My SF flash fiction “Pauline and the Bahnians” was a runner-up in the inaugural Shoreline of Infinity flash fiction competition. This tickles me thoroughly, because it’s a light-hearted little scribble, and I’ve been writing such dramatic, grim fantasy for the past few months. I’ll take it as a sign from the universe to lighten up somewhat. It’s also lovely, because I wrote the story to celebrate my grandmother, Actual Pauline, who was 80 this year. I thought I’d share some notes on how the story came to be.
Shoreline of Infinity presented two gorgeous pieces of artwork as writing prompts for their competition, a house at the edge of the universe by Becca McCall, and characters viewing a planet from a chrome spaceship gantry by Siobhan McDonald. I chose to write about Becca’s work, but Siobhan’s picture is actually still nagging at me: for some reason it reminds me of a SF ‘Wizard of Oz’, and now I want to write that (although probably not in flash format!)
Becca’s dreamy space cottage brought to mind a beloved family home. In 1990, my maternal grandparents, Actual Pauline and Bernard, moved from the Home Counties to a cottage in Shropshire, near the town of Craven Arms. Having worked in the City all his life, my grandfather was keen to get away from people. Far away. VERY far away. No doubt this urge is what drew him to the cottage on the hill, set in a few acres of totally wild land, reachable only by phoning the railway company and asking if it would be ok to drive your car across the railway line, then crawling up a gravel drive that seemed never to end. When my grandparents moved in, this little haven didn’t even have electricity, and I remember a lamp hanging precariously from the wrought ironwork of the spiral staircase that led from one floor to the next.
Over the next couple of decades, they – aided each summer by various children and children-in-law, who would be allocated tractors, chisels, hammers, chainsaws or, er, tea-making duties, depending on their capabilities – turned the cottage into a beautiful home, and its grounds into an incredible garden. We grandchildren spent our summers there, too, roving around the forests, camping out in the garden, building dens, eating barbecued food, and making our annual pilgrimage to ‘Julie’s Castle’ – more properly known as Stokesay Castle, which my grandmother’s friend Julie managed for English Heritage.
There came a time when my grandparents had to leave the cottage, of course. That drive, all that land, that distance from medical help, and that bloody staircase, were not suitable in later life. Still, all three generations continue to carry wonderful memories of summers and Christmases spent there.
Becca McCall’s cottage sparked off these memories, and I wondered: if it were possible to go and live on the very edge of the universe, would that be remote and inconvenient enough for my family? We love us a bit of inconvenience. Would my grandmother leap at the chance to have another far-off cottage, this time out in the stars? Well, yes… but there might be hostile aliens out there. What would she do? Having seen, as a child, my nan face down the fox-hunting party that tried to ride across her land, I had a fairly clear idea. “Pauline and the Bahnians” comes from there.
I had an urge to write epistolary fiction. It’s never appealed before, but several things coincided to make me give it a go. I read “The Sun God At Dawn, Rising From A Lotus Blossom” by Andrea Kail in Lightspeed Magazine, and absolutely fell in love with it. I also heard Jo Walton read “Jane Austen to Cassandra” at the EIBF edition of Shoreline’s sci fi cabaret (Event Horizon) and loved that too. Those are both clever, literary, rich examples, and “Pauline” is short and silly, but the idea of letters had stuck. Also at the summer Event Horizon, I heard Pippa Goldschmidt (one of the flash competition’s judges) read her story “A Throw of the Dice”. This one’s created from journal (or space log) entries rather than letters, but that idea of moving a story on, stage by stage, with plenty of dramatic irony and meaningful gaps left, put another little piece into the inspiration puzzle.
You don’t have to build a totally coherent world view in a piece of flash, but there could be a bit of a head-scratching plot hole in “Pauline” – how did an 89-year-old lady get to the edge of the universe? The answer’s in the second letter, where she mentions having her brain-state copied and relayed. I didn’t imagine her physically going to the Edge; rather, her consciousness has been beamed into some kind of android or cyborg body. I was reading a lot of Ken MacLeod at the time of writing (the Corporation Wars books), and so I picture the Pauline of the story as inhabiting a sophisticated, chicken-feeding, robotic frame. Like Ken’s Carlos the Terrorist, but with a good deal more chill.
I actually wrote quite a bit of the first draft of “Pauline” AT an Event Horizon… I had to go friendless one month, and I’m not always bold enough to go and make new pals during intervals (by ‘not always’ I mean ‘pretty much hardly ever at all’). Perched on a bar stool being very antisocial, I got the rough shape of the story down on my phone. I think this is pretty science fictional. We’re really fortunate to have Shoreline running Event Horizon in our city: if you’re in Edinburgh and looking for varied, friendly, SF entertainment, you can’t go wrong.
My thanks to Pippa, Eric and Noel for choosing my story as a runner-up: you can find Issue 10 of Shoreline of Infinity (and all their back issues) here.