What A CD Single Insert From 1997 Can Teach Us About Worldbuilding And Historical Fiction – A Ramble

Although this is an article about worldbuilding and/or writing historical fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about stuff from the 1990s for the next eight paragraphs or so. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that will become relevant later.

Anyway, whilst looking for something in my CD collection, I stumbled across an old CD single of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” from 1997 that I’d forgotten that I even had.

Musical nostalgia aside, one of the interesting things about the CD single was that it contained a cardboard insert that initially just seemed like a silly piece of ephemera. But, the more I looked at it, the more I realised that it couldn’t have come from any time after the 1990s.

The insert is a form that allows the record company to send (what would probably be considered) junk mail to anyone who fills it in. Not only that, there’s a box at the bottom of the form that contains a hilariously transparent exhortation to send in the form even if you’ve already signed up to their list, just so that they can collect record sales data.

For a second, I wondered “who the hell would actually sign up for this?

Then I remembered that the internet was a lot less widely-used during the 1990s. So, getting advertising brochures in the post was actually a valid way of keeping up to date with things like concerts, release dates etc…. if you didn’t want to buy music magazines every month.

I also realised that the fact that the internet was less common back then meant that there was much less awareness about things like spam, advertising tactics, giving out your details etc… So, companies could do this sort of thing and actually expect large numbers of people to respond.

Then I remembered that music was only sold on physical media during the 1990s, so there was less musical variety easily available to the public. This is noticeable by the fact that, although the limited list of genres on the form thankfully includes heavy metal, it doesn’t include genres like punk or gothic rock. Likewise, CD singles were popular enough back then for companies to actually add advertising to them too.

I could go on, but it’s amazing how much you can deduce about 1997 from a simple piece of ephemera.

But, why did I spend the last few paragraphs dissecting a piece of advertising? What does any of this have to do with worldbuilding and historical fiction?

Well, a lot actually. The CD single insert I’ve been talking about is a perfect example of how the general conditions of a time or place can shape even the smallest things. It is the sort of thing that could only have existed during the 1990s (or earlier). It only exists because the internet was a lot less common back then.

If you’re creating a fictional world, then it is small details like this that really make your “world” feel authentic. These are small details that can easily be ignored but which allow attentive members of the audience to deduce more about your fictional world by looking at them closely.

So, think about how your fictional world would shape “everyday” things. For example, if you were writing a story set in a world where television and film never existed, then your story should contain small details about things like radio, theatre, literature etc.. instead. But, these things should be presented in the same way as TV/film-related stuff is these days – since they would be a lot more mainstream in that particular world.

If you’re writing historical fiction, then things like this are what can really make your historical fiction feel authentic. Small, everyday details that couldn’t exist in any other period of history are one of the quickest ways to immerse your readers in the world of your story.

Even if it’s something as simple as showing a character from the 1990s picking up some blank VHS tapes or audio cassettes when shopping, small details are incredibly important when writing historical fiction.

So, yes, a single piece of junk mail-related ephemera can say a lot about an entire decade.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

When Nostalgia Isn’t Defined – A Ramble

Although this is a rambling article about nostalgia, creativity and gaps in popular culture, I’m going to have to spend the next 3-4 paragraphs talking about music. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A day or two before I wrote this article, I was clearing part of my room when I happened to find a CD that I’d forgotten that I even had. It was a free music CD that had been attached to the March 2006 issue of “Metal Hammer” magazine.

Although I was initially pleasantly surprised to discover that it contained “Cyanide” by Deathstars (a song that really reminds me a lot of 2008/9), I listened to a few of the other tracks out of curiosity and, although I didn’t know or remember any of them, one of them stood out in particular.

It was a song called “The Last Sunrise” by Aiden and it was the absolute epitome of mid-2000s heavy metal. With a mixture of clean vocals, emo-style vocals (that almost have a whiny early 2000s-style pop-punk quality to them) and shouty vocals, it couldn’t have come from any other era in history.

Even the intense, but sharp, guitar parts of the song sound very much like something from this part of history. Likewise, the emotional angst-filled lyrics are also very mid-2000s. I suddenly found myself feeling incredibly nostalgic about the mid-2000s (of all times) just by listening to a song I didn’t remember.

But, as you can probably tell from the convoluted description in the previous paragraph, the vocabulary for describing and defining mid-2000s nostalgia doesn’t really exist yet.

I mean, if I was to talk about – say- 1990s Hollywood movies, then I could talk at length about the chiaroscuro lighting that was popular back then. Or I could talk about how being made between the end of the cold war and before 9/11 gave these films an optimistic emotional tone that can’t be replicated today.

I could probably talk about how the fact that the internet was less widely-used back then affected the stories films told. I could probably talk about how the larger number of mid-budget films back then was beneficial to popular culture (and how smaller-scale stories can often be more dramatic than larger-scale ones). I could probably go on for a while.

But, when talking about something as simple as a song from 2006, I’m forced to use convoluted descriptions that may or may not make sense. Yes, I know what sets heavy metal music from the mid-2000s apart from heavy metal from other parts of history. But, finding a way to express that knowledge is somewhat more challenging because popular nostalgia hasn’t really caught up to this time period yet (eg: there’s usually at least a 20 year gap when it comes to nostalgia becoming popular).

So, what is the best thing to do if you’re a creative person who wants to express a type of nostalgia that hasn’t really been explored in popular culture?

Well, the first thing to do is to try to work out which qualities make something from a non-nostalgic period of the past so distinctive. Use your memories, do some online research, look at examples of things from that time etc.. and try to work out what they have in common. Or, failing that, find some creative works from the time period in question and take inspiration from them.

Even if you can’t concisely express what makes things from a particular time period unique, gaining a greater knowledge of it (through research and thought) will help you to find less direct ways to express this particular quality (eg: the way you describe locations, your characters’ personalities etc..).

If you’re an artist, then you have an advantage here, since you can try to replicate the “look” of a particular period of history, even if you can’t quite find the words to articulate what makes it do distinctive. For example, here are two paintings of mine that are based on a stylised version of the early-mid 2000s:

“Future 2004” By C. A. Brown

“Like 2005” By C. A. Brown

Finding ways to turn nostalgia that isn’t widely shared into art, fiction etc.. can be a bit of a challenge. And, you probably aren’t going to get it right the first time. Still, it’s certainly worth trying nonetheless.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Basic Reasons Why Nostalgia Turns Up In Creative Works A Lot

Well, a while before I wrote this article, I happened to read this opinon article about nostalgia. Since I was also still busy preparing last year’s “retro sci-fi” Halloween stories at the time, I thought that I’d look at a few of the reasons why nostalgia tends to turn up in a lot of creative works.

And, more importantly, why it isn’t such a bad thing. However, I seem to be feeling a very strange sense of deja vu whilst writing this article – so, apologies if it’s similar to a previous article.

1) Formative influences: Simply put, most people’s sensibilities and aesthetic preferences are shaped by the creative works that really made an impression on them when they were younger. In other words, everyone is inspired by things from the past in some way or another. This also includes things that were already “old” when writers, artists etc.. were young.

For example, one of the many influences (in addition to things like “Blade Runner“, “Silent Hill 3” etc..) on the “retro sci-fi” short stories I posted last Halloween were American sci-fi novels from the 1950s/60s. However, I wasn’t even alive in the 1950s or the 1960s. I’ve also never been to America either.

But, between about the ages of sixteen and eighteen, I went through a phase of reading cheap second-hand vintage sci-fi novels that I’d found in charity shops and second-hand bookshops. So, these were an influence on my “retro sci-fi” stories from last Halloween, even though they were already “old” when I first discovered them.

The fact of the matter is that, even if you’ve rigourously kept up with “current” culture throughout your life, then things you’ve seen in the past are still going to influence you (because they’ve shaped your preferences and sensibilities). Not only that, even if you somehow manage the unrealistic feat of only taking inspiration from the absolute latest things – then, many of those things have probably also been influenced by stuff from the past.

To quote a very famous old saying, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants.

2) Emotions: Over the past few years, I’ve been fascinated by the 1990s. I’ve been looking at old TV shows and playing old computer games from the 1990s slightly more than usual. A month or two ago, I spent about a fortnight watching one film from the 1990s every evening. I’ve been doing random research into the fashions of the 1990s. I’ve been watching Youtube videos about 1990s technology. I could go on for a while.

But, why? One of the reasons why the 1990s is so fascinating – and why it’s been such a creative influence on me in recent years – is because of the fact that the stylised, rose-tinted (and somewhat Americanised) version of “the 1990s” that I’ve cobbled together from my research, my vague memories of 1990s Britain and all of the old creative works I’ve encountered is such fun to experience – and to express in a variety of creative ways, like this:

“From The 1990s” By C. A. Brown

“Retro Stage” By C. A. Brown

“1990s Awesomeness” By C. A. Brown

“The Ghost Night” By C. A. Brown

If there’s one theme that runs through a lot of creative works from the 1990s, it is optimism about the future. Films back then tended to have a very slightly more “stylised” and “innocent” tone (and really cool lighting too). Creative works could have a bit more personality since internet-based mass culture wasn’t really a thing. I could go on for a while, but this rose-tinted version of the 1990s is somewhere that I want to explore and spend time in. And, well, creating and viewing/reading/playing/listening to creative works is one way of doing this.

In short, nostalgia feels good. And the desire to feel good and/or explore places that don’t exist can be an absolutely brilliant source of creative motivation.

3) Making more of the things we love: One reason why nostalgia can be a major part of many creative works is as a reaction to modern culture. Nostalgic creative works can appear because someone has looked at something from the past and thought “They don’t make things like this any more. I guess that I’ll have to do it myself!”.

For example, although 1980s/90s-style cyberpunk sci-fi and noir sci-fi has made a little bit of a comeback in recent years (eg: the “Ghost In The Shell” remake, the “Blade Runner” sequel, “Technobablyon“, the first couple of episodes of “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” etc..) , finding examples of it used to be a little bit more challenging even a few years ago.

So, once I worked out how to make art in this style, it tends to be something that I return to on at least a semi-regular basis. For example, here’s a preview of a digitally-edited painting that will appear here in a couple of days (which also took a bit of inspiration from 1920s/30s architecture, fashion etc.. too).

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 6th August.

Being able to make things that are a little bit like creative works from the past that you really love, but which don’t seem to be common any more, can be an incredibly strong source of creative motivation.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Limitations And Nostalgia – A Ramble

Although this is a rambling article about nostalgia in general, I’m going to have to start by talking about musical nostalgia for a couple of paragraphs. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A while before I wrote this article, I was going through a bit of a musical nostalgia phase and, whilst listening to the first track of Sum 41’s “Half Hour Of Power” album, I suddenly remembered that they were one of the few punk bands that I knew about when I was a teenager. And how they seemed even cooler as a result of this.

A while earlier, I had also found myself listening to “Virus” by Iron Maiden. This is a bonus track that was included on one of the first Iron Maiden albums I ever bought (the “Best Of The Beast” compilation) and it reminded me of when I first discovered the band and how I knew relatively little about them at the time, but was eager to learn.

So, what was the point of this brief trip down memory lane? Well, it’s all to do with how limitations can affect and provoke nostalgia.

One of the interesting things about growing up at a time when the internet was a little bit less common is that information was harder to find. These days, if I see or listen to something interesting, then it’s a simple matter of searching for more info about it online. Likewise, finding information about other things that are like it isn’t too difficult either. Yes, this is really cool – but it means that anything you find probably won’t provoke quite the same type of nostalgia when you remember it in the future.

If you found something really cool 15-20 years ago, then it was a much more significant event. Chances are, you probably even have some kind of convoluted story about how you first found it.

For example, I discovered Iron Maiden (in about 2000/2001) by accident because they were on the soundtrack to “Carmageddon II” – which was a game I only got by accident because it happened to be included in a multipack with the PC port of “Resident Evil 2”.

Finding something cool 15-20 years ago was also a much more significant event for the simple reason that it was a bit more difficult to tell whether there were other things like it out there. As such, finding something really brilliant was like finding a rare treasure. Instead of eagerly researching it on the internet, you tended to savour it whilst also hoping that you might possibly chance upon something similar in the future.

Finding something cool 15-20 years ago also relied on chance, luck and serendipity a lot more than it does now. It involved noticing things in magazines, hearing recommendations from people, happening to watch things on TV, happening to hear something good on the radio or finding random things in shops. As such, discovering cool things tended to feel like more of a matter of luck or fate than it does now.

Then, of course, there’s all of the nostalgia that you didn’t actively seek out. In the days before the internet was truly mainstream, mass culture used to be much more prominent. I mean, if you asked me to name ten songs by current pop bands, I’d probably look at you like you’d asked me to translate this article into hieroglyphics.

But, during my childhood in the mid-late 1990s, I could probably reel off twenty song names without even thinking about it. Why? Because it was the main type of music (aside from the occasional pop-punk or rap song) that I was exposed to back then. The only real variation was the fact that the local radio station I listened to regularly at the time also used to play 1980s pop music too. So, a lot of my musical nostalgia is from genres that I don’t really listen to much these days.

Of course, limitations also provoke nostalgia in other ways too. Whether it is the graphics in older computer/video games (that force the player to use their imagination more and which place more emphasis on the actual gameplay, story etc..) or the fact that special effects in movies looked cooler in the past because there was no modern photo-realistic CGI to compare them to, the limitations involved in creating things in the past often tends to evoke a lot of nostalgia.

So, yes, a lot of what makes nostalgia “special” can often be due to the limitations of the past.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why Things In The Horror Genre Can Be Scarier Than You Remember

Shortly before I originally wrote this article, I had a rather surprising experience. My second-hand copy of the PC port of “Silent Hill 3” had finally arrived in the post and I was eager to re-live some nostalgic memories of playing the game on my old (and sadly no longer functional) Playstation 2 when I was a teenager.

Plus, when I found and played a demo of the PC version of “Silent Hill 3” a couple of years ago, I’d felt nothing but wonderful nostalgia. So, I was expecting a lot more of this from the full version of the game. But, after I’d finished the introductory segment from the demo…

…The game was about ten times scarier than I remembered! I’d always thought of “Silent Hill 3” as the least scariest of the classic “Silent Hill” games, yet I could feel adrenaline coursing through my veins and an icy shard of fear in my chest. Nervously, I found myself torn between the urge to explore more of the game’s nightmarish world and the urge to just find a monster-free area and hide there because I did not expect to feel actual fear whilst playing “Silent Hill 3”.

This is a screenshot from “Silent Hill 3” (2003). A game that is scarier than you might remember it being!

This naturally made me wonder about time, nostalgia, memory and the horror genre – since this experience just didn’t make any logical sense. I’d played the whole game before when I was younger. Surely, if I was going to be scared by it, it would have happened back then. Yet, my only memories of the game were nostalgic ones of how cool I thought it was and how it was associated with rose-tinted memories of my youth.

1) Perspective and maturity: One reason things in the horror genre can be scarier when you revisit them at an older age for the simple reason that you’re more likely to actually think about them deeply. You’ll have had more life experience and be at least marginally more mature, and this will influence how you think about horror games, movies, novels etc..

I mean, when I played “Silent Hill 3” at about the age of sixteen, I probably just thought “Cool! It’s a gruesome horror game with monsters. AND it isn’t as utterly terrifying as ‘Silent Hill 2’ 🙂 “.

But, when playing the shopping centre-based parts of the game a while before writing this article, I actually found myself thinking more deeply about the events of the game and wondering what actually being in a situation like that would be like. I started thinking about it less like a “game” and more like a story.

Likewise, I also started to wonder about the parts of the game’s nightmarish “world” that aren’t shown to the player. What lurked behind the myriad locked doors that are everywhere? How did that mysterious bloodstain end up in this room I’m hiding in? Why are there monsters lurking in the shopping centre, and how creepy would it be to go shopping and suddenly find that the shopping centre was abandoned?

So, gaining the capacity to think about things more deeply can be one reason why things in the horror genre can be scarier than you remember.

2) Practice: Another reason why things in the horror genre can be scarier when you are older is because your tastes tend to widen with age. I mean, when I was a teenager, I was absolutely fascinated by the horror genre. I used to love reading splatterpunk novels, watching late night horror movies etc…. It was a genre that was rebellious, emotionally cathartic and considerably more “cool” than anything else.

But, as time has gone on, I’ve found other genres that interest me. And, as a result, I’ve got somewhat “out of practice” with the horror genre.

So, a relative lack of exposure to “serious” things in the horror genre over the past few years can also explain why things in the horror genre can be scarier than you remember.

3) Fan culture: If you haven’t directly experienced a particular work in the horror genre for a long time, then you can sometimes end up remembering the affectionate fan culture that surrounds it than the actual film/game/story etc… itself.

It’s easy to get dazzled by nostalgic references on the internet and adoring odes to games/films/novels etc.. from fans on the internet.

Because fan culture often tends to include a lot of humour and a lot of focus on the more stylised elements of something (eg: Freddy Krueger’s glove, the crackly voice from the “Saw” films, the mask from the “Scream” films etc..) , then it can be easy to mistake this for the actual work in question. Since fan culture exists to celebrate things, then it is going to focus on instantly-recognisable things that provoke feelings of warm affection.

So, fan culture isn’t going to reflect that moment in a horror game when you’re walking down another gloomy corridor and can hear something lurking nearby. Fan culture isn’t going to focus on that really bleak moment in a horror movie when a character realises that all hope is lost etc….

So, yes, confusing fan culture with the actual work in question can be another reason why something in the horror genre might be a lot scarier than you remember.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Four Tips For Adding Some 1990s-Style Silliness To Your Story Or Comic

One of the endearingly nostalgic things about the media during the 1990s (TV shows and computer games especially) is that it wasn’t afraid to be completely and utterly silly at times.

This is one of the distinctive qualities of media from the decade and it was probably caused by a number of factors, such as the fact that the 1990s fell between the end of the Cold War and our current post-9/11 world, so the general mood was a bit more optimistic.

But, regardless of what caused it, media from the 1990s often has a certain joyous silliness to it that modern media often lacks. So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about how to add some 90s-style silliness to your prose fiction and/or comic projects.

1) Focus on some other element and work backwards: Technical limitations aside, one of the reasons why computer games from the early-mid 1990s were often so gleefully nonsensical was because the story was often something of an afterthought.

Usually, the designers would focus on coming up with a fun game and then add the story at a later point. This, of course, led to some hilariously random – but extremely fun – games.

This is a screenshot of a 2D platform game from 1993 called “Bio Menace”. This scene involves climbing a giant tree and fighting slime monsters, sentient balls of fur etc…. Yes, games were a bit more random in the 90s, since fun gameplay took priority over storytelling.

Even more “serious” games from the time, like “Doom II” (1994) [pictured], would often be considered somewhat “random” or “silly” by today’s standards. Again, this is because the designers primarily focused on fun gameplay, rather than storytelling.

So, one way to replicate this silly randomness in your story or comic is to come up with an interesting idea, find a totally random subject and/or come up with a silly gimmick. Then, once you’ve done this, try to see if you can work backwards and add a story to it. The main thing here is not to come up with the story idea first, but to find some other thing and then try to shoehorn a story into it.

2) Take a concept to the max: One trend that lent the 1990s some of it’s distinctive silliness was the fact that there were relatively fewer “serious” issues in the news. As such, if someone wanted to create a thrilling, scary and/or dramatic story, then what they would sometimes do would be to take some idea or concept (the more random and/or “ordinary”, the better) and then just take it to a ludicrous extreme in order to extract some melodrama from it.

A good example of this can be seen in a gloriously cheesy mid-late 1990s TV show called “Sliders“. This is a sci-fi show which revolves around the characters visiting a different parallel universe every episode. Often, these universes would be based on some idea or another being taken to a hilariously silly extreme.

For example, in this episode from season 1 of “Sliders” (1995), the main characters end up in a timeline where the American Revolution never happened. Even though it’s the mid-1990s (when the Spice Girls etc.. were popular in Britain) – everyone dresses like they’re from the 1950s, speaks in received pronunciation and drives old cars. There’s also a hilariously silly band of rebels and a few references to “Robin Hood” too.

So, one way to add some 90s-style silliness to your story or comic is just to find an ordinary idea (eg: try looking for some slightly “silly” stories in the newspaper. Yes, in an actual newspaper) and then just take it to some kind of silly extreme.

3) Assume your audience know less: Although people were no more or less intelligent during the 1990s than they are now, there was one crucial difference. The internet was a lot slower, a lot more expensive and a lot less widely-used than it is now. As such, the writers of mainstream things like TV shows couldn’t just assume that their audiences had instant access to all of humanity’s knowledge.

As such, things from the 1990s often tended to rely on much more “timeless” commonly-known references and source material. Likewise, sometimes, TV shows would occasionally spell things out to the audience that modern shows rightly assume that contemporary audiences already understand. This slightly patronising “stating the obvious” element often drains all seriousness from what the show is trying to say and turns it into unintentionally hilarious melodrama.

As great as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is, this screenshot from the season 7 episode “Masks” (1994) provides an example of what I’m talking about. The characters state the obvious sometimes and the episode uses a lot of fairly generic Aztec-style settings.

So, one way to add some 90s-style silliness to your story or comic is simply to state the obvious a few times and to rely more on “timeless” cultural references – however hilariously incongruous they might be with something made in the present day.

4) Chaos and anarchy: One of the easiest ways to add some 1990s-style silliness to your story or comic is just to contrast some “ordinary” characters with some silly and/or chaotic characters.

There are at least two hilariously silly movies from the first two years of the 1990s that do precisely this. So, this type of comedy was obviously a bit of a trend back in the day.

This is a screenshot from “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990). In this film, a state-of-the-art office block is taken over by anarchic, hedonistic Gremlin creatures, after the main characters’ pet creature Gizmo is accidentally fed after midnight. Hilarity ensues.

This is a screenshot from “Drop Dead Fred” (1991), a film where the main character’s childhood imaginary friend (Played by Rik Mayall) suddenly appears in her life again and causes all sorts of hilarious chaos.

This is something that isn’t really seen as often in the modern comedy genre, and it is kind of a follow-on from the comedy horror traditions of the 1980s (eg: movies like “Beetlejuice”, the original “Gremlins” and “Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark” also include elements of this). So, adding some anarchic slapstick humour (involving slightly weird characters) can be a good way to inject some 1990s-style silliness to your story or comic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Short Story: “Demo” By C. A. Brown

Note: This story is a stand-alone companion piece to this story.

If there was one thing that Kirsty missed, it was demo discs. Back in the day, videogame magazines used to come with discs filled with the first levels of seven or eight different games. Sure, it was meant as a promotional thing. But, she thought, there was something democratic about it. It was like catching an episode of a drama on TV, rather than only being able to see it in an online boxset. It was democratic.

She was about to mention this to James, but he just sat back on the sofa and pulled out his phone. He tapped it a couple of times and stared at the tiny screen, absorbed in something. Probably some trendy article about “de-cluttering” or whatever.

So, she read a book. It was an old paperback horror novel from the ’80s that she’d picked up in a charity shop for 50p. The cover read “SCYTHE MANIAC!” in dripping red letters and showed some dude with glowing red eyes standing in front of a midnight sky and swinging a scythe at the reader. Within a few seconds, she’d lost herself in the story….

Above the roar of the combine harvester, Farmer Green focused his attention on the spinning blades in front of the windscreeen. Rage roiled inside him. The sheer cheek of that supercilious little man from DEFRA insisting that.. he… went on a safety course! He’d been working the harvester since he was a lad and had not suffered so much as a scratch from the efficient, slicing blades.

Grumbling to himself, Farmer Green heaved the steering wheel. His gnarled fingers nearly slipped on the hasty gaffer tape repair to one segment of it. No doubt that the silly bureaucrat would probably moan about that too. But, the trendy people at the harvester company had stopped making spares. Even though, he thought, this venerable old machine would probably outlive any of the fancy bleeping gadgets that those slick salesmen kept pushing on poor farmers like him.

And then Farmer Green saw it. Behind the yellow haze of chaff, the shadow of a man stood in the field. The farmer’s face went beetroot red and he stamped on the brake as hard as his old legs would allow. If it was that stupid lad from Wilson’s farm again, then there would be harsh words spoken. Balling his fists, he waited for the harvester to judder to a halt. But, when the clouds of chaff fell to the ground – there was no-one there.

He rubbed his sweaty brow and blinked twice. Maybe it was all just a trick of the eye? Maybe he was imagining things in his old age? Letting out a sigh, he started the engine again. But, before he could even put foot to pedal, the window beside him exploded in a shearing shower of sharp shards. The tip of a scythe shot through the hole like the beak of a hawk swooping in for the kill. The razor point slashed…

Kirsty was interrupted mid-sentence by James shouting ‘Alita! Is the internet down? Alita! Dammit!

The silent smart speaker sat on the table next to the TV. A green light stared back at him. He tapped his phone frantically. He walked over to the router and poked it a few times.

Finally, he turned to Kirsty and let out an exasperated sigh: ‘Typical. We get one bloody peaceful afternoon and they decide to repair the internet or whatever. What the hell are we going to watch, read or play?