Free short story: The Electric Touch

Salvete, readers!

I have been hard at work for a few weeks on a short story, a prequel to Ashes of Olympus, my historical fantasy novel which comes out in July. I finished the draft this very morning and will send it to my publisher soon. Working on the short story got me looking through my old files in which I dabbled with the genre, and I was startled to discover a YA science fiction story I had completely forgotten. I thought I would share it here. If you enjoy the work, please consider signing up to my newsletter. 

THE ELECTRIC TOUCH

You never forget your first love.

She was called Maya—naming your children after American provinces was fashionable, once upon a time. She had freckles on her nose, wore a beret sometimes, and would whistle a tune as we walked hand-in-hand. I suppose it’s Maya’s eyes I remember most. They would glow like St. Elmo’s fire when she smiled. They were meant to do that, of course. She’d designed them herself.

In my day, they still called people like Maya cyborgs. Such a cold, clinical name for something so beautiful! And people like me? My parents took me to a psychiatrist, and ze diagnosed me as a bionsexual. It’s strange to think the word doesn’t carry a stigma any more, but it had them worried. They weren’t the only ones. Somehow it was everyone’s business that the organic-looking kid wanted to be with the ‘borg. To most people, me and Maya were just a dirty pair of sparkers.

Maya didn’t care; her parents were OK with it. Mine weren’t.

Dad almost had a fit when I first brought Maya to our place for afternoon tea. He stormed out, gnashing his teeth. Tata, who was so much gentler, ran after him. That night, after Maya had gone home, I tried to talk about it with them.

‘Dad, it’s no different from when you met Tata—G’pa didn’t like that, either. But you showed him—you’re married now and everything!’

But that didn’t help. Dad didn’t much like talking about his father.

‘The Church forbids it, I tell you! The Imperatrix Sacra will never, ever forgive you!’ he said.

As I sobbed into my pillow, Tata stroked my hair.

‘Why is Dad so angry?’ I asked.

‘That girl has corrupted her flesh into the likeness of a man-made object,’ said Tata.

‘But Tata, I love her.’

‘I know you think you love her. And I’m sure she’s a very nice girl, underneath all the tech. But her very soul is corrupted, my honey. Your daddy’s right to be upset.’

‘But… I don’t see how someone like Maya—’

‘It’s complicated. You’ll understand when you’re older. Anyway, there’s still plenty of time for love. You’re barely seventeen after all. Don’t be so quick to decide. After all, this could just be a phase. A lot of kids go through a curious stage. You’ll grow out of this someday, you’ll see.’

But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

I wanted to be what my parents wanted me to be. It would have saved me a lot of mobbing on the cybernet. Great G’ma would just tut and tell me not to worry about ‘trolls,’ whatever that meant. But it’s hard not to worry when shimmering holographic avatars mob you as soon as you log into school.

‘Hey, lover-borg,’ they’d hoot as my avatar entered the library-space. Sometimes they’d scrawl the words ‘sparker slut’ on Maya’s Socialspace Wall when the administrative mainframe wasn’t looking. No-one was ever as brave as Maya.

To this day, I still don’t understand why they were so afraid of us: for some people like Dad and Tata, it was a religious thing. That, I could get, sort of. But the other kids? Maybe they were just repeating what their parents told them. Maybe they were just weirded out because a bionsexual connects to the conscience and not to the body. I dunno, I got my contracep on my eleventh birthday like everybody else: Dad and Tata said to go nuts. And I could have, I suppose. But I just sort of… forgot.

I wished I could like organics, wanted to be like everyone else. I didn’t have anything against organics and I still don’t. It’s not like I hate people or anything. Or at least, I hope not. When I was little, some of my best friends were organics. By the time I was a teenager, there was a kind of distance there, but I still cared for them. It was weird. I could love an organic like they were my own family but not in any other way. Even then, I could not deny the allure of the synthetic. I could not resist the electric touch of Maya’s hand stroking my face, or the way the sunlight would catch in the golden wire of her hair.

I decided I didn’t care what Dad or the Imperatrix Sacra said after we had interfaced for the first time. We made sure we had the house to ourselves. It was important that we were connected face-to-face. It wasn’t safe to interface over the cyberweb. You never knew what pervs were watching and recording: this way, our brainwaves were our own. We were careful, we were cautious. We used a firewall. At school they had warned us of spontaneous virus transfer.

She brushed her fingertips against my temples: a slight tingling. I stared deep into her eyes and our breathing synchronised. The world fell away in ripples of colour and light, and we let go of all but each other.

I could feel anxiety emanating from her like ink-drops in water. In her eyes I saw mine widen in surprise. I don’t know why, but I hadn’t realised this was her first time too. Breathe. Just breathe. The tendrils receded. Reach. Touch. Never moving, we caressed in the twilight. Slowly, hesitantly, our very selves merged. This was communication beyond words, beyond skin on skin. We walked together in a dream, flew together over the Advanced Nations and joined the stars. Our consciences crackled and then roared as euphoric fusion. I lost myself in her, and she in me.

And then the greatest shock of all: to see myself as she saw me. Not with her eyes, but with her heart. How could I be so lovable?

At last we withdrew back into ourselves. Maya wiped my eyes. The decoupling was gentle, but it almost seemed the connection was lost before I knew it. Holding her against me, I understood. I had Maya, and she had me.

The rest was up to God.

 

© Julian Barr, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Julian Barr and jbarrauthor.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

2018: The Road Ahead

Salvete, readers!

Happy new year!

I’m a bit on the fence about new year’s resolutions. They never seem to work out, because they tend to be unrealistic. At the same time I’m also a big believer in having a clear sense of the path I’m on, so I do make concrete plans for the year ahead.

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In terms of my writing career, my ultimate goal is of course to reach the point where I can write full-time. But it takes a lot of work to get there, and that’s what this year is all about. So here is my list of writing and research priorities for the new year!

On the research front, I’m teaming up with classical archaeologist Dr Amelia Brown to co-write a really exciting academic book! Our project will feature the first translations of the early sources associated with St. Nicholas of Myra, along with a commentary. Yes, that St. Nick! For me, this all started when I went to do some research for an historical novel about St Nicholas, and then I was shocked to discover that most of the sources for his life hadn’t been translated from Greek. This is the first time research for my historical fiction has led me to produce original academic research. I’m looking forward to sharing what we discover.

In the world of commercial fiction, the Ashes of Olympus trilogy kicks off mid-2018 with the first instalment, The Way Home. I am gearing up to work with my editor and market the book. I’ve already contacted a few bookstores in my local area, and they seem interested in stocking it. Yay, Dymocks! Yay, indie bookstores! You guys are the best. I’ve also devised a pretty thorough plan to promote the book online and have set aside a budget for advertising and a book launch. Oh, the book launch! I’m looking forward to organising that, it’ll be so much fun. You’re all invited, of course! The more the merrier! And though I will be attending a few cons and such to promote it face-to-face, the bulk of the promo will take place online. Makes sense, as I’m working with a digital-first publisher. The strength of the story is probably the biggest factor in attracting readers, or so I’d like to think. People fall in love with your characters and your world. That’s why one of the keys to promoting the book online is a prequel short story, which I intend to release for free to all the major online retailers via Draft2Digital. Keep your eyes peeled!

I’m also going to start seeking a publisher for The Black Unicorn, my middle-grade fantasy in which Celtic myth meets steampunk. I had initially intended to publish it independently, but I’m taking the advice of a few people in the industry and seeking a traditional publisher before I go down that path. Finding readers is an uphill battle to begin with for an indie author, and just about impossible for children’s books. The market for children’s ebooks just doesn’t seem to exist. I’m really excited to start the next leg of my publication journey. And I have a feeling won’t be quite as tough to get published this time, because I have a foot in the door. I’m just about finished the first draft, which I have been serialising via Wattpad. The serial has been on hiatus over the Christmas period, but I look forward to continuing the updates next weekend. I’ve written loads which I haven’t yet shared. Once the serialisation is complete, I’ll probably leave it up for a month or so before taking it down and giving it a good polish.

But mostly, I am really looking forward to getting a copy printed and bound and giving it to my son for his birthday. Without him, the story wouldn’t exist. Even if it doesn’t get published, it will all be worthwhile to see the look on his face when he unwraps it.

After that, it’s time to get cracking on the next Ashes of Olympus, whose working title is The Ivory Gate. Guess what? I have about 60,000 words down on it already, so that will largely be a matter of refining what I’ve already got. I’ve got my work cut out for me. I’m looking forward to making my story the best it can be. After June, that’s probably where the bulk of the writerly work will go.

There are also a couple of projects which have been in the works for a long time, but which I haven’t discussed much online. Probably the most exciting for me is The Ravenglass Adventures, an audio drama series I’m co-writing with my friend Chris Spensley. It’s a pulpy sci-fi serial about a teenage space archaeologist named Philia Ravenglass. After some very helpful and encouraging notes from an experienced screenwriter, we’re doing a few tweaks to the pilot script. After that, we plan to record later in the year and release it for free as a podcast. We have assembled an amazing cast, and I can’t wait to share the story with you. Post-production will be a lengthy process, and we’re doing this in our spare time, so I cannot say yet when the show will be released, but you’ll be the first to know when it becomes available.

That’s about it, as far as the major projects go. At least, that’s as much as I can share for now. I do have a couple of little surprises up my sleeve… Short stories and interactive fiction and the like. Whew! It’s going to be a great year. It does seem like a lot, but much of it is bringing work to completion which has been in the pipeline for a while. Stay tuned.

Until next time,

Valete

Bibliomancy

Bibliomancy was a form of divination which was popular in the Middle Ages. First, you picked up a sacred or significant text, like Homer or Virgil or the Bible. You laid the book on its spine, allowing it to fall open. Then you shut your eyes and picked a passage at random from the open page. This passage supposedly revealed something about your future.

When you try it these days there is a chance you’ll get stuck with the copyright page, which is very confusing. I suspect this is how many copyright lawyers found their start.

Book review! Runestone: Book One of Viking Magic

Salvete, readers!

This week I’m reviewing the first book of the Viking Magic series by Anna Cidor, Runestone. It’s a middle grade historical fantasy based on Norse mythology, so it’s kind of my thing.

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Historical fantasy occupies a unique space in the world of genre fiction. You’ve got to deal with the unreal world of the supernatural, but within the constraints of historical authenticity. Writing for children brings its own set of challenges. Where do child protagonists fit in a world whose concept of childhood was so different from our own? How do you forge a connection between past and present? And if you’re writing about Northern Europe of the Middle Ages, you’ve got to deal with the Tolkien factor as well—so many features of the Norse sagas have become fantasy tropes via The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Anna Cidor deals with these challenges well by side-stepping many of the clichés about Viking society.

The newborn Thora’s father has no interest in raising a daughter. He wants a strong young boy to help him out on the family farm. Oddo, meanwhile, is born into a family whose children learn magic before they can walk. To save Thora from being abandoned in the woods, the village midwife switches them at birth. Years later, Oddo shows no aptitude for farming, but constantly has to suppress his talent for magic. Thora loves working with her hands and making things grow, but has no magical ability whatsoever. When their paths meet, Thora and Oddo embark upon a journey to discover where they fit into this world.

It’s a simple story, well told. Oddo and Thora are charming characters who inhabit a world rich in detail. In the construction of her setting, Cidor pays as much attention to the natural world as the artificial, from the soapstone crockery to the alder wood trees. Her research into Norse social history really shows. The rhythm of the characters’ lives is determined by the seasons, as it should be for an agrarian culture. The characters live on the land and occasionally play at being warriors, not the other way around. If you wanted a story of axe-wielding sea-raiders or horned helmets, you’ve come to the wrong place. The system of magic is thoroughly embedded in medieval folklore and thus integrates nicely into the setting. I can’t fault Cidor’s research or her dedication to world-building.

That said, I question a few of the decisions in terms of authenticity. At times, the dialogue jars as it veers from the quaint to the modern. On the one hand, I think it makes sense for the dialogue to be idiomatic and casual. There’s nothing worse than highfaluting old-timey speak in historical fiction. On the other hand, well, the word ‘okay’ in a medieval setting just doesn’t feel right. While I appreciate that this world is essentially the author’s own, I never really got a sense of the geography or historical period. We get a fairly generic Northern European landscape, and the characters don’t seem to identify with any particular clan group. Anything resembling organised religion is notable by its absence. We get a kind of paganism minus gods—not one of the Asgardians rates a mention. This seems particularly odd when the story is about Viking magic. Surely Odin should at least be referred to, given that he was so closely associated with magic? I think adding a further layer of historical detail would have helped the story to feel less like a medieval fantasy and more like a fantasy novel which happens to be set in the middle ages.

Yet for every quibble there’s a stroke of genius. For instance, I love the use of ‘seethe’ as a verb for using a spell, rather than the more usual ‘casting.’ I’m guessing this is a transliteration of an Old Norse word for sorcery, seidr. If I’m right, this simple word-choice shows real sympathy for the historical past. Touches like this outweigh any drawbacks. With its likeable protagonists and compelling narrative, Runestone is an excellent first volume of what promises to be a thrilling series for children.

Until next time,

Valete

Book announcement: Tertullian and the Unborn Child

I’m thrilled to announce the release of my first academic book, Tertullian and the Unborn Child: Christian and Pagan Attitudes in Historical Perspective.

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What’s this all about, then?  

I’ll let the blurb do the talking.*

Tertullian of Carthage was the earliest Christian writer to argue against abortion at length, and the first surviving Latin author to consider the unborn child in detail. This book is the first comprehensive analysis of Tertullian’s attitude towards the foetus and embryo. Examining Tertullian’s works in light of Roman literary and social history, Julian Barr proposes that Tertullian’s comments on the unborn should be read as rhetoric ancillary to his primary arguments. Tertullian’s engagement in the art of rhetoric also explains his tendency towards self-contradiction. He argued that human existence began at conception in some treatises and not in others. Tertullian’s references to the unborn hence should not be plucked out of context, lest they be misread. Tertullian borrowed, modified, and discarded theories of ensoulment according to their usefulness for individual treatises. So long as a single work was internally consistent, Tertullian was satisfied. He elaborated upon previous Christian traditions and selectively borrowed from ancient embryological theory to prove specific theological and moral points. Tertullian was more influenced by Roman custom than he would perhaps have admitted, since the contrast between pagan and Christian attitudes on abortion was more rhetorical than real.

About the series

Medicine and the Body in Antiquity is a series which fosters interdisciplinary research that broadens our understanding of past beliefs about the body and its care. The intention of the series is to use evidence drawn from diverse sources (textual, archaeological, epigraphic) in an interpretative manner to gain insights into the medical practices and beliefs of the ancient Mediterranean. The series approaches medical history from a broad thematic perspective that allows for collaboration between specialists from a wide range of disciplines outside ancient history and archaeology such as art history, religious studies, medicine, the natural sciences and music. The series will also aim to bring research on ancient medicine to the attention of scholars concerned with later periods. Ultimately this series provides a forum for scholars from a wide range of disciplines to explore ideas about the body and medicine beyond the confines of current scholarship.

How on earth did I come up with this topic?

Heh, I remember explaining my research to a class once. One undergrad rolled her eyes and said, ‘Well, that’s random.’ I gather this was meant to be a put-down. This is a very specialised topic, though one which has implications for broader society. Perhaps it is best to begin with the story. That’s kind of my thing.

It all started when my wonderful wife and I were expecting our first baby, and we were waiting for our first ultrasound. Right at that moment I was trying to think of a good topic for my PhD research—looking for an area where I could break new ground in a subject which meant something to me. Mostly I was interested in Roman social and literary history, so I figured I’d stay on that path. As we were sitting in the hospital waiting area, my mind put two and two together: how would the Romans would have thought about the foetus and embryo? It’s not like they could see what was going on inside the uterus.

Bing! That was a lightbulb above my head. How did the offspring in utero fit into Roman family life? There was no word in Latin or Greek for ‘foetus’ or ’embryo.’ What did that tell us, if anything? When did the Romans think the soul came into being? Some of the secondary literature I’d read suggested that abortion was a routine occurrence in pagan Rome. Was that really true? I was determined to find out. Oodles had been written on Roman attitudes towards children, but the story generally started at birth. This struck me as odd. After all, parents start to think about their future children long before they set foot in the delivery room.

Flash forward a few months, and I was swamped in research. I’d imagined that I wouldn’t find a lot of source material to work with, but the opposite turned out to be the case. It was clear I needed to focus the research more intensely. Wringing my hands, I went to my supervisors, who suggested the project would be a lot more achievable if it revolved around a single ancient source. Who though? Galen? Hippocrates? Maybe. But wouldn’t it be great to make use of the research I’d already done on Roman social mores and family life? I was curious as to the impact of medical and philosophical theory on Roman conceptualisations of the foetus and embryo.

And that’s how I made the acquaintance of Tertullian—I wouldn’t call him a friend, exactly, though he’s definitely one of the most interesting people I know. Fiery of temper, steeped in rhetoric, extremely well-read in ancient medicine and philosophy, and Roman down to his socks and sandals. Tertullian, as it turned out, was loquacious on the subject of the foetus and embryo. In fact, he was the first Christian source to address the subject at length, though others had touched on it before. Through the eyes of a Roman social historian I was viewing a question which was directly relevant to today’s world: where did Christian opposition to abortion come from?

Wait, what? That’s a pretty controversial topic!

Yes, it is. For good reason—we’re grappling with big issues. There’s no point pretending the history of abortion is not politically contentious. History plays such an important role in determining policies like Roe v Wade. Readings of early Christian sources are always influenced by modern controversy—indeed, this is true of all historical sources.

Over and over I’ve seen Tertullian and other historical figures conscripted as foot-soldiers in crusades for and against abortion. Rather than try to categorise Tertullian as a pro-life or pro-choice author, I aim to give readers a deeper explanation of his views on the subject. In doing so, I’ve made a very deliberate choice not to push any political stance for or against the legality of abortion.

Still, it would disingenuous to act as though I don’t have an agenda. Full disclosure: I seek to give an historical context to allow more informed discussion. One of the great justifications for the academic study of history is that the present informs the past and can thus tell us something about ourselves. For Classical history in particular, it is often claimed that the Greeks and Romans built the foundation of the modern West. On the subject of Christian conceptualisations of the offspring in utero, there is indeed a clear link between modern and ancient thought.

Who is the target market?

Like most academic books, Tertullian and the Unborn Child is primarily marketed and priced for university and college libraries. My research is meant to serve anybody with a scholarly interest in the history of Christian thought concerning abortion. For this reason I wrote the book for a broad academic readership. It will be of use to both specialists and non-specialists in Greek and Roman history.

An extensive preview of Tertullian and the Unborn Child is available via Google Books and Amazon. Here you will find the preface and introduction. It is available to purchase as a hardback or an ebook via the Routledge website and can be ordered through numerous online retailers.

Until next time, vale.

Julian

* Text and cover image not to be copied.