From Paul Di Filippo's "THE SPECULATOR" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
This year completes the initial decade
of the twenty-first century -- unless, of course, you are a numerical fussbudget
along the lines of the revered Arthur C. Clarke, and insist on dating the start
of the century to 2001. But tell me truly: does the year 2011 really resonate
with you as an evocative, memorable milestone?
any case, the twenty-first century is undeniably the century science fiction
built -- if not in utter hands-on reality (though even that proposition is
debatable, given the inspiration the genre has provided for influential
scientists and geeks), then in the public imagination. Since the birth of genre
SF in 1926, and for almost the next 75 years, simply to set a story in the
third millennium AD was to signify extravagant extrapolation and a futuristic,
far-off milieu when flying cars and food pills would reign -- or dystopia would
prevail. The year 2010 is automatically one of yesterday's tomorrows.
course, as we all now realize, the twenty-first century is proving both more
and less science-fictional than the literature imagined, in strange and perhaps
essentially unpredictable ways. This condition bedevils SF to some extent, as
both its continuing credibility and utility come under question. Some authors
and critics have recently even gone so far as to pronounce the mode deceased. Such
statements regarding the death of SF are eternal. In 1960, for instance, a
famous seminar was conducted under the heading "Who Killed Science
seems fitting, then, at this early juncture in the new millennium, to examine
some recent representative SF books of differing types and check their pulse
for signs of health or illness. Does the genre continue to have new and useful
things to say? Is it still intellectually and narratively interesting? Or is
the genre suffering from a case, as H. G. Wells so direly phrased it, of
"mind at the end of its tether…"?
The Original Anthology: If it's become
cliché to maintain that short stories are the cutting-edge laboratory of
science fiction, it's only because, as with most clichés, a nugget of truth
gleams at the center of the truism. The short form allows quick, timely and
innovative forays into new speculative territories: a big payoff for minimal
author and reader investment.
the remaining small band of old-school print magazines in dire financial
straits these days, and online zines stumbling around for a viable business
model, much of the best work at these lengths now occurs in the original
anthology, which trades periodical timeliness for a greater shelf life, the
occasional backing of deep-pockets publishers, and an expanded audience.
of the best anthologies of recent vintage is Jetse de Vries's Shine. Its virtues are easy to
enumerate. It offers a clear-eyed theme and unique remit: optimistic,
near-future SF. It features a wide range of voices and styles. Its editor is
young, knowledgeable, energetic, and hip (the anthology was assembled with heavy
reliance on social media sites). On all counts, it's a rousing success, the
very model of a modern project, and points the way toward a healthy future for
SF short stories. All that remains is for the book to rack up some deservedly
every story in the volume achieves unqualified greatness: a number favor
earnestness over entertainment. They work so seriously to illustrate that there
is hope for humanity that they seem to forget that the reader has to want to
imagine herself enjoying life in the
future, even while facing challenges. That was always the secret of
Heinlein-era SF. This joie de vivre
deficit becomes apparent only when you come to a contrary story such as Gord
Sellar's knockout "Sarging Rasmussen: A Report (by Organic)." Its
high-octane characters and language and devil-may-care attitude cloak serious
issues just as vital as those embedded elsewhere in the book. But it's also a
slavering whirlwind of manic energy, in the mode of the Looney Tunes cartoon
Tasmanian Devil. Others in this admirable vein include Eva Maria Chapman's
"Russian Roulette 2020" and Kay Kenyon's "Castoff World."
The Hot Trend: So long as science
fiction can pinwheel off new movements and manifestos, new fads and fashions,
it seems to me that it remains alive and vibrant. Bandwagons can get
overloaded, stylized, and mob-minded. But then along comes another freshly
painted barouche full of troublemakers to join the long parade.
Steampunk is hardly a new phenomenon, dating back in its fully codified form some twenty-five years at least. But as culture watchers know, it's recently experienced a miraculous rejuvenation. Mark Hodder's debut novel, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, is a remarkably sophisticated and well-executed manifestation of the sub-genre, showing us that new talent can excavate gold out of the most well-plumbed mines.
has arrayed in his book the full panoply of steampunk riffs: weird machinery,
Victorian cultural attitudes, class hierarchy, the supernatural, famous
historical figures, surrealism and absurdity, amusing fictional sidekicks to
famous personages, and a sense of adventure across a relatively unexplored
globe. Layering this cake with a frosting of mystery, suspense, and time-travel
shenanigans, he has created a compulsively readable romp that recalls the best
of Tim Powers and James Blaylock.
paired protagonists are the explorer Richard Burton and the poet Swinburne. In
the year 1861, they inhabit a timestream in which Queen Victoria's
assassination in 1840 unleashed a realm of oddball steam- and bio-tech. The
legendary boogie-man of the title appears to be a time-traveler intent on
repairing the damaged continuum. Or is he?
prose is stately yet not archaic, and the plot unfolds with a satisfying
cleverness. His descriptions of the era -- a crucial point for any novel that aims
for historical atmosphere -- are palpable, rendering a miasma-shrouded London and
environs. If his book does not precisely build a new wing on the steampunk
mansion, it does polish the banisters brightly and garland the halls gaily,
showing visitors the best of the old manor.
SF from the Literary World: Despite the
long (and, let's admit it, fun) tradition of SF writers complaining about
"outsiders" from the literary "mainstream" never getting
our beloved genre right, the picture is rapidly changing. As science-fictional
ideas permeate the culture more and more deeply and widely, writers from MFA
programs and The New Yorker, from Granta and Yaddo, prove themselves adept
at handling all the riffs of SF in acrobatic and ingenious fashion, often
contributing new stylistic angles and perspectives to the field. Case in point:
Charles Yu's How
to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.
mordantly funny book follows the entertainingly dreary and screwed-up existence
of a time-travel machine repairman named -- Charles Yu! Metafictional Yu's drab
and anomie-filled existence, dominated by his desultory search for his missing
father and his on-off relations with his mother (Mom's chosen to live in a
"Polchinski 630 Hour-Long Reinforced Time Loop," Groundhog Day-style) is peppered with chronal paradoxes and
bureaucratic annoyances. As a creation, Yu represents all failed ambitions and
compromised dreams, his plight a symbolic statement of a generational quandary.
(Yu turned thirty-four years old this year.)
has obviously ingested the vast body of classic time-travel SF, and he has
formulated a consistent theory and practice of time travel, full of hopped-up jargon,
which he uses to illustrate existential themes rather than produce
action-adventure sequences. There are traces of Robert Sheckley, Kurt Vonnegut,
Douglas Adams, Barry Malzberg, and Philip K. Dick throughout these pages. But
the book resembles nothing so much as a fresh approach to the tone of the late,
great George Alec Effinger, whose novels What
Entropy Means to Me and The Wolves of Memory practically
defined this voice.
perhaps the best description of Yu's book is the one he applies to his
malfunctioning pocket universe: "the reality portions of [Minor Universe
31] are concentrated in an inner core, with science fiction wrapped around
Satirical SF: When we are introduced to
an exuberantly manic post-scarcity milieu perched paradoxically atop the
oppressed crumbling ruins of an indigent planet, with one industry or
preoccupation reigning supreme, we know ourselves to be firmly in the
quintessential Galaxy magazine mode
of science fiction satire, exemplified most famously by Pohl & Kornbluth's
classic The Space Merchants. Once
identified by Kingsley Amis in his critical study New Maps of Hell as practically the whole raison d'être of SF, the mode has lately fallen out of popularity,
although talented folks such as the writers of the animated series Futurama, Max Barry (Jennifer Government) and Christopher
Moore (Fluke) continue to plow the
comes a bright and witty new practitioner of this honorable mode of
speculatively savaging humanity's foibles. Jon Armstrong has archly labeled his
own work "fashionpunk," since it takes the whole daft scene connected
with haute couture -- media overkill, celebrities, status and wealth -- and rakes it
over the coals by way of absurdist amplification.
Armstrong's debut novel Grey we were
introduced to a crazed yet consistent future in which clothes literally make
the man -- especially our hero, Michael Rivers, a nineteen-year-old airhead in
thrall to his corporate image, who eventually learns to rebel. Company mergers
here are facilitated by the ritual marriage and public deflowering of scions. A
private automated highway literally encircles the midsection of the planet. Press
conferences are vast media orgies. And draped elegantly over everything,
beautiful smart fabrics conceal bodily and spiritual ugliness.
Grey smartly followed the time-tested
template of many such dystopian tales, using an ignorant member of the elite as
focal point and dragging him down for a visceral education into the muck and
mire. In the new book,Yarn, Armstrong decides to tell
the flipside of the story: the rise of a peon to these synthetically uplifted
have already met protagonist Tane Cedar in Grey,
where he served as exclusive tailor and fashion designer to the privileged,
including Michael Rivers. But now we get his whole life story, as backdrop to
an adventure being experienced by the ascended Cedar, which involves the
fabric-cum-drug known as Xi. Born as a "slub," one of the serfs who
toil in the vast corn plantations that support the economy, Cedar mounts the
social and artistic ladder rung by bloody rung, until he becomes the figure we
met in Grey. Along the way, we get
further revelations into this Lady Gaga-inspired future, where the
saleswarriors of Seattlehama battle for market share and allegiances are as
disposable as underwear.
the fun of Armstrong's books is the lush, ornate, rococco language, worthy of a
Russell Hoban or Anthony Burgess. The neologisms are captivating, the dialogue
is both sophisticated and rude, and the descriptive passages are boldly visual.
In toto, these books do something brilliant which I had always half-believed
was possible, but which I never dreamed of actually seeing. They replicate in
prose the logically insane and hyperbolic graphic novels of Jodorowsky and
Moebius and their collaborators: The
Incal/The Metabarons/The Technopriests. It's proof that in the right hands,
style is substance.
Hardcore SF: Language maven William
Safire was one of the first to recognize the birth of retronyms. This term is applied in cases when a word that was once
perfectly descriptive all by itself needs a retrofit to acknowledge changing
circumstances. For centuries the word "clock" said everything. But
then with the arrival of digital technology, we had to say "analog
clock" when we meant the original kind with hands and static face.
it is with "science fiction." Once upon a time, that unadorned term
encompassed the whole smallish field. But with the proliferation of sub-genres,
readers and critics have had to use retronyms. "Hardcore SF" refers
to the formerly ubiquitous kind of tale that employs the core genre conceits: robots
and rayguns, interstellar empires and starships, gadgets and extrapolations. (Somewhat
confusingly, what has been dubbed "hard SF" is a different beast,
admitting only rigorously scientific ideas, and not dodgy apparatus such as
teleportation and psi powers that hardcore SF gleefully employs.) Once the
dominant mode, hardcore SF is now just another specialty, its practitioners
rather like twenty-first-century poets still writing sonnets and sestinas.
such allegiances to noble old forms often inspire great craft and commensurate
rewards. Greg Bear is one contemporary master of the old ways, and in Hull Zero Three he gives the
generation starship theme -- crystallized beautifully by Robert Heinlein in 1941's
"Universe" -- a vigorous makeover.
protagonist, an amnesiac who eventually assumes the name Teacher after his
programmed function, wakes to find himself in a "sick Ship." This
enormous and complex interstellar vessel, intended to crawl at a fraction of
lightspeed across the galaxy to plant a new colony, has been mysteriously
damaged. Embarking on a dangerous odyssey of knowledge gathering, Teacher and
his shifting posse of oddball companions must battle the deadline of
disintegration to salvage what they can of the mission.
brilliantly evokes all of the heart-racing thrills typically associated with
the classic hardcore SF trope of exploring a "Big Dumb Object." Savvy
readers will flash on such past milestones as Algis Budrys's Rogue Moon,
Robert Silverberg's The Man in the Maze, Larry
Niven's Ringworld and
Arthur Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. A sly
allusion to Heinlein's benchmark generation-ship tale occurs when a pair of
clones realize that two heads are better than one: Heinlein's protagonist,
Joe-Jim, literally wore two heads on one body. And the traditional riff of
"conceptual breakthrough," in which larger and larger frames of
knowledge keep opening up, is played deftly. In a neat stylistic maneuver,
Teacher's language skills keep pace on the page with his growing understanding.
even grander than all this is the subtle parable of Teacher's plight: born
naked and unwitting into a dangerous environment, in which only cooperation and
curiosity ensure survival and success. Isn't this a simple description of the
human condition? Teacher's journey, like Buddha's, is universal. And even if he
experiences moments of Beckett-like despair and anger, he overcomes them with
logic, hope, and ingenuity. What better formulation for the guiding attitude of
science fiction, hardcore or otherwise? Writers like Bear prove that SF still
has some tomorrows left, even as 2010 joins the pile of yesterdays.
Read an Excerpt
The strange affair of Spring Heeled Jack
By MARK HODDER
Copyright © 2010 Mark Hodder
All right reserved.
Chapter One THE AFTERMATH OF AFRICA
Everything Life places in your path is an opportunity.
No matter how difficult.
No matter how upsetting.
No matter how impenetrable.
No matter how you judge it.
An opportunity. -Libertine Propaganda
"By God! He's killed himself!"
Sir Richard Francis Burton staggered back and collapsed into his chair. The note Arthur Findlay had passed to him fluttered to the floor. The other men turned away, took their seats, examined their fingernails, and fiddled with their shirt collars; anything to avoid looking at their stricken colleague.
From where she stood on the threshold of the "robing room," hidden by its partially closed door, Isabel Arundell could see that her lover's normally dark and intense eyes were wide with shock, filled with a sudden vulnerability. His mouth moved spasmodically, as if he were struggling to chew and swallow something indigestible. She longed to rush to his side to comfort him and to ask what tidings had wounded him; to snatch up that note and read it; to find out who had killed himself; but such a display would be unseemly in front of the small gathering, not to mention embarrassing for Richard. He, among all men, stood on his own two feet, no matter how dire the situation. Isabel alone was aware of his sensitivity; and she would never cause it to be exposed to others.
Many people-mostly those who referred to him as "Ruffian Dick"-considered Burton's brutal good looks to be a manifestation of his inner nature. They could never imagine that he doubted himself; though if they were to see him now, so shaken, perhaps it might strike them that he wasn't quite the devil he appeared, despite the fierce moustache and forked beard.
It was difficult to see past such a powerful façade.
The Committee had only just gathered at the table, but after glancing at Burton's anguished expression, Sir Roderick Murchison, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, came to a decision.
"Let us take a moment," he muttered.
Burton stood and held up a hand in protest. "Pray, gentlemen," he whispered hoarsely, "continue with your meeting. The scheduled debate will, of course, have to be cancelled, but if you'll allow me half an hour, perhaps I can organise my notes and make a small presentation concerning the valley of the Indus, so as not to disappoint the crowd."
"That's very good of you, Sir Richard," said one of the Committee members, Sir James Alexander. "But, really, this must have come as a terrible blow. If you would rather-"
"Just grant me thirty minutes to prepare. They have, after all, paid for their tickets."
"Very well. Thank you."
Burton turned and walked unsteadily to the door, passed through, closed it behind him, and stood facing Isabel, swaying slightly.
At five eleven, he personally bemoaned the lost inch that would have made him a six-footer, though, to others, the breadth of his shoulders, depth of his chest, slim but muscular build, and overwhelming charisma made him seem a giant, even compared with much taller men.
He had short black hair, which he wore swept backward. His skin was swarthy and weather-beaten, giving his straight features rather an Arabic cast, further accentuated by his prominent cheekbones, both disfigured by scars-a smallish one on the right, but a long, deep, and jagged one on the left, which tugged slightly at his bottom eyelid. They were the entry and exit wounds caused by a Somali spear that had been thrust through his face during an ill-fated expedition to Berbera, on the Horn of Africa.
To Isabel, those scars were the mark of an adventurous and fearless soul. Burton was in every respect her "ideal man." He was a wild, passionate, and romantic figure, quite unlike the staid and emotionally cold men who moved in London's social circles. Her parents thought him unsuitable but Isabel knew there could be no other for her.
He stumbled forward into her arms.
"What ails you so, Dick?" she gasped, holding him by the shoulders. "What has happened?"
"John has shot himself!"
"No!" she exclaimed. "He's dead?"
Burton stepped back and wiped a sleeve across his eyes. "Not yet. But he took a bullet to the head. Isabel, I have to work up a presentation. Can I rely on you to find out where he's been taken? I must see him. I have to make my peace with him before-"
"Of course, dear. Of course! I shall make enquiries at once. Must you speak, though? No one would fault you if you were to withdraw."
"I'll speak. We'll meet later, at the hotel."
She kissed his cheek and left him; walked a short way along the elegant marble-floored corridor and, with a glance back, disappeared through the door to the auditorium. As it swung open and closed, Burton heard the crowd beyond grumbling with impatience. There were even some boos. They had waited long enough; they wanted blood; wanted to see him, Burton, shame and humiliate the man he'd once considered a brother: John Hanning Speke.
"I'll make an announcement," muttered a voice behind him. He turned to find that Murchison had left the Committee and was standing at his shoulder. Beads of sweat glistened on the president's bald head. His narrow face was haggard and pale.
"Is it-is it my fault, Sir Roderick?" rasped Burton.
Murchison frowned. "Is it your fault that you possess exacting standards while, according to the calculations John Speke presented to the Society, the Nile runs uphill for ninety miles? Is it your fault that you are an erudite and confident debater while Speke can barely string two words together? Is it your fault that mischief-makers manipulated him and turned him against you? No, Richard, it is not."
Burton considered this for a moment, then said, "You speak of him so and yet you supported him. You financed his second expedition and refused me mine."
"Because he was right. Despite his slapdash measurements and his presumptions and guesswork, the Committee feels it likely that the lake he discovered is, indeed, the source of the Nile. The simple truth of the matter, Richard, is that he found it while you, I'm sorry to say, did not. I never much liked the man, may God have mercy on his soul, but fortune favoured him, and not you."
Murchison moved aside as the Committee members filed out of the robing room, heading for the presentation hall.
"I'm sorry, Richard. I have to go."
Murchison joined his fellows.
"Wait!" called Burton, pacing after him. "I should be there too."
"It's not necessary."
"Very well. Come."
They entered the packed auditorium and stepped onto the stage amid sarcastic cheers from the crowd. Colonel William Sykes, who was hosting the debate, was already at the podium, unhappily attempting to quell the more disruptive members of the restless throng; namely, the many journalists-including the mysterious young American Henry Morton Stanley-who seemed intent on making the occasion as newsworthy as possible. Doctor Livingstone sat behind Sykes, looking furious. Clement Markham, also seated on the stage, was chewing his nails nervously. Burton slumped into the chair beside him, drew a small notebook and a pencil from his pocket, and began to write.
Sir James Alexander, Arthur Findlay, and the other geographers took their seats on the stage.
The crowd hooted and jeered.
"About time! Did you get lost?" someone shouted waggishly. A roar of approval greeted the gibe.
Murchison muttered something into the colonel's ear. Sykes nodded and retreated to join the others.
The president stepped forward, tapped his knuckles against the podium, and looked stonily at the expectant faces. The audience quieted until, aside from occasional coughs, it became silent.
Sir Roderick Murchison spoke: "Proceedings have been delayed and for that I have to apologise-but when I explain to you the cause, you will pardon me. We have been in our Committee so profoundly affected by a dreadful calamity that has-"
He paused; cleared his throat; gathered himself.
"-that has befallen Lieutenant Speke. A calamity by which, it pains me to report, he must surely lose his life."
Shouts of dismay and consternation erupted.
Murchison held out his hands and called, "Please! Please!"
Slowly, the noise subsided.
"We do not at present have a great deal of information," he continued, "but for a letter from Lieutenant Speke's brother, which was delivered by a runner a short while ago. It tells that yesterday afternoon the lieutenant joined a hunting party on the Fuller Estate near Neston Park. At four o'clock, while he was negotiating a wall, his gun went off and severely wounded him about the head."
"Did he shoot himself, sir?" cried a voice from the back of the hall.
"Purposefully, you mean? There is nothing to suggest such a thing!"
"Captain Burton!" yelled another. "Did you pull the trigger?"
"How dare you, sir!" thundered Murchison. "That is entirely unwarranted! I will not have it!"
A barrage of questions flew from the audience, a great many of them directed at Burton.
The famous explorer tore a page from his notebook, handed it to Clement Markham, and, leaning close, muttered into his ear. Markham glanced at the paper, stood, stepped to Murchison's side, and said something in a low voice.
Murchison gave a nod.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced, "you came to the Bath Assembly Rooms to hear a debate between Captain Sir Richard Burton and Lieutenant John Speke on the matter of the source of the Nile. I, of course, understand you wish to hear from Sir Richard concerning this terrible accident that has befallen his colleague, but, as you might suppose, he has been greatly affected and feels unable to speak at this present time. He has, however, written a short statement which will now be read by Mr. Clement Markham."
Murchison moved away from the podium and Markham took his place.
In a quiet and steady tone, he read from Burton's note: "The man I once called brother today lies gravely wounded. The differences of opinion that are known to have lain between us since his return from Africa make it more incumbent on me to publicly express my sincere feeling of admiration for his character and enterprise, and my deep sense of shock that this fate has befallen him. Whatever faith you may adhere to, I beg of you to pray for him."
Markham returned to his chair.
There was not a sound in the auditorium.
"There will be a thirty-minute recess," declared Murchison, "then Sir Richard will present a paper concerning the valley of the Indus. In the meantime, may I respectfully request your continued patience whilst we rearrange this afternoon's schedule? Thank you."
He led the small group of explorers and geographers out of the auditorium and, after brief and subdued words with Burton, they headed back to the robing room.
Sir Richard Francis Burton, his mind paralysed, his heart brimming, walked in the opposite direction until he came to one of the reading rooms. Mercifully, it was unoccupied. He entered, closed the door, and leaned against it.
* * *
"I'm sorry. I can't continue."
It was the faintest of whispers.
He'd spoken for twenty minutes, hardly knowing what he was saying, reading mechanically from his journals, his voice faint and quavering. His words had slowed then trailed off altogether.
When he looked up, he saw hundreds of pairs of eyes locked on to him; and in them there was pity.
He drew in a deep breath.
"I'm sorry," he said more loudly. "There will be no debate today."
He turned away from the crowd and, closing his ears to the shouted questions and polite applause, left the stage, pushed past Findlay and Livingstone, and practically ran to the lobby. He asked the cloakroom attendant for his overcoat, top hat, and cane, and, upon receiving them, hurried out through the main doors and descended the steps to the street.
It was just past midday. Dark clouds drifted across the sky; the recent spell of fine weather was dissipating, the temperature falling.
He waved down a hansom.
"Where to, sir?" asked the driver.
"The Royal Hotel."
"Right you are. Jump aboard."
Burton clambered into the cabin and sat on the wooden seat. There were cigar butts all over the floor. He felt numb and registered nothing of his surroundings as the vehicle began to rumble over the cobbles.
He tried to summon up visions of Speke; the Speke of the past, when the young lieutenant had been a valued companion rather than a bitter enemy. His memory refused to cooperate and instead took him back to the event that lay at the root of their feud: the attack in Berbera, six years ago.
* * *
Berbera, the easternmost tip of Africa, April 19, 1855. Thunderstorms had been flickering on the horizon for the past few days. The air was heavy and damp.
Lieutenant Burton's party had set up camp on a rocky ridge, about three-quarters of a mile outside the town, near to the beach. Lieutenant Stroyan's tent was twelve yards off to the right of the "Rowtie" that Burton shared with Lieutenant Herne. Lieutenant Speke's was a similar distance to the left, separated from the others by the expedition's supplies and equipment, which had been secured beneath a tarpaulin.
Not far away, fifty-six camels, five horses, and two mules were tethered. In addition to the four Englishmen, there were thirty-eight other menabbans, guards, servants, and camel-drivers, all armed.
With the monsoon season imminent, Berbera had been virtually abandoned during the course of the past week. An Arab caravan had lingered, but after Burton refused to offer it an escort out of the town-preferring to wait instead for a supply ship that was due any time from Aden-it had finally departed.
Now, Berbera was silent.
The expedition had retired for the night. Burton had posted three extra guards, for Somali tribes from up and down the coast had been threatening an attack for some days. They believed the British were here either to stop the lucrative slave trade or to lay claim to the small trading post.
At two thirty in the morning, Burton was jolted from his sleep by shouts and gunfire.
He opened his eyes and stared at the roof of his tent. Orange light quivered on the canvas.
He sat up.
El Balyuz, the chief abban, burst in.
"They are attacking!" the man yelled, and a look of confusion passed over his dark face, as if he couldn't believe his own words. "Your gun, Effendi!" He handed Burton a revolver.
The explorer pushed back his bedsheets and stood; laid the pistol on the map table and pulled on his trousers; snapped his braces over his shoulders; picked up the gun.
"More bloody posturing!" He grinned across to Herne, who'd also awoken, hastily dressed, and snatched up his Colt. "It's all for show, but we shouldn't let them get too cocky. Go out the back of the tent, away from the campfire, and ascertain their strength. Let off a few rounds over their heads, if necessary. They'll soon bugger off."
"Right you are," said Herne, and pushed through the canvas at the rear of the Rowtie.
Burton checked his gun.
"For Pete's sake, Balyuz, why have you handed me an unloaded pistol? Get me my sabre!"
He shoved the Colt into the waistband of his trousers and snatched his sword from the Arab.
"Speke!" he bellowed. "Stroyan!"
Almost immediately, the tent flap was pushed aside and Speke stumbled in. He was a tall, thin, pale man, with watery eyes, light brown hair, and a long bushy beard. He usually wore a mild and slightly self-conscious expression, but now his eyes were wild.
"They knocked my tent down around my ears! I almost took a beating! Is there shooting to be done?"
"I rather suppose there is," said Burton, finally realising that the situation might be more serious than he'd initially thought. "Be sharp, and arm to defend the camp!"
They waited a few moments, checking their gear and listening to the rush of men outside.
A voice came from behind them: "There's a lot of the blighters and our confounded guards have taken to their heels!" It was Herne, returning from his recce. "I took a couple of potshots at the mob but then got tangled in the tent ropes. A big Somali took a swipe at me with a bloody great club. I put a bullet into the bastard. Stroyan's either out cold or done for; I couldn't get near him."
Something thumped against the side of the tent. Then again. Suddenly a veritable barrage of blows pounded the canvas while war cries were raised all around. The attackers were swarming like hornets. Javelins were thrust through the opening. Daggers ripped at the material.
"Bismillah!" cursed Burton. "We're going to have to fight our way to the supplies and get ourselves more guns! Herne, there are spears tied to the tent pole at the back-get 'em!"
Excerpted from The strange affair of Spring Heeled Jack by MARK HODDER Copyright © 2010 by Mark Hodder. Excerpted by permission.
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