some call her the first of the modern children’s fantasists, escaping the twee or moral tales of earlier Victorian writers. As a result, adaptations and derivations continued long after her death.  The Psammead stories are well known. Jenny Agutter’s career (see also further down) was boosted by her performances in two adaptations of The Railway Children (1968 and 1970), which allowed her to have less clothes on in Walkabout (1971) and Logan’s Run (1976). These latter two films certainly influenced many teenagers. Ahem.

And Michael Moorcock wrote a series of books with an adult Oswald Bastable (The Warlord of the Air, The Land Leviathan, The Steel Tsar), drawing partially on Nesbit’s Fabian views of where the British Empire should be going.

But to the point. E Nesbit wrote four collections of ghost or supernatural tales. Something Wrong (1893), Grim Tales (1893), Tales Told in the Twilight (1897) and Fear (1910). Naomi Alderman wrote, of Nesbit’s ghost stories:

“There is darkness in the corners of these stories, like that gathering shadow – ordinary callousness turning into something more disturbing.”  Guardian Arts (2016)

Her ghost stories are variable. Some contain musings which could have been left out, others evoke a worrying mood but don’t exactly scare. However, when she gets it right, she is excellent, with a less “period” style than some of her contemporaries, and she can be truly chilling. She evokes images of the dead who are determined (or cursed) to keep going long after the grave has beckoned. And when I say images, I mean not only intangible revenants but also too, too solid dead flesh. In fact, she has a penchant for corporeal returns, which places her firmly in the horror genre.

As I can’t go into every scary E Nesbit story here, you might start in 1893 with her volume ‘Grim Tales’. This collection includes two of her most anthologised stories, ‘John Charrington’s Wedding’ and ‘Man-Size in Marble’.

  • The Ebony Frame
  • John Charrington’s Wedding
  • Uncle Abraham’s Romance
  • The Mystery Of The Semi-Detached
  • From The Dead
  • Man-Size In Marble
  • The Mass For The Dead

Within ‘Grim Tales’ you will find questions of the nature of love – the selfish and the selfless aspects of love are both explored. There are many unhappy endings, yet also sad visions of what might have been – and what might have been avoided. And as suggested earlier, you will find the determination of the dead to wreak damage. Things walk when they should not…

You could buy the book, but Grim Tales is also available free from Project Gutenberg, as is The Enchanted Castle (for children) mentioned above. Add them to your library one way or another.

If Walls Could Talk: The Arrowverse According to M.H. Norris and Mark Twain

M.H. Norris

I had fun going through Doctor Who’s Series 10 finale with Mark Twain’s rules of storytelling. I felt the Arrowverse deserved the same treatment. When I initially planned this post, I had only one rule in mind. But by searching through the rules to find the specific one I wanted, I found that the Arrowverse shows, The Flash, in particular, has violated several.

Before we begin, let me define terms for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term Arrowverse. The Arrowverse is made up of four television shows based off of various DC Comics: Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl. All four shows air on The CW and have a habit of crossing in and out of each other on various occasions.

Background established, let’s examine the mistakes that these four shows have made.

4) They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there

Honest truth, most of the shows do well with this. The Flash is the one that drops the ball, with Iris West in particular.

If you take a hard honest at the first three seasons of the show, you’ll see that her sole purpose is to create drama. Her character has done nothing to move the story forward, and she has no character traits outside of “creating drama.”

When writing characters, make sure they serve a purpose a purpose within the story. They have to move the story forward. They cannot take it back in an attempt to create angst and drama. There are few things that will turn your audience off like forced drama.

6) They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

Once again, this goes to The Flash. With Barry temporarily out of the picture, someone has to take the lead on Team Flash. There are three characters who could take that role, all of whom make sense within the story that the creative team has set. There is one character that does not, Iris.

Yet, when the show returns back she is leading Team Flash. I’ve not-so-jokingly said that this is their attempt to give this character purpose.

These two rules play hand in hand with each other. The character must serve a purpose and they must fit the role you’re giving them.

In this example, nothing in Iris’ time on the show has justified the decision to let her lead Team Flash. These sorts of snap decisions, even if made with the intent of giving a character purpose, will turn off your audience.

Another example is Kara Danvers from Supergirl

From what was said, Kara is going to spend some time having a pity party over the fact that due to the events of the season finale her boyfriend had to leave Earth, never to return. This girl seems to be taking her forced breakup harder than she’s taking the death of her planet and people.

In fact, the so-called theme of the season is “what does it mean to be human?” A sensible measure of grief would be a great place to start.

Supergirl–who is supposed to be a strong, independent woman–is having a pity party and ditching her alter ego. She’s supposed to be the girl of steel. Instead, all of this is forced drama instead of a natural development to her established characterization.

This rule is about consistent characterization and having your characters not do things that seem out of character. Especially when you are writing a character in a series like these shows do. There’s a difference between letting your character grow and change and having them do something that doesn’t sit right with their character.

Make sure you’re on the right side of that line.

Those are the big two rules that were broken so far. I’m curious to see that if in the upcoming season, the shows course-correct. If you want more of my thoughts on the shows as a whole, check out my article on the Time Travel Nexus. (Speaking of, The Time Travel Nexus is doing an open submission period for new writers. If you are interested in writing about anything and everything time travel, take a look.)

Soph Watches Classic Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child (Part 2 of 2)

by Sophie Iles

I have a confession to make about the Unearthly Child Serial now we’ve moved on from the first episode which you can read my article on here. if I’m honest, the first time I watched this serial I didn’t like it very much. This wasn’t recently, probably about three years ago during the fiftieth anniversary and after the initial TARDIS interaction in the first episode I was bored and listless through the rest of the episodes.

But this was also a person who had not dealt well previously with anything black and white and anything older than a 1970s seems alien to her. Luckily for everyone involved, my taste improved.

When I rewatched it again last year when my real love for Classic Who started, and then again last week to write you this article I must also admit it is now one of my favourite serials. Why? Because it really sets up it’s characters for us and here’s just how it does it.

For those who need to recap lets walk through the basics of the rest of this four part story before we focus on some of my favourite moments and why I consider it one of my favs. After arguing with Susan in their space ship about whether to let Ian and Barbara leave, The Doctor tricks Susan into thinking he will let them go before sending them all back in time with a flick of a few switches and a bit of an evil chuckle.

IAN: I don’t believe it.
THE DOCTOR: You really are a stubborn young man, aren’t you?
IAN: All right, show me some proof. Give me some concrete evidence. I’m sorry, Susan. I don’t want to hurt you, but it’s time you were brought back to reality.

Ian, Barbara and Susan outside the TARDIS during the Stone Age

When they land, Susan and the Doctor, seemingly unshaded by their initial argument and instead are eager to prove to the humans that they really have travelled backwards. They open the TARDIS doors to reveal a barren desert landscape thereafter established to be the Stone Age. The audience, much like Ian Chesterton slowly step out to look at what might as well be an alien world to two Sixties teachers, before discovering that the Doctor has been kidnapped by a caveman called Kal and they set off to find him.

This leads into the set up that Kal, a newly adopted member of a paleolithic tribe is trying to establish himself as leader to a now leaderless band of early humans. The son of the previous leader Za is also trying to do the same, and they both come to the conclusion that providing fire is what will win their tribe over, something that Za’s father had been able to do before and something they believe was granted to them by Sun Gods.

Enter the Doctor, who was only kidnapped by Kal and brought back to the tribe due to his use of a match to light his pipe. Believing that he can spark fire from his fingers, Kal demands to produce fire for him but the Doctor, now run out of matches, tells them he cannot and is about to be killed for his refusal. Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be: Ian, Barbara and Susan turn up before the Doctor can be stoned for his unwillingness to help and they are all taken away to an early prison, known only to us as the Cave of Skulls.

Over the rest of the four parter, the party escape with the help of an old woman but when Za pursues them through the Forest of Fear but he is cut open by a beast. They know they should just run to the TARDIS but Barbara cannot leave a man to bleed to death, to the Doctor’s frustration. Both the teachers start to try and help with his wounds so he will live. Of course in a land where kindness is not valued, when Za is well again, they are once again put in the Cave of Skulls and even when Ian is able to produce fire for them, Za is not willing to let them leave. This after all has made him leader, and he is not willing to let his Fire-Makers disappear.

With a clever trick with some meat fat, a skull and some fire they are able to set up a terrifying display for the tribe and make their escape back to the TARDIS, in the hope that their adventures are over.

The TARDIS Team looking back after running from the Cavemen Tribe

The story itself is pretty simple, it is clear what everyones motivations are and that’s not just the cavemen but our main characters too. Ian and Barbara just want to get back to the TARDIS, and by this point, the Doctor and Susan aren’t eager to hang around either, even if they are used to adventures at this point.

For me what makes this whole serial my favourite is this is the Doctor before he becomes this heroic persona that we know today. This is a Doctor who spent the entire serial only thinking about himself and Susan. Even at the beginning when Ian was so unable to believe that the TARDIS had really gone back in time, his ego got in the way of just telling the truth and just giving snide remarks and half truths until he opened the doors to prove his point.

DOCTOR: One minute ago we were trying desperately to get away from these savages.
IAN: All right, now we’re helping them. You’re a doctor, do something.
DOCTOR: I’m not a doctor of medicine.
SUSAN: Grandfather, we can make friends with them.
DOCTOR: Oh, don’t be ridiculous, child.

The worst part for me in this venture, was when the Doctor had no sense of kindness for the injured Za.  In fact he would have, if not for Ian noticing, have beaten the man’s head with a rock so as to keep him quiet and that they could have just rushed back to the TARDIS and not face the consequences of the crime.

We also see just what a manipulative and cunning man he can be in one of my favourite sequences involving the first Doctor. After the old woman allowed them to escape, Kal killed her with his sharpened knife and tried to frame Za for the death. However, The Doctor rightly so pointed out that Za’s knife did not have blood on it for it to be the culprit and he had not seen such a fine knife before. Furious and eager to prove as he has the entire serial that he is better than Za, Kal brandishes his knife to prove himself, forgetting in the process that his knife is covered in blood and the Doctor doesn’t let him forget it. So much so it is the Doctor who is manipulating the surrounding tribe to cast Kal out by starting to chuck stones at him as punishment. It really does show just how far The Doctor will go to make sure he makes out of a situation unscathed.

There are some other great moments of course. Barbara and Ian’s relationship only seems to strengthen throughout the episode, as they are quite literally all that holds the other up. Barbara is utterly terrified (as I think most would be in this situation) and Ian is trying to assure her that everything is going to be fine as he comes to terms with science as he knew it is completely wrong.

Though is isn’t a very Barbara or Susan strong episode mostly due to their characters not being well established yet, though don’t worry, there are plenty of moments coming to show them off as a more than capable companions. It is Ian who gets to shine here as the action man he was undoubtedly cast as. He’s able to think on his feet, is able to fight with the Doctor on morales of right and wrong, and of course, despite the fact he in the eyes of the cavemen should be leader, denounces himself as such and tells them all that the Doctor is in charge of their tribe. A rather humble approach to the situation he is in.

That’s that for this serial, and it really is one of my favourites. It is not perfect. The cavemen can be a bit stilted and some of the camera angles are choppy but it’s the imperfections and knowing that this was created unaware of just how big it was going to be that make it a really good serial in my eyes.

Next week I take on looking at the Daleks, again we’ll split it into two because it is a wonderfully epic six parter. We’ll take a look at the how Terry Nation introduced his ‘bug eyed monsters’,  we ask ourselves why the Doctor didn’t check the radiation counter again and how lucky Susan is to get the only chair in Skaro.

As per my last post, I will also be adding my silly doodles, so here’s The First Doctor brandishing a knife.

The Raconteur Roundtable #17 – The Sex Pistols of Doctor Who – Lawrence Burton (Faction Paradox)

Aztecs! Mesoamerican gods! Doctor Who! Lawrence Burton joins James, Tina, and Will to discuss his Faction Paradox novel Against Nature, his paintings, working with Obverse Books, and his interest in Mesoamerican culture. An extended word on rituals, rejected Doctor Who novels–and how he became an Englishman in Texas. After that, our hosts have a digression-beset discussion of the first Doctor serial “The Aztecs.” Just how dangerous is drinking cocoa?

Remember, new episodes arrive every Friday! Subscribe on iTunes so you’ll never miss an episode!

HistFic in the Weird West: An Interview with Jeff Oberg 

By Jon Black

Recently, I had the pleasure of receiving an Advance Review Copy of Desecration, the new HistFic/Weird West novel by Miami-based author Jeff Oberg. Not only is it a great story, it is a great example of how to write HistFic. Jeff was kind enough to sit down with me (electronically speaking) to discuss his book and process for writing historical fiction.

1) Tell us a little about Desecration? What inspired you to write the story?


One night I was online and stumbled across a clickbait list about the five most badass lawmen in the Old West.  It was an honest list and included none of the usual suspects popular culture has made symbols of the old west.  Number two on that list was a Deputy Marshal named Bass Reeves.

Marshal Reeves became the inspiration for Ulysses Bowden.  I’m a speculative fiction writer and enjoy hard science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  In this case the idea of a freedman, taken in by the displaced tribes of Indian Territory serving as a US Marshal gave me the kind of iconic hero it’s fun to tell stories about.

In Desecration, Ulysses, his cook Jim, and his friend Che, are doing what US Marshals did, finding and arresting criminals in Indian Territory.  The story starts to go off the rails when a talking raven finds Ulysses and adopts him.  The further Ulysses gets from the Dead Line (what the historical Fort Smith marshals called the boundary where the outlaws would post wanted posters for the marshals) the more the world he knows is changed by the man on Raven Hill.  The story contains a lot of traditional western elements, chuck wagon cooking, horseback chases, tracking, homesteaders, ghouls, six-guns, and mindless horrors from beyond space and time.  It was a lot of fun to write, and I hope people find it fun to read.     

2) What was your research process for the historical elements? Were there resources you found particularly useful.

U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves, inspiration of Ulysses Bowden.

There is a reference to Marshal Bass Reeves and the excellent book about him, Black Gun, Silver Star, by Art Burton, at the end of Desecration.  Mr. Burton dug deeply into court documents and newspaper accounts for stories about Marshal Reeves.  Like many people of color, Marshal Reeves was not well documented during his life.

I have some family friends from Arkansas who I talked to about dialect and history.  Then I started looking at the records of the Marshal’s service and maps.  The real treasure trove turned out to be the National Park Service.  When writing about American history, the NPS keeps huge amounts of information online, including monographs, papers, photos, and reports.  The Fort Smith Court House is a National Historical Site administered by the National Park Service.  I found floor plans, photos of court in session, reports about the jail (which appears in the sequel coming this Fall), pictures of furniture, criminals, marshals, and the people of Fort Smith.

I’m even more convinced the National Park Service is a national treasure.  I tried to use as many primary sources as I could, without the NPS this would have been a much poorer book.

3) What are some of the challenges, expected or unexpected, you encountered either in the research or the writing for Desecration?

There were a few that were minor.  I made some choices with dates, Winchester didn’t offer a .45 option in its rifles until 1876, so I pushed that back a year after debating it a bit just to simplify my book keeping and because Marshal Reeves was an early adopter of the .45 Winchester so he only had to carry one type of cartridge.  Fort Arbuckle closed in 1870, but in Desecration it’s still open in 1875.  I’ll be closing it in the course of the series, and there will be an appropriately weird reason for it.  For the most part, people attached to real places in the novel are historically accurate.  Due to the great, white man school of history, most of them are famous white men.  As I learn more, I’m sure that will change.

The biggest challenge turned out to be language.  One of my alpha-readers, chosen because I’m a middle aged white guy writing about a black protagonist, told me, “Dude, black people, we don’t talk to each other that way.”  It was in reference to an early draft of the conversations between Ulysses and Ernie that take place in the first two chapters.  He went on to tell me that the slang used between black people is a way to indicate that they haven’t forgotten where they came from.  It started a whole new line of research.

Fortunately, there is a treasure in the Library of Congress.  In the first half of the 20th century, a group of researchers and grad students lugged a 200-pound mobile recording studio around the south and recorded conversations with some of the last living people who had been enslaved before the 13th Amendment.  There is a link to those recordings in the back of Desecration as well.  One thing I learned from those recordings is that all of them refer to emancipation as “The Break”.  Of course, I had to include it in Ulysses’ speech patterns. Getting the language right is important to me.  I don’t like including phonetically spelled dialect, so the cadence, rhythm, and word usage needs to be right.  I’ve probably spent a hundred hours listening to those recordings at this point.  You can find them at the Library of Congress site, under Voices of Slavery.

4) You’ve got a nice touch for incorporating the fine details of 19th century life in ways that are interesting and don’t slow down the narrative. Can you talk about your process for this?  

Authentic chuckwagon cooking.

To be honest most of it has to do with writing what I know.  Jim’s cooking rings true because I’m a classically trained chef who grew up in Texas.  I know how to cook because I’ve spent thousands of hours practicing and studying it.  I was a Boy Scout and learned outdoor cooking in Texas.  Part of my decision to make Jim from Texas was to let me use my knowledge of Texas cooking to enrich the book.

A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to take a traditional blacksmithing class.  Travis’s forge has the feel it does in part because of that class.  For me it’s a very tactile thing.  As writers, we get accused of living in our heads.  I find the more I get out and do, the more things I touch and try, even if I am terrible at them, seriously the results of my blacksmithing class are kept as an object lesson to keep writing, the more it informs my writing. 

The other piece is to not write what I don’t know.  I don’t know how to make a horse shoe, so I don’t include a detailed description of a horse shoe being made.  My experience is that if I can get a few details exactly right, it makes it much easier to evoke the feel of the time and place than if I try to throw everything at the wall and hope some of it sticks.  I will always have readers who know much more about history than I do.  I just try to get the things right that I include.  If I am not certain, I don’t use it.

5) What advice would you offer to those interesting writing HistFic and related genres?

For me it’s about the unexplored corners of history.  Everyone knows about Washington crossing the Delaware.  Don’t write about it unless you have a truly new and unique take on it.  You might, but I know I don’t.  It’s more fun to find the stories that haven’t been told.  Mansa Musa was the King of Timbuktu and possibly the richest man in history.  The Varangians were Norsemen who served as the personal body guard of the Byzantine Emperor from the 10th to the 14th centuries.  Bass Reeves was the greatest law enforcement officer of all time, but almost no one knows his name.  The Silk Road was in use for centuries before Marco Polo.  If you find the history that no one is talking about, you can tell amazing stories that are new to most of your readers.  That makes the stories more interesting and new, even though they are set in history.

6) Tell us a little bit about the man behind the keyboard?

Oh heck, umm, I have a web site? You can visit me at  Beyond the web site, I grew up mostly in Texas and have ADD.  I have a ton of interests and along with the cooking and the blacksmithing, I do some woodworking, I read a lot, I am a gamer of the pencil and paper RPG variety, I’m a terrible geek that loves some western in my Sci-Fi.  I have a beard that borders on wizardly.  I have two huge dogs, three kids, and I’ve been married for nineteen years.  As a side note you officiated at my marriage, which turned out to be a good choice.

Jeff Oberg’s new novel, Desecration, is now available on Amazon . Find him online at and @Jeffobergwrites.

If Walls Could Talk: Moving Past the Sting of Rejection

M.H. Norris

No – Henry Burrows

A few weeks ago, I did an article on preparing a proposal. I had found myself in a position where I was doing several at the same time. Over the course of May, I had four proposals I submitted for different projects.

This past week, I heard back from the first of the group and found myself facing the never-pleasant rejection.

We all know that rejection is part of being a writer, that people say you have to be rejected x number of times before you get one acceptance, yes. We all know the line about how you learn from rejection, and it helps you grow as a writer.

But that doesn’t mean it makes you feel any better.

When the submission period for All The Petty Myths closed, I was faced with stories knowing that I was going to have to accept some and reject others. After reading through them, I knew what had made it and what hadn’t.

Once that decision was made, though, I was faced with the task of being the one to send the never-pleasant rejection letters.

If you’re a publisher or a curator who is faced with the task, let me give you a piece of advice. If you truly want to help someone grow from rejecting them, add a personal note to tell them why it doesn’t work.

Even if it’s something simple like “this just doesn’t fit with what we’re doing” that helps them know how to improve for next time.

That being said writers…


I’ll admit, rejection hurts. Part of me thinks I’m more annoyed that I got sent a form rejection letter than I am upset that I got rejected.

This was something I’d spent a lot of time working on and I was really excited about the concept.

What do you do when you get the dreaded rejection email?

1) Shake It Off

It’s going to sting for a minute. Don’t push it down, necessarily.  You worked hard on a pitch and no one likes rejection. I called James and had a little pity party. But then I turned around and wrote a post for the Nexus.

Sulk for a bit and then shake it off.

2) Keep Writing

Maybe this project didn’t work out. but the next one might. I’m going to take that rejected story and tweak it and use it elsewhere. Within an hour of the rejection, I already had a plan to use it elsewhere so my work isn’t wasted.

While I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t write every day, I don’t stop just because I got rejected. Maybe I take the day off but then I have to keep going.

Deadlines will do that to you.

3) Look at Other Options

You got rejected. There’s a chance it’s simply because your story wasn’t a fit for that project. But perhaps there’s another home for it somewhere. Keep it in your mind. There are Facebook groups with open calls for short stories and perhaps you’ll find a home for it elsewhere.

Here’s some of the groups I know of.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Pulp Fiction:


Crime, Thriller, Mystery:


I could give you the platitudes of how rejection is just a part of the writing process. But I will also be the first one to tell you that those don’t really make you feel better.

Don’t let it get you down, though. 

When the time is right, you’ll get accepted somewhere. And those letters, and the experience that follows makes up for that rejection letter.

Soph Watches Classic Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child (Part 1 of 2)

Sophie Iles

And here we are presenting another new column! Sophie Iles is going to be regaling us of her adventures into Classic Doctor Who every Saturday with some insight as recent lover of the new 2005 series. Expect to being taken along for the ride as she discovers each fun development of the show from the very start to hopefully, the very finish of its 26 year run… 

It’s a strange sensation watching a TV series from the beginning when its been around for so long. Usually in the days of modern television when you watch a series for the first time, everything is being established for a long run if it can get the go ahead. The audience get to meet the principle cast and the ideas about them are already being set out. Who’s the hero? who’s the villain? who’s the relatable every day character you latch onto? Of course, every series is different, every story is different, but no matter the set up, you’re sure of the roles that these characters play and that there are twists and turns to watch out for.

However, back in 1963 when Doctor Who was created and The Unearthly Child was pitched it had an air of mystery around it as much the Doctor himself. Both actors William Hartnell and Carole Ann Ford, playing the Doctor and his granddaughter Susan even revealed they made up their own back stories because they didn’t know anything about their characters….that was part of the whole point. Doctor Who?

Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) searching the junkyard in Totters Lane

When I was asked to write this series of articles I was thrilled, partly because I’ve not written an article before for anyone except in the odd test situation and because I really wanted to look at the episodes as I discovered them. Though this isn’t my first venture looking at the First Doctor Era, it’s certainly fun to rewatch and relearn.

My aim is to really look at these stories and characters and their historical merit today, how their stories are told, and how I, a rather fresh faced wanderer in the Doctor Who Fandom, reacts as we go back in time to see just what the appeal was for Dr. Who.

Immediately, even without the spooky titles it all feels like it’s grounded in reality somehow. The school feels real, and Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, the two teachers that will soon become companions of the Doctor feel like real teachers, and in turn real friends. Ian Chesterton is clearly used to his friend barging into his room whilst marking to listen to her worries and concerns. Clearly the subject of this particular student has come up before, Susan Foreman, a girl of mystery. We are completely on the teacher’s side due to the way it’s been filmed, from their point of view, as we see Susan’s errors first hand and they just can’t help their concern.

BARBARA: Too many questions and not enough answers.
IAN: Stupid? Or just doesn’t know. So we have a fifteen year old girl who is absolutely brilliant at some things, and excruciatingly bad at others.

So, spurred by their worries and their insatiable curiosity, they drive to her supposed destination and wait for her to arrive before following her inside the junkyard where she’s supposed to live and stumble across not only the truth, that inside this junkyard lies an alien spaceship disguised as a 1950’s police box and that this is where she has been living all this time with her grandfather.

When we do finally truly get to know Susan Foreman in this episode she is a wonderful mystery, perhaps more so than the Doctor in my opinion as we start off on this journey. From what we gather she doesn’t seem to have friends easily as per Ian and Barbara’s flashbacks of her at school. She often gets things wrong about the culture she’s pretending to be in and yet in her short scene in the school she thrives off what she’s learning. She clearly wants to fit in, have a place in the universe. Something that we can see with her interactions later she’s probably not had in a long while in her explorations with her grandfather….

The Doctor’s first incarnation, played by William Hartnell

And speaking of Grandfather, The Doctor is a very different man (or woman thanks to our newest showrunner Chris Chibnall) that the current fandom are used to. When he is introduced to us, catching these two teachers looking for Susan, he’s not only short tempered, but comically amused at their worry about her safety. Already we can see he’s pompous and self serving or at least, in the case of him and his granddaughter most certainly doesn’t care about much else. If not for Susan’s calling out, Ian and Barbara would have never headed inside the TARDIS in the first place and we’d have not had the adventures that followed.

Before I press on, the TARDIS itself is another marvel. Using a police box as a spaceship — not only to save on budget but also as a fantastic idea to claim it as a chameleon and fit in its surroundings — and a broken one at that. It’s clearly it’s all designed in a rush but its gorgeous simplicity and stark white imagery really does make the real world out in the junkyard feel more like Earth. The wonderful humming noise, which is used to suggest the ship is alive does wonders to keep that illusion going even with some of the odd cuts between characters as they discuss the situation they find themselves in.

The Doctor telling his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) that he found her two teachers looking for her in the junkyard.

We discover, as do Ian and Barbara, that Susan and her grandfather the Doctor, are aliens from another world and time, exiled from their own people.

When her grandfather tells Susan that her teachers were following her, she wants them to understand that what she’s saying is true and when she senses her grandfather’s plan she wants to be let go because in her own words ‘they are good and kind people’. However, this is not a Doctor we are used to seeing on screen, it’s this Doctor that decides they are safer taking them away from 1963 akin to the BFG’s reasoning for taking Sophie from the orphanage in Roald Dahl’s classic tale. Fearing that these simple humans won’t be able to keep their mouth shut.  

IAN: You’re treating us like children.
DOCTOR: Am I? The children of my civilisation would be insulted.

With the teachers refusing to believe what we as an audience are now sure to be true, even with Susan’s protests they are swept away into space and time, the now infamous title sequence used to show the passage of time without much other fanfare. Then we cut to the police box on what appears to be an alien world, on a crisp desert landscape, and a foreboding shadow coming forwards stage right.

The adventure certainly doesn’t end there, the beginning of a lifelong adventure has only just begun.

Next time, tune in for part two of this wonderful caper; for the Stone Age, The Doctor’s truer colours, and how important it is to bring your matches with you to meet some hungry cavemen.

Also, as a bonus for these articles, I’ll be doing doodles and such like, so here’s my coloured up doodle I drew of Ian and Barbara, during one of my favourite moments before the teachers are snatched away into time and space.

RR #16 – Sladen’s Preferred Nurse Uniform – Joseph Lidster (Doctor Who & SJA)

Joseph Lidster joins James, M.H., and Will to discuss his The Sarah Jane Adventures serials, his work on the Doctor Who Experience (particuarly writing that speech for Lalla Ward’s Romana), writing the Doctor Who Skype bot and Sherlock‘s web content, and his Big Finish audio stories Master and The Rapture. How did Ace get a brother? Was Master inspired by Charles Williams? Who is Pain’s Champion? All of this will be answered, and more.

All this, and M.H. talks about the writing lessons she learned from his Sarah Jane Adventures scripts.